Revising Replacement Theory

“These problems, as contrasted with the disorganized situations with which statistics can cope, show the essential feature of organization. We will therefore refer to this group of problems as those of organized complexity.” (Weaver, quoted in Jacobs 432)

In 1961, Jane Jacobs published a scathing takedown of modern urban planning, the likes of which graced twentieth century America with high rise public housing, slum clearance initiatives, civic center suburbanism, and suburbanization/gentrification, among other land use and design practices. Jacobs effectively returned people — neighbors, advocates, shoppers, shop owners, etc. — to the focus of cities, and cities to the focus of planning theory, through promoting amateurism at the expense of professionalism. After discussing sidewalks, street design, land use, finance, and many other topics, Jacobs closes the book with a theoretical discussion about tools for planning. By using a framework of problems of simplicity, disorganized complexity, and organized complexity, Jacobs presents a nifty niche for statistical analysis (problems of disorganized complexity), and upholds methods of biological or ecological endeavors for cities: after all, cities are problems of organized complexity because “they are all problems which involve dealing simultaneously with a sizable number of factors while are interrelated into an organic whole” (Weaver, quoted in Jacobs 432). Statistics are thus fantastic tools for determining the probability of phenomena involving a practically infinite number of factors, but not the most effective methodological tool for approaching city planning, on Jacobs’s view.

The obvious parallel between cities and baseball teams is the organic, organized nature of both entities. Both entities can be described as built environments in which capital takes a dynamic living form. In analyzing baseball, one must look for explanatory factors that form a player’s performance, such as mechanics, pitch selection, strike zone approach, and batted ball outcome; one can just as easily focus on contracts, labor time, TV revenue, etc. This is arguably true regardless of the depth of one’s methods; without diving into DRA or scouting grades or anything else, I can say “I prefer pitchers with three good pitches to pitchers with two good pitches.” Eventually, one might expect this type of question to lead to complex methods or deep empirical studies of all pitchers with three pitches (versus those with two), but the basic point is that at any level of methodology there is an aspect of underlying performance that is necessary to explain or analyze competition in baseball. The same types of descriptions can be made of urban spaces.

Baseball Prospectus demonstrates the methodological flexibility of baseball analysis, typically blending statistical analysis, descriptive statistics, “pure” scouting, labor analysis (like Cot’s Contracts), and technological scouting (like Brooks Baseball). Here, analysis of baseball meets Jacobs’s vision for addressing organized complexity, for one is hampered if they only address baseball with tools of probability or analysis. Baseball is systematic both as a game and an entertainment entity, opening many avenues for exploring alternative methods, diverse methods, and the descriptive power of baseball analysis. Therefore, no better locale than Baseball Prospectus exists from which to question and criticize the analytical orthodoxy of professional baseball.

At least two grand obstacles stand between organizational baseball analysis and “external” baseball analysis (such as that of Baseball Prospectus): the first is proprietary data enforced through the mechanism of a multibillion dollar entertainment industry, and the second is the necessity of a pro-ownership standpoint for organized baseball analytics. External analysts, then, trade in methods that are generally much more “open” (or transparent), from the basic aspect of analyzing games and players from publicly available information to the actual modeling of statistics (such as DRA); even a “paywall” in this sense does not comprise an institutional obstacle akin to proprietary enforcements available to MLB clubs. Furthermore, external analysts are able to freely fluctuate between standpoints of ownership and labor, allowing for expressly pro-labor positions (increase minor league pay!) that would never (or rarely) be held by MLB organizations and their analytical teams.

If one examines the bounds of these institutional analytics, one can find a distinct paradigm aligning analytics toward ownership interests (meant in Thomas Kuhn’s sense of creating a field of research that is (1) “sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity” and (2) “sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve.” Kuhn 10). External analysts — such as those working for and writing for Baseball Prospectus — are external to paradigmatic MLB analysis because they are not promoting the interests of expanding ownership revenue shares. The current MLB analytics paradigm can be seen as necessarily anti-labor, as it coincided in the late-1980s with (a) ownership collusion and (b) explosive television contracts (such as the late-1980s ESPN-MLB agreement). Both of these events should be seen as clear responses to the dynamic rise of the MLB Players Association (a paradigm that would stretch between 1966-1987).

