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Q&A: Bill Ripken on his old school vs. new school book, his war on WAR, and the state of the Orioles

As baseball’s analytics age continues, Bill Ripken worries he and his contemporaries could get left behind.

That prompted the former Orioles infielder and younger brother of Cal Ripken Jr. to write “State of Play: The Old School Guide to New School Baseball,” available Tuesday. In the book, Ripken, now an MLB Network analyst, dives in on several new-age statistics, including wins above replacement, a catch-all metric that defines a player’s value as one number.

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In a conversation with The Baltimore Sun, Ripken, who also serves as the executive vice president of the Orioles’ short-season affiliate in Aberdeen, discussed his book, the analytical approach to the game and the Orioles, among other topics. Questions and answers were edited for clarity and brevity.

What made you want to write a book about this topic?

I just kind of thought that the old school voice was getting a little bit lost over the past few years, and I listened to certain things and then listen to more things and then say, “You know what, I need to put some stuff down,” and basically, that’s how it all started. There’s a couple chapters that I have more of my interest than maybe others, even though they’re all mine, but I just think that the old school voice wasn’t being heard, so maybe I was a little bold by trying to take it on myself and representing some of the guys that aren’t being heard from anymore.

As you see it, what are the definitions of "old school" and "new school"?

It’s kind of funny because the new school will tell you that they use information and they do all this stuff with numbers and they come up with a plan to move forward, which is kind of how I define the old school. The old school baseball people from yesteryear always used information. They took what information was given. If the information was applicable, they used it. If it wasn’t, they would move on. So there is more information nowadays than ever before. Not gonna argue with that. But is all the information that’s available now applicable, and is some of it being force-fed into the game where it doesn’t necessarily need to be? So, the old school guy always used information, but also used the information that was right there in front of him on any given day, and I believe new school likes to use information and no matter what the information being presented to them right in front of them, if their numbers say to move, they will make a move no matter what their eyes are saying.

What “new school” stats are you particularly wary of?

Well, I don’t understand WAR whatsoever. When you look at WAR and trying to define any given ballplayer with one set number, it just makes you go, “You can’t do that.” There’s too many variables in this game for you to put all these different numbers into your computer and spit out one set number for each player. I use in the book, for example, Mookie Betts in 2018 was a 10.8-WAR player. I like to round things up to 11 to make things easy. So what their definition (of WAR) was when it first came out was that if Mookie Betts would’ve been missing the entire year and replaced by a readily available player, the Boston Red Sox wouldn’t have won 108 games. They would’ve won 97 games. That’s by their definition. So you’ve established that that replacement player has a value of zero. But if you add up every player that played for the 2018 world champion, 108-win Boston Red Sox and you added up all their WARs together, it is in the 50 range, which to me, it should be in the 108 range. If we’ve established a player with a replacement value of zero, and you replace all those players, we’ve got to have a better ballpark than 50-something.

Note: Baseball-Reference.com defines a replacement-level team, or one with no WAR, as a team that wins 48 games. Using that baseline along with the 2018 Red Sox collective WAR of 56.5, per Baseball-Reference, the team was projected to win 104.5 games.

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How do you see old and new school coming together in the future?

I don’t like anything in this new world of created, weighted or adjusted because I think, by definition, weighted, created or adjusted means they’re not real. Right now, I’m not seeing anything broken with the old school numbers that we’ve always used. I know there are a group of people that claim these things are outdated, but I still think you can go through and look at a man’s career and if the guy’s a thumper, and I’m sitting there thinking, “OK, .300 (batting average), 30 (home runs) and 100 (RBIs) is a pretty good barometer for the thumpers,” I don’t think that that’s changed, so I’m not nearly convinced the game has near as many things wrong with it, nor do I believe the actual game itself has actually changed. The thing that’s changed is the way we’ve talked about the game and maybe thought about the game, but I don’t think it’s all necessary.

One thing you look into in the book is “robo umps,” and that fits into the conversation of technology in baseball that came to the forefront this offseason with the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. Game wide, how do you see baseball changing technologically going forward?

There’s always going to be improvement, and since the invention of the wheel, the wheel got better, but the wheel’s still round. I think you add technology to make things incrementally a little bit better, but I don’t want to ever lose sight of trying to force technology into a place where it’s not needed.

Use overshifts for an example. I think we’ve put ourselves in bad defensive positioning to actually make plays. There’s a chapter in the book on the overshifts. The overall (batting average on balls in play) has virtually stayed the same since 2012 when the overshift was instituted. The only thing an overshift can affect is a ball in play, but if the overall BABIP hasn’t changed since 2012, that means that every ball that the shift takes away a hit, it’s giving a hit somewhere else. There’s gotta be that yin, yang right there. There’s some unbelievable buy-in that the shift takes away more than it gives up, and by the numbers — remember, old school guys like me aren’t supposed to use numbers or like numbers — the numbers say, “If I taketh one, I giveth one back,” and I think we find ourselves not in position to turn double plays because of the overshift, puts us in non-double play-friendly situations from time to time.

The overshift was not invented by the new school. Ted Williams had the overshift played against him. I can remember standing in short right field against Kent Hrbek in Minnesota playing second base and Junior standing on the pull side. Now, the overshift gone crazy has everything to do with the new school. “This is where they hit it, and it doesn’t matter who’s pitching or how they’re pitching. This is the data that we have and this is where we’re gonna play,” and I find a little bit of fault in the overshift gone wild.

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One game-wide situation you’re uniquely positioned to discuss, given your position with the Aberdeen IronBirds, is the ongoing negotiations between MLB and Minor League Baseball about potentially reducing the size of the minor leagues. What resolution do you hope to see?

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That’s way too far out of my skis. This thing just came out not long ago. I think it’s way too much in the prelim status for me to throw something out there. That’s more of the business of baseball, which is not necessarily my cup of tea. I do believe that there is a need for farm teams. There is a need for the development of players in some of these developmental cities that have minor league teams that shouldn’t go away. I can see it on the other side of the street if I want to try to put a management hat on or ownership hat on for major league clubs saying, “OK, it might be a little unfair if the New York Yankees, per se, have eight minor league teams and I only have six. We should create a more even field,” if that’s one of the reasons why teams are thinking about doing this. As a developmental side, and my beliefs on how teams are built, if you look at the Houston Astros who have made it to two World Series in the past three years, they’re not built any different than how the 1996 Yankees were. If you look at every multiple World Series team over the past 25 years, you’ll find similarities, and they all revolved around the draft picks, and they revolved around the development of a core group of players that they could go to war with.

Speaking of development, what's your outlook for the Orioles, both this season and as their rebuild continues?

You better hit your draft choices. Last year, they went after Adley Rutschman. I heard great things about him, and you hope that he lives up to everything. Your several picks this June, you better hit on them again, and if you do have any valuable commodities on your big league club that teams want to look at, might want to move them coming up and see what happens. I do see how that system of losing 100, losing 100, losing 100 has been able to be turned around, but it’s been turned around because the draft choices, so when you do do that, you better make sure your draft choices do not go by the wayside.

The Orioles’ 2020 promotion schedule includes of a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Cal Ripken Jr. setting the consecutive game played record. What does that achievement mean to you?

No one’s going to break Junior’s streak. That’s one of those records that we can just go ahead and pen it in, carve it in stone. The fact that he played, ’82 to ’87, where he never missed an inning is freakish enough, then you add over how many years he threw in there, and I still believe he still played 95% of total innings anyway, if not more, during that streak. It’s mind-blowing how somebody could go to work every single day like that and not miss a day for that many years when it’s all said and done.

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