Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sports Ethics: Being Replaceable

“Everyone is replaceable.” This fundamental truth underlies modern organizational life. When we leave, another will do our job, differently, but our job will get done. If I get sick and cannot teach my class, another professor will take my place. If my doctor cannot show up for a surgery, another will perform it. Someone on an assembly line gets fired or sick and another trained and competent person will step in. Modern life cannot afford indispensible people.

A sport engraves this truth for all. A player goes down in a game and another one trots onto the field and takes his or her place. Someone is having a bad game and the coach yanks them and a substitute takes his or her place Some times the replacement does worse, sometimes better, often they perform competently; they fill in. Sometimes they excel and replace you having done their apprenticeship and take advantage of the opportunity.

The other day one of our local “sports radio” gurus opined, “closers are like half backs now. They are simply replaceable, you can find them anywhere.” He described everyone on every sports field. Obviously superstars exist and gradations of excellence exist among athletes and in life. But the function can and must have backups and even superstars can be replaced when they are injured or fade.

Athletic competition highlights the replace ability that shadows all our professional lives. For me the modern baseball statistics such as VORP—value over replacement player—or WAR—wins above replacement--isolate this truth with singular clarity. The world of sabermetrics has constructed a model—the replacement value player. This model predicts the performance in vital offensive and presently measurable defensive skills. They can do this for the average team but also for the average position player especially pitchers.
The key to the statistic lies in the fact that aside from remarkably outliers whose skill sets are quanta above everyone else, most players hover around this statistical portrait, this mean of player. Even when they have “good years” they regress to this mean over their career.

Being average is not a death sentence, in fact it can guarantee a long career across a number of teams. It means you are the player included in blockbuster add-ons or one that involves two obscure names or a second level prospect for you. Consistent sports average performance locks in a strong predictive reliability that varies little for as long as a decade. It defines the reliable expert performance of a seasoned professional.

Remember to be average among the elite athletes of the world places the “average” player light years above the skill sets of all the other professionals who aspire but fail to succeed at the elite levels. Average defines superb technical skill and endurance.

In baseball a team of average players will win 82 games, not enough to win a championship, but not a disaster. Every team needs reliable average players or better yet a cluster or players who hover 2 or 3 runs or 1 or 2 wins above average to complement their superstars.

This statistical model reduces players like all of us in a capitalist system to profiles of productivity. It makes them and us faceless for the most part. Faces and personalities generally belong to the superstars or people having their day in the sun being on their peak performance years.

It also means that any player who falls below the average model loses both economic value and probably their career fairly fast. The economics of player compensation combined with the pipeline that rigorously culls players and forges high skill potential replacements mean that players who slip below the VORP line in any sport can soon be replaced by younger, lower cost and higher upside players.

Knowing you can be replaced haunts everyone one of us who derive self-worth from work. Athletics just makes it visible and clear to all of us what our real fate is.

It also reminds us that athletes must pull their own weight. They must be able to contribute. The harsh beauty of sport exposes people so brutally. It puts a spotlight on not contributing. Average may be barely good enough for a while, but the economics of younger players reaching average make it a career ender after awhile.

The insights of VORP and WAR are now spreading to all sports. Most general managers now understand the role of replacement value and the fungible nature of most players. They can now think far more intricately about trades and drafting since a collection of +2 and +3 players can lead to contenders without anyone noticing. You see the same mind set in modern American football’s attitude towards once revered running backs, nonguaranteed salaries and NBA’s nameless array of “role players”who  surround the stars.

Being replaceable not only reminds us of the cost of average, but the powerful aggregate worth of cumulative above average high performance. Success for most teams and organizations resides not in the superstars but in the depth of above average consistent performers who together produce reliable winning teams.

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