The true value of Replacement Level

USA TODAY Sports

The term "replacement level" can divide baseball fans into two groups. Leave it to a 31-year-old rookie to make everyone forget which side they're on.

Last week's big news that Fangraphs and Baseball Reference have settled on a consensus replacement level has created quite a buzz in the saber community. Following the announcement, many articles regarding the concept of replacement level have popped up, including Rob Neyer's piece the ultimate replacement level baseball player, Alfredo Griffin. While articles like Neyer's force everyone to smile, the concept of replacement level has long been a decisive topic between traditional and saber-minded fans. The abstract idea of "replacement level" is not easily grasped by everyone, and it actually confuses and even angers some intelligent fans and analysts.

To me, this disagreement on replacement level is ironic because replacement level is where the two segments of fans should be able to happily co-exist. Replacement level is where stories like the tale of Scott Rice live.

If you're asking yourself, "Who is Scott Rice?" don't worry you're probably not alone. In fact, just last week Rob Castellano asked that very question over at Amazin' Avenue, referring to him as "that seemingly random guy with literally no major league experience who just iced the second lefty role". In the interest of giving you a slightly better description, Rice is a 31-year old rookie left-handed pitcher who made the New York Mets as the last man in the bullpen. After 14 (!!) professional seasons, he made his Major League debut on Monday, pitching a scoreless 9th inning with 2 strikeouts. Getting to that point though, was quite the journey.

Way back in 1999, Scott was a supplemental first round pick by the Baltimore Orioles. Back then he was just a 17-year old kid that had spent more time in the batter's box than on the mound at Royal High School in Simi Valley, California. During the first four seasons of his illustrious minor league career, he was a starter with middling control, before being sent to the bullpen full-time in 2003. The switch really seemed to work, and over the next four seasons Rice climbed all the way to Triple-A, amassing a 3.15 ERA along the way. In 2006, Rice was primed for a September callup before a freak hand injury ended his season prematurely.

In 2007 Rice signed a Minor League contract with the Texas Rangers. He never really got going with Texas, however, complaining of elbow discomfort early in the season. Although an MRI showed no structural damage, he was shut down after appearing in just five games. The following spring, Rice found himself in an unfamiliar situation. The lefty, who just two years prior was on the brink of a Major League callup, was without any offers from big league organizations. So, Scott headed out to pitch in the independent Atlantic League, taking the mound for the Long Island Ducks and the Newark Bears. He struggled badly in the veteran league, making it apparent that something was still wrong with his left elbow. Not surprisingly, Rice was diagnosed with a torn flexor tendon ending his season after Tommy John surgery.

At that point, no one would have faulted Rice for letting go of his big league dreams. Recovering from TJ surgery is a tough thing to do, but it is especially difficult when you are in your late 20s and toiling away in the Atlantic League. However, he was determined to make his dream a reality. Just over a year after his surgery, Rice attended an open try out with the Colorado Rockies. For the uninitiated, Major League open try outs are often more about public relations than finding talent. Despite that, Colorado signed the 28-year-old, and he was named an all-star in the Texas League before struggling in Colorado Springs. Weighing his failures in Triple-A more heavily than his successes in Double-A, he was let go after the season.

Heading into 2011, Rice found himself without a job once again. He decided to give the Atlantic League one more try, this time signing with the York Revolution. The Revolution were managed by Andy Etchebarren, who coached in the O's system in Rice's early years. "Etch" had some interesting comments upon seeing Rice throw for the first time after all those years:

It's like he's a completely different pitcher. When he was younger, he didn't try to locate anything and his fastball was flat. Now? He commands his fastball to both sides of the plate and the pitch has some serious sink. Left-handers got no shot against this guy, and I'll tell you what, I bet he ends up in the Big Leagues. Some guys are just late bloomers.

Crazy as it seemed at the time, Etchebarren was exactly right. Rice dominated the league this time around, allowing just 13 base runners in 14.2 innings before the Los Angeles Dodgers came calling. He spent the last two seasons with the Dodgers, limiting left-handed hitters to a .516 OPS without getting called up.

Then this past offseason he hooked on with the New York Mets, signing a minor league contract with an invite to Major League spring training. The combination of relatively weak competition (Pedro Feliciano and Robert Carson) plus a quality spring performance (2.92 ERA and 11 strikeouts over 12.1 IP) gave Rice a spot on the Mets' opening day roster. And on Monday, after 480 Minor League appearances, Scott Rice finally toed the rubber in a big league game. Against all odds, he can forever call himself a Major League pitcher.

Stories like Rice's are what make this game so great. After reading what he's been through, I can't imagine a baseball fan (except maybe in Philadelphia) that won't be rooting for Rice this season. He is the very definition of a replacement player, a pitcher that is just as likely to have a 5 year big league career as he is to be out of baseball in 8 months. While he may never show up on any WAR leaderboards, Scott Rice may be among the historical leaders in JAR* (journey above replacement) for the winding path he's taken to New York.

Even with the new developments at Fangraphs and Baseball Reference, baseball analysts and fans may never agree on what the true meaning of replacement level is. Fortunately, we can put these disagreements aside when a story like Rice's comes along, and simply enjoy the narrative. Who knew that replacement level could bring us all together?

*Special thanks to Bryan Grosnick for the creation of JAR

Andrew Ball is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, Fake Teams, and Fantasy Ninjas.

You can follow him on twitter @Andrew_Ball.

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