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By In Stuff

The Jeter School of Acting

I’ve been after a good friend of mine to finally write a book he’s been thinking about for a long time: A book about sportsmanship. There are, of course, a lot of books about sportsmanship, many of them good ones. But my friend has a view I haven’t read much, a fascinating view. It isn’t a “tsk tsk” kind of view. His feeling is that we have so blurred the lines of sportsmanship that it’s hard to know the rules. We have become so divided on what is acceptable and justified and admirable when it comes to winning and losing that we are not entirely sure what to teach our kids. It isn’t that we have lost our moral compass or anything that severe … it’s more that the lines of fair play, like umpire strike zones, are ever shifting and uniquely individual. It changes sport to sport, level to level, year to year. There isn’t a clear line of thinking to follow anymore. I think it would be a good book.

And I think the Derek Jeter play on Wednesday would be a pretty good place to start. You know what happened — the Yankees were playing Tampa Bay, seventh inning, and the Rays were winning 2-1. There was one out, and Chad Qualls was pitching, Derek Jeter was batting, and Qualls threw the ball way inside where it hit something and bounced back into fair play. The thing that was unusual about the play was that even on television you could hear the ball hit something — it sounded like a very loud ping. “You could hear that from up here!” they said on the YES Network. That sound, you know, might indicate that the ball hit the bat. Ball hitting hand doesn’t sound like that. Instead, the umpire said it hit Jeter and awarded him first base. Jeter came around to score on Curtis Granderson’s home run, which gave the Yankees the lead.

Here was what made the play interesting — Jeter acted like the ball hit him.* He REALLY acted like the ball hit him. He held his forearm like he was in great pain, he hopped around a little bit. He held his left forearm close. Then the trainer came out and checked to make sure nothing was broken. It was quite a production. And it was all a farce. The ball didn’t hit him. The ball didn’t come close to hitting where he claimed it hit him (it came close to the elbow, but not the hand or forearm). On the YES replay (which was better than the replay they had in Tampa) it was clear that the ball hit the knob of the bat and indeed bounced into fair play.

*I’ve actually heard from a couple of people who say that Jeter wasn’t acting — he was reacting to the vibration of the bat hitting ball. Let’s just put that lunacy to rest right now. Jeter’s left hand (the one he would claim got hit) WASN’T EVEN ON THE BAT when the ball hit — he had already pulled it away. Our discussion here is built on the premise that Jeter was acting, it was all a performance, not unlike a soccer player diving. As the guy on the YES Network said, with a hint of chuckle in his voice, “Wow, Derek is some actor.”

Here’s what followed: Rays manager Joe Maddon came out to argue — he absolutely knew the ball hit the bat — and he stayed out there long enough to get tossed out of the game. The Yankees took the lead. The Rays came back and won the game. And life goes on. This sort of thing happens a lot in baseball, as we will discuss in a second.

But, what about Jeter’s acting? What do we make of that? Is it cheating? Gamesmanship? Is it simply playing within the accepted rules of baseball and society? Or, more, is it exactly what he SHOULD have done considering the structure and demands of baseball?

“My job is to get on base,” Jeter said plainly when it ended, and I think a pretty fair majority of people would agree. A fair majority would say that what he did was, as I put it in my poll, “shaky but part of the game” (at last check 61% checked that option). Even Maddon said that he would have applauded a player of for doing what Jeter did. Applause — now that seems a bit much. Part of me wonders if Maddon’s reaction (and the reaction of many) is built around that fact that it was Jeter did it … somehow if A-Rod had done the same thing or A.J. Pierzynski or Milton Bradley, I suspect that the word “applaud” would not have emerged from Joe Maddon.

Well, hey, Jeter has earned that. He has reached that point of his great career where he doesn’t follow standards, he sets them. When Hanley Ramirez loafs after a ball, Derek Jeter’s name is invoked. When A-Rod steps on the mound, Derek Jeter’s name is invoked. If Derek Jeter hops around and pretends the ball hit him when it did not, well, it’s a play even the opposing manager can admire.

But … please listen. I’m not saying what Derek Jeter did was wrong. I have an entirely different reaction. Because to me … what he did isn’t wrong, not in the baseball game I know. Isn’t a big part of baseball selling the umpire on stuff that didn’t happen? Isn’t that what a catcher does when he tries to bring back strike three? Isn’t that what an infielder does by holding up the glove even when he misses a tag at second base? Isn’t that what an outfielder does when he lifts up HIS glove after he traps a ball? Isn’t that what a batter does when he tries to act like he checked his swing? Doesn’t a base runner pretend to have touched home plate even if he knows that he missed it?

