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What the Yunel Escobar Trade Tells Us About Race, Perceptions, and Expectations in Sports

15 July 2010

Shaun P. writes:

Just saw your [Tweet]: “If Yunel Escobar was a charming white guy, would they trade him for a 33-year-old with a career .294 OBP?”

While I’m skeptical that the Braves win big by making this trade and while Escobar was probably my favorite Brave, I do think there were valid reasons for them to make it besides skin-color and lack of charm.

Escobar was slugging under .200 this season during what should be his prime. While it’s not likely Gonzalez can continue hitting for as much power as he has so far, it’s likely that he’ll increase the Braves’ slugging percentage. The Braves lead the league in on-base and walks (the latter by a wide margin), so they felt they could afford to downgrade in those areas in favor of more slugging. It’s easy to forget Gonzalez has had a few solid power seasons.

So basically the Braves made the move to increase their slugging while giving up some on-base potential and not losing much if anything on defense. One can argue whether it was was worth it to lose that much in on-base potential, but I can still understand the thinking, even if it turns out to be misguided.

Also they get two decent second-tier prospects which increases their chances of pulling off a trade for an outfield bat without giving up one of their 2-3 best prospects. This is especially helpful if they want to make a run at someone like Adam Dunn because they could try to put together a package without sending one of their best prospects to a team in their own division.

Finally, the Braves traded about as charming a white guy as their is in baseball in Jeff Francoeur. Francoeur can hit lefties, so they could have easily kept him around as a platoon player and justified it in the press. They let a seemingly charming, white guy in Marcus Giles walk while he was still relatively young and it turned out to be a wise move.

And if it were about skin color or nationality, would they have traded the Cuban Escobar for the Venezuelan Gonzalez? Would anyone bring up Escobar’s skin color or personality if Atlanta weren’t a southern city?

Interesting questions but it seems there are reasons beyond skin color, nationality or even personality to explain this trade from the Braves’ perspective.

PS By the way, I do think Escobar’s personality was probably a factor, based on reports. But I believe it’s an overstated factor in the trade. Is Escobar really a drastically different personality than he was in 2007-2009 when he was actually hitting?

Hi Shaun, thanks for the note. I’ve enjoyed corresponding with a bunch of Braves fans over the past 24 hours. This is a really interesting trade, one that elicits a bunch of questions on many levels.

Here are a few thoughts on the deal:

–Escobar slugged .401 and .436 the past two seasons (and got on base a ton, of course). Unless he’s hurt, is there any reason to trust 3.5 months of data over 2 years?

–Alex Gonzalez has a career SLG of .402. Is there any reason to trust 3.5 months of data over a whole career?

–The data show that Gonzalez leads MLB in “wall-scraping” HRs – 10 of his 17 homers have barely cleared the wall. That suggests big-time regression, where those balls go for doubles or long flyouts.

–Given those factors, it’s far from a sure thing Gonzalez slugs higher than Escobar. And that’s supposed to be a major reason (if not the major reason) for the trade?

–“Not needing” OBP, and wanting to trade on-base for slugging, is a dubious concept. Runs are runs. If you avoid making outs, you’ll score more. You can do that with eight .300 hitters, or eight .250 power hitters. It’s nice to have a diverse offense. It’s also a minor issue if you have good offensive players of whatever stripe.

–The Braves aren’t getting Adam Dunn for a future utility man and a 5’7″ RP, high K rate or not. The aim of the deal was to upgrade the team right now and send Cox out a winner. It’s not at all clear the Braves are better today then they were yesterday. It is indisputable that they traded a 27-year-old shortstop who averaged nearly 4 wins a season the past two years for a 33-year-old shortstop with a .294 career OBP.

–This isn’t an Atlanta thing. I’ve gotten to know Atlanta from a distance lately. Let’s just say I like what I see, and I have a strong incentive not to blindly paint the city in a negative light.

–Jeff Francoeur is terrible at baseball. The fact that the Braves traded Francoeur, or acquired another Latin player in Gonzalez, or roster Latin players like Martin Prado, or once traded some other white guy, doesn’t negate the possibility that Cox et al grew fed up with a guy who lollygagged and had the added disadvantage of being hard to communicate with. (That’s right, I’m ending a sentence with a preposition. Bring the scorn!)

Institutional racism permeates all of sports, and most businesses, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I do not believe the Braves waged a hateful campaign to rid themselves of their malcontent player explicitly because of his racial background. To me it’s an unconscious thing, which in some ways can even start out as a (biased) compliment of sorts.

B.J. Upton has a terrible reputation among fans and media in Tampa Bay, for instance. There is no question that a big part of that is because of the way he looks on a baseball field. He’s smooth and lithe in his actions, and looks like an athlete. He possesses great natural ability. So when Upton fails, or occasionally has a brain lapse, all of the (sort of) positive stereotypes of a black athlete get turned on their head, and get transferred to the negative stereotypes. It’s not that people in Tampa Bay are awful. These are ingrained stereotypes within sports – among teams, fans, media, everyone – that are hard to shake. I’m sure I’ve unwittingly fallen victim to this too. Even self-parodying my own lack of athleticism due to my own background (very white, very Jewish) is a knowing nod to this state of mind.

It may simply be that using the word racism, or introducing the possibility of race becoming a factor in any decision, creates a loaded argument to many people, one that’s tough to digest. We can call it institutional myopia or institutional whoopseedoodle too. It’s not meant to be an ad hominem attack, but rather a real question about all of our biases.

–Another issue you didn’t cover: Let’s say Escobar is lazy. As you said in your note, his numbers were very good in the past couple years. So he was obviously able to overcome his laziness and produce.

–On a related note, one concern could be that a player dogging it or generally having a bad attitude could spill over to his teammates. Yet the Braves are playing their best baseball and have their best chance to go deep into the playoffs than they’ve had for several years.

