Ray Ratto

The biggest problem with what Bill James said about baseball players

billjamesap.jpg
AP

The biggest problem with what Bill James said about baseball players

Bill James, one of the founding fathers of baseball analytics, is not an idiot, despite what he said about Major League Baseball players being replaceable. Technically, after all, he is correct, because all baseball players except those current active have in fact been replaced.
 
But of course, that isn’t what he’s saying at all, and not what he said in a Twitter discussion. Here, indeed, is what he did say:
 
“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.”
 
Now THIS is idiotic, and given that he is a consultant for the Boston Red Sox, who just won the World Series with 25 particularly gifted beer vendors, a source of great embarrassment to his employers (they pay for his consultation time, after all). It was at least embarrassing enough to him that he deleted it later, and has been doing the Twitter perp walk today to clarify, expand and, in some cases, limit his remarks.
 
In short, he replaced his remarks.
 
The Red Sox fled his first bit of typing immediately, of course, given that they have built a team they wish to maintain with people one of their contributing brains regarded, at least in one context, as “replaceable” by commingling them with anyone who can yell, “BEER!” repeatedly while walking up and down stairs.
 
And don’t get me wrong here. Beer vendors are fine and contributing members of society, and part of the entertainment that surrounds baseball. We hail them, their throats, and their arches.
 
But James dismissed them as replaceable, too, even though which is exactly the kind of logic one would expect to hear when collective bargaining negotiations begin, either with the Major League Baseball Players Association or with the concessions unions.
 
The problem, of course, is not that James said something silly/stupid, or that he retreated from it. That happens all the time.
 
It is that baseball is in a particularly fragile state culturally, and the idea that players are interchangeable is diametrically opposed to where the market of professional sports consumption is heading. 
 
In other words, baseball is not in a place to want to get smarmy about its product, even if the smarmer in question is “only a consultant” rather than an employee, a distinction the Red Sox took great care to make in its statement of repudiation of James’ analysis of players’ market value.
 
But even more than that, James’ gift to baseball is analytical, and measuring players and their deeds and making projections from those measurements is what made him worth hearing in a baseball context. All that work flies in the face of a statement that can and has been construed to lump them all into a congealed heap of disposableness.
 
Willie McCovey was by no means replaceable in any context, which is why the Giants held a memorial service for him before thousands at the ballpark Thursday. Mookie Betts is by no means replaceable because the city of Boston feted him and his teammates in a gigantic parade through its streets.
 
And baseball is popular entertainment, and entertainment is built on the basic notion that some people are exceptional at a thing other people wish to enjoy and perhaps even pay for the ability to see or hear. Those exceptional people may be replaceable in the biological sense, but not in any rational cultural sense.
 
Thus, James’ walk-back recognizes both the wasp hive he disturbed and the flaws in his expression. But the original words will linger far longer than his mea culpae, and will be referenced when the fun and games of collective bargaining negotiations begin. In short, he said something which ignored nuance and created an unintended and emotional backlash.
 
In short, not very analytical at all. 

Why 49ers halting skid vs. Seahawks more important than NFL draft pick

Why 49ers halting skid vs. Seahawks more important than NFL draft pick

SANTA CLARA -- There is no compelling reason why the end of the Seattle Seahawks’ run of putting their feet to the San Francisco 49ers’ necks should matter so much to a staff or a roster that hasn’t been around for most of it, but sometimes something matters just because it does.
 
Even Richard Sherman, who knew all about the streak from being one of the feet rather than one of the necks, saw it.
 
“Kyle (Shanahan) made us perfectly aware of the streak,” the veteran cornerback said in the aftermath of the 49ers’ 26-23 overtime win over the Birds. “Very aware.”
 
And maybe it helped that only two weeks ago Seattle beat the 49ers as soundly as it ever has (43-16, and it wasn’t that close), because “(defensive coordinator) Robert Saleh made sure everybody remembered that game.”
 
Either way, the 49ers willingly traded three spots in the weekly NFL draft order to break one of their most embedded historical touchstones with one of their most driven performances. Not because beating Seattle meant that much to Shanahan, Saleh, Jed York, the football department as a whole or the half-a-stadium’s worth of fans, but because it mattered to the veterans who've had to endure those beatings, from Joe Staley (who is 8-17 against the ‘Hawks since 2007) to the present day. Or in Sherman’s case, because it mattered that the Seahawks decided he was finished before he was.
 
That meant more than the draft pick, as blasphemous as that might sound. It will matter less with time to Shanahan and 49ers general manager John Lynch, but for right now, it was everything, or as close to everything as a 4-10 team can manage.
 
There were plenty of turning points in their favor, going all the way back to Sebastian Janikowski’s missed extra point on Seattle’s first touchdown (a point the Seahawks never got back), or the short kickoff that helped spring Richie James to his kickoff-return TD that put the 49ers ahead 12 seconds later. There were Robbie Gould’s four field goals in this, the era of bad feeling for placekickers. There were DeForest Buckner’s two sacks of the hyper-elusive Russell Wilson. There was even Sherman at his persuasive best in talking his way out of a pass-interference call, a remarkable bit of lawyerly chat he isn’t always credited with possessing.
 
