Winning, TWTW, and the purpose of baseball

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.

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  1. Carl said...

    Do the most talented teams always win? No.

    Do the highest paid team always win? No.

    Does the home team always win? No.

    Does the team with the nicest guys always win? No.

    Does the team with the best chemistry always win? No.

    Winning has numerous variables we can measure – speed, power, health, money, experience etc. etc.  The formula then becomes something like:

    W = Alpha + B1Var1 + B2Var2 + B3Var3 + an error component.  Stat guys try to always get more variables and more accurate variables.  The Hawk prefers fewer variables and a larger error component.  Just a matter of preference.

  2. MikeS said...

    Hawk’s big problem will be that if he sticks to his guns that TWTW is all that matters (and when he originally said it during a game, he did indeed say it was the only thing that mattered), he will be forced to tell us that the White Sox do not have it.  This will be difficult to do with his rampant homerism.

  3. Matt Hunter said...

    Carl – that’s an interesting way of looking at it! Hawk indeed has fewer variables, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I’m not sure he has much of an error component. The problem with his, and some other comments I’ve seen, is that they determine TWTW, or “a winner”, by how many games the player wins, which really makes the term useless. Basically, the argument is: if someone wins a lot, they have TWTW, and the TWTW is what makes them win a lot.

    I certainly don’t want to criticize the use of fewer variables and a large error component. Or just different variables (like TWTW). But the way in which Hawk and guys like Morgan Ensberg argue for the importance of winning doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

  4. Marc Schneider said...

    There is a lot of randomness in baseball (and life) that disturbs people.  I think the reason that people like this say things like that is they are uncomfortable with the deterministic nature of statistics; i.e., that your ability to perform is defined solely by numbers.  And, as Carl suggests, there are factors that go into winning a specific game that cannot be easily measured.  For example, in the seventh game of the 1962 World Series,Roger Maris cut off a ball that Willie Mays hit down the right field line, preventing the tying run from scoring and, of course, the Yankees won the game 1-0.  The field was wet and may have slowed the ball down.  Who knows? Did Maris just have more of a will to win?  Or was it just a random confluence of events that happened?  Players-and, I think most people, especially Americans-do not like to believe that things “just happen.” And they also like to believe that a player can overcome talent limitations by just trying harder and “doing the little things” to win. That’s the appeal of “scrappiness” and the “will to win.”  What’s odd to me, though, is the idea that major league players differ in the “will to win.”  These guys come through an incredibly competitive process to reach the majors; I can’t fathom the notion that major league players don’t have the will to win.  It might be the case in the minors that some guys are more competitive than others, in which case, I think you could argue that someone who is more determined and competitive might have an advantage.  I don’t buy it in the major leagues.

    It’s also odd to me that players seem reluctant to attribute performance to talent.  It’s sort of the same when someone aces a test without studying; people don’t like the idea that some people are just smarter.  Obviously, Harrelson knows some players are better than others, but I think guys like him are sort of offended by the idea that talent trumps everything else, just as we might be offended by the idea that someone who is very smart might not have to work as hard to do well.

  5. Jim Casey said...

    Hawk thinks a spray chart is what they give a men’s room attendant after an outbreak of food poisoning.

  6. Hank G. said...

    “Hawk’s big problem will be that if he sticks to his guns that TWTW is all that matters (and when he originally said it during a game, he did indeed say it was the only thing that mattered), he will be forced to tell us that the White Sox do not have it.”

    He’ll also have to admit that he was lacking in TWTW as a player and as a baseball executive if anyone has the nerve to bring it up.

  7. mando3b said...

    If TWTW = competitiveness, then I think Hawk is on to something. As a kid, I played baseball and other sports and displayed natural talent, talent that still can emerge in my current senior league. But sports for me was always a pastime, something to do after school and on the weekends. It took a long time to penetrate my consciousness that that alone is why I ultimately never amounted to anything in sports. Now, my daughter has, I would say, roughly the same amount of raw ability that I once had, but she is ultra-competitive in everything she does: she goes for the jugular in every competition, from Yahtzee to softball to soccer to field hockey to seeing who can clear the dinner table the fastest. And she has been a star on every team she has tried out for. She has, in other words, TWTW. It certainly isn’t the only thing that determines success in baseball, but neither is raw ability or things measured by mathematical statistics. (Or random good luck.) I respectfully submit that all this stuff has to be somehow taken into account when measuring a player’s skills.