The old line about how if you ain’t cheating you ain’t trying — who said that, anyway? — is tied up in baseball’s rhythms. Golf prides itself on its rules; I don’t even need to ask Tom Watson what he thought about Derek Jeter’s play, I know he hated it. But golf is different. Baseball prides itself on its spirit. It began as a game of scofflaws, a cast of hard-core men who created the modern rule book by stretching the very limits of the game. Pitching as we know it grew out of pitchers refusing to just pitch the ball underhand to the batter as the original rules stated. The foul-bunt-on-two-strikes-is-a-strikeout rule came into effect because guys would just keep bunting the ball foul otherwise. The dirt-ball was outlawed. The spitball was outlawed. The corked bat was outlawed. The infield fly rule was introduced to keep people from dropping balls on purpose to get double plays. A rule was added that fielders were not allowed to stand in the batter’s sight-line and try to distract. The pitcher’s mound was lowered and more closely measured. Steroid testing began. Baseball is a sport in constant flux because the game itself encourages pushing the framework of sportsmanship, and the rulebook attempts to bring back some semblance of order.

Take stealing signs in baseball. There is no official rule in the rulebook against stealing signs. There was a directive from the commissioner’s office against using electronic equipment or various other kinds of unspecified technology for stealing signs, but that’s a different thing. The feeling in baseball seems to be that if you want to steal signs — and you are willing to have your best player plunked in the back in retaliation if you are caught — well, that’s your business. Baseball defines its own morality. Players and managers police their own game. And in that world, I think, stealing signs, faking tags, playing a ball you know went over the fence, pretending a ball hit you when it didn’t … these things are very much a part of baseball’s code of ethics.

In other words, if Derek Jeter had dropped the bat and started running to first base, it’s very possible that the umpire would not have said the ball hit him. It’s possible he would have been called out. And, inside the game, would that have been seen as the noble thing to do? I don’t think so. You take what you are given. You push for the advantage (because, as Jeter himself says, sometimes you DO get hit with the ball and the umpire misses it). No, Derek Jeter is not Leo Durocher, not at all, but I would argue that what Durocher said on the first page of his autobiography — a paragraph sent in by my friend Alex Belth — cuts closer to the heart of the game than anything in the rulebook.

“If a man is sliding into second base and the ball goes into center field, what’s the matter with falling on him accidentally so that he cant get up and go to third? If you get away with it, fine. If you don’t, what have you lost? I don’t call that cheating; I call that heads-up baseball. Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.”

I don’t think what Jeter did was wrong, not at all, not in baseball terms. So what was my reaction? Well, I think what Jeter did was kind of … sad. Has he become so impotent as a hitter — do you realize the guy now has an 86 OPS+? — that now he’s willing to hop around and have trainers look at his forearm when the ball clearly did not hit him? That’s what Derek Jeter has become? And then afterward, he’s sheepishly defending the move by saying it’s his job to get on base, well, is that what’s behind the Derek Jeter aura? Is that what he has stood for all these years?

I think of the immortal words of Whitey Ford, who was well known in his later days for cutting the baseball: “I didn’t begin cheating until late in my career, when I needed something to help me survive.” I think that’s exactly right. There are very, very, very few people who bend the rules, push the limits, stray from good sportsmanship when they don’t have to do it. My favorite exchange in the movie Major League is a touching little scene where the old pitcher, Harris, talks about how sometimes he will put snot on the ball. Ricky Vaughn, the hard-throwing kid just out of prison, is disgusted.

Vaughn: “You put snot on the ball?”

Harris: “I haven’t got an arm like you kid. I have to put anything on it I can find. Someday you will too.”

And that was what I thought about watching Jeter on that play. I thought someday has arrived. The morality of the play? Right? Wrong? Part of the game? That’s for you to decide. I have my own view; I hope to teach my own daughters to always play by the rules, and I would be furious if one of them did something like what Jeter did. That would lead to a DFL — one of Daddy’s Famous Lectures. But I also understand Major League Baseball is a lot different from kid soccer or tee-ball, it’s a competitive and furious game, played at a ludicrously high level with suffocating pressures and intensity, and winning is at the heart of it.

I guess in the end, what I take from it is this: I save my deep admiration for people who choose fair play over a momentary advantage. But that’s not how most people play big league baseball. That’s not how managers want people to play big league baseball. That’s not how most fans WANT people to play big league baseball. Rising above that, finding a higher sense of fair play in today’s era of sports, well, it’s a hard thing to do. It’s especially hard when you’re a great player hitting .260 for the New York Yankees.

