No, Bill James doesn’t really think a beer vendor can bat cleanup

Bill James, the onetime security guard who literally changed the game of baseball by developing new statistics to measure performance, is in big trouble with players for suggesting the boys aren’t as important as they think they are.

James is now a “special assistant” to the Red Sox (who’ve won some World Series since he came aboard), but his employer is among those firing back.

“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,” James tweeted this week.

Well, now. There’s some value, possibly measurable by statistics to that, as anyone who’s been to a baseball game will attest. For many, the point is to go to the park on a nice day … and drink. Then drink some more. Oh, and there are people playing baseball.

But that’s not really what James was saying. Players come and players go and James is in the business of telling his employers not to waste their money because there’s another future star always coming along who can be had for less money. Simple. Unless you’re an aging player about to cash in on free agency.

James has since deleted his online comments.

“The comments Bill James made yesterday are both reckless and insulting considering our game’s history regarding the use of replacement players,” Tony Clark, the head of the players union, said. “The players are the game. And our fans have an opportunity to enjoy the most talented baseball players in the world every season.

“Bill James is a consultant to the Red Sox,” the world champions said in a statement. “He is not an employee, nor does he speak for the club. His comments on Twitter were inappropriate and do not reflect the opinions of the Red Sox front office or its ownership group.

“Our championships would not have been possible without our incredibly talented players — they are the backbone of our franchise and our industry. To insinuate otherwise is absurd,” the statement concluded

These are touchy times for the players, teams, and the union. Free agency is about to begin and last off-season showed that the market for 30-something baseball stars commanding big bucks in free agency is likely over.

To understand James’ comments, one has to understand Bill James work over the years, which has often proven that the value of players — individual players — is often overstated. His statistics show that a younger, cheaper player can provide the same run production, for example, as a big-money “star”.

That’s not something the players’ union wants to hear, nor something the teams that have to negotiate with the most powerful union in sports can afford to acknowledge, at least in public.

“I don’t know that the idea that the game endures and we’re all just passing through it is inherently an offensive idea. But if I phrased it in an offensive way, that was not my intention,” James tells the New York Times.

But players can be replaced. Not by beer vendors, of course, but by other players.

To the extent that owners have realized that they should stop overpaying for baseball players, it’s largely because of the analytics created by James.

Former Minnesota Twins star Torii Hunter, who wasn’t close to being worth the $10.5 million Minnesota paid him his last season at age 39, was among those outraged by the idea.

“I got in trouble by trying to tell people you don’t have to choose the players’ perspective. That is what I was trying to say: You can choose the perspective of broader society,” he told the Times. “It makes equal sense to do so. But the sabermetric perspective of it — the view from the marketplace — has become so dominant that it squashes its opposition.”

“The game has taken good care of me for 40 years, and I very much appreciate that,” James said. “I don’t think it’s true that players in general dislike analytics or distrust them. It is true that there are a lot of players who have images associated with analytics which are not friendly images — that’s true of a certain number of players; it’s true of a certain number of sportswriters; it’s true of a certain number of air-conditioning repairmen; it’s just a general condition of the world.”

That’s something even a beer vendor should be able to grasp.