Winning, TWTW, and the purpose of baseballby Matt Hunter
May 09, 2013
A few weeks ago, Chicago White Sox broadcaster and former White Sox general manager Hawk Harrelson talked with Brian Kenny, who some are calling the “face of sabermetrics,” on MLB Network. Among many gems from Hawk—and trust me, there were many—was the official introduction of his landmark metric: TWTW, or The Will To Win.
TWTW unleashed a barrage of tweets and articles from the Sabermetric Snark Society (of which I am a proud lifelong member). And for good reason. To say that the only thing that matters in baseball is the will to win is, frankly, silly. In fact, I think, I hope, that Hawk would agree that it’s silly. No matter how much I want to win, I will never be good enough to play professional baseball. Talent matters. That’s a fact, and everyone knows it.
But this isn't a “bash TWTW” article. Bashing is fun, but it’s not terribly productive or interesting. I want to talk about why Hawk brought up TWTW in the first place. I want to talk about where that idea, that idea that we should ignore all other factors because winning is all that matters, is coming from. Because it’s true, in a way. Winning is, when it comes down to it, all that matters.
Now, let’s be clear: I truly believe that the end—that is, the ultimate purpose—of baseball, and of any sport, is not winning. Baseball exists to be enjoyed in whatever way we see fit. Yes, winning is more enjoyable than losing, and yes, for an organization, winning is by far the best way to make money. But in both of those cases, winning is simply a means to the end of either personal happiness or endless riches.*
*Of course, the purpose of endless riches, in theory, is also happiness. In fact, isn't everything just a means to happiness in the end? I think so. But I digress.
So, sure, winning isn't the end goal of the sport. But that’s only if we take an outside perspective of the game. If we look at baseball as a spectator or as a writer or as a broadcaster or as a general manager, we can see a purpose of baseball outside of winning the game.
Yet if we transport ourselves inside the game—empathize, if you will, with the players and coaches—our perspective shifts. The game is no longer about being happy or making money. The game is about winning. Everything is done in order to win the game, because winning the game is the ultimate goal; the reason you play in the first place. The purpose of the game of baseball itself, removed from the outside world, is to win. That seems, at least to me, to be a fundamental and obvious notion.
Of course, once we admit, or at least reluctantly agree to assume for the purposes of moving the argument forward, that winning is the end of a baseball game, we can imagine the following conversation coming about:
A: Ok, fine, I admit that winning is all that matters. So how do you win a game?
B: Oh, well that’s simple! All you have to do to win is score more runs than the other team!
A: And how do you score more runs than the other team?
B: Well, two ways: score runs on offense and prevent runs on defense.
A: Hey, that doesn’t help! How do you do those things?
B: Oh I see what you’re saying. Well, to score runs on offense, you have to somehow get runners on base and then get them to come around to score. To prevent runs on defense, you just have to do the opposite!
You can see where this is going. We keep digging deeper and deeper, slowly but surely figuring out the plethora of factors that go into winning a game, what we can use to measure them, and how to apply our findings to the game itself.
Sometimes the applications of these factors come in the form of scouting. Sometimes they come in the form of statistics. Sometimes they even come in the form of intangibles—those mysterious factors that we can’t measure, the significance of which we can’t really quantify, but which we just know have an effect on winning.
Which is where TWTW comes in. If a hitter or a pitcher or a baserunner or a defender or a coach or a team has this Will To Win, they will win more often! Sure, that makes sense. In fact, on the surface, there’s nothing particularly objectionable about that. If TWTW represents a willingness to do whatever it takes to win the game, to sacrifice your own body and your own stats so that your team wins the game, and if those qualities actually do help the team win the game, then yes, TWTW is an important quality to have.
That’s not my issue. My issue is with the idea that sometimes follows from concepts like TWTW, statements that decry all other statistics or all other methods of evaluating a player because “winning is all that matters.” Of course winning is all that matters! No one is denying that the goal of the game is to win the game. The reason we have statistics and scouting in the first place is in order to figure out how to win!
Is this obvious? Yes. Am I preaching to the choir? Probably. But I think it’s important to state nonetheless. Because when I hear debates like that between Brian Kenny and Hawk Harrelson, or between Kenny and Harold Reynolds almost every day, I realize that the disagreements don’t just stem from a difference in how to evaluate performance. They stem, in part, from a misunderstanding of the end—the purpose, the ultimate goal, of the other side.
TWTW, grit, heart, leadership, hustle, and any other intangible that you can think of, are not the end goal of those who espouse their importance. In the same way, statistics like FIP, BABIP, and WAR do not exist independent of larger goals. Those intangibles and those statistics exist, when it really comes down to it, for the purpose of measuring, of predicting, of evaluating, winning.
Tom Tango recently wrote a blog post about finding a good metric to measure power, and said this:
Forget all the numbers, and forget all the metrics, forget that SLG and ISO even exist, and simply ask the question as to what you need.
That question, for the purposes of most baseball discussion and analysis, is this:
“How does a team win?”
Let's start there, because once we all agree to the question we are trying to answer, we can have a reasonable discussion about how to answer it.
Matt writes for FanGraphs, Beyond the Box Score, and the Hardball Times. You can contact him via Twitter @MRHBaseball or email.