Integral to those numbers is something called WAR, which stands for wins above replacement. What replacement? A replacement player, of course, but he’s mythical.
Statistics zealots apparently love to deal with mythical or hypothetical players. The problem for those of us who prefer dealing with reality and actual human beings is we can’t buy into the idea of using mathematical formulas instead of real players.—Murray Chass, September 5, 2010.
I have considered WAR and VORP (“value over replacement player;” yes there’s that replacement guy again), and I have a basic problem with them. The replacement player isn’t real; he’s a myth, and I’ve never seen a myth play baseball. It’s like fantasy baseball. That stuff isn’t real either. —Chass, March 6, 2011
Before we begin, a disclaimer of sorts, or at least a plea for indulgence. I know we hit ol’ Murray quite recently, and at that time some of the comments suggested that we stop shooting at this fish and leave him in his Hall of Fame barrel. I’m sympathetic to that point of view to the extent that I suspect we in the sabermetric community are the only people paying the slightest attention, and unsympathetic because (a) the existence of retrograde thought offends me, (b) battling ignorance is part of my job description, and (c) attacking it is so darned fun.
I would still have left Murray alone except that while in Boston I found myself violently thrown out of a dream and quite nearly onto the floor, and the thought that echoed in my sweat-drenched skull was, “If you can teach the story of the three bears to children, you can teach replacement level to Murray Chass,” except the story that I dreamt was not that of the bear trio, but that of Babe Ruth’s Dead Fat Cat. Yes, my subconscious is due for an overhaul if I’m dreaming of Murray Chass, but I believe it spoke truly. Thus, the exhumation of Murray’s DOA ideas one last time.
It is important to draw a distinction between the stupid and the willfully obtuse. No one has ever seen a bear family set up a bed and breakfast and start cooking oatmeal. Nor, for that matter, has anyone stuffed a cat into a steel box along with a decaying radioactive substance and a flask of hydrocyanic acid, as Erwin Schrödinger proposed in his famous critique of quantum mechanics. Even he called this illustration “quite ridiculous.” In addition, most recent scholarship debunks the notion that Aesop came upon a fox and a crow arguing over a piece of cheese in the middle of the woods. These are clearly stories meant to illustrate some point, extended metaphors. Those of less than average intelligence may take such stories as intended to be literal representations of what they portray, and insist they are being lied to in some way—“He-ey! Bears don’t do that!”—but as that level of thickness is, even for the benighted human race, extremely rare, we are forced to assume that Chassian protestations in the same vein are therefore perversely inspired, a tool for argument. We will not guess at his motivations, but will proceed to the argument, such as it is.
Chass is correct that the replacement-level player is a hypothetical, but it is hypothetical in the same way as those bears or Schrödinger’s cat, imaginary figures that can teach us something valuable and real. The idea of the replacement level is slightly more complex than the three bears, but its purpose is not. Put aside cavils about exactly where the replacement level should be set, because it’s irrelevant to the utility of the concept itself, which is great as long as you’re not bent on insisting that something figurative be taken literally.
There is an old saying, “In the dark, all cats are gray.” Measuring ballplayers without sufficient context is like judging the color of cats in the dark. The idea of the replacement level is simply that in order to understand the real value of something, you need something else with which to compare it. Here we come to Babe Ruth’s Dead Fat Cat:
One fine Monday in 1923, Babe Ruth came into the clubhouse carrying a large canvas sack. “What you got there, Babe?” asked Wally Pipp as he bumped into the hat rack.
“Is it a piñata?” asked Bob Meusel.
“Whatever it is, it had better not get in my way,” growled Carl Mays.
All the players gathered around Ruth’s locker. “C’mon, Babe,” they said, speaking with almost one voice. “Tell us what it is!”
Ruth threw back his big head and laughed. “Take a look at this, fellows!” He shook out the bag. THUD! Something heavy, furry, and stiff landed on Wally Pipp’s foot.
“Owww!” shouted Wally.
“Is that what I think it is?” Wally Schang asked. He pulled on his face mask and frowned through the grill.
“It sure stinks,” cried Jumping Joe Dugan.
“It’s a dead cat!” said Ruth. “I was walking down the street and some guy just gave it to me!” They all looked down at the remains on the floor. The cat had a beautiful white coat, a pink nose, and it was clearly deader than Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. Most shocking of all, though, was just how thick and round it was.
“It sure is fat!” Meusel said. “Let’s weigh it!”
They all rushed into the trainer’s room and placed the former feline on the scale. Home Run Baker fiddled with the weights until they came into balance. “Twenty-three pounds!” he announced.