–On another related note, @tomhaberstroh noted on Twitter that the job of a coaching staff should be to get the most out of talented but difficult players. I would go one further and say that every team should hire a performance psychologist (this is an issue addressed in my forthcoming book on the Tampa Bay Rays and smart approaches to baseball, “The Extra 2%”). And ideally said performance psychologist should be bilingual, or even trilingual. The cost of keeping someone like that on staff would be less than it would cost to roster the worst player in baseball.

–And on another related note, we human beings have a terrible time dealing with people who don’t live up to potential. It’s even more acute in sports. We see the natural gifts that B.J. Upton or Yunel Escobar or any other number of players have, and we lose it when they jake a play (or if it even looks like they’re jaking a play), or put up numbers that don’t meet our expectations. There’s a real risk of conflating perceived laziness or underachiever status with the idea that said player is actually bad at his sport. B.J. Upton can hit .240 and still be a valuable player, because he runs and fields better than almost anyone else on Earth. Yunel Escobar, assuming he doesn’t continue to slug .284, can be a somewhat valuable player if he hits for minimal power, because he gets on base, plays a premium position, and has a decent glove.

In other words, wins are wins. Whatever lollygagging Escobar and Upton may or may not be guilty of, that’s already reflected in their stats.

The seminal question might be this: Does a negative attitude (or a perceived negative attitude – I don’t believe Upton has a negative attitude at all, despite common perceptions, to name one example) override good numbers? How bad would that attitude have to be? How good a performance gets negated? Upton level? Scott Rolen level? Albert Pujols level?

Call me an unfeeling lover of stat-generating robots, but I’m a sucker for knowledge. Attempting to quantify exactly how much a bad actor (or perceived bad actor) hurts team performance, and where the point of no return lies in terms of needing to dump a guy even if the numbers say “Don’t do it!” might be the most worthwhile subject for further exploration here.

–Your PS probably nails this better than anything. Based on numerous reports, Escobar was always perceived as something of a lollygagger/hot dogger/lazy dude/whatever adjective you want to use. But the Braves looked past all this because he was a ~4-win player.

–The biggest issue to me is this: Is Escobar no longer a 4-win player, or not even a good player at all anymore? It really was not my intention to come across quite as stridently as I did in my Tweet. The Braves certainly have information that most people don’t on all of their players. Escobar has battled injuries this year – maybe those injuries mean he won’t hit for power the rest of this year, or even the rest of his career? They might know that he has unseen personal issues which could objectively be construed as a major risk factor for his future performance. No question about it.

On the margins, an analyst should try and work with those unknown knowns as best as he/she can. But an analyst’s primary task is to work with the information available, and arrive at a conclusion. The conclusion could be wrong, but there should be some logic behind it.

It is quite possible that the Braves will prove to be big winners in this trade. Analysts deal in probabilities. But we can never hope to approach a 100% success rate in our diagnoses. I don’t see everything the Braves see. I’m hardly the sharpest knife in the drawer (ask my 10th-grade math teacher). If I’m wrong, it wouldn’t be the first time, or the last.

But here’s the whole thing in a nutshell, to me:

It is quite possible that the Braves merely made a move that looks horrible in about 20 different analytical ways, without Escobar’s race or language barrier playing a role.

It is also quite possible that they unintentionally let the communication barrier and long-ingrained/probably-not-even-realized biases cloud their judgment.

I suspect it’s a little of both.

There is a good chance I’ll be starting a podcast, on this site, in the relatively near future. I’m glad we can discuss racial issues in sports without it coming off as preachy or hateful. I’m excited to further explore how much we let race affect how we perceive different athletes.

I’m even more excited to explore that inflection point, where attitude trumps performance to the point that it becomes a problem. I believe you should have much less tolerance in a true team sport like basketball, where if you don’t play help D, run out on a shooter your teammate left open, or set a proper screen, everything blows up. Baseball, being at its essence a sport where one guy with a stick tries to hit another guy with a ball, might well be less affected by chemistry issues than basketball (or hockey, or football, or futbol).

Thanks again for all your feedback. Let’s keep the dialogue going.

33 Comments leave one →
  1. Shaun permalink
    15 July 2010 4:39 pm

    We do know that Gonzalez’s career ISO is .154 compared to .112 for Escobar. So it appears likely Gonzalez is a better extra-base hitter and a far inferior on-base guy.

    Should we discount sacrificing some on-base ability for some extra-base power when a team is extremely good at getting on base and not good at slugging (4th from the bottom in the NL)?

    In a vacuum it seems we should prefer on-base ability to extra-base power. But this trade did not take place in a vacuum. The Braves have lots of great on-base guys but lacked guys with solid extra-base power. Would the Braves score more runs with a slightly lower on-base percentage and slightly higher slugging or isolate power, if their on-base is high anyway?

    • Jonah permalink*
      15 July 2010 4:44 pm

      In a vaccum, on-base ability is a lot more important than slugging ability. The old Moneyball saw was that you should value OBP three times more than you should SLG (that seemed dubious, but you get the idea). Also, the gap in on-base is huge (if we’re talking career numbers), much larger than the slugging gap.

      So no, I can’t see a scenario where diversifying the offense a bit makes up for Escobar’s vastly superior on-base ability, assuming each player performs at career norms for the rest of the year.

      Of course we don’t know if each player will perform at career norms. At the time of the deal, one was well below career norms, and one was moderately above. This is obviously what creates uncertainty in the trade, from a pure performance level. If Yunel Escobar hits .238 with a .284 slugging percentage for the rest of his career, then this is a fantastic trade. I don’t think that’s going to happen, and the historical trends don’t suggest that’s going to happen, but it’s impossible.

      • Shaun permalink
        17 July 2010 11:38 am

        That’s the catch, Escobar has performed so far below his career norms at an age when he should be having one of if not his best season and the Braves are trying to win now, so they can’t really afford to take a chance that Escobar’s struggles are limited to only a little over half a season.