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The Human Element

At this point, you might know all about my various mixed feelings about instant replay in football — I’ve written about it enough. The good parts of instant replay are obvious and decisive — the NFL is using the best technology to get calls right more often. And there’s simply no way around that sort of precision in today’s game. We need it. Replay overturns terrible calls and clarifies close ones. Yes, we need it.

Now, coaches and teams are not powerless against a blown call (unless they’ve wasted their challenges, which happens). Sure, fans can and do still feel cheated by referees — for questionable holding calls, dubious pass interference no calls, etc. — but we can at least take solace in knowing the league is doing the best it can to fix mistakes. During the Chiefs-Chargers game Monday night, for instance, there was a punt that the Chargers were trying to down on the 1-yard line. Two different San Diego players were pretty clearly in the end zone while touching the ball. It was obvious in live action that the ball had to come back to the 20. But the official, in what seemed a momentary haze, placed the ball on the 1. That sort of bizarrely bad call doesn’t stand in NFL games anymore, and that’s simply worth whatever price. You can’t get the basic calls — in or out of bounds, fumble or no fumble, cross the goal line or no — obviously wrong, not in America’s most popular league.

The negative side, at least for me, has always been more nebulous and imprecise. I don’t like the way instant replay changes the flow of the game. I don’t enjoy how much of pro football has become legal wrangling — get a decision and then wade through the appeal process. I don’t like the conditional aspects of cheering for a big play and then having to wait and see if it stands up. But we’ve all gotten used to it, and again I don’t think we really have much choice. When there’s more precise and better technology, you have to use it. That’s just reality. That’s why I believe baseball can hold out for a while, but sooner or later replay will become a bigger part of the game. You can’t keep getting calls wrong when there’s a way to get those same calls right.

One thing I will say, though, is I’ve never quite followed when people say: “But replay takes out the human element of the game.” Well, I followed to a point … I had a certain idea in my mind of what this means. I’ve always thought wanting the human element involved means having real people make calls. Why? Many of us don’t want our games officiated or umpired by robots. It’s visceral. Also many of us want the rules administered with some level of common sense, the stuff that goes beyond replay and machines.

For instance, there’s the check swing rule in baseball. The rule has been handled differently through the years … I can remember when the accepted rule seemed to be that a batter had to “break his wrists” for a checked swing to be a strike. Then the rule seemed to be that the bat had to cross home plate for it to be a strike, or the head of the bat had to go past the foul line. There is none of this in the rulebook, however. The rulebook merely says that the ball is called a strike if it is “struck at by the batter and is missed.” That’s it. And so now, best I can tell, the interpretation of the rule involves intent — did the batter intend to swing at the ball and miss it. If so, it’s a strike. Even though this is more nebulous — we can’t really KNOW anyone’s intentions — I actually like it better than some hard and fast rule. Some batters are strong enough to hold back clear swing attempts. Other batters kind of wave the bat but do not appear to be trying to swing. This is how I viewed human element in baseball. Let the umpire decide: Was he attempting to swing? Was he not attempting to swing? They’ll get it right sometimes, wrong sometimes, but I like the umpires making that decision. That’s what I have long considered human element.

But this weekend, it occurred to me that actually there’s a whole other human element issue that I had never quite considered before. This happened at the end of the Chicago Bears-Detroit Lions game. You will remember the play: The Lions were down 19-14 in the final minute when Calvin Johnson caught what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown pass. The way it looked live and in color was that Johnson caught the ball, got both feet down, crossed the goal line, controlled the ball in one hand, went to the ground, and when he rolled over the ball kind of popped out. Then he started celebrating. That’s how it looked on replay too. The officials ruled that the pass was not complete, that he did not go all the way through the catching process or some such thing.

The question here whether or not the play was called right — it absolutely may have been called right. Jim Schwartz, the Lions coach, seemed to think it was called right, or at least was not called wrong. He handled the call with dignity — he is not about to blame the officials for a loss, and I respect that immensely. I think that’s a winning strategy* — controlling what you can control, not blaming others for your losses, moving on from disappointment.

*This doesn’t exactly connect — and it probably isn’t worth the words I’m about to give it. But I’m going to write it anyway because it’s been bugging me. I don’t know if you saw the Chiefs-Chargers game late Monday night, but if you did you will remember this play: The Chiefs were leading 21-7 when they blew a coverage and allowed San Diego receiver Legedu Naanee to break wide open down the field. I mean WIDE open. Nobody within 20 yards. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers saw Naanee, hit him with a pass, and Naanee scored the touchdown.