“That is the fattest dead cat I have ever seen,” said Dugan, “and I have seen some dead cats in my time.”
“It’s a new record!” said Pipp. He shouted “Hooray!” and vanished over a cliff.
“Mark another one down for the Babe!” Ruth crowed. “Not only am I the greatest hitter of all time, but I am the owner of the world’s fattest dead cat!”
The players all applauded. Just then, Miller Huggins stormed into the clubhouse and, seeing what was going on, suspended Ruth for seven games. “And you’ve got the longest suspension ever, too,” he said, smirking.
The next day, Ruth entered the clubhouse with another sack, this one bulging as if it could barely contain its burden. “What’s that, Babe,” Dugan asked. “Another dead cat?”
“Yup,” Ruth said glumly. “Fellow just gave it to me.”
“Must be a Giants fan,” said Meusel.
“He had better stay away from me,” Mays spit.
“Why’d you take it, Babe?” Pipp asked as he was run over by a herd of buffalo.
“It seemed impolite not to,” Ruth shrugged.
“What’s the point?” Baker asked. “No way it’s bigger than yesterday’s. That was the biggest dead cat ever.” He watched as Ruth dumped the contents of the bag out on the floor. THUD! THUD! Once again, the cat had a beautiful white coat, a pink nose, and was stiffer than U.S. Grant. Yet, there was one crucial difference between Tuesday’s dead cat and Monday’s: the first dead cat had only two double chins. The second had three. The players all took a step back and marveled at its girth.
“I don’t know, Frank,” Schang said to Baker, warding off the dead thing with his chest protector. “You may have to eat those words.”
“I guess we had better weigh it,” Ruth sighed. As one, they trooped into the trainer’s room and commandeered the scale. Once again, Baker tapped the weights into place. “You won’t believe this,” he said in a disbelieving whisper. “This dead cat is 28 pounds.”
“Gee, we were wrong yesterday when we said that dead fat cat was the fattest dead cat ever.”
“It’s a new record,” Pipp shouted, accidentally severing his artery with a scimitar. Dugan offered him a band-aid.
“Hooray,” Ruth said limply. Just then, Miller Huggins stormed into the clubhouse and suspended Ruth another seven games. “I don’t approve of the way you treat dead animals,” he hissed.
On Wednesday, all the players all arrived at the clubhouse early, wondering if Ruth would bring another dead cat. “Yep, I got one, kids,” Ruth said as he bustled into the clubhouse. He carried a small paper bag. His face was smudged and there was a brown grease stain on his camelhair coat.
“Where?” asked Meusel.
“Right here in this bag,” Ruth said, inverting it. BIMP. A cat tumbled out and wafted gently to the floor. It had a white coat, a pink nose, and was no more well off than Edgar Allen Poe. Yet, it seemed strangely bereft of cellulite. “What do you think, boys?” Ruth said nervously. “Is it another record?”
“It’s not terribly fat, is it?” asked Pipp, burning his hand with a steam iron.
“In truth, it seems a bit malnourished,” Baker said.
“All cats is rotten,” Mays spat.
The players slowly drifted away. “Don’t you wanna weigh it?” Ruth pleaded.
“There hardly seems a point,” said Witt, nearly weeping. “Are you sure the guy wanted to give you this one?”
“Yeah, he—aw, it’s no use. I can’t lie to you fellahs. The man with the dead cats didn’t show up today. I didn’t want to disappoint you guys, so I spent all morning crawling around back alleys trying to find one.”
“Aw,” the assembled Yankees said as one.
“We’re touched, Babe,” Meusel said. “The only problem is, this one is below the limit. By the looks of it, it’s no more than eight pounds. You shoulda thrown it back.”
“No, it was a good thing he brought it in, Bob,” Baker interrupted. “If we weren’t sure what a dead fat cat looked like before, we sure know now that we have this one to compare it with.”
“We ought to keep it around, just in case,” Dugan squeaked. “Someone make room in the ice box.”
“Say, that looks like my cat,” Mays said.
On Thursday, Ruth entered staggering under the weight of the most massive sack that any of the players had ever seen. He had to be pushed through the door by two clubhouse boys, both of whom were easily dwarfed by the mammoth bag.
“Holy Moly,” said reserve catcher Al DeVormer, who no one had ever heard speak before.
“Mercy,” moaned Ruth from under the bag.
The players pulled the Babe free. Mays then came forward and chewed away the straps that held the bag closed. THUD! THUD! THUD! The cat had a white coat, a pink nose, and was clearly as extinct as King Kelly. Yet, this cat was less cat than a mountain of fat and fur the size and rough dimensions of a steamer trunk. Together, the players rolled it to the trainer’s room and pushed it onto the scale. At first, it seemed as if Baker would not be able to get the scale to balance, but finally he stepped back and admired his work.