  8. Marc Schneider said...

    Certainly, competitiveness is a factor when evaluating amateurs and I think teams do look at competitiveness when evaluating a player but, when you are talking about players that are already in the major leagues, you already have ultra-competitive people.  I just don’t buy the notion that a guy can get to the majors without being amazingly competitive.  Hawk’s idea that the differences between major league players is “the will to win” strikes me as ridiculous.

    I keep hearing announcers talk about how such and such a pitcher is really competitive and they say it about every good pitcher.  But is there really any difference in competitiveness between, say, a Cris Carpenter and a lesser pitcher or is just that one has more ability than another?

  9. No ma'am we're musicians said...

    Brian Kenny, who some are calling the “face of sabermetrics,”

    I sure hope not.  Most of what passes for sabermetrics is horrible mathematics, and Kenny is best unmentioned.  But I like the idea of taking a look at the game from a basics standpoint, and not from the viewpoint of a baseball writer who created these ‘stats’ in order to sell a baseball column.

    Just today, only 4 men batted in an inning and all struck out…but one scored a run anyway.  WAR type metrics would say the pitcher was great, after all there were no hits, no walks in that inning and there were 4 strikeouts.  The writers viewpoint is not the way to rate the players.

    Runs scored help you win, so perhaps the inning needs to be evaluated FIRST by the end result, which is clearly negative for the pitcher and positive for the will-to-win batter that made it all the way around the diamond.

    Now Kenny would jump in here that claim that in the long run the ‘usual events’ will win out and his stats will tell the truth.  But until those average stats start including some measure of how good they are, as in an average quoted to 2 decimal places having a standard deviation that is much, much greater (which means the average is junk), they will not actually map out a way to winning.

    GIGO.  Time to walk away from the sportswriters numbers and look for a basis to which measure an inning that has value in successfully predicting a future game.

  10. Marc Schneider said...

    No way,

    What you said is utterly incomprehensible and incoherent.  What have you been drinking or smoking?

  11. Sabertooth said...

    It seems to me that TWTW encompasses a number of factors, such as character, concentration, confidence, etc, that that will usually, though not always, be reflected sabermetricly. That some athletes or teams have a knack for rising to the occasion or choking is a reality that can’t be entirely explained by randomness or regression. In isolated situation athletes can psyche themselves up or psyche themselves out.

  12. Drew said...

    How does one measure TWTW?

    Perhaps by the amount of ground balls a shortstop gets to in the hole? Would these anti-stat guys be so into TWTW when a Derek Jeter has a disgracefully low score?

    Or does TWTW factor cheating and rule-bending in more than hustle? Cheating demonstrates an immense will to win – you’re willing to eschew basic ethical considerations and risk punishment, just to win ball games!

    Anyway, if so, Jeter and his fake HBPs will have him leading the league! And Bonds and Clemens would be supremely rated – HOF bound, easy. Same with Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti.

    Who is “judging” TWTW? Is it like figure skating?

    When will these idiots realize that WAR actually addresses “intangibles” like fielding and baserunning, while RBI is a made-up stat that describes nada, and especially not grit.

  13. Greg Rybarczyk said...

    TWTW is simultaneously:

    a) absolutely essential to MLB success, and
    b) absolutely not what distinguishes one MLB team from another.

    A team has to have TWTW to win, but, as mentioned already, everyone who makes it as far as the major leagues has it.  The guys who lack it don’t make it to the big leagues, and thus don’t play any part in who wins.

    It’s like arguing about which is the best car: you can argue that functioning brakes are absolutely essential to the best car, and you’d be correct (since a car has to have brakes to be usable, drag-racers notwithstanding).  However, since every car has brakes, brakes are meaningless in the “best car” discussion”…

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