Only, he didn’t just score the touchdown … he purposely slowed down, almost came to a stop, like he wanted to walk into the end zone. And then, apparently realizing that he could showboat his way into football disaster, sped up just enough to beat a charging Chiefs defender into the end zone. It was a show-off move, a laugh-in-the-face kind of move, a hold-out-the-ball-and-shout-“You stink” kind of move. The Chiefs defender gave Naanee a little shove at the end zone and neither of the announcers talked about it (probably because they were too busy talking about the greatness of Philip Rivers and Matt Cassel — wow, NFL announcers LOVE quarterbacks).

Anyway: I have a pretty high tolerance for showboat moves in the NFL. It’s like my friend Michael MacCambridge says — these guys take extreme punishment, they wreck their bodies for money and glory and our entertainment, they really are something close to modern gladiators, as cliche as that has become. And so if they want to celebrate themselves by making exaggerated first down gestures or by flexing when they make a great defensive play or by sounding their barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world when they score touchdowns, hey, I’m not saying I LOVE it. I’m not saying I don’t reserve special admiration for the Barry Sanders’ move of flipping the touchdown ball to the official. But I’m not bothered by it. Football is a game played best with emotion, with joy, with ferocity, and I can understand and even appreciate the excess.

But this Naanee Naanee Boo Boo movie seemed different to me. One, it was taunting and therefore it was low end. Two, who is Legedu Naanee? The guy had started one game and scored two NFL touchdowns in his three-year NFL career. He can be casual about scoring touchdowns? My sense is he was only playing because Vincent Jackson is holding out in the first place. Three, he didn’t do anything all that great for him to be taunting anyone in the first place. He ran straight down the field, the Chiefs forgot to cover him — probably because he’s Legedu Naanee — and he caught a pass with nobody around him. Four, the Chargers were losing by a touchdown even AFTER he scored. Five, he wasn’t celebrating the touchdown — it wasn’t emotional. It was like he was ANTI-celebrating the touchdown, like it was no big deal.

I’m not saying it’s impossible or even improbable to win playing that kind of football. I’m not saying that what he did was some sort of great sin either. As one Twitter responder said: “Why does it matter?” In the end, Naanee scored the touchdown. It counts for the same number of points as if he had actually run it out. It SHOULD count for the same number of points. But it really does seem to me that moments like that reveal something about people and coaches and teams. You can win playing that way. But I don’t think that’s how winners play.

Anyway, the Calvin Johnson call may have been technically right (and I should add for clarification that it was called that way on the field — NOT on replay). But the way I saw it, the call was certainly wrong. That is: Johnson caught the ball. It would have been a catch in 1950 and it would have been a catch in 1970 and it would have been a catch in 1990. It would have been a catch during recess, and it would have been a catch in the CFL and it would have been a catch in college football, and it would have been a catch in electric football. It would have been a catch because the eyes tell you that he caught the ball.

That, I think, is the human element.

And maybe we ARE losing that. Maybe that is a by-product of instant replay. In many ways we don’t look at plays anymore. No, we break plays down into molecules. We run the play back and forth, back and forth, magnify it 20 times its normal size, then sharpen the focus. We use high definition graphics to give us another viewpoint. We go deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper in an effort get things “right,” and maybe we do that so intently that eventually a wide receiver makes what looks to everyone like a clear catch and the officials call it incomplete because of a long, baffling and illogical series of rules that were devised because we now have the technology to enforce them.

Back to baseball for a second: We have come to see the strike zone as a box — a very specific sized box that they often show in graphic form on TV. But is what the strike zone really is? A box? I thought a called strike was supposed to be, as it was originally put by Doc Adams in 1858, “a ball legally delivered by the pitcher within the legitimate reach of the bat.” I thought that was the whole point of why we have a strike zone in the first place, so that pitchers will throw the ball where hitters can legitimately hit them. Yes, of course, there must be dimensions, there must be rules, and they should be specific. But it strikes me that by playing with the rules we sometimes lose the intent. By messing with the specifics, we sometimes lose the overall purpose. If a pitch is half-an inch outside the replay box and the umpire calls it a strike, who is really right? The replay might technically be right, but that doesn’t mean the ball wasn’t within legitimate reach of the hitter.

That’s what I think happened with Calvin Johnson (and with numerous other plays, including that non-catch in the Tampa Bay-St. Louis championship game back in 2000, the tuck call, etc). Replay puts more emphasis on the technicalities and less emphasis on the big picture. Because of this attention to even the minutest detail, replay helps us get a lot more calls right. But because of that attention to minute details, I think replay sometimes spurs us to get the calls wrong now and again too.

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Why I Like WAR (with Poker talk)

OK, here’s a long and rambling essay I’ve pounded out about why I like Wins Above Replacement, not as the end-all, be-all*, but as a pretty good place to start when trying to figure out a player’s value.

