A Thought

This isn't particularly topical or relevant to anything going on, but on the other hand, there's nothing going on, so what the hell.

I watch a lot of hockey. My favorite team is, and has pretty much always been, the Ottawa Senators. The Ottawa Senators are okay. They were playing decent hockey up until a little while ago, when Jason Spezza - arguably their best playmaker - got hurt. Shortly thereafter, Daniel Alfredsson - the team's best player and one of the top overall players in the league - also got hurt. Ottawa was faced with the reality of having to play without two of its only A-level players for a long long time, and being that they were already only an average or above-average team at full strength, many predicted that the loss of two stars would sneak up behind the team's playoff chances, club them in the head, drag them into the alley, cut them open, drain their blood, replace their blood with gasoline, and light them on fire. There was just no way this team could survive such a devastating duo of blows.

Ottawa's played four games since losing Alfredsson. They've won three and didn't look too bad in the loss.

The Ottawa example, of course, doesn't prove anything. But it does provide a convenient lead-in to something I want to talk about a little bit.

By now, most baseball fans - or at least most baseball fans on the internet - have at least a cursory understanding of win value. The availability of WAR on Fangraphs has been of immeasurable service towards this end, as message boards that five years ago would've been talking up Jose Lopez's RBI now use numbers like WAR to argue why Jason Bay's a bad buy. Though the levels of understanding vary and misuses and misinterpretations abound, by and large, people are beginning to understand, say, what it means to be a 4 WAR player. They get that Chone Figgins is better than Chris Woodward by about four wins, and they use this information to help project how a team looks going forward.

However, while people are getting better when it comes to knowing just how much a given player is worth over the course of a season, there appears to me to be a disconnect when it comes to understanding the importance of a player over a smaller sample of time. Obviously I can't point to any current baseball examples, but just going off of things I've observed - consider what this place would be like if it came out tomorrow that Felix Hernandez would miss the first month of the year. There'd be hysteria. There'd be a few cries of "season over!", and though that's clearly overdramatic, there'd be a lot of ruminating over how significant an effect the news would have on our playoff chances. People would not take it well.

The truth of the matter, of course, is that Felix is a 5-6 WAR player. As a 5-6 WAR player, then, we should expect a month-long absence to cost the team about one win. One win is small. Significant, but small. And yet, even on a site like this - one of the more stat-friendly and stat-literate sites on the web - people would blow the effect out of proportion. It's like the average person has embraced the meaning of WAR without really, truly, deeply understanding what it means.

Remember when Adrian Beltre missed all of July? The M's were three out of the division at the time, and everyone was freaking out that we were screwed. All that actually cost us, though - at least in theory - was about half a win or so.

Injuries and absences hurt, but by and large, the impact is overstated, and this is perhaps never as clear as it is when a manager chooses to sit one or two of his good players for a game. People hate when a manager benches someone good. They hate it. Even if the player just needs a day off. Imagine if Wak were to, I dunno, sit both Chone Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez. People would accuse Wak of throwing the game, giving up before getting going. The actual impact, though, depending on the substitutes, would be something like 0.4 runs (note: approximate). Losing 0.4 runs would drop the Mariners' win expectancy by about 4%. The win expectancy impact of allowing a leadoff single is also about 4%.

How much do you really hate giving up leadoff singles?

This post has gone on longer than I expected it to, and I don't really have a proper conclusion. It's more something I've just had on my mind while watching Ottawa continue to play good hockey these last few days. I guess the best way to sum everything up is this: no matter how much you like a player, and no matter how good he may be, he is only one member of a much larger team, and as such, being without him for any length of time isn't as bad as you may fear. If Pete Sampras got hurt, that'd really suck for Pete Sampras' winning percentage. But if Cliff Lee got hurt, the Mariners would still find a way to go on. They'd go on worse, but they'd go on, and it wouldn't be the end of the world.

Teams. While sports fans talk about individual players all the time, teams are ultimately what matter, and teams are but the sum of several parts. Though you're free to talk about how awesome a player is to your heart's content, you should try to never lose sight of just how little that one player actually matters, unless it's Ichiro. 

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