        Next question is did they upgrade? Gonzalez is not a great player but he’s not a hugely significant downgrade over Escobar. Plus the trade was not just shortstop-for-shortstop. The Braves got prospects that could be attractive to other teams or could create organizational depth to make a trade. My point wasn’t that those two prospects would necessarily be traded for Adam Dunn. My point was they’ve added value so that they can make a trade. Even if they lose the shortstop-for-shortstop part of the deal, they still have enough value in their organization to make a bigger deal. We’ll see if my instincts are correct, but I suspect a big factor in this deal was gaining value in terms of tradeable players.

        Did race, culture or personality play a role? Did the Braves have an unconscious bias against Escobar that caused them to trade him once he was under-performing over several months?

        I’m not so sure. It’s a complicated issue and it’s difficult to get into the head of one person let alone an entire organization.

        I do know that based on the past, the Braves have been willing to trade players who were under-performing, many of those moves worked out and they’ve traded players of all backgrounds when they feel they aren’t or can’t help the team any longer.

        I hate to bring up Francoeur because I know he’s a vastly inferior player to Escobar. But Francoeur was young, white and about as charming as you can get. While you discount him as a baseball player, he is a perfectly capable platoon player in the majors (.301/.344/.482 versus lefties). The Braves could have easily justified keeping him around and he actually would have been a useful player. (By the way, I think trading Francoeur was the right move for the Braves, so don’t get me wrong here.) But they traded Francoeur for a 30-year-old, mediocre outfielder having an awful season.

        The Francoeur trade admittedly doesn’t tell us everything about the Escobar trade and what role cultural and racial background played in the trade. But it gives an indication that the Braves don’t seem all that concerned about charm and personality.

      • Shaun permalink
        19 July 2010 9:49 am

        Also, do the Braves think the move is to diversity their offense or to improve their offense?

        The Braves probably think the Gonzalez move is going to increase their bases gains (TB+BB) and is not going to decrease their on-base percentage all that much. The likely view this as improving their offense rather than diversifying it. We can argue whether they are misguided in this view but I firmly believe that’s their thinking.

  2. itstobs permalink
    15 July 2010 4:51 pm

    Great post. Really. I’m about to write a shitload of words disagreeing with some of your fundamental points/assumptions, but I loved this. And think it’s a great topic. (And I think your tone when discussing racial issues is spot on.)

    Ok, enough nice. Onward…

    * First of all, I should say I agree completely that there are a lot of racial stereotypes that affect our thinking in all walks of life, and certainly baseball. I.e., where are the white malcontents? Where are the scrappy black guys? And so on.

    * That said, I don’t get this at all:

    <>

    Are you really saying that he has a bad reputation because he is smooth? How does that work? I thought he had a bad reputation because, among other reasons, you can see, with your own eyes, that despite the smoothness, he takes plays off. That’s how you get a bad reputation. Could fans be quicker to criticize a lazy black player than a lazy white player? Sure, I’d buy that–I don’t see any evidence of it, but I’d buy it. And maybe you skipped over it for a reason, but I don’t see the explanation of what all this means in any event.

    The majors are littered with guys who make it look impossibly easy, to the point of almost seeming lackadaisical… and yet I see only BJ Upton (apparently) suffering from it. For example, Robinson Cano had a similar problem: he is impossibly fluid, but he also used to try to be TOO smooth or get TOO cute. And fans called him out on it. And then he did this amazing thing: he stopped doing that! And no one criticizes him anymore. He wasn’t criticized because he made it look easy; he was criticized because as easy as he made it look, it was pretty simple to detect when he was taking a play off or trying to make SportsCenter instead of playing good baseball.

    And, really, c’mon. As a lawyer I respect your attempt to spin this–but “occasional[]” brain lapse? Really? Upton doesn’t get critized because he mistimes a dive; he gets criticized because he loafs it to a ball in a gap. Fans boo the guy who jogs to first because he is jogging to first, not because the guy had the audacity to hit a grounder to short.

    * Respectfully, I think your desire to justify BJ Upton as a person and a player has you tilting at the wrong windmills. For example:

    <>

    Perhaps it is me who is out of touch on this one (a real possibility for a Yankees fan in Yankees country responding to the blog post of the guy writing the book on the Rays, obviously!), but who is saying BJ Upton is bad at his sport. Ok, strike that. Who amongst anyone with the slightest clue is saying Upton sucks? And, perhaps more specifically, who is saying he is bad at his sport because he is lazy?

    I agree with the notion that not living up to potential gets people boiling, but I think you’re conflating two different concepts (ha! take that! two can play the conflation game!). People get *disappointed* when the prospect doesn’t pan out. People get *mad* when they think a guy is not playing to his potential because he doesn’t care enough to do so. That’s a big difference.

    * A quick aside on Escobar, since I’m focusing on Upton as I find him to be the far more interesting case. First, I love that you have turned the Escobar deal into a jumping-off point for this discussion. But as to the merits, I think you might be giving Atlanta too much analytical credit, especially in assuming they “get” his statistical value (at least as we assume it to be).

    * Anyway:

    <>

    Let me take the first part first. No, I don’t think it’s accurate that the lollygagging is necessarily reflected in their stats. How many (more) reached-on-errors would Upton have if he went hard out of the box (it’s not surprising that Ichiro and Derek Jeter, two fast (or formerly fast, for Jeter) guys who bolted out of the box, used to be in the ROE leaders). How do the defensive stats know which flies BJ Upton catches if he ran 100% (especially if he’s the only player capable of catching up at 100%)? Or, in the second level (wins): did Evan Longoria strike out in the key spot because he got fooled on a change or because he was still jittery from his screaming match with BJ Upton? Or because he was just pissed that BJ Upton did that thing AGAIN that everyone’s been complaining about behind his back about for weeks? And so on and so on.

    As to wins, you are, of course, correct: wins are wins. But I think you miss the fundamental point that you might have MORE wins if a guy gave 100% on every play. So, sure, BJ Upton can be valuable at .240. But wouldn’t he be more valuable at .250? And is what is keeping him from .250 just effort and concentraion? That’s what riles fans up. Not the lack of performance, but the fact (or perception of the fact) that a guy could perform better but CHOOSES not to.