*”Be-all and the end-all” as phrase comes from Shakespeare, from MacBeth specifically, when MacBeth used to the phrase basically to mean “All there is to it.” He was referring to killing King Duncan of Scotland, and he was essentially saying that if killing him the be-all and the end-all — if he could kill the king and have that be the end of it — it would be done. But because there could be consequences in the afterlife, there are more issues involved.

We tend to use end-all, be-all differently, as a phrase to describe the ultimate, the very best we can get, all we would really need.

But before going to WAR (alert: I will try to avoid war puns from now on), let me talk a bit about this little discussion I had with Bill James.

Here was the starting point: Poker. Let’s say you’re playing three down, five-card stud poker (first three cards down, last two up). OK? You’ve been dealt four cards so far, and this is what you have:

2H 2D KS 8C*

*I’m suspect you know this but that’s the two of hearts, two of diamonds, king of spades and eight of clubs.

Your opponent, though you don’t know it, has this:

JC 8S 8D JS

So, basically, you have almost nothing, a pair of twos. This seems really good to you for reasons that are not especially clear to anyone else. Your opponent has two pair — jacks and eights. You have not read him right and you are sure he’s bluffing and so you put everything into the pot — your house, your car, your big screen TV, your prize copy of The Machine (now in paperback!), everything. You have a very serious gambling problem, my friend, and you should look into that.

Then it’s down to the last card. He gets the ace of spades. You, against ludicrous odds, get the 2 of clubs, which gives you three deuces — YOU WON! Woo hoo! The Giants win the pennant!* You run around, do a dance, act like a big jerk, and the guy across the table is crying because he put all of HIS prize possessions into the pot (including his copy of The Soul of Baseball), and he knows that he just got beaten by someone who does not know what he/she is doing.

*Top 32 sports calls is coming this week.

From here, Bill asks a simple question:

Which card is the MVC — Most Valuable Card?

It’s a fun question that you can look at many different ways. Looking at it one way, the final 2, the 2 of clubs, HAS to be the most valuable card. I mean it showed up out of nowhere and hit the walk-off homer or got the ninth inning save — it was the difference maker! It delivered the win! Zack Greinke — after all I’ve tried to impart upon him — would probably pick the 2 of clubs because, as he so eloquently told Bob Dutton, the two most important stats are probably “innings and wins.”*

*Zack … Zack … Zack … even with all the hard work Brian Bannister and I have put in, you’re still showing Joe Morgan announcing signs at age 26. It’s not good. Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, C.C. Sabathia ALL had more innings and wins than you did last year. I know you didn’t enjoy winning the Cy Young last year, and I know you’ve grown overwhelmingly frustrated with pitching for the losing Royals City, but come on.

Back to the card game. So, some people would say the last 2 is your MVP, your Cy Young winner, whatever. Trouble is, how do you differentiate that 2 of clubs from the 2 of hearts and 2 of diamonds? They’re all of the same importance. So what’s the difference? Timing? Clutch performance? RBIs? Wins? And anyway, how can a TWO be the most valuable card in the game? It’s a two.

Looking at it another way, the king should be the most valuable player card. It was the best card on the winning team, and the MVP award is often just that — best player on a winning team. Trouble is the king didn’t really play much of a role in winning the game and anyway it wasn’t the best card in the game.

So that’s another way to look at it: The ace has to be the most valuable card because it’s the highest value card. It clearly had the best season. Trouble is, the ace played for a losing team. And even on that losing team, he did not play much of a role.

Looking at it still another way, the 8 of clubs could be the most valuable player card. How do I come up with that one? Well, if the 8 of clubs had gone to the other team, he* would have been the difference maker, he would have made that the winning hand (three 8s would have been decisive). By having the 8 of clubs, you prevented the other team from getting him. Trouble is, you really have to kind of stretch your mind to even come up with that philosophy.

*Eight is a very masculine number.

What’s the right answer? That’s the beauty of this thing … there is no RIGHT answer. This is all just a goofy Batman could beat Superman talk. Hands, not cards, win poker games. The first hand won not because of one card but because of the three twos. The second hand lost because three of a kind beats two pair. It’s likely that if you ever won a game like that with that much on the line, yes, you would always view the 2 of clubs as your favorite card. You would come away thinking that’s your lucky card, you’d have a T-shirt made with the 2 of clubs on it, the 2 of clubs would become famous among your circle of friends. But it took a whole series of events, and a collection of cards to win. And remember, if that last card had been the 2 of spades or another king, you still would have won.

