The Day The Robot Players Took Over

The world misses Fire Joe Morgan every day (except for the one day a year when the guys reunite on Deadspin). But some days more than others.

Some days the world cries out for Junior, Dak and Ken Tremendous. The world needs their vitriol. The world throws sacrificial lambs out there to be mocked, but no one is doing the mocking. Some days the conversation takes a turn toward the inane, the reactionary and the stunted. Yet no one hears our calls for sanity.

Today is such a day.

Well, if those guys are too busy writing the best comedy on television and doing whatever else they’re doing…if they’ve decided to shirk their responsibility to make fun of the sports media at its most pompous and dumb, then someone’s got to pick up the slack.

Let’s go.

A man named Doug Miller has written a piece on mlb.com called “Certain Players Simply Can’t be Replaced.” The title should be your first hint that something is amiss.

One of the latest buzz terms in the statistics-crazy world of new-millennium baseball is “replacement.” There’s how much a given player is valued over a “replacement player.” There’s how many “wins above replacement” a given player is worth.

Can’t you just hear the dripping sarcasm those quotation marks represent? Can’t you just feel the rage that lives inside Doug Miller, rage that’s being misdirected toward people that discuss baseball in different terms than he would like them to?

First of all, the concept of replacement level is not new, or one of the latest buzz terms. It’s an incredibly basic concept that’s been around for years, and freely available for anyone with a modicum of curiosity about the sport they watch or write about. A replacement level player is someone who a major-league team could easily find at AAA, or on the waiver wire. The concept is meant to establish some minimum baseline of performance expectations, which then gives us something to measure other players against. For example, we can say that Alex Rodriguez was worth about four wins above replacement in 2010 — or the Yankees won four more games playing ARod at third base then they would have playing Eduardo Nunez or Jose Lopez or someone of similar mediocre ability. “Replacement level” is a tool that allows us to compare players. That’s all it is. It’s not a threat to Doug Miller or America.

One can only wonder about the assumed identity of the “replacement player” himself — a faceless entity with a few years in the Majors, perhaps, but with no name or number on his uniform and nothing but an estimated yearly line of offensive and defensive production conjured from the clicking automated heart of a central processing unit to go on.

Ah, there it is. A central throughline of frightened baseball writing: that stats nerds won’t be happy until players are all robots, and the human element is stripped from the game forever. Then, when the nerds sit in their mothers’ basements, they won’t have to be jealous of players’ athletic ability or robust social lives anymore. Because who would be jealous of a robot? (Again, replacement level is a concept, not a person. Though if we find players with wins above replacement of 0.0, those guys are as close to these imaginary robots as we’re going to get.)

But in the living, breathing dugouts and clubhouses of Major League teams, you see the opposite, and they’re walking, talking and contributing every day.

Writing! What does this terrible sentence tell us? That baseball players aren’t really robots? Thanks for pulling the curtain back on that one, Dougie.

These are the players who are impossible to replace, regardless of their on-base percentage, Ultimate Zone Ratings or OPS with two out and runners in scoring position against left-handers.

Another delightful anti-sabermetrics trope: the reciting of the names of statistics to make them sound silly. And for the record, no one cares about OPS with two out and runners in scoring position against left-handers. That’s not a thing. On-base percentage, though? Very fucking important. And if a player has an awful on-base percentage, he can very likely be replaced. Easily.

Angels designated hitter Bobby Abreu is one, even if he’s 37 years old and his 2010 statistics — .255 batting average, .352 OBP, 78 RBIs — indicate that his offensive game might be in decline. Abreu still is capable of striking fear (20 homers last year) or stirring up agitation (87 walks) within an opposing pitcher, but as he ages in the game, his value is becoming more relevant on the intangible side of things.

The intangible side of things? Aren’t “things” by their very definition tangible? Sorry, I don’t mean to get distracted by the awful prose. I want to stay focused on the awful ideas that are exposed in that prose. Among them: that 20 home runs in a season “strikes fear.” Other players who hit 20 or more home runs last season: The Scary John Buck, The Terrifying Tyler Colvin, The Ghastly Garrett Jones, The Fearsome Ty Wigginton and The Horrifying Juan Uribe.

Since his arrival in Anaheim in 2009, Abreu has influenced an entire roster of players with his patience at the plate and his positive attitude about the game.

2008 Angels wins: 100
2009 Angels wins: 97
2010 Angels wins: 80 (team OBP: .311)

That’s a vast oversimplification, and the Angels’ decline doesn’t fall on the shoulders of Bobby Abreu, but it somewhat debunks the notion that Abreu turned the Angels into a count-working winning machine.

He might not lead the league in any quantifiable numerical categories, but he’s up there in smiles.

Ummmmmm…doesn’t Tony Romo have a little something to say about that?

Let me see if I can translate: Bobby Abreu might not be a very good baseball player, but he’s a swell guy. Or: Bobby Abreu might not be a very good baseball player, but I’m a misanthrope who hates what the world has become and someone has paid me to say nice things about Mr. Abreu.

Hey, you know what else Bobby Abreu leads the league in? Letting fly balls land over his head because he’s scared of the wall.

The same can be said for a lot of the “glue guys” around the Majors — the players who might not leap out of the program as shoo-in All-Star choices, but go a long way toward keeping good teams together.

Ah, glue guys. Also known as predominantly white, talentless players. (Hey, what’s Abreu doing here?) Why do writers feel the need to defend shitty players and assign them attributes they don’t possess? Is it because they relate to them more than they do guys with otherworldly abilities like ARod and Pujols? (I’m being unfair to Abreu, who is actually still a decent player. I have no idea why Doug Miller chose Abreu to serve as the crux of his rant about replacement level players and robots.)

The same can be said for 40-year-old Craig Counsell, the decorated winner of two World Series rings (1997 with Florida and 2001 with Arizona) and the dedicated current utility man for the Milwaukee Brewers. Counsell has been with the Brewers since 2006, and has rejoined the club on one-year free-agent deals prior to each of the last three seasons. He hasn’t played in more than 130 games in any of the last five seasons. But everyone in Milwaukee loves him.

That’s what being a glue guy is all about, and they’re all around the league, from soft-spoken Dodgers first baseman James Loney, who has made it to the field for at least 158 games each season since becoming an everyday starter in 2008.

Then there’s Cardinals infielder Skip Schumaker, whom the team decided to hold on to this winter, despite a career-low .667 OPS in 2010 following three seasons with a batting average above .300.

OK, now you’re just listing off people who are not good at baseball. Good article.

Maybe that’s what it’s all about with these flesh-and-blood players, guys who can never be replaced, not even by the most amazing spreadsheet in cyberspace.

Jesus Christ, man, will you stop taking the idea of replacement level so literally? Everyone can be replaced. And which strawman, exactly, is arguing that we should replace Skip Schumaker with a spreadsheet in cyberspace? (Though an Excel 2007 sheet might be able to hit for more power.)

Doug Miller, listen to me. The stat guys can’t take away your memories. They can’t take away that time you watched George Brett hustle a single into a double, or whatever. If you have no interest in VORP or WAR, then don’t pay any attention to them. Stick to the stats that have always appeared on the backs of baseball cards. Continue to believe everything that crusty old coaches say about “glue guys.” Believe in chemistry and clutch. Believe it in your heart. The robots can never reach you in there.

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Filed under Sports Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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