The danger of metrics: how the Bill James comments dehumanize baseball players

Photo: Paul Rutherford, USA TODAY Sports

Bill James, the inventor of the baseball analytical method sabermetrics, controversially tweeted that baseball players could easily be replaced with no effect on the game. This prompted a swift and outraged reaction from players. It also raises a larger point — should businesses focus primarily on metrics, or on people?

James was in a Twitter conversation when he posted this tweet, since deleted:

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.

Naturally, the players were insulted. Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players Association, said, “The comments Bill James made yesterday are reckless and insulting considering our game’s history regarding the use of replacement players. The Players ARE the game.” The Boston Red Sox rapidly pointed out that while James is a consultant to the Red Sox, his views do not represent the team. And Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander, referencing his team’s defeat by the Sox, posted this on Twitter:

Is Bill James right?

Put aside your emotions for a moment. Is Bill James right about replacing the players?

There’s plenty of evidence that he is. When the Sox star second baseman Dustin Pedroia sat out most of the 2018 season recovering from knee surgery, Sox fans continued their unabated support of the team (and some said he shouldn’t get a share of the team’s recognition for playing only three games this year). Players get traded all the time, and suddenly go from favorites to villains when they’re on the other side of the diamond. Looking at fans’ enthusiasm for a team whose roster is constantly shifting, Jerry Seinfeld cleverly observed that we’re actually cheering for laundry with the team logo on it.

But before we cashier the players, think about it.

You wouldn’t say this about the NBA. Basketball would be a completely different sport without LeBron James. He is not replaceable. And football without Tom Brady or Aaron Rogers or Rob Gronkowski would be less than it is. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s “next man up” philosophy is wise for a coach, but it doesn’t feel that way to the fans — they want to see Gronk doing what no one else can do.

Baseball doesn’t have as many dynamic personalities, but could you really say the Yankees would be the same without Aaron Judge looming ominously over the plate and patrolling the outfield?

James’ attitude comes from examining the statistics that drive baseball in excruciating detail. If you’re looking at numbers on a computer screen all day long, you might think that Mookie Betts and Mike Trout are interchangeable, or that it’s time to pull the gritty star pitcher in the fifth inning because of who’s about to come up to bat.

But baseball players are not robots. Their abilities come from hard work and mental attitude, and that attitude springs at least in part from fan loyalty.

There may be no better example of this than starting pitcher David Price’s performance in the playoffs. His historical record of playoff failure was at odds with his dominance in the regular season. But Red Sox manager Alex Cora stuck with him and his coaches helped Price make adjustments that made a difference. His performance in the World Series was dominant, and that was due at least in part to a sense of determination that came from the desire to prove himself more worthy than his playoff history would indicate.

The players’ earn their reputations over years of work in the minor leagues and more years of work in front of major league crowds. They show people who they are. If a baseball virus decimated every major leaguer starting today, we’d certainly get use to the new rookies coming up. But James is wrong — it would make a difference. We’d miss those poor suckers.

What this means for business

I spent 33 years in corporate America. I know how companies work, and how their leaders’ think.

Business is a numbers game. You get rid of the bottom-performing 10% of the sales force every year, even if they’re nice guys. When the division is underperforming, you sack half the staff and invest elsewhere. If the founder isn’t cutting it, you replace him and get a new guy who knows how to get results.

These methods seem heartless because they are heartless. Public companies have no heart. They have shareholders, and shareholders demand results.

Some of these decisions are stupid. I watched a company lay off one of the most talented people I have ever seen in favor of a mediocre performer, just because the latter guy had some knowledge they thought was more useful. Sure enough, the talented guy went on to be highly successful at another company, and the one they retained was a bust who had to be let go a few years later.

Executives often say they are sorry to have to lay people off. I have been through this enough times to know that those feelings are real. It feels terrible to fire a person you worked alongside of for years, especially after they’ve put their heart and soul into the job.

Does this mean running a business by the numbers is a mistake?

No. But you can’t run a successful business without understanding the human value of the people in it.

What Red Sox manager Alex Cora put into practice this season — Coralytics — was an approach in which coaches used the statistics to help make the players better. You couldn’t replace Andrew Benintendi — but you could make him a better fielder by telling him the best place to stand when Manny Machado was at bat and Nathan Eovaldi was pitching.

Treating workers as interchangeable parts is stupid, whether they’re baseball players or app developers. Giving them insights driven by numbers — training them to be better with analytical insights — is a lot smarter.

I never really bought into the rah-rah our-company-is-great stuff when I was a corporate worker. It felt just like cheering for laundry. But I paid close attention to the company’s numbers, and to my managers’ advice about how I was contributing to those numbers. That made me a better worker. And, multiplied by everybody working there, it made the company more profitable.

Over time, that sort of attitude makes it more likely that the business will succeed, and you won’t have to make the heartless decisions about who to let go when things turn down.

 

4 responses to “The danger of metrics: how the Bill James comments dehumanize baseball players

  1. in the 1970s, when I was in college, students launched a protest. In a moment that earned him eternal infamy, our college president (or was he then the provost?) pointedly remarked, “Remember, you can’t have a university without faculty, but you can have a university without students.”
    That said, that may be no field where Bill James’s comment–that performers are replaceable commodities–applies more resoundingly than popular music. You could take the top 50 musical performers in any genre, replace them with a fresh crop of undiscovered talent that never had a lucky break, and we’d be no worse off. Here’s the truth:
    Hundreds of symphonies can perform Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Only Beethoven could have composed it.
    Hundreds of singers can movingly sing Send In the Clowns. Only Stephen Sondheim could have written it.
    Thousands of singers could do justice to Don’t Know Much. Only Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and Tom Snow could have written it.

  2. Dumb statement by Bill James. Doesn’t “after three years” pretty much negate what he’s saying? There are many, many players of equal talent for ever player who makes it. It’s the mental game that separates one from another, not pure skills or stats. And personality, which evokes emotion, is the true way that we decide on anything, including who our favorites are.
    But equally guilty of tunnel vision is Tony Clark with his arrogant statement that “the players ARE the game.” Players always come and go, but the game remains.

  3. There is a saying that goes something like “historical forces explain the Civil War but they don’t explain Lincoln.”

    People bring unique skills to the task at hand and these abilities are often not easily measured. The sports analogy is apt. Anyone who follows sports can remember contests when the “better” team that was supposed to win the championship lost to the underdog.

    For one example in the corporate world, I suggest that GE’s infatuation with metrics has contributed to many of its present problems.

    ricval

  4. Malcolm Gladwell has a great piece on his podcast, Revisionist History, on weak link and strong link sports (whether one superstar player makes the difference or not). According to the episode, basketball is better for the superstar. Soccer (and possibly baseball?) are better off with a greater number of average players than one superstar.

    If anyone is interested, the episode (I think) is My Little Hundred Million: http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/06-my-little-hundred-million. Great podcast. He also links the idea of strong and weak link sports to philanthropic activties, in classic Gladwell style.

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