Bob Brenly may be gone, but he is left one legacy with the Cubs. That would be the hyper-focus on anything and everything Starlin Castro did that he didn’t like. He was the heir apparent to the the spot formerly reserved for Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano. It didn’t matter if it was a physical error or a mental error, Brenly was on it. If Castro looked over his shoulder as he ran the bases, Brenly would make sure to spend a minute of our broadcast time on that. If Brenly didn’t like Castro’s “body language” he was sure to point it out to you. And if Castro took a second to admire a long blast, we should get a couple of different looks at it until people were talking about that as much as the HR itself. I was disappointed to see Cubs color man Jim Deshaies and David Kaplan continue that narrative because it further fuels the perception.
These little quirks/imperfections we harp on are things that many baseball players do. I don’t necessarily like them but they are part of the game. What I don’t like is the imbalance of the reporting. If you point it out every time for Castro, then you have to point it out every time for everyone else, otherwise you create a skewed perception that it is Castro doing this and nobody else. When you magnify simple errors and gloss over the many more good plays, you skew the importance of the relatively trivial over the actual production on the field. And once this is started, it takes on a life of it’s own, we become conditioned for confirmation bias. We will see fans point out Castro’s mistakes — and if you point out somebody else making the same error, the response is typical…”Well, Castro does this all the time.”
But does he really? Or are we still going off the narrative created by Brenly and some other members of the media? Could it be just be because those mistakes are consistently pointed out while others are ignored that it warps our perception of what is really happening? Has it become that ingrained that we truly believe Castro makes exponentially more mental errors than every other player in baseball? Because unless you are counting “mental mistakes” with every player with the same vigilance, then we lack any real context for objective comparison. It becomes selective bias and with each mistake we count, no matter how small it is, it confirms that bias. So unless you have a running tally for each time every player turned his head to look behind him, stared a bit longer at a HR, or made a mistake on the bases and can give us some sort of objectively measured comparative analysis, then I don’t want to hear it.
We have seen this before with Aramis Ramirez and the middle years with Alfonso Soriano. In fact, the perception of Soriano as a selfish, lazy player was so pervasive that Theo Epstein himself had bought into it, later saying he was surprised as to how much of a positive clubhouse influence and team leader he was. He didn’t get to know the real situation until he saw it up close. And then it took a lot of time before he could convince other teams that the original narrative was false, finally getting the Yankees to take him on – and even then it was reportedly an ownership decision and against Cashman’s wishes. Not surprisingly, Soriano led the Yankees and gave them some hope down the stretch last season.
So, if you don’t think this selectively biased criticism of Castro is harmful, think again. Perception is everything.
Perhaps a better example of how this hurt a team was the Arizona Diamondbacks and Justin Upton. Upton was the D’Backs version of Castro in that he took an undue amount of criticism for a perceived attitude, lack of effort, mental errors, failure in the clutch, and so-called bad body language. In the D’Backs case it was even implicitly backed up their own manager, the grinder-loving Kirk Gibson. He made it clear that Upton didn’t fit his mold.
Yet, just like Cubs fans, the D’Backs assumed that nobody else would notice or care about their inner perceptions and that teams would be prepared to offer a king’s ransom for their young all-star. But just like Soriano’s reputation preceded him when Theo came to Chicago, Upton’s reputation was well established around the league, so that when the D’Backs asked for a big return, teams scoffed, knowing that the D’Backs were more than ready to move on. The Diamondbacks and their fans also made it known they were largely unconcerned about losing their star outfielder because they had tremendous young depth in the outfield. And not just depth, but players that they believed were a better fit for the team’s culture.
After two years of trying to trade him, the D’Backs finally found a partner in the shrewd Atlanta Braves. Not only were the Braves able to trade for Upton for pennies on the dollar, only giving up one year of Martin Prado, overvalued pitching prospect Randall Delgado, RHP prospect Zeke Sprull, and SS prospect Nick Ahmed — but they also got another player “thrown in” in Chris Johnson, who wound up starting for them at 3B.
So Cubs fans who are weary of Castro and want to see him traded — and even those who have passively approved of the idea — those who are becoming complicit by their resignation to the inevitability, I give you fair warning: Don’t be surprised if you are tremendously disappointed in the return if the Cubs force a trade (I don’t think they will). The word I’m getting is that the perception around the league, even though it is a false perception, is that the Cubs are down on Castro despite the resurgent season. There is a belief outside the organization that trading him is inevitable. My feeling is that just like teams did with Upton, they will attempt to wait out the Cubs until the price comes down.
Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks have little to show for their return so far while Upton and his “bad, selfish attitude” have thrived in Atlanta — but it’s funny that you haven’t heard about that so-called attitude since he’s been traded. Maybe some of that is better PR from the Braves — or maybe the narrative about Upton in Arizona was horribly wrong. I tend to think that the latter is true in this case.
And that Diamondbacks’ outfield? Well, things haven’t worked out quite as planned. David Peralta, Ender Inciarte, and Alfredo Marte are the starters right now after the trades of Adam Eaton and Geraldo Parra, the fall of Jason Kubel, the injury to AJ Pollock. They’ve been okay, but none of them can come close to matching Upton’s production and the D’Backs have been hurt by his loss. Towers is now gone and Gibson should soon follow, but the damage has already been done.
So while I don’t see Castro as a star or a perfect player at this point, he has been a productive offensive SS, ranking in the top 5 in offensive stats such as wOBA and RC+ all year long while improving his defense, committing just 15 errors while generating positive value on defense. He had his 3rd all-star season and was well on his way to his third 3+ WAR season. Unfortunately, if you ask some people, you don’t hear about that, you hear about the narrative.
And don’t be surprised if that narrative ends up hurting the Cubs if they do trade Castro, don’t be shocked when he thrives elsewhere and you suddenly don’t hear so much about all the little things that seemingly happened “all the time”. Don’t be amazed that Castro winds up being the best player with the best career in any deal that involves him.
I trust that this front office will be more shrewd than the D’Backs and if they can’t get what they want for Castro that they’ll simply hang on to him as he selfishly provides top 5 offensive production from the SS and makes a few more all-star teams.
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