    Moreover, to point to a guy’s stat line and suggest that it’s all captured… I think that’s incredibly naive and dogmatic in a very wrong way. A simple example: how many times has Manny (or a lot of players) ended up with a single that hit the OF wall on a fly, when he would be on second (or even third) if he hadn’t stood there admiring his not-quite-HR? What stat captures the difference between 100% Manny and that Manny? And how can we understand when and where–or if at all–that has ever cost his team that all-important win. (To be clear, I think the stats do a good job of capturing what happened–a single–so as to measure his actual contribution. Laziness has nothing to do with the actual and everything to do with the difference between the actual and potential.)

    Indeed, while I am not a “gotta have team chemistry!!!” guy, I think we the fans, from the stats-suck guys to us statheads, forget that these guys are human beings down there. A million little things are out there to prevent them from concentrating on baseball. They are thinking about their family, they are thinking about how they are going to get laid that night, they are squeezing out a precarious bit of gas and hoping the Taco Bell doesn’t follow. (This applies to baseball, too: how many times has David Ortiz had to bat after skinning his hand while diving for a ball, or still pissed he missed one-hopper?)

    So, then, IMO the job of the manager isn’t just to get the most out of tough cases, it’s to get the most out of everyone by, inter alia, teaching them how to better field a grounder, setting the best lineup, picking the best strategy, and, yes, identifying as many of those mental disruptions as possible and trying to remove them (or at least alleviate them). And I agree with you on sports psychology… but quite frankly I do not see it as a substitute for the manager and his staff understanding the group dynamic in his locker room and making sure it is not affect each (and any) player’s ability to maximize their performance.

    Anyone who has ever worked a job knows about the importance of group dynamic in the workplace. [insert unemployed blogger on couch joke here] I don’t pretend to know how BJ Upton’s behavior (or Yunel Escobar’s) affects his team. For all I know he is a really positive influence because he gives players certain things to aspire to. Or maybe he helps Carl Crawford fix his swing every morning. Like I said, I don’t pretend to know.

    Moving on, I think your questions–how much negative attitude causes you to get kicked out, and how much good play is too much to get kicked out for a negative attitude–are the right ones, but I think you’re viewing it in an overly-simplistic fashion that takes you right past the point. The point is not that anyone should be cut for having a bad attitude per se, and that we just say that a -5 attitude gets you shipped out if you’re only a +4 player. I.e., a bad attitude can affect your (correctly-)identified bottom line: wins.

    So, to me, the far more interesting question is: how does an intelligent, logical team executive decide that a player’s bad attitude causes more harm to the team’s win total than shipping him out would benefit it?

    (And, furthermore, when do you consider the *bottom line*? It is a business, after all, so when does a player become so unpopular that you feel it is doing more harm than good to your organization?)

    Ok, now this is too damn long to even consider editing. So I’ll finish up. Takeaways:

    * Agree on stereotypes and their pernicious effect on the way people perceive ballplayers.

    * Disagree that stereotypes or “smoothness” make the “lazy” moniker any less valid as to Upton. Agree that it could be the cause of using that label unfairly. (Apologies in advance if I got wrong the point you were making there.)

    * Agree that one has to balance the personality negatives with performance. Disagree that WAR and the wins column are all you need to consider. Disagree with the implication that any stats you’re looking at (or anyone else would) can capture how much better a guy would be less the behavioral issue.

    * And disagree with some of the ways you’ve framed this issue. I do not mean to suggest you are trying to argue this in a vacuum–you aren’t, and clearly get that a bad attitude can affect team performance–but I think your focus on performance ignores the very real ways in which poor behavior can affect team performance, both in stats and in the win column.

    * Agree: this is a really, really fascinating topic.

    (* Agree: very white, very Jewish people aren’t really good at sports.)

    [Insert animated gif of sunglasses falling onto BJ's face... DEAL WITH IT.]

    • 16 July 2010 9:23 pm

      “(* Agree: very white, very Jewish people aren’t really good at sports.)”

      You do know that in the 1940s, when Jewish players at the City College of NY were dominating the college basketball scene, there was a lot of discussion about how Jews had “natural” athletic advantages, right?

      So, no, I don’t think we know that at all.

  3. itstobs permalink
    15 July 2010 4:53 pm

    UGH, sorry. Here are the bracketed quotes from your post. Sorry for the serial comments:

    1. B.J. Upton has a terrible reputation among fans and media in Tampa Bay, for instance. There is no question that a big part of that is because of the way he looks on a baseball field. He’s smooth and lithe in his actions, and looks like an athlete. He possesses great natural ability. So when Upton fails, or occasionally has a brain lapse, all of the (sort of) positive stereotypes of a black athlete get turned on their head, and get transferred to the negative stereotypes

    2. There’s a real risk of conflating perceived laziness or underachiever status with the idea that said player is actually bad at his sport. B.J. Upton can hit .240 and still be a valuable player, because he runs and fields better than almost anyone else on Earth

    3. In other words, wins are wins. Whatever lollygagging Escobar and Upton may or may not be guilty of, that’s already reflected in their stats.

    The seminal question might be this: Does a negative attitude (or a perceived negative attitude – I don’t believe Upton has a negative attitude at all, despite common perceptions, to name one example) override good numbers? How bad would that attitude have to be? How good a performance gets negated? Upton level? Scott Rolen level? Albert Pujols level?

  4. Jonah permalink*
    15 July 2010 5:00 pm

    Re: Upton – many, many, many people in Tampa Bay think Upton is bad. He’s been named Least Valuable Player of the first half by multiple media outlets, both locally and nationally. (Whether that’s because they think he’s truly bad, or just disappointing, only they can know – I would guess a little of both).