General MLB Paradigms During Divisional Era:
(1) 1967-1987: Dynamic Labor Movement.
(2) 1988-2004: Collusion (Ownership Reorganization).
(3) 2004-present: The Replacement Value Theory

Operating during the Dynamic MLBPA paradigm, ownership interests were not necessarily analytical for a variety of reasons, one of which is arguably self-reorganizing and self-redefinition of the MLB ownership interests. With central organizational powers determining their own operating mode during this tumultuous time, there was ample freedom for baseball analysis to emerge as an amateur, critical movement. The movement could take extreme positions in order to establish its usefulness, and also define its place in baseball history. As labor and ownership associations fought to define the landscape of the emerging era of professionalism and booming entertainment revenue, analysis in this aspect was free to be untethered to either interest, therefore giving chase to other traditional avenues (such as traditional front offices drawn from previous players or baseball personnel, scouting, etc.). The common “stats vs. scouting” fight can be clearly understood this way: without the necessity to cling to the systematic and professional uses of either players or owners, the fight for validating statistical analysis of baseball would have to be defined against traditional avenues of knowledge. Unfortunately, scouting took the “direct hit” here, even though both statistical and scouting methods now clearly form organized, proprietary MLB analytics.

Once ownership interests organized a professional response to labor, a tool such as statistical analysis would become quite useful in extracting revenue from the MLBPA back to team control. Operating in this new paradigm, the “replacement player” became an effective means of analyzing the marginal value of roster moves. The “replacement player” remains an invaluable ownership tool, for one can understand the value of low-cost players to the game, and also begin to understand whether, or how, high-paid stars actually contribute value to a roster. Mechanisms that MLBPA chief Marvin Miller once saw as justifiable tools to create scarcity and prestige (salary arbitration, six years of club reserve, and free agency) are now used to aggressively control costs on rosters (non-tendering and service time manipulation [see Kris Bryant], for example). If teams can systematically understand how low-cost and controllable players form value for a roster, instead of high-paid stars or well-compensated veterans, they can begin to easily wrest revenue away from the MLBPA. “Rebuilding” and “tanking” are two such practices that work within this paradigm, where teams ostensibly sell losing teams to their fanbases for the logic of “stockpiling controllable players” that can “contend for an extended period of time” (this is the usual company line).

Brewers GM David Stearns captured this line perfectly upon his introduction, telling the press his hypothesis for building a contending roster: “I don’t think it’s really a secret. You need to acquire, develop, and keep controllable young talent.” The benefit of acquiring, developing, and keeping controllable young talent is that controllable young talent is cheap, and cheap for a long time. What Stearns effectively told Brewers fans is precisely what happened in 2016: the club easily dismantled the payroll to skeletal levels, which frees revenue for the purposes of ownership (to either pocket, save for later, purchase minor league clubs, hire more analysts, etc.). By acquiring minor league talent for MLB players, Stearns allows the Brewers to reorganize their system for the goal of competing, “of course”, but Stearns also effectively swings the revenue share back to ownership (following a leaguewide trend). The secret, of course, is that if the pipeline of controllable talent is good enough, the Brewers can arguably contend without relying on a payroll that sneaks above $100 million for quite some time; if the Brewers prove effective at rebuilding during this regime, they can rebuild in perpetuity (this is one area where the Cubs rebuild failed, from an ownership standpoint). In this sense, the Brewers rebuild’s ultimate success will be judged in its ability to instantiate this current revenue share within the organization’s structure, so that the team may contend and return ample revenue for ownership for an extended period of time (and if they win, all the better).

