Let’s talk about why he invented Win Shares, and what they’re meant to do.
He’s usually argued that RAW stats are the starting point, not anything necessarily meaningful in themselves. But the more refined stats (especially the ones he invents, and tinkers with, and is satisfied with) are an end point to some questions and I think WIn Shares qualifies.
The weirdest thing about Win Shares that James has to struggle against is why there are three of them for every win. People ask him all the time why doesn’t award them partially (i.e. give Schmidt 10 instead of 30, so the 1981 Phillies’ Win Shares total will add up to exactly the number of games the team actually won, instead of three times that figure) and he says: because that smaller number would be too inclusive. IOW, it would need to include partial integers to be accurate. James would have to list a fractional value with every number to give meaningful distinction, like listing Schmidt’s 1981 contribution at 9.83 instead of rounding it off to 10. Otherwise, he’s list a whole bunch of guys as “6” when in reality there are meaningful differences between 5.60 and 5.90 and 6.44. So James is creating additional problems for himself, and enduring those problems, precisely because there is a meaningful distinction between a 15 WS player and a 16 WS player.
Is that distinction SO meaningful as to be an absolute guarantee that every 30 WS player definitely has had a better year than every 29 WS player? No, James is unwilling to go that far, mostly because there are some tiny gray areas in the Win Shares determination values (the stuff he’s tinkering with over the years) to make it arguable that someone with a 29.51 WS value (Schmidt’s actual unrounded figure, btw) is clearly better than someone with a 29.49. So because of rare and tiny exceptions like that, he’s unwilling to issue a fiat declaring WS values to be unfailing correct, but he does NOT feel that they are unreliable, and neither do I, the vast majority of the time. If he did, he certainly would have placed them at the 1 WS = 1 game level and called them “Win Share Approximations.”
He actually did have something called “Approximated Value,” for a while in the very earliest stages of developing this idea. It was an arbitrary number, didn’t actually stand for a win, or any part of a win, but just estimated the value of a player’s year, as accurately as James could figure. So Yaz (his first example) could have his 1967 breakthrough season represented by a two-digit number (I forget what scale he used–let’s say Yaz’ first big year was 22) and all his previous seasons would have been in the low teens. This arbitary number was simply to allow whole seasons to be compared to wach other, quick and dirtyy style, so you needn’t get bogged down in “Yeah, But” argument (“Yeah, but he was hitting in Fenway, in 1967, in the AL, in a strong lineup” bbbyyyy) --you’d simply have a meaningful number that could be compared accurately to other meanngful stats. Over the years, as he refined it, the number became meaningful and useful. But accuracy has always been James’ goal, and he’s been refining that accuracy for a few decades now.
The best thing about WS numbers, to me, is that they’re objective summaries. That is, they can’t be criticized for favoring one player or one type of player over another. When we argue whether Maddux has a better peak than Koufax, we might still be defining some terms, such as what constitutes a “peak” but when we accept WS as a standard (which some people refuse to do, of course) we are accepting that James’ system does NOT favor pitchers from the 1960s or the the NL. If we waish to dispute WS numbers we must argue the components of how were derived, and James has set up his WS system (which is very complex but available for scrutiny) to evaluate thoroughly the stats and to correct for all sorts of influences on the raw numbers, so it’s really hard to argue for any bias, and impossible IMO to argue for any significant bias. Besides, James has no reason to skew the formulae in any way, since he uses them to compare players in future years when he might wish he had skewed them otherwise. They’re designed to be accurate, and they are for the most part.
What you and I were discussing was the subjective element, and I admit (as will Bill) that he vacillates on this. Sometimes he wants to credit players like Williams or Jackie Robinson with non-quantiable achievements, fighting wars, fighting racism, etc. and elevate them above what the numbers say. This is Bill being a fan, and a reasonable person, and a human above being a stat-head. But in the main, he’s far more comfortable saying the numbers are what they are, and you can offer mitigations for the numbers if you like, but you can;t change what they say.
Take Elston Howard, for example: one problem in giving Jackie Robinson extra points for missing years before breaking the color line, noble as that may be, is that you’d really have to then credit Elston Howard with extra points for missing a few years, too: Howard, who was in his late teens by the late 1940s, and so played his entire career with the color line broken, didn’t play a major league game until 1955, depite being older than Mickey Mantle who debuted in 1951. Was there racism involved here? Probably. But how much credit do we give to Howard to compensate for it, as long as we’re awarding points for the seasons that Jackie Robinson was ineligible to play MLB? I have no idea and neither does anyone else.
There’s a further problem, again using Howard as our example: unlike Mantle, Howard didn’t become a regular until he had been in the big leagues for five years, because he was playing behind Yogi Berra in his prime. This is analogous to players whose careers get thwarted because they’ve wrongly wasted years in the minors–do you want to award them extra points because this waste of their talents wasn’t under their own control? If you want to argue that Howard was capable of being a star catcher from the early 1950s (but racism prevented that) and that the time he spent on the Yankees’ bench and minor leagues prevented him from reaching capacity, I can;t argue but do you really want to conclude that Howard deserves bonus points for what he may welll have been able to do for an entire decade? If we’re award him a few hundred bonus points (which would be fair) for his missing decade, then Win Shares just becomes a meaningless stat in which every underutilized player, some for racist reasons, other because of the stupidity of management, and others just through poor luck (I’m sure the Yankees kept Howard on the bench for insurance if Berra went down, which Yogi wouldn’t do) is a cause to recalibrate on an individual basis, most of which will be subjective bullshit. Then we’re back where we started, you arguing “Yeah, but” this and me arguing “Yeah, but” that.