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Moneyball and Bubba

Jun 3, 2014, 10:44 AM EDT

Sonny Gray AP

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.

  1. gmkev - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:06 AM

    So a team who can’t develop players shouldn’t take toolsy HS kids who need to develop. That has been the Phillies strategy for years and their farm system has been brutal. The Phillies have now stated they will focus on college or more MLB ready type prospects.

    • imnotyourbuddyguy - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:32 AM

      Chin up, the last highschool kid the Phillies took looks to be a potential top (30?) prospect next year.
      SS JP Crawford

  2. ramrene - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:13 AM

    The A’s know their sh#t!

  3. jm91rs - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:13 AM

    I had to re-read that last paragraph, first time I thought Posnanski was trying to say Sonny Gray grew 2 inches to 6’1″ and Oakland was the only team that knew that would happen.

    • Kevin Gillman - Jun 3, 2014 at 2:09 PM

      They are THAT good, A’s know everything.

  4. tbird05 - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:13 AM

    Bubba who?

  5. bsritter - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:15 AM

    So what are the chances we can get this Farhan Zaidi guy to replace Dayton Moore?

  6. peaceknuckle - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:17 AM

    2011 could go down as the most stacked draft in MLB history. The Royals not only passed on Jose Fernandez, but also Javy Baez, George Springer, Anthony Rendon, Archie Bradley, and Francisco Lindor. The list keeps going. Big miss by KC in that draft.

    • cur'68 - Jun 3, 2014 at 1:49 PM

      The Royals have this long and shocking history of not knowing their arse from their elbow. They had Jose Bautista in 2007 an traded him away for Justin Huber. Nice.

      • hittfamily - Jun 3, 2014 at 3:06 PM

        In 2006, they took Luke Hochevar #1 overall. 4 of the next 10 picks were Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincicum, and Max Scherzer.


      • cur'68 - Jun 3, 2014 at 6:54 PM

        They have this long and detailed habit of choosing the wrong guy. Its kind of sad.

      • tedwmoore - Jun 3, 2014 at 3:09 PM

        I am a Roayls fan and certainly no apologist, but Bautista was traded three times that season, and I don’t think any of the three teams to trade him received much in return, mostly because at the time Bautista was not highly regarded. It was not until several years later that he made the adjustments to his swing that turned him into the hitter he is now.

      • geoknows - Jun 3, 2014 at 4:33 PM

        It was 2004 that the Royals had Bautista for about five minutes, not 2007. And that was right after the ultimate “smart team” – Tampa Bay – had given up on him.

        I’m no Moore fan, but all these things being mentioned were done under Allard Baird, not Dayton Moore. Well, with the exception of drafting Bubba.

      • cur'68 - Jun 3, 2014 at 6:53 PM

        He appeared in 12 & 13 games for the TDR and KCR respectively. Not sure how much you can tell about a player in 12 games. However, while NEITHER team got it right along with long list of teams in his case, the KCR seem to make a habit of it and THAT is my point. But you do have the year right, a fact I got wrong.

  7. Detroit Michael - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:36 AM

    I checked the statistics (thank you and Joe is right. The Athletics don’t tend to bet on batters who bad K/BB ratios.

    The last position player to have a K/BB ratio of more than 3 to have 1,000+ plate appearances with the Athletics was Tony Armas back in 1980-82.

    Other teams give playing time to batters like this all the time: there are 51 guys active in 2014 with at least 1,000 career plate appearances with K/BB ratios worse than 3. Kevin Kouzmanoff and Scott Hairston are the only 2 out of those 51 who played with the Athletics and not for long. The Athletics may have these guys occassionally, but they don’t make them fixtures in the line-up like other teams do with Howie Kendrick and Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Gomez and Adam Jones and Jeff Francouer and Juan Uribe and Delmon Young, etc.

    • sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Jun 3, 2014 at 12:18 PM

      Even when those guys are successful, it seems so precarious. If the power tails off, there is very little left to hang your hat on.

    • billybawl - Jun 3, 2014 at 12:28 PM

      And for what it’s worth, the A’s traded Tony Armas to the Boston Red Sox in a package deal that netted Carney Lansford.

  8. mboling52 - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:40 AM

    So when does KC fire Dayton Moore and hire Farhan Zaidi?!??

    • billybawl - Jun 3, 2014 at 12:33 PM

      Would a talented GM prospect leave Oakland (or any decent franchise) to work for David Glass? You’d have another low revenue team, but an owner with a terrible track record. I have to figure that the A’s are smart enough to compensate their front office well, and make sure they have enough interesting assignments to keep them occupied. David Forst has been the A’s assistant GM for over 10 years, and not due to lack of other opportunities.