Jumping back to the idea of baseball as a game of organized complexity, rather than disorganized complexity, and the theoretical idea that statistics belongs to disorganized complexity, external analysts have the freedom to forge a response to the “Replacement Player” paradigm. To capture a game (and industry) of organized complexity, the next analytical paradigm can engage the following tools:

  • New Tool: Sociologies of science, technology, and the professions. First and foremost, freed from the streams of MLB revenue, external analysts can approach the game from numerous perspectives, and employ new tools to dismantle ruling technologies. This is a crucial benefit, for external analysts can work on issues such as diversity among managerial and executive ranks in a manner that MLB ownership cannot. For example, in the manner of executive diversity, if the tools of MLB analytics are elite finance degrees (or degrees in related fields that teach methodological statistics), and elite finance degrees exhibit social, racial, and economic stratification, one can expect MLB front offices to consistently fail measures of improving diversity. Certainly, the MLB can announce that they will address such issues, but they will only do so in a manner that does not require them to dismantle their current revenue share and the analytical apparatus that supports that revenue share. External analysts can use the methodological approaches of sociology of technology, such as the Empirical Program of Relativism (Bijker et al. 26-8), in order to understand the interpretive and social aspects of ruling technologies (such as MLB analytics, proprietary information, and revenue streams). Strict sociology of science also offers numerous methods to locate political or economic interests that support laboratory truths, which can easily be applied to MLB baseball operations departments).


  • New Tool: Ethnography. After the turn of the century, a rousing field that might roughly be called “anthropology of finance” emerged to address everything from how markets reshaped corporate America (see Karen Ho) to how technological advances within markets affected their players (see Caitlin Zaloom). Zaloom’s account of the battle over electronic trading at Chicago Board of Trade demonstrates the phenomenal potential of ethnography to describe and explore the embodiment of technology and professional performance (and therefore, professional identity). In the case of external analysts of the MLB, ethnographic accounts of replacement players would have the potential to outline the organizational development of actual “replacements,” locate the motives for employing such organizational depth at the MLB level, and describe the structures of motivation to become such organizational depth among both career minor leaguers, “AAAA players” shuttled between the upper minors and the MLB, and other depth careerists. Financing such ethnography of the professions through academic departments or grants would also offer the potential for a new (and potentially more diverse) avenue of scholars to challenge the current finance elites. By using a methodological approach that is well-defined through bodies of literature, one can disregard tools of statistical analysis without abandoning rigorous investigation and exploration of ideals.


  • New Tool: Alternative Epistemologies. Traditionally known as “the theory of knowledge,” in the latter half of the Twentieth Century epistemology was rescued from its previously obscure and opaque obsession with aspects of language, meaning, and truth. In the tradition of radical feminist philosophy, standpoint epistemology designed an apparatus for outlining the embodiment of knowledge in order to empower oppressed populations that traditionally stood outside of the realm of academic epistemology (and academic philosophy in general). This activist theory of knowledge is perfectly suited to design a methodology for investigating professional diversity within MLB front offices, as well as the disjoints between knowledge on the field and knowledge in the front offices. By exploring the standpoint of the MLB player, as one audacious example, one can design a theory of knowledge that arises from the foundation of the game (the people actually playing it), rather than the executive offices; by treating the standpoint of the replacement player, one can locate and challenge the logic of MLB organizational transactions. Working at roughly the same time as many standpoint epistemologists, Steve Fuller also delivered a scathing critique to both scientists and philosophers on the roles of power and privilege in defining truths. If one is reluctant to employ an openly activist tradition such as standpoint epistemology, the work of writers such as Fuller will provide similar tools that can open new avenues for understanding how the game of baseball is played at professional levels, and therefore determine new approaches to finding value in the game.

The contemporary paradigm of analysis will be replaced at some point and time, be it through unforeseen consequences from future labor negotiations, shifts in the patterns of revenue streams, or unforeseen developments in the game itself. One might also raise the basic question of whether the problems of the “Replacement Paradigm” are pertinent to the game any longer, or whether analytics has simply been tidying the field of inquiry once statistical methods took hold in front offices. By openly embracing new methods for analysis, one will be able to engage with the organized complexity of baseball, and perhaps uncover new opportunities to improve the industry and recover revenue for labor.



Bijiker, Wiebe E., Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch, ed. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Sixth Printing. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T., 1997 [1989].

Fuller, Steve. Social Epistemology.. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1991 [1988].

Helyar, John. The Lords of the Realm. New York: Ballantine, 1994.

Ho, Karen. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Durham, N.C.: Duke University, 2009.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage, 1989 [1961].

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Third Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996 [1962].

Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France. Alan Sheridan and John Law, trans. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University, 1988.

Zaloom, Caitlin. Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006.

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