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Moneyball and Bubba

Jun 3, 2014, 10:44 AM EDT

Sonny Gray Sonny Gray

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 O.co 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.

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