You can bring a little of that to baseball too … we try to calculate individual players’ value because it’s fun and because we want baseball cards to increase in value, and we want posters to hang on our walls. But it isn’t individual players who win games. Put the 1923 Babe Ruth on the 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates — even assuming that he would have the same kind of year, the Pirates will still stink. They will stink less, certainly, but teams win games and teams win championships and it’s telling that many of the greatest seasons in baseball history ended without the team even making the playoffs:

Walter Johnson’s 1913 season? Senators finished second.

Rogers Hornsby’s 1924 season? Cardinals finished sixth.

Ted Williams’ 1941? Red Sox finished second.

Stan Musial’s 1948? Cardinals finished second.

Steve Carlton’s 1972? Phillies finished last.

Dwight Gooden’s 1985? Mets finished second.

Barry Bonds 2001? Giants finished second and out of playoffs.

And these are some of the very greatest seasons in baseball history. Poker HANDS win. Baseball TEAMS win.

Still … it’s a fascinating exercise to think about how much less the Pirates would stink if they replaced Lastings Milledge with the 1923 version of Babe Ruth. Murray Chass on his non-blog blog printed a “letter,” from one of the “obviously intelligent, articulate people,” who agree with him on the absurdity of advanced stats like WAR. A few of the the letter’s obviously intelligent, articulate words:

When an MVP-level candidate is rated 6 to 8 (wins above replacement), you can’t help but shake your head. Because, of course, it means that an MVP is ONLY WORTH six to eight more wins than a “replacement’ player.” If that’s the case, then let’s stop going to Major League games, and cheer for AAA players, who must be only one or two games less worthy than their average peers in the Majors. Indeed, we’d all save a lot of money at the ballparks if we only embraced a WAR-inspired commitment to Triple A.

Sigh. It’s amazing how irrational people get when it comes to making arguments against things they don’t like. How many wins WOULD this person say that an MVP candidate is better than a replacement player? Twenty wins? Thirty? Has he done the math on this? His intelligent and articulate calculations would seem to assume that a team of Class AAA players would win zero games in the big leagues — they wouldn’t. The Pirates are essentially a team of replacement plyaers plus Andrew McCutcheon and Neil Walker and a couple of other guys — but they’re not going to lose 162. They’re going to lose 100, maybe even 110. A full team of replacement players might lose 120, like the 1962 Mets.

More, the letter’s author seems to assume that a team with, say, three MVP candidates and the rest filled with Class AAA players would win 100 to 130 games. They wouldn’t. There are a million examples of this — but let’s just throw out the 1996 Mets. he Mets had three players who had great years. Todd Hundley mashed 41 home runs. Bernard Gilkey was fabulous, hitting .317 with 30 homers, 117 RBIs, 108 runs scored. Lance Johnson was excellent, hitting .333 and scoring 117 runs. The Mets had some other pretty good players, much better than Class AAA players. And the 1996 Mets still lost 91 games.

Great players don’t win games by themselves in baseball. They don’t. I thought that was one of the beautiful points of baseball, that teams win games.

Look: One of the great things about watching and enjoying sports is that there are no rules. You can believe what you want to believe. It’s supposed to be fun. Dan Quisenberry said the best thing about baseball is that there’s no homework … I would add there are no pop quizzes. If you want to believe that baseball is won entirely by heart, that RBIs and wins are the two most important numbers, that defense can be measured best and entirely by what you see, that Jack Morris and not Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame, that numbers deaden the sport, you are absolutely entitled — more than entitled, you are empowered to see the game as you want to see it, enjoy it as you want to enjoy it. I’m not sure what you’re doing here, 2,000 or so words into this essay about WAR, but you absolutely should watch all sports for the joy of it. I just hope you’re not running a team I like.

But I like WAR. I like it because while it is complicated — complicated enough that Baseball Reference and Fangraphs come up with different, often very different, results — it is also extremely simple and entirely sensible. And it attempts to answer the poker question of value and the Babe Ruth question of how much difference a player can make.

Here’s what I mean: Let’s say you wanted to calculate a player’s value. How would you do it? For an every day player — and we’ll stick with those for now — you would try to determine the player’s offensive and defensive value to his team, right? Maybe you would look at a players RBIs, stolen bases and errors. Maybe you would look at a players batting average, home runs and fielding percentage. Maybe you would look at a players wOBA, his Bill James base running numbers and his UZR. But, really, it’s all going for same thing. I think the last one is more precise than the first two, but we’re still going for the same thing.

