A couple weeks ago, stats godfather and consultant to
evil the Boston Red Sox Bill James made a very controversial statement, calling players “replaceable.” The original tweet has been deleted, and the comments denounced widely, yet still bear some thought.
The full quote is as follows:
“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 I do think James’ comments are not entirely wrong in a technical sense, yet he is also completely wrong. In the sense that we “cheer for laundry”, he is right. We fans will still follow our team, no matter who the players are (or at least a good number of us). But the players are not replaceable, in several senses. On both an emotional and numerical level, you cannot replace the players. The only way this view works is in a classic “moneyball” sense.
In the most callous of terms, the Twins don’t need to replace Joe Mauer next season. They need to replace 1.2 wins above replacement. In a perfect world, that is do-able. In fact, the Twins will probably improve upon that number next season. Mauer provided a relatively small statistical value to the team, making him somewhat replaceable in 2019. In 2014, however, the proposition of replacing Joe Mauer wasn’t quite as doable, and the stats back that up.
If teams had unlimited roster spots, replacing that production would be easier. You could replace a five-WAR player easily, with five one-WAR players. Too bad that isn’t reality. The fact of the matter is that each team can carry 25 players on their active roster. If every team had 25 players that were exactly replacement level, the game would be very balanced, and probably very boring. Instead, the teams are going to attempt to find the best 25 baseball players they can. Losing one can create a ripple. In 2013, Joe Mauer was a catcher worth 5.6 WAR. Justin Morneau was the Twins’ first baseman, and produced 1.7 WAR, in an injury-marred season for both him and Joe. In 2014, Morneau was no longer a Twin, and Joe was the first baseman. The Twins’ top catcher was Kurt Suzuki, who provided 2.5 WAR, while Joe Mauer provided 2.0 WAR at first. From 2013 to 2014, then, the Twins lost 2.8 wins, just across those two positions. Joe Mauer, the All-Star catcher, was absolutely not a player that could be replaced and forgotten in three years. In fact, in 2016, Suzuki was almost exactly a replacement level player, on one of the worst baseball teams in recent memory. If Joe Mauer had never suffered the career-altering concussion, I believe that he would easily have been worth at least three additional wins, and prevented that team from losing 100 games.
Joe Mauer also had an irreplaceable emotional impact on fans. Tommy, Hayden, Zach, and ColossusOfRhode have all published posts detailing their long-standing connection with Mauer, and many more of you have weighed in via comments. Joe Mauer is a childhood hero, a Minnesota icon, and certainly not replaceable off the field. And this is where Bill James gets it the most wrong.
Fandom isn’t rational for most people. I’m a rabid fan of a franchise that I’ve never lived less than an eight hour drive from. A franchise that I’ve literally seen play one live home game in my lifetime. There were four teams located closer to my childhood home, yet I picked the Twins, because my dad was a Twins fan, and he was a Twins fan because my grandma grew up in the Twin Cities. It’s funny how it works that way, and that is something for which you cannot create a statistical model. Neither Baseball Reference nor Fangraphs can tell you what Joe Mauer meant to entire generations of fans. A generation who was disillusioned by the loss of their first hero, in Kirby Puckett. A generation that grew up with Joe as their childhood hero, and a generation of hardened Twins fans who had a nice thing to cheer for again.
Joe Mauer was the first nice thing Twins fans could cling to in a decade. The player’s strike in 1994 embittered many fans, and threats of contraction in did not help. Throughout most of the ‘90s the Twins were not a good team. Tom Kelly retired at the end of 2001. Even as Ron Gardenhire brought those early ‘00s teams to surprising relevance, there was nothing more exciting for Twins fans than the hometown boy quickly working his way through the minor leagues.
Joe Mauer is also an important piece of franchise history. He sits near the top of many organization leaderboards, including being number three, all time, in WAR and oWAR. He is number six in OBP, games played, at-bats, and runs scored. Mauer is number four in hits, number two in doubles, and on the top ten list for a majority of offensive categories. The story of the Minnesota Twins will never be complete without the story of Joe Mauer.
Joe Mauer has been a lot of things during his baseball career. An all-star, a comeback player, a hero, and symbol of hope. He’s even been vilified by elements of the fanbase. The one thing he has never been is replaceable, and anyone who thinks so is just plain wrong.