Bill James strikes out de­valu­ing MLB play­ers

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Gabe Lac­ques

Bill James’ con­tri­bu­tions to base­ball are sig­nif­i­cant, mer­i­to­ri­ous and pos­si­bly un­matched by any within the in­dus­try in the last 40 years.

Yet he, of all peo­ple, should know that great base­ball play­ers — of sound mind, ath­letic body and full heart — are not merely re­place­able units.

James, among the god­fa­thers of this all-en­com­pass­ing and still vastly un­der­stood move­ment known as an­a­lyt­ics, holds among many ti­tles that of Se­nior Ad­viser, Base­ball Op­er­a­tions, Bos­ton Red Sox. Given his life­time of prag­matic and sober anal­y­sis, you’d think James would be too wise to en­gage in an odi­ous Twit­ter beef about base­ball, eco­nom­ics and fun­gi­bil­ity.

Given for whom he con­sults, you’d think he’d be wise enough not to tweet

this: “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.”

Lest we for­get, the cham­pagne’s barely dry from the Red Sox’s fourth ti­tle this cen­tury, won last month by a ded­i­cated group of play­ers who rep­re­sented all cor­ners of the base­ball land­scape, art­fully con­structed in re­cent months and years by club Pres­i­dent Dave Dom­browski, his staff and those who pre­ceded them.

The Red Sox is­sued a state­ment early Thurs­day af­ter­noon in an ef­fort to dis­tance them­selves from James, who the team was quick to point out is a con­sul­tant and not a paid mem­ber of the ex­ec­u­tive staff.

It reads in part: “His com­ments ... 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.”

There was a boat­load of homegrown stars drafted or signed in­ter­na­tion­ally and de­vel­oped in the sys­tem: Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Xan­der Bo­gaerts, An­drew Ben­in­tendi and Rafael Dev­ers.

There was a me­nagerie of use­ful vet­eran parts ac­cu­mu­lated through trades over time: Brock Holt, Steve Pearce, Ian Kinsler, Joe Kelly.

And of course, a chunk of play­ers ac­quired or re­tained in some part due to the Red Sox’s wealth: David Price, Chris Sale, Rick Por­cello, Craig Kim­brel, J.D. Mar­tinez.

Ah, yes, Mar­tinez. Some­how, the Red Sox were the lone se­ri­ous bid­ders for his ser­vices af­ter last sea­son, and he ul­ti­mately “set­tled” for their $110 mil­lion deal just as spring train­ing opened. The nou­veau con­ven­tional wis­dom sug­gested that af­ter a sea­son in which a ma­jor league-record 6,104 home runs were struck, pay­ing big money for a power hit­ter was, well, in­ef­fi­cient.

Un­de­terred by this logic, Mar­tinez went out and proved him­self a ver­i­ta­ble bar­gain: 43 home runs, 130 RBI, an Amer­i­can League-best 358 to­tal bases, and, in James’ lan­guage, was worth at least 6 wins by any WAR-time mea­sure. In his first play­off at-bat with Bos­ton, he crushed a three-run homer that kick-started the Red Sox’s four-game con­quest of the mighty Yan­kees in the AL Di­vi­sion Series.

Of course, Mar­tinez is a liv­ing, breath­ing hu­man, one who hap­pens to take the art of hit­ting se­ri­ously. His daily con­tri­bu­tions to the Red Sox be­gan not at 7:05 p.m. but far ear­lier in the af­ter­noon, spread­ing his hit­ting gospel through­out the squad.

Betts jacked up his bat­ting av­er­age from .264 to a ma­jor league-best .346 and is a shooin for AL MVP. Mar­tinez’s tute­lage is, ac­cord­ing to as­sis­tant hit­ting coach Andy Bar­kett, the main rea­son.

Gold Glove cen­ter fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. boosted the exit ve­loc­ity on his swings sig­nif­i­cantly this sea­son, rank­ing 19th in the ma­jor leagues, and went on to win AL Cham­pi­onship Series MVP for his bat, not his glove.

Mar­tinez, he said, can take all the credit.

“One hun­dred per­cent,” Bradley told USA TO­DAY be­fore the World Series. “It’s been some­thing that’s not only helped me, but a lot of us.”

So is Mar­tinez re­place­able? On the field, not by 99 per­cent of play­ers walk­ing this earth. Off the field? Not at all.

Of course, the game’s col­lec­tive mind-set has been drift­ing James’ way for nearly 20 years. Play­ers are no longer merely play­ers; they are “as­sets,” val­ued as much for their “con­trol­lable years” as their ac­tual on- field per­for­mances.

To a de­gree, this ap­proach can work on the field. The Rays have churned through 139 play­ers in their past four sea­sons and this year ho­mog­e­nized the vast ma­jor­ity of their pitch­ing staff with a rad­i­cal pitch­ing ap­proach that thrilled the game’s pro­gres­sive wing while hor­ri­fy­ing play­ers who saw their earn­ing power threat­ened. They won 90 games.

But the real knife twist in all this is that the de­sire for “ef­fi­ciency” was once bandied about only in front of­fices, where the goal of ex­tract­ing pro­duc­tion as cheaply as pos­si­ble out of ath­letes has now been strangely ro­man­ti­cized.

Blame “Money­ball” for this if you must, or the fact that any­one can play arm­chair GM, but a large seg­ment of fan­hood does seem to glean greater joy out of blood­less trans­ac­tions than ac­tual re­sults.

The play­ers have sensed this for years, yet an­other enemy of their liveli­hood emerg­ing to join forces with own­ers in sup­press­ing their share of some $11 bil­lion cir­cu­lat­ing through the in­dus­try.

It’s one thing for a fan to yell, or tweet, at an ath­lete for “killing my fan­tasy team.” It’s quite an­other to say that the liv­ing, breath­ing thing be­neath the uni­form, brought up to be­lieve that the hu­man con­nec­tion be­tween fan and ath­lete ac­tu­ally mat­ters, is dis­pos­able .

These hu­mans re­sponded in kind on Thurs­day. Union head Tony Clark called James’ re­marks “reck­less and in­sult­ing.”

Fu­ture Hall of Famer Justin Ver­lan­der, van­quished by James’ Red Sox in the ALCS, seemed to doubt Bos­ton wins the World Series with Johnny Vorp in­stead of J.D. Mar­tinez in the lineup.

None of these folks, present com­pany in­cluded, grasp the game’s sta­tis­ti­cal con­cepts nearly as much as James. It’s rare when any of us can point to the king of saber­met­rics and say, ob­jec­tively, “You are wrong.”

This time, we can. Hope­fully James, and the in­dus­try at large, re­al­izes that.

The Red Sox dis­tanced them­selves from crit­i­cal com­ments made by stats guru Bill James.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.