And that’s really all WAR is — looking at a player’s value offensively and defensively. I know the replacement thing throws people — but I think you need to have a baseline to compare the player. You could do this any number of ways. You could pick a really HIGH baseline — you could make your stat read Wins Below Willie Mays (WBWM) or Value Under Albert Pujols (VUAB). But that wouldn’t be much fun to do and would probably tell us more about Willie Mays and Albert Pujols than the players themselves. You could look for value above average — that what OPS+ and ERA+ do, and those are valuable stats. But there are so many positions and so many roles that “average” is kind of a tricky concept in baseball (which is why ERA+ doesn’t make a lot of sense for relief pitchers, and a 100 OPS+ is really good for a shortstop, quite lousy for a left fielder).

Replacement level makes sense to me. On the most simplistic level, a replacement player is just what the word suggests — a player you could easily get in an emergency to replace someone. He is the sort of player that is lingering on the end of the bench or is pretty good in Class AAA — the sort of player who gets paid the minimum or could be picked up for “cash considerations” or the dreaded “player to be named later” in a minor trade that nobody would notice. Every team has loads of replacement players, even if they would not call them that. Some are starting for teams like the Royals.

Joe McEwing — he’s a replacement player. In many ways, he’s the perfect replacement player. He played nine seasons for four different teams, posted a 71 career OPS+, played every position but catcher, tried really hard and was always available. If you were going to put a name to replacement player, I would say Joe McEwing is perfect* — and it doesn’t hurt that his career WAR is 0.0. The stat could easily be WAM — Wins Above McEwing.

*I saw someone on Baseball Reference used Willie Bloomquist as his example — same principle. Others long-timers who fit the tag: Danny Bautista, Jeff Huson, Doug Strange, Matt Mieske, James Mouton, Luis Rivera, and so on and so on and so on. It should be noted that most replacement players don’t have the longevity of the players listed above. Those players offered SOMETHING that inspired people to keep bringing them back. Replacement players, necessarily, tend to have short careers.

Once you figure out what replacement level is, WAR then compares the player’s value to that level — depending on position, depending on ballpark, etc. The offensive part can be involved, but it’s the easier part. People disagree about the specifics of offense, but in a larger sense people agree that it’s about getting on base, it’s about advancing bases, it’s about avoiding outs, you know, all that stuff. Fangraphs WAR uses wOBA and Baseball Reference uses Rbat, but they’re both built around linear weights (a single is worth this, a home run is worth that, etc). Base running is also factored in — stolen bases, caught stealing, etc. Pretty straightforward.

Defense — that one’s tougher. Here’s the problem: Defense has played a very small role in the mainstream definition of a player’s value. Yes, sure, people give it lip service. GMs will constantly tell you that they are trying to improve the team’s defense. Then they will go out and sign some 90 RBI outfielder who can’t move. Media types like myself will say that defense is important and then vote defensive liabilities for MVP. You want to see something fascinating? I looked back at the MVPs in both leagues for the last 40 years. They break down like so:

First base: 17

Left field: 15

Right field: 11

Third base: 10

Shortstop: 7

Center field: 6

Second base: 6

Catcher: 5

OK, does that order look familiar at all? If you’re a fan of Bill James, it should. That order is almost a precise replica of Bill James Defensive Spectrum, which ranks the positions from easiest to hardest:

The Defensive Spectrum:

First base

Left field

Right field

Third base

Center field

Second base

Shortstop

Catcher

Look at that: Except for a couple of extra MVPs to the glamour position of shortstop, the MVPs have gone in perfect order from easiest position to hardest. Why? Because the MVP is an offensive award. Because our idea of value in large part revolves around offensive contributions — and not just any offensive contributions but certain KINDS of offensive contribution. The last MVP to hit lower than .295 was Kevin Mitchell way back in 1989. We all know the MVP has been skewed toward RBI men. From what I can tell, the last position player to win an MVP award largely because of his defense was, I don’t know: Ryne Sandberg in 1984? Zoillo Versalles in 1965? Phil Rizutto in 1950?

All three of those players, you should know, led position players in their league in WAR.

And this is one of the big things I love about WAR — it really does attempt to look at the whole player. Defensive statistics are more advanced and more controversial than ever, and because of that Baseball Reference WAR and Fangraphs WAR can fluctuate pretty wildly (Baseball Reference uses Total Zone as their defensive stat; Fangraphs uses UZR). But the point to me is that WAR is TRYING to figure the defensive contribution. It’s TRYING to get at the whole player, and not just the obvious stuff. It’s TRYING to make an educated guess about a player’s total value. I don’t have to agree with all the conclusions. I don’t have to like the inconsistencies, don’t have to like that someone like Josh Hamilton is ranked as by far the most valuable player in all of baseball (by Fangraphs) and as the fourth most valuable player in the American League (by Baseball Reference). I don’t have to agree with all the conclusions. I can live in shades of gray, I really can. I can decide for myself what stats are worth. I can like WAR without having it determine every single thing I believe or like about baseball.