“What is it, Frank?” the players shouted. “Tell us! Tell us!”
“The Babe’s dead fat cat weighs four-hundred and seventy-nine pounds.” A hush fell over the room.
“Where does he get these?” Dugan asked.
“John McGraw, probably,” Meusel grumbled.
“We’re running out of places to put these dead cats,” Schang whined.
“Stuff ‘em in Mays’ locker,” said Baker.
“Anyone seen Wally?” Whitey Witt asked, but no one paid any attention.
“So, Monday’s dead fat cat wasn’t the fattest ever, even though we thought it was,” Ruth said, scratching his head. And Tuesday’s dead fat cat wasn’t the fattest ever even though we thought it was.”
“We were wrong because we hadn’t yet seen the biggest cat,” said Dugan. “This one just has to be it!”
The players gathered around Ruth. “The Babe has the biggest dead fat cat of all time!”
Just then, Miller Huggins stormed into the clubhouse and suspended all of the Yankees on general principles. That afternoon, the team forfeited its game to the Browns, and all the players went home early. It was only later, when Carl Mays went to skin the 479-pound beast, that the Yankees discovered the half-digested body of Wally Pipp inside. And the next day, Ruth brought in another dead fat cat. This time, he needed a truck.
Ruth’s dead fat cat is mythical, but he serves a useful purpose because he demonstrates that measures of greatness are relative. If you’ve only seen one dead fat cat, you proclaim it the fattest ever at your own risk, because you haven’t assessed the entire population of dead fat cats, as the Yankees found to their sorrow. It would have helped them to have some kind of baseline against which to measure each new find.
The same is true of baseball players. Considering a player in a vacuum is no different than asking, “How far is Hong Kong?” without supplying any other point of reference. Do you mean, “How far is Hong Kong from Beijing?” “From Hoboken?” “From Mars?” Or more accurately, it’s like asking how far Hong Kong is from “here” when you don’t know where you are. When it comes to baseball, we frequently, incorrectly, assume that we don’t require a point of reference because our basic knowledge of the game has taught us to distinguish good from bad. Given a line like .295/.360/.500, we may feel that our almost a priori knowledge of the game is sufficient to tell us that this is a very good season, but that is not necessarily true, because the ground keeps shifting beneath us. The definition of “good” changes with each season, and it is only by knowing how far we are from some fixed point of reference that we can judge quality.
Consider again that .295/.360/.500 line. Coming from an American League shortstop of 2010, it would have been of MVP quality. From a first baseman of 1998, it would have been merely average. From a first baseman of 1930, it would have been downright poor. Because the bar keeps moving, we need something to which we can tether ourselves. For a long time, before sabermetrics, that something variously took the form of a .300 average, 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, or 20 wins—baseball writers of the past century had mistaken figures with changing meanings (or in the case of RBI the wrong meaning, and with individual pitcher wins, little meaning at all) for having a value as fixed as that of an inch or a pound. A pound of lead and a pound of feathers may have weigh the same, but a pound of .300 has a different value depending on when and where it was hit.
Once one is aware of the necessity of having a point of reference, its exact nature depends on how much you want to know. You could judge players against the league average, but that wouldn’t solve the problem of differing parks and positions. Further, judging players against the average can render too harsh a judgment of their skills: the population of ballplayers is large enough, and being average so difficult, that players can be below average and still have value. Setting a lower bar, a replacement-level bar (that is, Babe Ruth’s skinniest dead fat cat) is a measure that better conveys the ability of some players simply to show up regularly and play decently—at least it’s a cat, at least it’s dead; Nick Johnson is incapable of rising to that level. If his substitute is a below-average hitter, at least he’s better than zero, which is all that Johnson left in his wake when he hit the DL.
Alas, we are now far afield from the three bears and Ruth’s fictional felines. No doubt the Chass is somewhere grumbling “Ruth didn’t have any bloody cats.” If that’s the case, then we’ve run up against a wall of literalism so thick that naught will penetrate it. Yet, if even children can understand that Goldilocks had to experience too hot and too cold before she could grasp just right, then there is hope that even some of our most recalcitrant commentators might come to understand that a player’s value is only visible when observed in context. The replacement-level player is merely a yardstick, a more sensitive method of measurement than one that merely says that any number higher than 19 must be good, or any average higher than .299.
Those that cling to the notion that baseball—or anything—can be assessed using such blunt measures have ceased to think; they might as well be dead fat cats themselves.