Sonny Gray

Moneyball and Bubba


I wrote a little something about the Oakland A’s and, as you might expect, it has me thinking a bit about the Kansas City Royals. Specifically, it has me thinking about Bubba Starling.

Three years ago, the Royals took Bubba Starling with the fifth pick in the amateur draft. The Royals were kind of in a weird spot. They had the fifth pick and they really liked four pitchers. All four — Gerrit Cole, Danny Hultzen, Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy — were taken before the Royals selected.

That left the Royals kind of stuck. I’m still not entirely sure they were sold on Bubba Starling … but he was a local kid. No, more than that, he was a local legend. He was a 6-foot-4, 180-pound phenomenon. He was such a good football player that Nebraska desperately wanted him to be their quarterback. He was such a good baseball player that some scouts thought he should be the No. 1 overall pick. He had tremendous raw power, fantastic speed, and he was a Kansas City kid (well, Gardner, Ks., which is about 45 minutes away). There were many in Kansas City who never forgave the team for passing on another Kansas City kid named Albert Pujols. Passing on Starling would have caused days of fury.

So, what could the Royals do? If one of those four pitchers had been there, they might have passed on Sterling and taken the heat. But with those four gone, they had run out of ideas (which is a shame because pitcher Jose Fernandez went in the first round of that draft). When the Royals drafted Starling, my good friend Sam Mellinger wrote in the Kansas City Star that he had a chance to change baseball in Kansas City forever and that the Royals may have just drafted their most important player since George Brett.

I thought at the time that what Sam wrote was pretty ludicrous — you just don’t talk that way about baseball players drafted out of high school no matter how talented they might look. But in retrospect, it was more than ludicrous. The Royals made a terrible mistake taking Bubba Starling with that pick. And it is a mistake the Oakland A’s never would have made in a million years.

[MORE: Moneyball II in Oakland isn’t exactly what you’d think]

I learned about 10 million things when talking with Oakland’s Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi, who is utterly brilliant and will be a GM very soon. But one thing that sticks with me most is how the A’s will spend countless hours and endless energy trying to avoid traps. People who run baseball teams are constantly running into traps. This player throws 100 mph but can’t throw strikes — hey, take a chance. This player wants more money than he’s worth but can help the team — hey, take a chance. This player can’t hit yet but his attitude is off the chart — hey, take a chance. This player is a local legend and people are saying he’s a future star — hey, take a chance. All of these are traps.

The A’s take chances too … but they are very careful to make bets they believe in. And the A’s would NEVER bet on Bubba Starling, not even if he grew up inside stadium. Starling has power, he has speed, he has extraordinary athleticism … and he strikes out three times as much as he walks. That’s all the A’s need to know. The A’s will never, ever bet on young players who are that overmatched in the strike zone. That’s not to say that those players always fail — some develop plate discipline and become good players. Some become stars. But the A’s don’t have the money or resources to bet on longshots. And make no mistake: Players who strike out three times more than they walk are longshots.

In a way, this is the Billy Beane “we’re not looking to sell jeans” philosophy. He tries to build an organization that does not care how a player looks and, instead, cares about how a player performs. Bubba Starling can do things that make your jaw drop. He can unload 500-foot home runs, he can steal bases standing up, he can leave you awestruck. But he can’t hit, and the A’s would never bet that he will learn. The Royals did.

I’m not sure you could do much better in describing the difference between the Royals and the A’s than this.

In the 2011 first round, the Royals took Bubba Starling — a spectacular local athlete whose supporters called him “toolsy and raw.” The Royals, because they’re the Royals, didn’t care enough about the raw part He’s currently hitting .186 with a .286 slugging percentage in Class A Wilmington with 61 strikeouts against 22 walks.

Later in the 2011 first round, the A’s took Sonny Gray — a gifted pitcher with a dazzling curveball who led Vanderbilt to their first College World Series. Some scouts were down on him because he’s only 5-foot-11. The A’s, because they’re the A’s, didn’t give a damn about that. He’s currently 6-1 with a 2.45 ERA.

Trevor Bauer says his finger will be OK for the World Series

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 17:  Trevor Bauer #47 of the Cleveland Indians walks back to the dugout after being relieved due to his cut pinky finger in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays during game three of the American League Championship Series at Rogers Centre on October 17, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Indians starter Trevor Bauer said he expects his sliced right pinkie to heal in time for the World Series.

