Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Knowledge Is The Key To Enlightenment (Or, Don’t Make Accusations Before You Are Armed With Facts)

There is racism in America. It exists in implicit and explicit forms and it is pervasive across all regions of the country as well as the broad socioeconomic spectrum. There has also been a great deal of progress in combating racism through both legal measures and attitudinal changes. Progress is being made, even if the goal of a color blind society has not yet been achieved.

But I so tire of hearing athletes talk of racism and then offer flimsy examples to support their claims. Most recently, this rubbish came from the mouth of Minnesota Twins second baseman Orlando Hudson. To support the theory that African-American baseball players are the victims of racism in Major League Baseball, Hudson cited the continued unemployment of Jermaine Dye and Gary Sheffield, now a full week into the 2010 season.

While it would be impossible to argue that baseball doesn’t have a racist past –– after all, April 15th commemorates the 63rd anniversary of the day when Jackie Robinson ended baseball’s 71-year segregated history –– it is simply no longer the case. Baseball is now a meritocracy where teams are most interested in paying enormous sums of money to the most qualified individuals in order to turn a sport into a profit-making endeavor. Why would financially-motivated owners deprive themselves of earning every last penny by hiring substandard talent that wouldn’t help teams win or draw paying customers to watch?

Gary Sheffield may be a unique case. Baseball has certainly blackballed its own outspoken members before and Sheffield is certainly outspoken (to put it mildly). But even in ostracism, baseball has been an equal-opportunity offender, as pitcher-turned-author Jim Bouton can attest.

Perhaps, then, Hudson should be asked to look at the players he uses as his case study. In case he hadn’t noticed, MLB general managers have become far more judicious in their allocation of resources and baseball has seen a trend of teams going younger, cheaper and more athletic whenever possible. In other words, the days of simply signing veteran hitters to multi-million dollar contracts are over. Furthermore, as defensive metrics become more and more commonly-accepted around baseball, teams are valuing a player’s defensive capabilities in the overall equation. There will always be 14 openings in the American League for designated hitters but, even there, teams are opting to either go with a primary DH for his slugging capabilities or using that spot in the lineup to cycle players in order to give everyone a day off from fielding duty.

So, then, let’s examine the most recent statistical data on Sheffield and Dye. Using traditional metrics (AVG/OBP/SLG), sabermetrics (OPS+/wOBA/WAR) and defensive metrics (UZR/150), I will attempt to illustrate why Hudson’s point is entirely without merit.

Gary Sheffield (2007-2009):

Traditional: .253/.358/.437
Saber: 108/.351/1.1
Defense: inconclusive*

Jermaine Dye (2007-2009):

Traditional: .267/.334/.496
Saber: 112/.354/0.33
Defense: -22.46

Since the decision to offer contracts to players ultimately come down to finances, one must look at how a player’s output directly correlates to wins. Thus, according to WAR, Sheffield was worth only one win above a replacement player over the previous three seasons, and was worth only half a win over a replacement player over 2008-2009. In other words, for the money it would cost to pay Sheffield (let’s assume he would accept no less than twice the MLB minimum salary of $400,000, or $800,000) a team would do just as well signing a player for the minimum salary and receiving exactly the minimum level of output.

For Dye, the situation is even direr. Over a three-year period, Dye was worth only one-third of a win and, in fact, was worth less than a win in 2007 and 2009. Despite his offensive output –– slightly better than league average, according to wOBA and OPS+ –– his defensive decline was so steep that it actually cut into his offensive value. As such, the Chicago White Sox would have actually been better off playing a replacement player over Dye given how Dye cut into the team’s win chances in those two seasons. It was reported that the Nationals, Cubs and Brewers were interested in signing Dye this offseason but that he balked at signing contracts worth less than $3M. Given this data, Dye should be lucky to even be offered the minimum salary, given how he brings absolutely nothing to the table.

Racism exists in all walks of life and it might even exist in baseball’s front offices. But on the playing field, I just don’t see it. It would behoove Orlando Hudson and other players who share his opinion to educate themselves on baseball statistics because these tools play a determining factor in how much they are entitled to earn.

*The three-year defensive data for Sheffield is inconclusive because Sheffield was a DH for 2007 and 2008 and thus did not log enough innings in the field for data to be reliable. For 2009, Sheffield played 502 defensive innings and registered -31.0, third-worst in baseball among all players that played at least 500 defensive innings in the outfield. Incidentally, Dye was eighth-worst among all outfielders that played at least 500 defensive innings in 2009 and fourth-worst among all outfielders that played at least 1100 defensive innings in 2007 and 2008.


Mighty Mike said...

While I'm not sure I agree with the true marketplace in baseball or any sport(if so then blackballing for any reason wouldn't occur) I think your evidence if fairly overwhelming about the these two particular cases as well as the true underlying cause for their lack of employment....

Hitman said...

You saved me the need to write a "Shut Your Piehole!" column. Hudson's assertion is obviously asinine on its face. The statistical analysis only cements the conclusion.

Now, if HUDSON can't find a contract as a result of these inane statements, maybe he'll finally be on to something. :)

MJ said...

@Mighty - Fair point about blackballing re: baseball as a fair marketplace. In that sense, Sheffield's outspokenness, not racism, may be playing a role here (at least potentially). Dye, however, is merely the victim of being a horrible defensive player and a merely average offensive one.