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