Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Red Sox senior advisor Bill James thinks all baseball players are replaceable

45 Comments

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More to the legitimacy of James’ comment: As we have seen in sports throughout the years, when striking players have been replaced by scabs, the product deteriorates to a nearly unwatchable level.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.

Neal Huntington thinks players should be allowed to re-enter games after concussion testing

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli, who has suffered many concussions throughout his 12-year career, was hit on the back of the helmet on a Joc Pederson backswing Saturday against the Dodgers. Through Cervelli remained in the game initially, he took himself out of the game shortly thereafter and went on the seven-day concussion injured list on Sunday.

Perhaps inspired by Saturday’s event, Pirates GM Neal Huntington suggested that players should be allowed to re-enter games once they have passed concussion tests, the Associated Press reports. Huntington said, “Any player that had an obvious concussion risk incident should be allowed to be removed from the game, taken off the field, taken into the locker room, assessed by a doctor, assessed by a trainer, go through an extended period of time and then re-enter the game. Because right now, all of this has to happen on the field.”

Huntington added, “The player has to feel pressure as he’s standing there with 30,000 or 10,000 or 50,000 eyes on him. He has to feel pressure to make a decision whether (he’s) in or (he’s) out of this game. He knows if he takes himself out and he’s the catcher, there’s only one other catcher, and the game becomes a fiasco if that other catcher gets hurt.”

Huntington, who has been forward-thinking on a number of other issues, has it wrong here. The concussion protocols were created because players frequently hid or under-reported their injuries in order to remain in the game. Especially for younger or otherwise less-proven players, there is pressure to have to constantly perform in order to keep one’s job. Furthermore, there is an overarching sentiment across sports that taking time off due to injury makes one weak. Similarly, playing while injured is seen as tough and masculine. Creating protocols that take the decision-making out of players’ hands keeps them from making decisions that aren’t in their own best interests. Removing them would bring back that pressure for players to hide or minimize their ailments. If anything, MLB’s concussion protocols should become more stringent, not more relaxed.

The powers that be with Major League Baseball have no doubt followed the concussion scandal surrounding the National Football League. In January, the NFL settled for over $1 billion with retired players dealing with traumatic brain injuries, including dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. For years, the league refused to acknowledge the link between playing football and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which is a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to dementia and has many negative effects, such as increasing the risk of suicide. Since baseball isn’t often a contact sport, MLB doesn’t have to worry about brain injuries to this degree, but it still needs to take preventative measures in order to avoid billion-dollar lawsuits as well as avoiding P.R. damage. In December 2012, former major league outfielder Ryan Freel committed suicide. Freel, who claimed to have suffered as many as 10 concussions, suffered from CTE. MLB players can suffer brain injuries just like football players.

Huntington seems to be worried about not having enough rostered catchers in the event one or two catchers get injured. That is really an issue of roster management. Carrying only two catchers on the roster is a calculated risk, often justified. Huntington can ensure his team never has to be put in the position of not having a catcher in an emergency by rostering a third catcher. Rosters are expanding to 26 players next year, by the way.