Bauer, of course, is a drone hobbyist and hurt his finger while fixing a drone. By the time he’ll have to pitch again he will have had nine days since his last, bloody start in ALCS Game 3. Yesterday he said “I’ll be ready to pitch in the World Series whenever they need me. I’m doing everything I can and I’ll be back out there for sure.”

Bauer reportedly suggested that Indians trainers cauterize his finger on Monday. They declined. Which is something Bauer should probably thank them for.

It’s time for Major League Baseball to take a stand on Chief Wahoo

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 06:  A fan holds a sign during game one of the American League Divison Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on October 6, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Cleveland Indians are in the World Series. Come Tuesday they will be on baseball’s biggest stage — an international stage — for the first time in 19 years. In honor of this occasion, I’d like to know a couple of things:

  • Does Major League Baseball believe that Chief Wahoo is a racist caricature?
  • If not, why not?
  • If so, does Major League Baseball think it appropriate for a club to have a racist caricature as its logo?
  • If Wahoo is a racist caricature and if it’s inappropriate for a club to have a racist caricature as a logo what, if anything, does MLB plan to do about Chief Wahoo?

At the outset, I’ll say what should not come as a surprise to any of you: I believe that Chief Wahoo is a racist caricature. I’ve argued it ad nauseum over the years and really don’t wish to mount that argument once again. Mostly because I think the notion that Chief Wahoo is racist is indisputable. Also, because those who do not wish to see the Indians abandon that logo never actually argue that it isn’t racist. Indeed, I’ve not seen a single convincing argument in favor of Wahoo not being racist on his own merits. Oh sure, there are lots of deflections (A logo isn’t important! Tradition is tradition!; It’s just sports!; What about that other racist logo?! My quarter-Cherokee grandma says she’s fine with it!) but no one has once made even half a case that that red-faced, big-toothed, hook-nosed, feather-wearing abomination is not, in fact, a racially insensitive caricature. I don’t think such an argument could be made, actually.

So that’s not what I’m on about here. Rather, I’m interested in how this racist caricature can be eliminated from the sport I love and what has prevented it from happening to date. That’s a very different question, and it’s one that has little if anything to do with accusations of racism or good guys and bad guys. It has everything to do with institutions and inertia. And I think it’s time to drill down into that some.

Let us stipulate that the Cleveland Indians, as an organization, are not a bunch of racists. I don’t believe that for a second. They, like every other sports team, have a history and, for lots of reasons, the Indians history comes with Chief Wahoo packed in the baggage. While the Indians have made efforts over the years to diminish Wahoo, those efforts have not taken. The most likely reason for that is fear of fan backlash. Fans who, even if they themselves are not racists either, do what all sports fans do and root from a primarily emotional place, where real-world questions like “is what I’m wearing racially offensive?” are not permitted to intrude. It’s not just writers they want to stick to sports. They stick to sports themselves and, with a strong assist from cognitive dissonance, their conception of sports involves a Chief Wahoo cap and arm patch.

So, you’re running the Indians. Even when you win your division you don’t draw well, and thus the LAST thing you want to do is anger or alienate your most passionate fans. Of course you don’t get rid of that logo. Doing so would take some pretty considerable moral and ethical courage. Or, at the very least, moral and ethical courage in quantities that outweigh the short term P.R. and financial motives of a for-profit business, and that’s quite a bit. So let us stipulate two things, actually: (1) The Indians are not a bunch of racists; and (2) Even if they’re not, they’re not, on their own, going to get rid of Chief Wahoo. If they were going to, they would’ve done it by now.

Which is why I turn to Major League Baseball. If the Indians themselves are not going to do the right thing and eliminate Chief Wahoo, Major League Baseball should.

At this point I’ll say something which will probably surprise a lot of you: I’m not crazy. I may stand up on soapboxes and rant and rave about any little thing that crosses my mind, but I am, at heart, a realist. I know how large and sophisticated organizations work and I know that Major League Baseball is a large and sophisticated organization. It cannot snap its fingers and make whatever crazy, soapbox-standing bloggers want to have happen happen, even if wanted to (note: it does not want to). There are rules and norms and politics to even the most pedestrian of issues that cross Rob Manfred’s desk, and Chief Wahoo is not a pedestrian issue. It’s a controversial one that lends itself to passion and bad press and those are the hardest things an organization like MLB has to deal with. Indeed, it would prefer not to.