    Re him loafing: I defy anyone with a few weeks to kill to take a group of 10 players, Upton included, and tally up every grounder they didn’t run out, every ball they didn’t sprint for like a madman, etc. Doubt Upton would look markedly worse than the rest. Suspect the difference, if any, would be negligible.

    And on the one play in particular that causes the tiff in the dugout with Longoria: Upton was shaded way over to right-center. The ball went to the gap in left-center. Upton was used to playing with Carl Crawford, who has supernatural range and has played hundreds of games next to Upton. This was one of the very rare times Crawford was not in left (it was Matt Joyce). Upton said after the game he expected the left fielder to gather in that ball in the gap. By the time he would have picked up that Joyce couldn’t get there, the ball was by him, and likely a triple.

    Was it a brain fart? Sure. Was it assuming something that shouldn’t have been assumed? Absolutely. Was it a blatant lack of effort and a sign that B.J. Upton doesn’t care. I say no.

    Your mileage may vary.

    • itstobs permalink
      15 July 2010 5:12 pm

      Interesting. Did not know that about the Tampaites (Tampanians? Tampans? Tampons?). Although I suppose there is a point in there somewhere about the LVP on a great team being himself a good player, or something like that. And, of course, I tend to think that most people (and certainly the media) uses LVP for disappointments in most cases.

      Not in a position to agree or disagree on the sample size issue; you watch the games so I certainly trust you if you’re saying he doesn’t do it anymore.

      Assuming the truth of Upton’s explanation–and I have no reason to doubt it, but would simply note that if it was pure, calculated, knowing laziness, we’d never hear about it–it’s still bad baseball. But I guess if it’s his practice to do a courtesy trot to balls in the gap when playing next to Crawford, at some point that’s gotta be on Joe Maddon and not Upton.

    • bskazzy permalink
      16 July 2010 4:56 pm

      Beyond that is how we evaluate the “tiff”. Longoria is seen as a leader for stepping up to Upton. I guarantee you, if the situation was reversed, Upton would be viewed as a troublemaker and a hot head.

      We construct simplistic narratives about individuals, with race being a major contributing factor (among many, many other things). Once people get a label, our confirmation bias only allows us to see that which supports this label and we disregard everything else. The problem is how quickly we apply labels, what we do when confronted with evidence to the contrary, and our general inability to understand nuance in people.

      Is it possible Escobar was ‘lazy’ when it came to learning English? Does this necessarily mean that he was lazy on the field? No. But it’s a lot easier if we can paint with broad strokes…

      Thanks for this post. Too few people, in general, address such issues and it’s good to see that you do. Keep up the good work.

  5. mrokjazztokyo permalink
    15 July 2010 11:16 pm

    Very interesting discussion here, thanks.

    Jonah, I think your point about having bilingual “mental” coaches is crucial, look forward to reading about the Rays approach when the book comes out. And to the podcasts! I insist on a “Best Simpsons side characters” edition inbetween the stat geekery!

  6. 16 July 2010 2:10 am

    Great piece, Jonah. Thought I’d check in with this frequent racial observation I’ve noted. Whenever a scrappy or gritty player is referred to as a “real lunch pail kind of guy,” (think Rose, Kruk, Eckstein) he is ALWAYS white. Tim Raines was all of those things and more in his career, and not once did I hear him receive an honorary lunch pail.

  7. jhf884 permalink
    16 July 2010 5:27 pm

    What a terrible article.

    So terrible, I created an account just to comment.

    (a) Why do you never address that the Braves are stocked full (at every level) with Latino players, many of whom speak little or no English? On the big league club alone, you have Melky, Martin Prado, Omar Infante, etc.

    (b) Why do you never address the fact that Alex Gonzalez is himself Latin? If they got rid of Yunel just b/c they can’t stand Latins, why *trade* for another one?

    (c) 3/4 of your article is entirely irrelevant to your original tweet unless you assume that incompetence is convertible w/ racism. Yunel is/was one of my favorite braves. I’ll continue to root for him, and I fully expect he’ll snap out of his extended slump while playing for the Blue Jays. But his sabermetrical awesomeness or lack thereof is irrelevant to the question at hand: was race a motivating factor. The fact that this may have been a bad deal, *DOES NOT MEAN* it was a racist deal!

    (d) On that note, it isn’t like the braves are extremely sabermetrically inclined at the best of times. Sure, they aren’t as bad as they once were, but they still rely foremost on their rather excellent scouting staff. Maybe, just maybe, that staff is telling them that something is wrong with Yunel, and he will never develop, and that Alex Gonzalez has turned a corner. I don’t know that this is the case, but you never even mention it as a possibility.

    (e) The Braves certainly didn’t like Yunel’s attitude, from what I’ve heard. But what has that got to do with his race? NOTHING! An irritating showboat is an irritating showboat. I loved watching Yunel, I’m sad they dealt him. Clearly, Bobby and the rest of the coaching staff felt differently. You provide ZERO evidence tying Yunel’s lack of ability to get along w/ the Brave’s coaches to his race. Only vague platitudes about white folks viewing colored folks as “natural” and “smooth” and holding them somehow double accountable for lack of hustle. OK, then why do the braves have such great relationships with so many other Latin american players? Over the course of Bobby’s tenure with the Braves DOZENS of Latin Players have played with the braves. Including “smooth, gifted” ones, such as Andruw Jones and Rafael Furcal. Andruw spent 10+ years playing in Atlanta. He departed, not due to bad feelings with the Braves but to seek more money. They recently tried to re-acquire Furcal, the deal being all but completed. This flies in the face of your assertion that the Braves make deals motivated by race.

    (f) Martin Prado speaks to reports through an interpreter (usually, I believe, Eddie Perez, a COACH on the Braves and, yes, Latin). I have no evidence to suggest that Prado’s English is any better than Yunel’s. Yet Martin is *loved* in Atlanta, and rightly so. Could it be, just possibly, that Yunel’s personality and not his race or nationality is the reason that his relationship with the Braves was so bad.