      • imnotyourbuddyguy - Jun 3, 2014 at 12:42 PM

        Ya, at this rate Zaidi can wait for better jobs to open up, I’d think the Royals would have to break the bank to land him.

  9. sasquash20 - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:41 AM

    I hope my Phillies hire Zaidi to replace Amaro

  10. jaturso - Jun 3, 2014 at 12:19 PM

    Only the A’s seem to understand: you don’t buy the sizzle, you buy the steak.

  11. 18thstreet - Jun 3, 2014 at 12:27 PM

    I’m curious how the title of Director of Baseball Operations differs from General Manager.

  12. APBA Guy - Jun 3, 2014 at 12:58 PM

    Every year around the draft signing deadline the A’s send one of the front office staff to sit in the booth with Ray and Glenn. This is totally must-hear TV for A’s fans, because of the educational value. Farhan has been in the booth lately, and he’s a little more eloquent than some FO types, he’s of course circumspect in what he says. Amazingly, or maybe not so amazingly given how good a reporter Joe Pos is, the message is the same, even when applied to specific picks: this kid has something we like (good outcomes), but even so, he’s about 50/50 to make it (if he’s a first rounder) so we’ll probably end up trading him for someone who’s more proven (ie, good AAA numbers), like Moss, or Donaldson, etc..

    It’s a real education on what today’s efficiencies are: high draft picks are expensive and have a big bauble factor. Guys in AAA who’ve been up and down a few times have a little tarnish on them. So the A’s trade a soon to be free agent player plus a former high pick for a basket of AAA guys. Do this often enough, have one or two high picks that you keep work out, get lucky, and end up with a division winner. Get unlucky and you have 2007-2010.

    Can you win in the world series with a team constructed like this? Not so far. But we A’s fans live in hope. The 2014 version: if we can get to the playoffs without a major guy being injured, this team could be the one.

  13. tablescrappy - Jun 3, 2014 at 1:28 PM

    A major guy IN ADDITION to the #1 and #3 starter they already lost to TJ surgery? Can you imagine how good they’d be with Jarrod Parker and AJ Griffin replacing all of Straily’s/Pomeranz’s/Milone’s starts?

    And to everyone in need of a new GM: hands off our Zaidi!

  14. schlom - Jun 3, 2014 at 1:41 PM

    The A’s certainly aren’t infallible in the draft. From 2008-2010 they had the 12th, 13th, and 10th picks in the draft and took Jemile Weeks, Grant Green, and Michael Choice – busts all. Green actually had a terrible walk to strikeout ratio in college (60/124) while Choice (124/119 thanks to a huge junior year of 76/54) and Weeks (99/92) were just barely positive.

    Here’s their first round history:

    It’s certainly checkered (haven’t hit on a first rounder since Huston Street in 2004 or maybe Pennington the next year) which shows that it’s more of a crapshoot than anything.

    • Bryz - Jun 3, 2014 at 2:22 PM

      No one is saying that the A’s are infallible, they’re just saying that they make more calculated risks. In the A’s eyes, Weeks, Green, and Choice were safer bets than other players that were available at those picks. It just so happened that they didn’t work out.

      This is overly simplifying it, but Posnanski’s article makes it seem like the Royals and A’s are picking between two players. One has a 10% chance of peaking as an All-Star, the other has a 50% chance of peaking as a solid regular. The A’s pick Player 2, the Royals take Player 1.

      • schlom - Jun 3, 2014 at 4:11 PM

        But that’s simply not true. The A’s haven’t done a particularly good job in the draft. In 2011 only Sonny Gray has made the majors with the team (although it’s still too early to completely write off the rest of their picks). In 2010 they wasted their first pick in the aforementioned Michael Choice and only 13th round pick AJ Griffin has played for the team. In 2009 only 24th rounder Dan Straily has positively contributed for the A’s. They got nothing out of the 2008 draft (traded away their best pick, Tyson Ross, to the Padres for nothing). In 2007 they took Sean Doolittle 41st and after failing as a hitter he’s managed to turn into a good reliever. In 2006 they finally hit by taking Trevor Cahill and got 3 good years out of him before trading him away.

        This A’s team hasn’t been built through the draft but through trades and free agent signings. They just haven’t been that successful lately at building through the draft.

      • bellweather22 - Jun 4, 2014 at 5:34 PM

        schlom: Most teams fill their starting rosters with 1st and 2nd round draft choices (their own, or through trades). Sure, there are others drafted lower, or not at all who end up being good players…. and quite possibly Oakland does better than most with those. But for the most part, the high draft picks are the starters. But a non first round pick making it to the big leagues in a little over 2 years is very rare. So, expecting a 2011 pick to be in the bigs, is expecting a little much.

