Left, right, left, right: the greatest Expos

Sometime over the weekend, I stumbled across a list of statistics that quantifies the best Montreal Expos of all time, regardless of position. Such contentions are always open to debate, naturally, but seldom does it lead to war like this one does.

Major-league baseball is at WAR. It has been for three decades, which means longer than either Vietnam or the war in Afghanistan. Until then, there was only one meaning for the word “war.” It was what our fathers and forefathers did to preserve freedom.

Did anybody really think it would ever be a baseball statistic?

Some consider WAR the most definitive statistical measure in a game that has a million of them. It depends on whose opinion you’re seeking, which way the wind is blowing and what algebraic equation you can dust off. It’s considered part of sabermetrics, and Bill James is generally regarded the original sabermetrician for the “baseball abstract” he authored in the 1970s. Then along came the movie Moneyball, and all of baseball snapped to attention.

What’s WAR?

It’s an acronym for Wins Against Replacement and is defined as “attempts to measure a player’s overall value to a team by posting how many wins he is worth when compared to a replacement-level player.” It is determined by a complex formula — think algebra squared — that is calculated differently for each position for each player.

If you get the picture, you’re one up on me. This smacks of saying Muhammad Ali had better sabremetrics than Rocky Marciano so he must have been a better heavyweight champion. It’s like a different version of fantasy sports, but with a calculator on steroids.

Oh yes, the Expos.

According to the list of all-time WAR performers, the greatest Expos were, in order: Gary Carter, Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Steve Rogers and Tim Wallach. While all of them played during my era of covering baseball in Montreal, this is not my creation. Carter’s WAR score was 55.8, Raines’ 49.1 and Dawson’s 48.4 and, if I understand this correctly (debatable), that’s the accumulation of each season’s score during their Expos years. Totalling up their WARs, so to speak.

For somebody who assessed a batter’s value by dividing his hits by his at-bats to find his batting average, and combining it with how many runs he drove in and how many home runs he hit, a WAR is incomprehensible. Having said that, the sabremetrics are something of a credible validation. The “greatest Expos” debate I always heard was Carter vs Dawson, with Raines a step behind, and all of them are Hall of Famers. Rogers was clearly king of the hill among Montreal’s career pitchers, and I’m not sure anybody would have put Wallach into the top five.

One thing I do know is: None of them ever thought they’d go to war…well, Rogers did leave for a tour of duty with the National Guard during the Vietnam years. For that matter, Babe Ruth never knew he became the greatest WAR-rior of all when the formula posthumously gave him a WAR score of 182.6.

So the end may justify the means, but it may take generations to understand what WAR means.

Just like it does in real life.