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 Advisor, 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 that 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.
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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, 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 runs batted in, an AL-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 shoo-in for AL MVP. Martinez’s tutelage is, according to assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett, the main reason why.
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 ALCS MVP for his bat, not his glove.
Martinez, he said, can take all the credit.
“One hundred percent,” Bradley told USA TODAY Sports 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% of players walking this earth. Off the field? Not at all.
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.”
Of course, the game’s collective mindset 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 Tampa Bay 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 as disposable as the nacho cheese in the concession stands.
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 well 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.
Follow Lacques on Twitter @GabeLacques