Even among those who ostensibly support the Major League Baseball Players Association in the current owner-instituted Major League Baseball lockout, it can be difficult to facilitate real, honest-to-God empathy. I get it–while the union is not incorrect in stating that the majority of its membership are not extraordinarily wealthy multi-millionaires, the league’s current minimum salary is $570,500, so not exactly going broke. The union isn’t exactly going to be organizing bake sales to help keep food on the table for its members. Even if one intellectually believes that the billions in revenue produced by MLB clubs every year is better served going to its players than its generationally wealthy owners, the urge to check out and only care about one’s preferred entertainment product’s continued existence is understandable.

This is the understandable lack of solidarity between the sport’s fan base, which overwhelmingly makes less than even the lowest paid of its players at the Major League level, and a union whose members aren’t exactly known for vocal support of steelworkers or grocery store clerks or whatever. The less understandable comes from those like Bill James, whose response to the lockout came via Twitter, noting in a since-deleted tweet that “People who think that baseball players need more money probably think that Buffalo needs more snow and Florida needs more Burger Kings.” Working under the assumption that James dislikes snow and that Florida I guess has a lot of Burger Kings (?), the statement is that the players already make enough money.

The primary flaw in this argument, which James began to plea down towards upon being scorched in the court of public opinion, is that the alternative use to giving a bunch of wealthy guys more money is giving wealthier guys more money–perhaps worrying about the plight of one of the wealthiest professions in the country is a waste of emotional bandwidth, but it’s not as though the 36% minimum salary increase being proposed by the players would alternatively be used to give more money to the Burger King employees that the Godfather of Sabermetrics for some reason is trying to drive out of business.

Bill James is primarily known as a thought leader, but he is also a seventeen-year veteran of the Boston Red Sox front office. James perceives himself as a good, conscientious liberal, but any comment he makes about player salaries must be viewed through that lens–that he worked for the Red Sox (where he wasn’t exactly pocketing the team’s profits, either) surely influences the way he sees the world. And as somebody who, until he converted just about everybody involved in the operations departments of MLB teams, was seen reasonably as an outsider, that sense is likely still pervasive in his worldview.

While there have been flaws in Bill James’s analysis of baseball, he has been largely correct on matters of player evaluation, and overwhelmingly ahead of the curve. He saw a baseball landscape that undervalued batters who drew walks and urged his readers, and later his employers, to view the world differently.

But how to value baseball players by their on-field productivity is a completely independent topic to how to value employees. By Wins Above Replacement, a statistic James did not invent but which owes its entire existence to his work, Mike Trout has been the most valuable player in baseball for a decade, but his value is, essentially, made up. There is nothing inherently productive about being able to hit a home run or being able to steal a base. Bill James believes that it is more productive for a team to field a team centered around several reasonably priced players rather than going all-out for guys like Mike Trout, whose veteran status allows them to earn whatever one of thirty teams says they are worth, because the Mike Trouts will sap up your budget far quicker. But these budgets are set by somebody, and that somebody is an MLB owner whose investment continues to appreciate at virtually no risk to them.

I wouldn’t say that this is a “flaw” with sabermetrics, per se–it is simply a case of its greatest innovator not realizing its limits. Sabermetrics can solve, or at least come close to solving, for a game–constructing an optimal baseball team around the parameters an owner has set for you. It is not an unethical pursuit, but rather independent from ethics altogether. Though an honest evaluation of what players provide under the accepted, if independent from actual productivity, standards of worth could provide a bit of a framework–maybe individual players at the very top of the MLB food chain aren’t as valuable as their salaries indicate, but those at the bottom of the food chain–guys playing for a fraction of the league’s top salaries at their peak athleticism–should certainly make more. A world in which Mike Trout or Mookie Betts or Giancarlo Stanton make a little bit less money in exchange for a league-minimum salary bump (never mind the real golden ticket–an increase in minor league pay) is one I would be happy to accept.

Players may not “need” more money, but they are right to demand their share of the pie. Most employees don’t get that leverage. In an optimal world, they would, but begrudging the players for wanting the best for themselves completely misses the larger issues at hand.

One thought on “Bill James and the realm where sabermetrics falls short

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