In the early- and mid-2000’s, many debates were had over the meaning of the ethereal “replacement-level player,” used as the baseline for the WAR statistic. It turns out that, after all of this time, a “replacement-level player” simply refers to all baseball players.
Famed baseball historian and father of Sabermetrics Bill James, now a senior advisor on baseball operations for the Red Sox, spent part of his Wednesday on Twitter arguing against the value of players’ labor for some reason. Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald tweeted about agent Scott Boras, who criticized teams for tanking during his press conference at the GM meetings. James responded, “Because, of course, some players getting more money than they are worth doesn’t have ANYTHING to do with it.”
Chris Towers of CBS Sports replied, “What about the players who are drastically underpaid for most of their careers/primes?”
James snarkily responded, “My heart bleeds for them.”
Towers and James went back and forth for a bit and various other people from Twitter got involved. In one of James’ replies, he wrote, “If the players all retired tomorrow, we would replace them, the game would go on; in three years it would make no difference whatsoever. The players are NOT the game, any more than the beer vendors are.”
Red Sox players, whether in the majors or in the minors, should be deeply concerned by that comment. As should free agents who might consider joining the defending champion Red Sox, or a player who happens to get traded to Boston. James is guilty of saying the quiet part out loud. Everyone knows that front offices regularly devalue the players’ labor. The front office execs are usually just very good about keeping it quiet. James literally said “we would replace them” regarding every single current baseball player. You truly can’t get a more anti-labor comment than that. Present and future Red Sox players would be right to wonder just how widely-shared James’ sentiments are in the Red Sox front office, and major league front offices in general.
More to the legitimacy of James’ comment: As we have seen in sports throughout the years, when striking players have been replaced by scabs, the product deteriorates to a nearly unwatchable level. Shall we go to the highlight reel for the 1987 NFL season? In a story about the ’87 strike for ESPN, Elizabeth Merill quoted Giants replacement quarterback Jim Crocicchia as saying, “One reporter asked me after the first game, ‘What was the game plan? How were you feeling?’ Well, I looked around the huddle at my offensive linemen, and our strategy became to stay in the huddle for as long as we possibly could because they could not catch their breath. I mean, it was one of those things where they were just not in game shape. We had a number of mental mistakes that were going to happen.”
So, no, we could not replace the current batch of baseball players and get a product of similar quality. Perhaps the critics of Sabermetrics from the early- and mid-2000’s were right after all: Saberists really do see the players as interchangeable numbers in a spreadsheet, not as actual human beings. Many, including James, seem to not see them as human beings who have dedicated years — oftentimes decades — of their lives working to create an elite athletic body, developing a world class skill set, and an an ability to perform in front of the public.
If we give James the most generous reading of his argument, he might be clumsily saying that fans root for the name on the front of the uniform, not the back. That’s generally true — fans tend not to hop from team to team along with their favorite players. The players come and go but team fandom sticks for life. To use that as a justification to suggest players are “getting more money than they are worth,” however, is completely unwarranted and not appropriate coming from a member of a major league front office.