    And yes, Martin doesn’t play with the apparent grace and ease that Yunel plays with, and yes, Martin is a “scrapper” and “hustler.” So what? All that shows it that Atlanta likes scrappy hustlers. This may be dumb, but is is NOT racist.

    In conclusion, yeah the deal looks bad for Atlanta (at least, if you don’t analyze the minor leaguers who were also traded). I don’t like the trade much myself at all. But getting a bad deal, and being racist are not the same.

    You provided NO evidence of racism, in the face of ample evidence (for those who cared to look) to the contrary. The best you’ve got is some outdated stereotypes, that you assert are pervasive throughout the sporting and business world. You ignore, specific, concrete and palpable evidence that the Braves do not have any bias against latin players in particular, and are striving to win with the best players they can get, whatever their race may be.

    I don’t know who you are or what you do for a living, but your article was lazy, ignorant, and uniformed — even for the internet.

    • bskazzy permalink
      16 July 2010 5:37 pm

      This is an epic fail of an argument and it’s amazing you constructed such a long one with nary a point.

      Keri never said it was blatant, explicit racism or organizational hatred of Latinos. He wondered aloud whether race factored into the perception of Escobar being “lazy” and having “character issues”, two of the primary justifications given for making a trade that, on paper, seems to make little sense. Another writer/blogger recently did a little informal survey, coming up with 20 examples of players of color vs 1 white player being considered “lazy” or cited for “lack of hustle”. So, the question is legitimate. Now, it’s just about impossible to know for sure exactly what motivated the Braves. But it’s certainly possible that Escobar’s race factored into it, in the sense that he gained a reputation that was more predicated upon his ethnicity than his individual characteristics. It’s far from being case closed on the matter, but what’s wrong with asking the question?

      Oh yea, folks like you get their panties in a bunch…

      • jhf884 permalink
        16 July 2010 8:06 pm

        Did I ever say that he said it was blatant explicit racism? No I didn’t.

        Accusing an organization of having a bias against Latino players is a serious accusation, one that I would think warrants a factual basis. And what basis are you providing? An informal survey by a blogger? Really? *That’s* your argument? Don’t make me laugh!

        Let me be clear here: I’ll freely admit that there may indeed be racial stereo-typing (be it conscious or not) of Latino players on the lines of “lazy” and “character issues.”

        No one has yet come up with ANY evidence that this is what happened in the Yunel trade. (Which again, I agree, was probably a bad trade – though I’m not familiar enough w/ the minor leaguers involved to really say).

        It is lazy as hell to label any club that has issues with a Latino player as racist without looking into the particulars of the situation. Wondering aloud is well and good, but either provide some concrete evidence that Yunel was treated differently (subconsciously or not) b/c of his race, or shut the hell up.

  8. lordd99 permalink
    16 July 2010 6:09 pm

    “If Yunel Escobar was a charming white guy, would they trade him for a 33-year-old with a career .294 OBP?”

    Perhaps not. But that’s not really the right question if you’re trying to imply racism. Instead, the question would be, “If Yunel Escobar was a disliked white guy, would they trade him for a 33-year-old with a career .294.”

    I suggest if that was the case, and Escobar was a white kid with the same baggage, then yes he would have been traded.

    When Alex Gonzalez showed up in the Braves club house, he received a standing ovation from the players. Most there don’t even know Gonzalez, so the reaction said little about Gonzalez but much about Escobar. Hey, perhaps every single player, both black and white, are racists on the Atlanta team. Somehow I doubt it. Club house cancers do exist. Teams put up with these players when they produce, especially when they are young. When they don’t produce, they become an endangered species.

    I’m not saying there wasn’t some racist element at play here. I just haven’t seen enough evidence (actually any) to say that’s the case.

    A couple years back, the White Sox traded a young outfielder, a former #1 pick, who had already produced several solid seasons on the MLB level and was heading into what should have been his peak years. Unfortunately, he had a bad year in 2008 for a White Sox team expecting to contend. Worse, he possessed a personality where some, particularly his manager, questioned his work ethic. The two were from different cultures and backgrounds, although in this case the manager, Ozzie Guillen, was the minority and the OFer was white. The player, of course, is Nick Swisher. Horrible deal by the White Sox, and many recognized at the time it was a potential steal by the Yankees.

    Does the manner in which the Swisher situation was handled mean that Guillen a racist? Or is it possible that a clash of personality types, a very normal and human trait, led to a stupid deal in both these cases? ( And considering that Swisher is certainly not a problem in the club house means that the Escobar trade is even more defensible.) Sometimes the obvious answer is the answer. I don’t think this deal was about racism.

  9. bskazzy permalink
    16 July 2010 9:46 pm

    You are claiming Keri accused the braves of having an organizational bias… something he never said. No one is labeling them anything. Keri is (rightfully, IMHO) wondering if this tendency towards racial stereo-typing was a factor. He drew no conclusions. He’s asking questions, not giving answers. Proving bias of this kind is essentially impossible, given the availability of evidence (we can’t crawl inside people’s brains), especially when it is of the implicit or subconscious variety. All we can do is look for patterns and, if/when we find them, attempt to bring them to light and examine them. That is what the informal survey the blogger I mentioned did. He didn’t classify anyone as racist or biased; he simply said, “Isn’t this interesting? What might be the cause for this pattern?”

    What evidence do you have that it was NOT impacted by racial bias?

    And, yes, I realize it’s unfair to ask you to prove a negative and that, generally speaking, people making a positive assertion assume the burden of proof. But I’m attempting to point out how tricky a situation this is, and while one must be careful about making “accusations” as you coin them, if you read carefully, no one did that here. So get off your soapbox, which you climbed up with conclusion in hand clearly before reading/digesting either the article or my response to you, and actually respond to what we are saying.

    • jhf884 permalink
      16 July 2010 10:11 pm

      Wow. Have fun battering your strawman. Get back to me when you actually read what I wrote.

  10. bskazzy permalink
    17 July 2010 12:12 am

    Done and done.