But whichever moment you choose, the effect on a team that has known so little pleasure since 2013 was evident by the wall of noise coming from the locker room even five minutes after game’s end. It was one more small victory to measure against a series of big defeats.

[RELATED: Richie James Jr. shows what he could give 49ers in the future]
 
San Francisco still is that odd team that seems to wait too long to be as good as it can be; this was the 49ers' seventh win in eight December games in the Shanalynch era, meaning they are 3-19 in the other 22 games. It speaks to their belief in the grand plan, but it also speaks to the difficulties involved in playing to the specifications of the grand plan. 
 
But therein lies the strange anomaly of their playing to kill a dragon from the past so they can all see a brighter future, yet that brighter future is at least minimally diminished by their drop in the draft order behind Arizona, Oakland Or Wherever, and the New York Jets.
 
Truth be told, though, that order means little without the expertise to nail the choice you get. If beating Seattle had dropped the 49ers from No. 1 to No. 11 (though lord only knows how that could be), then you could make a case for the win being a bad idea. Or if there was one difference-maker in the upcoming draft and everyone knew in advance who it would be, then you could make a case for the win being a dreadful idea.
 
But in most cases, a smart pick at No. 4 will be of as much use as a smart pick at No. 1, because the only thing a team needs to draft is a player that helps it. Worrying about picks 1 through 3 is pointless unless you decide you need to be one of them.
 
The 49ers collectively decided that winning Sunday mattered more, for spiritual rather than metric reasons. They needed to think there is an end to this extended run of failure, that having no quarterback at the start of last season is starting to feel like having two at the end of this one (hello, Nick Mullens’ marketability!), that the future they thought they had this year actually could end up being more endurable at this time next season.

And for the 87,811 semi-true believers who will swear they were among the 30,000-some-odd fans who actually saw the game in person, it will matter nearly as much, because history plays to fans more than it does to the actual history makers.

So the 49ers finally obtained the one pelt that always had eluded them, and with it a sense that the ghosts of the past that aren’t receding are capable of being toppled. It might not matter mathematically, metrically or even draftically, but emotionally, it’s a feeling that’s hard to top.

Breaking down 12 sports storylines you should know entering the weekend

stephratto.jpg
USATSI

Breaking down 12 sports storylines you should know entering the weekend

When things get busy, things get overlooked, underemphasized or simply missed. Like:

The narrative that Mark Davis instigated the Amari Cooper trade is a nice attempt to take some heat off the man who actually runs the Oakland Raiders, but it isn't remotely credible -- unless, of course, Jerry Jones decided to call in a favor that Davis was in no position to decline. And yet, nobody thought this was a brilliant trade for the Dallas Cowboys at the time, so let’s just say what we suspect, that the deal was conceived and supervised by, yes, you guessed it, J. David Gruden. ...

Speaking of teams the Raiders helped make great, the Chicago Bears just saw their coach, Matt Nagy, named NFL Coach of the Year by The Associated Press, because of course what do the last three games of the season matter? ...

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser tells us about one anonymous general manager who believes former A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell is having trouble finding a job with a major league team because he took a knee for the national anthem, not because he is a replacement-level platoon catcher who has an aggravated assault with a deadly weapons charge hanging over his head. I’d say this was a dangerous area to tackle, except that I get this nagging feeling that said general manager was making this his cause rather than baseball’s. ...

Nothing could be better than the concept of the Los Angeles Chargers winning the Super Bowl and then having a victory parade attended almost exclusively by angry San Diego residents. ...

And on the subject of the Chargers and their Thursday night victory in Kansas City, has there ever been a game in which more points were generated by more players with the same surname? (Williams, 36 of 59 total points). ...

If Stephen Curry got a free guided trip to NASA headquarters for jokingly questioning the moon landing, why hasn’t he gone out and said he doesn’t believe that Europe exists? Or, at the very least, Monte Carlo? ...

Small sample sizes are the best: In the first four years of the Warriors’ championship era, they lost 21 home games by an average of 10.2 points. This year, they have lost three by an average of 23.7. Somewhere there is a doomsday analysis being constructed that incorporates this. ...

Entertainment is where you find it, and when the Warriors are getting hammered at home, there is no highlight better than a courtside-Joe Lacob-with-a-case-of-the-red-mist highlight. ...

Baseball’s winter meetings are an excellent way to get media members to gather in one place and wonder why nothing is happening. ...

The belated discovery of George Kittle by the NFL intelligentsia shows us two things: The 49ers are justifiably ignored after 16 wins in almost four full seasons, and if in the modern pinball football your team’s best offensive weapon is your tight end, you will continue to be ignored. ...

ESPN’s rating of the 115 pro sports stadiums for food safety put the Coliseum venues ahead of all the other Bay Area sportatoria. In other words, if you really and truly crave an $18 beer, go to Oakland first, and have them hold the rodent. ...

And finally, my conspiratorial mind is telling me that the uncertainty surrounding where the Raiders will play in 2019 secretly might be a way to gin up what has been mostly nonexistent outrage over their actual departure in 2020. My conspiratorial mind probably is lying to me, but I wish it were so.