    • hardballscout67 - Jun 4, 2014 at 12:55 AM

      The jury is certainly still out on Green and Choice. They are after all in the majors and playing for the Angels and Rangers. However, you should all mention that if indeed they are busts as you indicate, that the A’s realized it early and traded them for Jim Johnson, Alberto Callaspo and Craig Gentry. All important cogs in what they hope will be an extremely successful 2014.

  15. drewsylvania - Jun 3, 2014 at 2:18 PM

    Isn’t it a little early to call Starling “a terrible mistake”? He’s 21.

    • bravojawja - Jun 3, 2014 at 2:56 PM

      He’s a 21 year-old slugging .286 against a bunch of teenagers in A ball. He was picked fifth overall in a draft three years ago — sounds like a terrible mistake to me.

      • [citation needed] fka COPO - Jun 3, 2014 at 9:14 PM

        He’s a 21 year-old slugging .286 against a bunch of teenagers in A ball. He was picked fifth overall in a draft three years ago — sounds like a terrible mistake to me.

        According to bref’s calculations, he’s still two years younger than the average player in the Carolina League. However, [SSS alert] he’s doing even worse than Yankee non-prospect Dante Bichette Jr who’s roughly the same age.

      • yahmule - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:36 PM

        An even bigger concern is his problems were thought to be vision related, but he still makes abysmal contact post Lasik surgery. His swing is long and very busy.

    • hittfamily - Jun 3, 2014 at 3:19 PM

      At this pace, He’s a redshirt freshman at Nebraska next year. A ball is barely above D1 collegiate baseball in terms of talent. If he’s the age of a junior in college, and is terrible, it’s time to hang up the spikes and put on the helmet.

      • bellweather22 - Jun 4, 2014 at 5:30 PM

        The same issue in all sports. A lot of players out of High School aren’t ready for the pros. In baseball, they do have the minor leagues, so they don’t really care if the kids make bad decisions, and would have been better off getting a Plan B College Education & with a less rigorous baseball season to mature.

  16. tcostant - Jun 3, 2014 at 3:30 PM

    To bad Rendon was to “hurt” to be drafted in that spot. The Washington Nationals thank you.

  17. wogggs - Jun 3, 2014 at 7:45 PM

    As a fan of both the A’s and the Royals I think about this often. The Royals do stupid stuff, the A’s do not. It does not make me love the Royals less, but it does lower expectations.

    • bellweather22 - Jun 4, 2014 at 5:28 PM

      For a while the Royals were in love with Braves castoffs. Francoeur, Bruce Chen, Bryan Pena….. there were about a half dozen. What sense on earth does it make to take once teams garbage? Oh yeah, the decisions were being made by Braves castoffs.

      • wogggs - Jun 4, 2014 at 5:46 PM

        It’s always easier to go with the lousy, old or broken down player you know than the lousy, old or broken down player you don’t know. That’s why the Giants resigned Lincecum and Scutaro, I’m sure, although things are working out better for the Giants than the Royals.

  18. wogggs - Jun 3, 2014 at 7:57 PM

    I just read the article at NBC. A brilliant analysis, as usual.

  19. chesschum - Jun 3, 2014 at 10:14 PM

    The main reason the As wouldn’t have drafted Starling is that his skill set on draft date was basically identical to Billy Beane’s. Billy knows that doesn’t work, and his playing career is living proof.

  20. tmutchell - Jun 4, 2014 at 1:29 PM

    I went back to look at some of the Royals’ draft history on Baseball Reference. Interestingly, in 2004, they seemed unusually inclined to draft “alliterative” prospects. In addition to Billy Butler and Billy Buckner, they also drafted players named Josh Johnson (no, not that one), Brad Blackwell, Bobby Beeson, Travis Trammell, Kade Keowen, Kristopher Krise and Randy Rundgren. Honorable mention for Kevin Clark and Kyle Crist. Naturally, none of these have made the Show (only 4 of their picks from 2004 have, fewest in MLB, tied with Mets, Cards and Pads.) By contrast, Oakland had only two alliterative names in their whole 2004 draft, and 11 of their picks have been in the majors. (Rockies have the most MLBers from that draft, 13.)

    Not sure you can extend this very far, as the Royals only had two alliterative names each in their 2003 and 2005 drafts, and they’ve had 8 of their 2003 picks spend some time in the majors, but it really does seem like the sort of thing they would do, given the choice between two identical players, they go with the one who has a “good baseball name”.

  21. bellweather22 - Jun 4, 2014 at 5:25 PM

    Sounds like a slightly worse version of Jeff Francoeur

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