Mark Teahen is a turkey sandwich

This past week I was on a long bus ride sitting next to a (Canadian) friend I had just met about two weeks ago. Because my idle thoughts usually revolve around baseball, our conversation eventually shifted to that subject. As you probably expected, the average Canadian isn’t so knowledgeable about baseball, Tom Tango not withstanding. I was explaining different ideas to him, and he was asking a lot of good questions.

So we’re talking about what pitches different guys throw, and he asks about pitch counts, so I mentioned my post from a few days ago. I started to tell him about the whole statistics side of baseball, and player value and such. That’s when the “R” word slipped out. He looked at me blankly and said, “Do you expect me to know what a ‘replacement player’ is?” This friend of mine had only a vague notion of what the minor leagues consisted of, and now here I was being asked to explain a concept that not even JC Bradbury understands.

Here’s where the title of this post finally comes into play. I was searching for a way explain player value and the components of WAR (Wins Above Replacement)–batting, defense,
positional adjustments, and the replacement level (essentially playing
time) adjustment–to someone who didn’t know the difference between a curveball and a slider. As I mentioned before, I’m usually thinking about baseball. But after that, food is a close second. And food is what this post will be about.

I used the following analogies to explain to my friend the different concepts associated with WAR. Feel free to use this as a guide if a sabermetrics newbie ever asks you to explain wins above replacement, and/or the value section of a FanGraphs player card.

Batting

The first thing you have to realize in batting is that an average hitter has value. If you look at the batting section of a FanGraphs player card, you’ll see numbers that are both positive and negative in this section, depending on the player. Mark Teahen of the Kansas City Royals has both positive and negative numbers on his card, but is usually around zero batting runs. However, in every year since 2006, he has provided his team positive value, despite just an average glove. How is it possible for zero to be positive? Think of it like a plain turkey sandwich (I know, 5 paragraphs in I finally get to the title). If you had a plain turkey sandwich for lunch and dinner every single day of the year, you wouldn’t be saying, “wow that was fantastic!” after every single meal. Chances are, you’d feel that each meal, taken in isolation, was pretty decent, but nothing too special and nothing too bad. A turkey sandwich scores about a 5 out of 10 in terms of deliciousness, assuming you don’t get sick of having it every day. It will keep you from being hungry and dying of starvation, but let’s be honest…it’s not #1 on your list of things to eat before you die. The fact that a turkey sandwich will satisfy and sustain you is why it has value despite being just average.

Replacement Level

What is replacement level? In baseball terms, it’s the AAA minor league scrub who you can get for the league minimum. In food, it’s the simple bread and water. You can’t get much worse than bread and water and expect to survive for very long. Essentially, this meal is the minimum level of food you can expect to have in your diet. The 2003 Detroit Tigers were the bread and water of baseball, and even they seemed to skip a few meals. Despite being horrendously bad, the Tigers were still considered major leaguers, just as bread and water would still be considered a diet.