Certain players simply can't be replaced
While 'replacement player' is a computer creation, 'glue guy' is not
One of the latest buzz terms in the statistics-crazy world of new-millennium baseball is "replacement." There's how much a given player is valued over a "replacement player." There's how many "wins above replacement" a given player is worth.
One can only wonder about the assumed identity of the "replacement player" himself -- a faceless entity with a few years in the Majors, perhaps, but with no name or number on his uniform and nothing but an estimated yearly line of offensive and defensive production conjured from the clicking automated heart of a central processing unit to go on.
But in the living, breathing dugouts and clubhouses of Major League teams, you see the opposite, and they're walking, talking and contributing every day.
These are the players who are impossible to replace, regardless of their on-base percentage, Ultimate Zone Ratings or OPS with two out and runners in scoring position against left-handers.
Angels designated hitter Bobby Abreu is one, even if he's 37 years old and his 2010 statistics -- .255 batting average, .352 OBP, 78 RBIs -- indicate that his offensive game might be in decline. Abreu still is capable of striking fear (20 homers last year) or stirring up agitation (87 walks) within an opposing pitcher, but as he ages in the game, his value is becoming more relevant on the intangible side of things.
Since his arrival in Anaheim in 2009, Abreu has influenced an entire roster of players with his patience at the plate and his positive attitude about the game. He might not lead the league in any quantifiable numerical categories, but he's up there in smiles.
"Bobby's a great guy," says his teammate, outfielder Torii Hunter. "He's always laughing, joking around. He's having a good time, and he commands a lot of respect -- with good reason."
Hunter has said he watches everything Abreu does, from pregame preparation, to film-watching, to how he handles an at-bat. That's why it's probably not coincidental that since Abreu joined the Angels, Hunter's OBP rose to career highs of .366 and .354. And he's not the only one.
"All you have to do is watch Bobby to see how productive it is to wait for your pitch, to stay away from pitchers' pitches that bury you in counts," teammate Brandon Wood said. "He's a master, and his impact is evident in the whole team, really."
The same can be said for a lot of the "glue guys" around the Majors -- the players who might not leap out of the program as shoo-in All-Star choices, but go a long way toward keeping good teams together.
Take Mark Ellis, who, believe it or not, has been in an Oakland A's uniform since breaking into the big leagues in 2002. The 33-year-old second baseman has only batted over .300 once and has never driven in more than 76 runs in a season. He's also never won a Gold Glove, although his teammates and manager, Bob Geren, lobby him for that honor every year.
What Ellis has done is play the game hard, put up solid if not spectacular numbers, and show a younger generation of A's what it means to be a big leaguer.
"Back when I came up," said A's first-base coach Tye Waller, "you were always being tutored by the leaders on the club. Now guys come and go every one or two years, but because Mark has been here so long and has had the success he's had with the A's, the others can look up to him as a guy who knows what it takes to be successful here. He has the respect of everyone on this club."
Ellis, who on Thursday became the 13th player in Oakland history to reach the 1,000-game mark, has said repeatedly that he has very few goals in baseball, and they don't have anything to do with home runs, MVPs or lucrative contracts.
"I just want to stay on the field and play as many games as I can, and win as many games as I can," he said. "Nothing in this game is guaranteed."
But for too-often-unheralded presences like Abreu and Ellis, leadership, mentoring, professionalism and an undying respect for the team concept are always guaranteed.
The same can be said for 40-year-old Craig Counsell, the decorated winner of two World Series rings (1997 with Florida and 2001 with Arizona) and the dedicated current utility man for the Milwaukee Brewers. Counsell has been with the Brewers since 2006, and has rejoined the club on one-year free-agent deals prior to each of the last three seasons. He hasn't played in more than 130 games in any of the last five seasons. But everyone in Milwaukee loves him.
"We're still a young club, and he brings you that veteran presence, that experience, to your ballclub," Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin said. "Plus, the ability to play all three infield positions. He's a pretty tough out as a pinch-hitter. He's always available. I think he's been a good influence on some of our players. He's got a quiet leadership about him."
In Cincinnati, the Reds look to third baseman Scott Rolen for leadership.
Rolen, having hit there and fielded that in 16 Major League seasons that have garnered him eight Gold Gloves, six All-Star appearances, a Rookie of the Year Award, over 300 homers and a World Series ring (2006 with St. Louis), has a stellar resume to fall back on. And at the age of 36, he also has a reputation for playing through injuries, sticking it out through adversity, and helping teammates get better.
Last year, he returned to the All-Star Game after hitting 17 homers and driving in 57 runs before the break. But he was hindered by hamstring, back and neck injuries and continues to play through the lingering pain of a surgically repaired left shoulder. Those injuries might help explain his three homers and 26 RBIs after the break, or his 1-for-11, eight-strikeout grind in the Reds' first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia.
But you won't hear Rolen utter a single excuse.
"You have 162 games ahead of you. We're going to be injured," Rolen said this spring. "We're going to be beat up, banged up, bruised up, and that's a fact. It's something that we know. So is everyone else in the league."
It's that type of no-nonsense toughness that led Reds general manager Walt Jocketty to sign Rolen, and it's already paid off beyond anything printable in a scorebook.
"We had a nice mixture of young pitchers and players and some veteran pitchers to help on that end. But we didn't have the right position player to show the way," Jocketty said. "Someone to lead by example, give the clubhouse that veteran influence. Scott's been all that and more. His influence on the younger players is incalculable."
That's what being a glue guy is all about, and they're all around the league, from soft-spoken Dodgers first baseman James Loney, who has made it to the field for at least 158 games each season since becoming an everyday starter in 2008.
Then there's Cardinals infielder Skip Schumaker, whom the team decided to hold on to this winter, despite a career-low .667 OPS in 2010 following three seasons with a batting average above .300.
And don't forget about Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, the two-time All-Star who played in only 59 games last season due to injuries, but is right where he belongs, setting the table and the tone as the leadoff man for a retooled, hopeful Baltimore club.
Maybe that's what it's all about with these flesh-and-blood players, guys who can never be replaced, not even by the most amazing spreadsheet in cyberspace. Leave it to Rolen to sum it up in language that even the biggest stat geek could understand.
"I'm accountable for my performance, good or bad," he said. "That's important to me. That's what I think our job is and all of our jobs are."