Part of that complication is that this is a club matter and clubs, under Major League Baseball’s business model, are mostly their own things and they can do what they please with most things. Certainly things like club identity, logos, colors, uniforms and the like. At most MLB gives final approval on new ideas in these areas, but it does not order clubs to change fonts or logos or mascots that have been in place for decades. “Hey, Orioles? You’re now the ‘Knights’ and your colors are purple and gold. Make it so” is not a memo Rob Manfred is going to write.

There is likely not even a mechanism in place for this. League-wide matters are dealt with via MLB’s constitution, to which all clubs agree, and that usually involves league wide ownership votes. This is not one of those things, though. Thirty club owners are not going to hold a vote about what mascot the Indians can slap on their cap. Large and complex organizations do not eagerly do things for which there is not a formal mechanism to accomplish said things. So, in addition to the historical inertia and the abhorrence of controversial issues and p.r. and the like, you have systemic reasons which make it easier for MLB to not act than to act.

But that does not mean it should not act. I believe it should, and I believe that the only way Major League Baseball will not, eventually, act to abolish Chief Wahoo is if it willfully ignores those questions I posed above. If it ignores, in fact, the very words it uttered just this week when the matter of the Indians name and logo was the subject of an Ontario court hearing:

“Major League Baseball appreciates the concerns of those that find the name and logo of the Cleveland Indians to be offensive.  We would welcome a thoughtful and inclusive dialogue to address these concerns outside the context of litigation.”

To truly be a part of that dialogue, Major League Baseball itself is obligated to state its convictions on the matter. If it is having trouble finding its convictions I will, once again, offer a little guide to help them along:

    • Does Major League Baseball believe that Chief Wahoo is a racist caricature? That’s a pretty simple question. A human being as educated as Rob Manfred and as educated as the hordes of Ivy Leaguers who work for him can plainly and quickly answer if it wished to.
    • If not, why not? Like I said, if they can make a convincing argument that Wahoo isn’t racist it’ll be the first time anyone has done so, but like I also said, these guys are smart, and I bet if anyone can they can. I’ll give them a fair hearing.
    • If MLB does think Wahoo is racist, does Major League Baseball think it appropriate for a club to have a racist caricature as its logo? Based on everything I know about Major League Baseball and its commitment to diversity, inclusion and open-mindedness, it cannot answer this question in the affirmative if it believes Wahoo to be racist.
    • Finally, if Wahoo is a racist caricature and if it’s inappropriate for a club to have a racist caricature as a logo what, if anything, does MLB plan to do about Chief Wahoo?

And there we are. There’s nothing formal in place to make the Indians change, but if Rob Manfred gets to that last question, he can certainly lean on the club. He can make a public statement about it and what is right. Or, he can take a different tack and show the Indians how much merch they’d sell if they got a new logo. It doesn’t matter much. The Commissioner is not omnipotent, but in a matter of conscience that affects only one club, some meetings and phone calls and his power of persuasion could make a big difference here. All the difference, really.

But first Major League Baseball and Commissioner Manfred have to themselves be inspired to act. They have to cease dodging the matter by making reference to the controversy and the feelings it engenders and actually take a position in that controversy. The Indians have shown that they will not act unilaterally, so MLB should, at long last, weigh in itself to force their hand.

Commissioner Manfred will, no doubt, be in Cleveland for the World Series. He will, no doubt, hold a press conference or two. Given the Indians return to the international stage, the usual protests about Chief Wahoo will be louder than they typically are and Commissioner Manfred will be asked about the matter. I believe that he, on behalf of the league, should answer the questions I have posed here and that other journalists will no doubt pose to him in person.

I hope he does. I hope that, rather than once again merely acknowledging a longstanding conversation about a baseball team sporting an abjectly racist logo on its cap in the 21st century, he, on behalf of Major League Baseball, enters the conversation. I hope he does what no one else seems willing or able to do: eliminates Chief Wahoo, now and forever.

Doing so would not be the easy course. It would certainly be easier to dodge these questions than to answer them openly and honestly and to then do what one’s answers to them obligate one to do. But it would be the right thing to do. I suspect Major League Baseball already knows this.