07 April 2009

The Unfair Win Shares Manifesto

Unfair Win Shares are unfair in the same way that baseball is unfair. A baseball game may be subtle and nuanced, with a hundred different small moments and confrontations building toward the conclusion, but when that conclusion comes and the players and crowd disperses, the answer is harsh and binary. You win or you lose. That is horribly unfair. This is the way of nearly all sports, I suppose, but it seems especially poignant in a sport that is famously a game of inches and small moments. Baseball is the opposite of a sausage --- we want to see how it is made --- therein lies the delight --- while the finished product, the shiny W or the leaden L, is a coarse and vacant thing. Yes, even the W --- seeing the score of Dodgers 11, Padres 10 means little without knowing the story of where those numbers came from. The joy of the win is real, yes, but for me it is the joy of a story well told, and the joy of stories yet to come, we hope, in October.

It is crass and unfair, then, to sift three unfair win shares from the story of the effort to win a game --- shares that will be awarded, like championship boxing belts, to players from the winning side. It is cruel and shortsighted to also deny any award to a valiant effort in a losing cause. But it is so --- there are no unfair win shares in a loss. The losers are mute in Valhalla.

Unfair win shares are subjective. That is terribly unfair. They do not turn on any particular numbers, on no impersonal, unbiased and precise formula. Instead they are flavored by context, and bias, and luck. The story of a baseball game is subjective too --- there are things we do not know, could not know, that might alter the received narrative of the game, might change the apparent heroes and villains of the game. We who follow the games do the best with what we see and hear, and this is how it will be with the unfair win shares I write about.

Unfair win shares are not in any way the measure of players. That is what VORP and EQA and real win shares developed by Bill James are for. Unfair win shares are curious and contradictory things --- a statistic derived from a subjective interpretation of 162 individual stories. They answer the question of who did the right thing in the right place in the right time the most often. There is little value is the numbers we may end up with, but perhaps, in the search for those numbers, there is value.