No, Bill James doesn’t really think a beer vendor can bat cleanup

Bill James, the onetime security guard who literally changed the game of baseball by developing new statistics to measure performance, is in big trouble with players for suggesting the boys aren’t as important as they think they are.

James is now a “special assistant” to the Red Sox (who’ve won some World Series since he came aboard), but his employer is among those firing back.

“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,” James tweeted this week.

Well, now. There’s some value, possibly measurable by statistics to that, as anyone who’s been to a baseball game will attest. For many, the point is to go to the park on a nice day … and drink. Then drink some more. Oh, and there are people playing baseball.

But that’s not really what James was saying. Players come and players go and James is in the business of telling his employers not to waste their money because there’s another future star always coming along who can be had for less money. Simple. Unless you’re an aging player about to cash in on free agency.

James has since deleted his online comments.

“The comments Bill James made yesterday are both reckless and insulting considering our game’s history regarding the use of replacement players,” Tony Clark, the head of the players union, said. “The players are the game. And our fans have an opportunity to enjoy the most talented baseball players in the world every season.

“Bill James is a consultant to the Red Sox,” the world champions said in a statement. “He is not an employee, nor does he speak for the club. His comments on Twitter were inappropriate and do not reflect the opinions of the Red Sox front office or its ownership group.

“Our championships would not have been possible without our incredibly talented players — they are the backbone of our franchise and our industry. To insinuate otherwise is absurd,” the statement concluded

These are touchy times for the players, teams, and the union. Free agency is about to begin and last off-season showed that the market for 30-something baseball stars commanding big bucks in free agency is likely over.

To understand James’ comments, one has to understand Bill James work over the years, which has often proven that the value of players — individual players — is often overstated. His statistics show that a younger, cheaper player can provide the same run production, for example, as a big-money “star”.

That’s not something the players’ union wants to hear, nor something the teams that have to negotiate with the most powerful union in sports can afford to acknowledge, at least in public.

“I don’t know that the idea that the game endures and we’re all just passing through it is inherently an offensive idea. But if I phrased it in an offensive way, that was not my intention,” James tells the New York Times.

But players can be replaced. Not by beer vendors, of course, but by other players.

To the extent that owners have realized that they should stop overpaying for baseball players, it’s largely because of the analytics created by James.

Former Minnesota Twins star Torii Hunter, who wasn’t close to being worth the $10.5 million Minnesota paid him his last season at age 39, was among those outraged by the idea.

“I got in trouble by trying to tell people you don’t have to choose the players’ perspective. That is what I was trying to say: You can choose the perspective of broader society,” he told the Times. “It makes equal sense to do so. But the sabermetric perspective of it — the view from the marketplace — has become so dominant that it squashes its opposition.”

“The game has taken good care of me for 40 years, and I very much appreciate that,” James said. “I don’t think it’s true that players in general dislike analytics or distrust them. It is true that there are a lot of players who have images associated with analytics which are not friendly images — that’s true of a certain number of players; it’s true of a certain number of sportswriters; it’s true of a certain number of air-conditioning repairmen; it’s just a general condition of the world.”

That’s something even a beer vendor should be able to grasp.

  • Erik Petersen

    I absolutely agree with his tweet, its a piece of baseball insight that is correct as baseball wisdom.

  • MikeB

    I think it is more true for football. People follow the uniform, players are dispensable.

    • jon

      Odds of you being the best in the world at any particular thing (out of the 7 billion other people on the planet) are pretty low.
      Odds of you not only being the best, but being so much better than the next leading candidate that they can’t even do the same job competently are extremely low.

      In essences there are very very very few people in this world who are irreplaceable as far as their ability to perform a task (play a game) goes…

      but no one likes to be reminded of this… but it is the truth of the world.

  • Jay Sieling

    “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America
    has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a
    blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.
    This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all
    that once was good, and that could be again.” -Terrence Mann in Field of Dreams.

    There will always be players to play the game of baseball.

  • Gary F

    I wonder what he thinks about the shift.

    • Erik Petersen

      I haven’t ever read what he thinks of it, but I suspect he’s OK with it. He’s not a traditionalist.

      • Jeff

        As long as you know where to place the beer vendor.

    • boB from WA

      Is that a dance? Or are you speaking of a woman’s dress?

  • Jeff

    Perhaps I’m missing the point, but people do like their sports heroes. I don’t see how you have many if you were hypothetically replacing them every few years. Sure the game goes on, but without stars or even substars it’s less engaging. My interest in the Twins dropped off some when they unloaded Escobar.

    • frightwig

      People like their sports heroes, but there are always new heroes coming along. Escobar has a great personality and he’s a solid player (who just had a career year), but he’s not irreplaceable. In a few years, he probably won’t even be much good, anymore.

      Think of the Twins roster from five years ago. How many were still good, key players on this year’s team?

      Glen Perkins and Justin Morneau got hurt and retired. Josh Willingham, traded and retired. Trevor Plouffe peaked in 2014-15, then was released and has been bouncing around the margins of the league. Brian Dozier became a star for a few years, but this year his play had fallen off so much that the club practically had to give him away (because they didn’t want to give him a qualifying offer this offseason). Aaron Hicks has since become a star elsewhere, as the Twins traded him because he took too long to develop.

      Kyle Gibson, who had a 6.53 ERA in 10 starts that year, is the only pitcher still with the team–although he’ll be a free agent after next season. If Joe Mauer retires, Gibson in fact will be the only 2013 holdover on the entire roster. Mauer, of course, was still a Twin this year, although it’s been a long while since he was the player he had been in 2013, and a lot of fans have groused about that big contract that has kept him in the Twins lineup far longer than he would’ve been otherwise. If he retires this winter, of course many will also feel sad to see the end of an era, but it probably will be better for the team–and fans will quickly adjust and cheer on the Brent Rooker era, if he proves that he can hit, too.

      Someone might say, “Well, the Twins have been mostly bad in recent years; of course they would have a high turnover.” But the same applies to the Red Sox, too. The only regular on the 2013 championship team still with this year’s championship club is Dustin Pedroia–and he played in just 3 games this season. In the end, their regular 2B was Ian Kinsler, playing for his 4th team since 2013. But the Red Sox player who had the most games at 2B this year? Former Twins fan favorite Eduardo Núñez!

  • Jeff C.

    I agree with him.

    This summer I wanted to take my son to a baseball game. Not a *Twins* game. Not a game to see a *player*. A *baseball* game. We went to a Saints game. Neither of us knew any of the Saints players. That didn’t matter. We had a nice night out. We knew when to cheer (when the Saints did well). We knew when to feel sad (when the other team did well). We sat. We talked. We watched. He won a really cheap and poorly made Saints cap. We had a great night. The players made no difference. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Many people just want to go to a *baseball* game and it doesn’t matter who wins, who looses or even who plays.

  • boB from WA

    //”His statistics show that a younger, cheaper player can provide the same run production, for example, as a big-money “star”.” Just took at what the Oakland A’s did out west this summer. Had the best record after the all-star game, and with what? Younger players and a low payroll.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    I’m late to this party but, of course Mr. James is right. If he weren’t Baseball would have ceased to be Baseball when Babe Ruth retired or Lou Gehrig or Sandy Koufax or Nolan Ryan or …