    You said:
    “Accusing an organization of having a bias against Latino players is a serious accusation, one that I would think warrants a factual basis. And what basis are you providing? An informal survey by a blogger? Really? *That’s* your argument? Don’t make me laugh!”

    What accusations were made?

    You said:
    “It is lazy as hell to label any club that has issues with a Latino player as racist without looking into the particulars of the situation. Wondering aloud is well and good, but either provide some concrete evidence that Yunel was treated differently (subconsciously or not) b/c of his race, or shut the hell up.”

    Again, who labeled them that? And apparently wondering aloud is NOT all well and good, if we must abide by your standards of evidence.

    You said:
    “You ignore, specific, concrete and palpable evidence that the Braves do not have any bias against latin players in particular, and are striving to win with the best players they can get, whatever their race may be.”

    No one said the Braves had a specific bias against Latin players in particular. Even if we had, you offer no evidence to the contrary. Employing Latin players/coaches is not concrete evidence of non-bias.

    So, yea, I DID read what you wrote, tough guy. It’s you with the reading comprehension problem. Look up what “Straw Man” means before tossing it around so gingerly. Then get back to me.

    • jhf884 permalink
      17 July 2010 8:35 am

      OK, I’ll play along:

      (a) Racist (meaning “racial prejudice”) is a big term. I used it to include the subtle unconscious sort that the article AND the tweet explicit accuse the braves of having. I didn’t think anyone would get confused. I should have realized, this is the internet.

      (b) Bias obviously includes “long-ingrained/probably-not-even-realized biases.” And the article and tweet are explicitly talking about that sort of bias w/r/t Latino players (w/r/t the Braves that is). Moreover, employing and having great relationship with many many Latino players/coaches is OBVIOUSLY evidence against such bias! If the bias is an observable phenomenon we could expect it to have an observable effect, like say, a history of trouble w/ Latino or other players of color. Oh wait, I forgot, this is just “wondering aloud” no need for evidence here.

      I’ll admit this, though. I accused the author of not recognizing the possibility that the Braves’ scouts saw something he (and quite frankly, I myself) didn’t. The article does in fact take into account this possibility. It’s funny, I rather agree with the baseball parts of the article – though I don’t know enough about the minor league rs to evaluate the trade, and obviously, it can’t be properly evaluated without including their values.

      But the article (and the tweet) do accuse the Braves of (albeit subtle and unconscious) racial bias that motivated/helped motivate them into getting rid of a Latino player.

      The only one who has *ever* in this entire conversation brought up “blatant, explicit racism or organizational hatred of Latinos” was YOU. Not me. Not the author of the article.

      The definition of strawman, is substituting an extreme easily defeated position for the one your opponent actually holds. And you might want to look up the meaning of “gingerly,” smart guy.

      But, as Matthew Arnold once said “rassle with a turd, and you’re bound to be be-shat.”

    • jhf884 permalink
      17 July 2010 8:40 am

      I also like how you cherry pick my comment from my 2nd post – which makes it explicitly clear that I’m not talking about any overt racism.

      Even better is your continued insistence that the burden of proof is on me, to prove that the Braves aren’t biased! How 1984!

      You aren’t, per chance, a college freshman are you? That would explain a lot: the willful misunderstanding of your opponent’s position; the misuse of “intelligent-sounding” words; the cherry-picking of statements …

  11. bskazzy permalink
    17 July 2010 8:58 am

    I’m really doubting your ability to read. I “cherry picked” by essentially quoting your WHOLE second post, in pieces, to show how my response was formulated. Um, okay.

    And when I said this: “And, yes, I realize it’s unfair to ask you to prove a negative and that, generally speaking, people making a positive assertion assume the burden of proof,” I was CLEARLY insisting that the burden of proof falls on you. Seriously man, did you read what I said or just read every other word of it?

    When you said, “In conclusion, yeah the deal looks bad for Atlanta (at least, if you don’t analyze the minor leaguers who were also traded). I don’t like the trade much myself at all. But getting a bad deal, and being racist are not the same,” you clearly presented a straw man, positing a false dichotomy in which the only two possibilities were make a bad trade or being racists and implied that Keri argued the latter. Something he didn’t do.

    When I used the term “blatant, explicit racism or organizational hatred of Latinos” it was preceded by “Keri never said it was”, so if we want to talk about cherry picking, how about you actually put my quotes in context.

    The facts remain… your response to Keri’s article demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of his thesis. He never argued that the Braves harbored an institutional bias against all Latinos to the point of treating them as second class citizens. The evidence you provide clearly demonstrates that. The question is whether or not racial stereotypes factored into the assessment of Escobar’s character, which was given as the primary defense of a trade that, on paper, looks like a big loss for the Braves. You act as if race relations fall into two categories: blatant racism or absolutely no racism. It’s not that simple.

    No one here besmirched the Braves. There is no insult to wonder if subconscious racial biases (something we ALL have) might have factored in. Your response was so kneejerk it makes my head spin. If anyone engaged in straw man, it was you, as Kerri essentially said, “I wonder if race was a factor,” and you responded with, “How dare you call them racists!” How do you not see that?

    My personal favorite is how you essentially went to the, “Let me tell you about all my black friends,” response to demonstrate a lack of racism. How cute. How quaint. How antiquated and, ultimately, useless.

    • jhf884 permalink
      17 July 2010 10:23 am

      OK, and with this I’ll be done.

      You didn’t quote my entire second post, particularly not the part where I said “Did I ever say that he said it was blatant explicit racism? No I didn’t.” Nor the part where I said “I’ll freely admit that there may indeed be racial stereo-typing (be it conscious or not) of Latino players on the lines of ‘lazy’ and ‘character issues.’ No one has yet come up with ANY evidence that this is what happened in the Yunel trade.”

      Both clearly indicate that I understand that this discussion wasn’t about overt racism. YOU raised overt racism, by defending Jonah from being attacked on those lines – then when I point that out, you accuse me of cherry-picking. Not so. I understand your position. It just isn’t responsive to my position – thus the straw-man comment.

