Are baseball players inherently replaceable? According to legendary baseball statistician Bill James, yes. According to pretty much everyone else, including his own employer, the Boston Red Sox, no. The 2018 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox. In an official press release. And the player’s union, too, disagreed with James. And multiple current players.
It was not exactly the response James was looking for, and for good reason.
James’ tweet was deleted, but here’s what James said, in full, in response to someone daring to argue that the players are the product of Major League Baseball:
No. This is just flat not true. 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 beer vendors are.
There is an argument to make that the players aren’t the game of baseball. I don’t even think that’s a particularly controversial one. Baseball has churned through thousands of players and the game moves on; claiming that baseball is more than the players who play it at any given time is reasonable. What is not so reasonable is saying that players are unimportant, that food vendors have the same stake and value in the baseball system as those that, um, play baseball. It’s clear that the players have an effect on the game, and it is with players that fans make a connection
Dayton Moore, General Manager of the Kansas City Royals, ascribes to that ‘baseball players are important and the people fans connect with’ argument. The Royals were terrible last year. They are going to be terrible this year. They are staring down the barrel of a rebuild. It will not be fun. Yet, Moore believes that it is important for the Royals to maintain players for their fans to root for. He owes it to the fans, in his words. Just check out his response when asked if he would trade Whit Merrifield:
KC GM Dayton Moore on whether he’ll trade young star Whit Merrifield: “I can’t predict the future. But certainly won’t be traded at the deadline. We need him in our city and on our team.” Merrifield responded (on @MLBNetwork) that he loves KC and the Royals org.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) July 27, 2018
We need him in our city and on our team. That isn’t about winning. That’s about something else. Moore is talking about how Merrifield has inherent value as a player fans root for in addition to his on-field value. That trading Merrifield would have repercussions among the fans. Moore’s holistic approach is well-known and, for better or worse, a feature of his management—not a bug. From a Sam Mellinger article about potentially trading Salvador Perez:
Few if any general managers value the sentimental side of baseball as much as Dayton Moore. He talks constantly of seeing the game through the eyes of young people.
Then there’s this section from an interview with Joe Posnanski:
“People want to talk stats,” Moore says. “And that’s great, stats are a wonderful part of baseball. People want to talk win totals. And we all know how important it is to win. But those are results. Those are not why we love this game. We love this game because it’s a privilege to be a part of this game, because it’s an honor to play with the greatest players in the world and compete against the greatest players in the world, because it’s an honor to play for the fans. That’s what we talk about every day.
On tanking, Moore feels that he owes the fanbase to remain competitive every year, that the fanbase deserves some sort of competitive team at all times:
There’s a lot of people in this world that are focused on the 2018 team they’re not focused on the 2019 or 2020 or 2021 team. Their time is now. We owe it to that segment of our fanbase to field a competitive team this year.
This is an admirable idea. Unfortunately, it is both antithesis to how good teams are constructed in modern Major League Baseball as well as being not how fanbases work.
David DeJesus was awesome. He was a good player for a long time. DeJesus was basically mid-2000s Whit Merrifield. But nobody was coming to the games to watch DeJesus’ handsome smile, smooth defense, and productive offense, because nobody was coming to the games at all. In 2005, when DeJesus put up a 4-WAR season, the Royals pulled in the second-fewest fans in all baseball. DeJesus did that again in 2006, to the tune of the third-worst attendance in baseball. Hell, when Greinke was putting up an all-time great year in 2009, a year in which he won the American League Cy Young Award, the team came in fifth-worst in average attendance.
And in 2018, when the Royals lost 104 games? They had the eighth-worst attendance, losing over 7,000 fans per game from the previous season. This, despite Merrifield’s resurgence, despite 2015 World Series MVP Salvador Perez and his continued smiles and homers, despite the (first half) return of the all-time Royals single season home run leader Mike Moustakas, despite a lot of familiar players remaining. Gordon. Duffy. Herrera. Escobar. On and on.
Here’s the deal: James was right. Well, ok, that’s a little strong. James was partially correct. Players don’t engage entire fanbases. Winning engages fanbases. Every team has players. Every team has likable, marketable players. What makes the difference is winning. Fans will show up for winning. Fans might show up for players, but the winning is the real prize. Attendance numbers and TV ratings bear that out.
Rebuilds are awful. The best way to work through them is to make them faster and better. Therefore, wins are simply more important than individual players. Hosmer, Moose, et al are legends over DeJesus, Soria, et al because they won and the others didn’t.
It will be sad to watch Merrifield and Perez play for other teams. But fans will get over it. Fans will get over it because it will ultimately mean more winning, and that’s just how the world turns.