The question I asked a few hundred words back was this: How many more wins would this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates win if they had 1923 Babe Ruth in right field instead of Lastings Milledge? It’s a make-believe question without a real answer. Maybe the Pirates would pitch Ruth on days he didn’t play right. Maybe teams would intentionally walk Ruth every single time (which would actually ADD to his value). Maybe other players would be inspired by Ruth. Maybe they would play even worse because he was around. Maybe none of that would happen.

At the moment, the Pirates are on pace to win 55 games, lose 107. WAR says Ruth in 1923 had a WAR of 14.7. WAR says that Milledge, in 2010, is actually worse than replacement by 1.1 wins. So adding the numbers together, WAR makes the claim that 1923 Ruth would make the Pirates 16 wins better — taking them from 55-107 to 71-91. That seems to me about as good an answer as we can find right now.

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By In Joe Vault

Rafer Johnson and the Power of 10

First event: 100-meter dash

Rafer Johnson came into the decathlon 50 years ago — at the 1960 Olympics in Rome — as the heavy favorite and the world-record holder. He got off to a bit of a rough start. There were three false starts in his 100-meter heat, and on the third he ran about halfway before realizing that he had to come back. The extra energy he exerted may have depleted him, and Johnson ran a 10.9… slow by his high standards. He had run a 10.6 when setting the world record at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., just months earlier.

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By In Baseball, History, Joe Vault

Is That All I Did?

Bob Gibson smiles hard. It’s about to happen again. Over the years, Gibson has learned to tell when someone is about remind him how ferocious… heartless… intimidating he used to be. He has learned to brace himself for those peppy, ‘You were vicious!” compliments (they are compliments, right?) and the awed “You were a killer out there!” tributes (they are tributes, right?). He has learned to see them coming, the fans — they’re definitely fans — who remember him fondly for that glare and those up-and-in fastballs, who think of him as young and raging and invincible, with fury and pride and the purest annoyance oozing from his forehead instead of sweat.

“Mr. Gibson,” this man says. “Oh, do I remember the way you pitched. I remember all those batters you hit. They were so scared of you.”

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By In Baseball, Joe Vault

The Imperfect Game

There was something beautiful lost in the Jim Joyce fiasco, something that I hope I remember for as long as I remember the blown call. Yes, it’s hard to think about beautiful things when you have just watched one of the most absurd injustices in the history of baseball. But I’m a father of two young kids. And fathers find themselves looking for lessons. And there was something beautiful in the Jim Joyce fiasco.

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By In RIP

John Wooden

Most people can live with the vague. For instance: What is success? Well, um, you know, um, there’s that old line about art: I know it when I see it. I know it when I feel it. Success is like that, right? I can’t quite put it into words what success means, and other things like “happiness,” or “class,” or “integrity,” but I don’t need the words, right? These are things that come from wordless places deep inside, things that cannot be defined, things that we believe transcend definition. That’s OK. We KNOW what success means, even if we can’t really SAY what it means. Most of us can live comfortably in that hazy world.
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By In RIP

Paul Splittorff

You will hear people say all the time that they don’t want to live in the past. But I think that, more often than not, is a half-truth. Don’t we all want to live at least a little bit in the past? Don’t we all want to remember those moments when the sun was brightest, when the children were little, when the hole-in-one dropped, when we were the ninth caller to the radio station? Don’t we all save the scribblings and trophies and photographs that remind us? I once made a volley in tennis between the legs, a winner that scraped the line, a shot so perfect that Federer could not have done it better. I think about it often.

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By In Baseball, RIP

Harmon Killebrew

The gentleman the sportswriters somewhat desperately called “Killer” was just 23 years old in 1959 — but by then Harmon Killebrew already had played parts of six seasons in the major leagues. Six seasons. He was of that peculiar bonus baby time, when owners (as owners tend to do) went looking for convoluted and spectacularly destructive methods to control their own spending. Certainly, they might have controlled spending by not spending as much money. But that was deemed unrealistic.

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By In Golf, RIP

Seve Ballesteros

There’s a moment at the 1997 Ryder Cup that I think of now. That Ryder Cup was at the Valderrama Golf Club, in Sotogrande, along the Alboran Sea, almost in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar. The captain of the European team was Seve Ballesteros, and even with all the beautiful scenes there in and around Sotogrande, it was Seve who was the overpowering presence. He was everywhere.

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