If you gathered every player in major league history — from Old Hoss Radbourn to Justus Sheffield, more or less — and seated them at Yankee Stadium, you could not even fill half the ballpark. Fewer than 20,000 people have ever played baseball at the highest level. The ability to do so is rare and precious.
Bill James understands this better than most. James has been a groundbreaking, thought-provoking writer and researcher for more than 40 years, relentlessly challenging conventional wisdom. An outsider for decades, he has advised the Boston Red Sox through their run of four championships in this century. His influence on the modern game is profound.
Now, though, James has rankled his team and the players’ union with Twitter posts questioning the relative worth of players and suggesting that they are replaceable.
In a Wednesday tweet that has since been deleted, James 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.”
In a telephone interview on Thursday, James clarified what he meant.
“I don’t speak for the Red Sox and I try to make that clear as often as I can,” he said. “But from the Red Sox standpoint, we have a responsibility not to offend the players and it’s unfortunate that I did offend the players. I didn’t mean to do that. 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.”
The idea of replacing all the players is not as far-fetched as it sounds. At spring training in 1995, after a strike had canceled the previous year’s World Series, owners attempted to break the union by using replacement players for exhibition games. That shameful farce nearly bled into the regular season, and players have never forgotten.
Tony Clark, who made his major league debut in 1995 and is now the executive director of the players’ association, issued a blistering statement on Thursday condemning James’s stance.
“The comments Bill James made yesterday are both reckless and insulting considering our game’s history regarding the use of replacement players,” Clark wrote. “The Players ARE the game. And our fans have an opportunity to enjoy the most talented baseball Players in the world every season. If these sentiments resonate beyond this one individual, then any challenges that lie ahead will be more difficult to overcome than initially anticipated.”
Current and former players, like Justin Verlander, Jameson Taillon, Torii Hunter and Al Leiter, also criticized James’s comments. The Red Sox moved quickly to distance themselves from him with their own statement:
“Bill James is a consultant to the Red Sox. 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.”
By wading into the topic of player value, with a new off-season just underway, James may have launched himself into the kind of Twitter lava that has caused others — in entertainment, media and elsewhere — to lose their jobs. James hopes not.
“I enjoy working for the Red Sox,” he said, “and I would like to continue that as much as I can.”
In the baseball industry, few things are as politically poisonous as floating the notion that players are replaceable. Players were furious last winter by teams’ sluggish approach to free agency, and many suspected the owners of colluding against them as they did in the 1980s. The former agent Brodie Van Wagenen — now the Mets’ general manager, of all things — even threatened a boycott of spring training.
The owners’ reluctance to spend on free agents was often tied to analytics, and the movement James spawned by highlighting the objective reasoning behind the metrics. Front offices increasingly strive to be efficient in finding value, and rewarding free agents for past performance can be wasteful compared with using younger and cheaper talent.
Many of the free agents who signed late last winter did turn out to be overvalued. Could a replacement-level starter have matched the production of, say, Baltimore’s Alex Cobb, who was 5-15 with a 4.90 earned run average after signing a four-year, $57 million contract in March? What about Lance Lynn, who signed with Minnesota in March for one year and $12 million, then was 10-10, 4.77, for the Twins and the Yankees?
On Twitter, James cited no specific examples of players being overpaid. But he said it was “asinine to say that players making only a few million a year are underpaid,” as fans and reporters often say when comparing players’ salaries.
“It’s a question of which perspective you choose,” James said on Thursday, adding later: “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 choose the perspective of broader society. 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.”
James can be provocative on Twitter, as he has always been in his writing, but his tweets on Wednesday seemed to play into the skepticism among some players and fans about the growing influence of analytics, on the field and off.
The 2018 season was the first to feature more strikeouts than hits, perhaps an outgrowth of the ever-increasing emphasis on power at the plate and on the mound. It was also the first season in which eight teams lost at least 95 games, and with so many rosters under reconstruction, fans were not drawn to watch the beer vendors — attendance fell by more than three million, dropping below 70 million for the first time since 2003.
James, for his part, does not sense a backlash toward analytics. But he regrets inflaming the skeptics.
“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.”
He added, “There’s nothing I can do about that, but I have to be more careful not to feed into those negative images.”