      Moreover, you persisted by telling me that “Even if we had, you offer no evidence to the contrary.” As if the burden of proof should be on me here. You know that the burden isn’t on me. So stop repeating that (poor) argument.

      I shouldn’t have insulted you, I don’t know you, and maybe you are a great guy in person. Yes, I don’t like people idly speculating that my team makes important moves based on (conscious or not) racial biases. If I was an employer, and I fired someone because of subconscious racial biases, that’s reprehensible, right?

      I’d love to have a serious discussion about this, but you keep misreading what I’m saying, in post after post. I have never thought anybody accused anyone of conscious racism! Why you keep throwing that at me is beyond me. If it wasn’t clear earlier, it certainly should be by this point.

      As to my argument, if subconscious racial bias was influencing who the Braves traded and kept, then one would expect it to be a repeatable, observable, phenomenon. Facts will show subconscious biases as well, assuming any exists. And the Braves hiring and firing of Latinos is relevant to this. Do you care about what actual exists? Or do you want to dismiss concrete evidence as “let me tell you about my black friends.” It is highly fallacious to

      I’m trying to be patient in this reply. Please don’t mistake this as mere flippancy. But you have completely misread my arguments, and persistently responded to points I explicitly say that I do not hold.

      Thank you for a very amusing discussion.

  12. bskazzy permalink
    17 July 2010 9:00 am

    And, no, I’m not a college freshmen. I do like how you’ve quickly devolved to both ad hominem attacks AND appeals to anti-intellectualism. “Ooo, look at Mr. Fancy-pants with his BIG WORDS and BOOK LEARNING.” Brilliant.

    • jhf884 permalink
      17 July 2010 10:25 am

      For the sake of clarity, I was insinuating that you had little to no education and were not very bright.

      What you meant to say is I was appealing to intellectual snobbery and elitism. Not anti-intellectualism.

      Anti-intellectualism means folks who are *against* intellectuals.

      Glad I could be of service!

  13. Jonah permalink*
    17 July 2010 2:14 pm

    Not buying it re: Francoeur. He was no longer a 0-to-3 player when he was traded. You don’t pay multi millions to the least-used half of a platoon if you’re a team with an actual budget.

  14. pspaeth1 permalink
    18 July 2010 8:27 pm

    Bit of an interloper here but I’m writing to merely express gratitude.
    This post and its contra provide a well-reasoned, civil and (in my opinion) extremely articulate argument about a baseball trade.

    And I can’t resist the urge to conflate it with the state of the union?

    Do you think you’d ever see this on the airwaves without having it reduced to a schoolyard shouting match about race? Limbaugh? Olbermann? (right, left). Forget the fact that it’s about baseball, the blogosphere is full of these insightful, sober analysts on any number of issues.

    Think they’ll ever see the light of (ESPN’s, CNN’s, MSNBC’s or ClearChannel’s) day?

    Of course not.

    No wonder all the bloggers live in their mother’s basements (as the saying goes).

    The big money’s with the idiots.

    Thanks again.

    • Jonah permalink*
      18 July 2010 8:32 pm

      Thanks for stopping by.

      And absolutely, all forms of debate are encouraged here, including (especially!) the ones where I’m called a big, fat idiot. Can’t write in a cocoon and expect to improve.

  15. Jonah permalink*
    19 July 2010 9:55 am

    Escobar’s weekend grand slam says hi.

    Seriously, his HR/FB rate in the first half was 0.0%. The one area that was supposed to be a slam dunk advantage for Gonzalez, home run power, is entirely a crapshoot the rest of the way.

  16. Shaun permalink
    19 July 2010 2:46 pm

    That’s the catch, Escobar has performed so far below his career norms at an age when he should be having one of if not his best season and the Braves are trying to win now, so they can’t really afford to take a chance that Escobar’s struggles are limited to only a little over half a season.

    Next question is did they upgrade? Gonzalez is not a great player but he’s not a hugely significant downgrade over Escobar. Plus the trade was not just shortstop-for-shortstop. The Braves got prospects that could be attractive to other teams or could create organizational depth to make a trade. My point wasn’t that those two prospects would necessarily be traded for Adam Dunn. My point was they’ve added value so that they can make a trade. Even if they lose the shortstop-for-shortstop part of the deal, they still have enough value in their organization to make a bigger deal. We’ll see if my instincts are correct, but I suspect a big factor in this deal was gaining value in terms of tradeable players.

    Did race, culture or personality play a role? Did the Braves have an unconscious bias against Escobar that caused them to trade him once he was under-performing over several months?

    I’m not so sure. It’s a complicated issue and it’s difficult to get into the head of one person let alone an entire organization.

    I do know that based on the past, the Braves have been willing to trade players who were under-performing, many of those moves worked out and they’ve traded players of all backgrounds when they feel they aren’t or can’t help the team any longer.

    I hate to bring up Francoeur because I know he’s a vastly inferior player to Escobar. But Francoeur was young, white and about as charming as you can get. While you discount him as a baseball player, he is a perfectly capable platoon player in the majors (.301/.344/.482 versus lefties). The Braves could have easily justified keeping him around and he actually would have been a useful player. (By the way, I think trading Francoeur was the right move for the Braves, so don’t get me wrong here.) But they traded Francoeur for a 30-year-old, mediocre outfielder having an awful season.

    The Francoeur trade admittedly doesn’t tell us everything about the Escobar trade and what role cultural and racial background played in the trade. But it gives an indication that the Braves don’t seem all that concerned about charm and personality.

    Also, do the Braves think the move is to diversity their offense or to improve their offense?

    The Braves probably think the Gonzalez move is going to increase their bases gains (TB+BB) and is not going to decrease their on-base percentage all that much. The likely view this as improving their offense rather than diversifying it. We can argue whether they are misguided in this view but I firmly believe that’s their thinking.

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