Giants: The Astros, Gabe Kapler, and building the right culture
The Houston Astros rightfully fired Brandon Taubman for his conduct, but he is emblematic of a culture that the San Francisco Giants must be wary of.
When the San Francisco Giants hired Farhan Zaidi as their president of baseball operations I was excited. I came of age amidst the Moneyball generation of baseball fans. While the Giants were floundering from 2005-2008 amid a series of bad investments in aging players, I craved a new philosophy on team building.
Thankfully, I was just an elementary schooler. My plans to overhaul the front office were ignored and the Giants regime comprised of Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans went on to build a dynasty that would bring San Francisco three World Series titles in five years.
Even as the team had success, though, I became more enamored with the potential for advanced data and economic methods to help build a team. By the time the Giants’ reign was fading to black, teams like the Dodgers and Astros were lapping San Francisco in their use of data throughout their organization.
Zaidi’s resume was built off work with the team’s two biggest rivals; the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics. His career began in the organization that birthed the movement and continued with the organization that has stood atop the NL West standings since 2010.
The one holdover from the old regime, manager Bruce Bochy, announced he would step away at the end of the 2019 season. During Bochy’s farewell tour, Zaidi’s organizational transformation began to take shape. While it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions, the team’s farm system has improved, the Giants became one of the most active teams on the waiver wire, and the major league team began utilizing tactics rarely employed in years prior.
As this year’s playoffs have advanced, in the background, Zaidi has been conducting job searches for both the general manager and manager positions in San Francisco. Those two hires will form a large part of the team culture going forward.
On the surface, the Astros seem like the perfect franchise to emulate. They won the World Series in 2017, reached the ALCS last season, and are preparing for Game 7 of the World Series tonight against the Washington Nationals. However, recent reporting has revealed a cost of Houston’s success. I would argue it’s a price the Giants should not be willing to pay.
By now a number of brilliant writers have weighed in on the incident that led Houston Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman to lose his job with the team. If you somehow haven’t stumbled across the story yet, it’s worse than you realize.
Stephanie Apstein of Sports Illustrated described the scene in the Astros clubhouse after the team had clinched a spot in the World Series:
"More than an hour after José Altuve won the Astros the pennant, the party in the Houston clubhouse still raged. Rightfielder Josh Reddick was crushing vodka Red Bulls. Starter Gerrit Cole smoked a cigar. Shortstop Carlos Correa gazed lovingly at the American League championship trophy.And in the center of the room, assistant general manager Brandon Taubman turned to a group of three female reporters, including one wearing a purple domestic-violence awareness bracelet, and yelled, half a dozen times, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so f—— glad we got Osuna!”The outburst was offensive and frightening enough that another Houston staffer apologized. The Astros declined to comment. They also declined to make Taubman available for an interview."
Prior to the stories release, Apstein asked the Astros organization for comment, but the team declined. Later that night, however, after the report was made public, the team responded lambasting Sports Illustrated, calling the story “misleading and completely irresponsible” while arguing that Taubman’s comments were “supporting a player” and “were also not directed toward any specific reporters.” The team’s accusations were severe and quickly proved false.
Before the end of the night, numerous reporters, including two at the Houston Chronicle, confirmed Apstein’s description of the events.
Taubman’s cries of Osuna, of course, refer to Astros reliever Roberto Osuna who Houston acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays last July. He had become one of the best young relievers in baseball with the Blue Jays when he was arrested for suspicion of assaulting the mother of his child. Little was ever released about the incident, but sources said the police saw “significant injuries” on the alleged female victim. Major League Baseball felt they found enough evidence in their internal investigation to suspend Osuna for 75 games.
While Osuna was serving his suspension, the Astros decided to trade for him. According to Jeff Passan of ESPN.com, general manager Jeff Luhnow ignored the advice of many members of the front office and decided to make the deal. The victim eventually left Canada and declined to pursue charges against Osuna, but the evidence spoke for itself.
In Passan’s article, he describes a culture so dedicated to good baseball value that they essentially saw the domestic violence incident as a positive. It meant that fewer teams would be involved in the bidding for the reliever and that would allow the team to acquire him for less than fair market value.
Sheryl Ring at FanGraphs wrote about the human cost of including people like Osuna or other perpetrators of domestic violence in baseball. It is another reminder to victims of domestic violence, primarily women, that their safety is secondary to the talent of a perpetrator.
The Astros clearly did not want to fire Taubman, but eventually gave in after the story dominated news cycles.
Win at all costs.
When one of those costs is the safety of partners and children or the comfort of fans who have been harmed by domestic violence, these are the bridges too far.
Or at least they should be.
Are fans willing to take that stand? If this truly is unacceptable to us, and it should be, then fans need to show their collective might by turning their backs on the teams that support this win at all costs mindset.
The Astros have seemingly built a culture where econometric models are taken to their extreme, to the point that they make the decisions. Morality is easy to leave behind in that formula.
A culture like that perceives itself as morally neutral. All decisions are boiled down to expected values and methods that claim to remove as much bias as possible. Except computers don’t have morality, and the people using them have a responsibility to remember that.
While Zaidi surely aims to replicate Houston’s on-field success, I would hope he will also aspire to a stronger moral compass. However, his managerial search already raises some questions.
Three candidates have received multiple interviews and are perceived as the finalists for the job. Pedro Grifol is currently the quality control coach for the Royals, Joe Espada is the Astros bench coach, and Gabe Kapler was recently fired after two seasons as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Ironically, I am not critical of Espada as a candidate. The reporting around the Astros has almost entirely centralized at the highest reaches of the team’s front office. No reports have suggested that coaches had any say on the Osuna transaction.
It’s Kapler, who Philadelphia originally hired away from the Dodgers organization, who concerns me.
Ann Killion of The San Francisco Chronicle criticized his candidacy almost as soon as it was announced, and rightfully so.
During Kapler’s time as the head of player development in Los Angeles, there were two occasions where players were involved in incidents that included accusations of sexual assault. On both occasions, Kapler never reported the incidents to the police and tried to mediate the incidents himself.
His past is emblematic of the exact culture that views the team above everything.
When the Giants decided to bring Larry Baer back to the front office after a public altercation with his wife, I wrote: “A day will come when a player with a history of domestic violence becomes available. Now, Larry Baer will have a voice in whether the San Francisco Giants are willing to sign him. That shouldn’t be acceptable.”
Simply put, Kapler’s past should eliminate him from consideration for any role with the team.
When the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010, my father and I embraced as we both began to cry. We will always remember that moment as one of the greatest of our lives. It was also just a World Series. Both things are true.
This is the contradiction inherent in sports. It means so much, yet it remains just a game.
Farhan Zaidi was a refreshing hire because he brought the vision of modern baseball to San Francisco. That vision should be inclusive of women and victims of sexual and domestic violence.
So this is my call to Farhan Zaidi: If the difference between winning and losing requires letting morality go, please don’t.
In his first season, he brought the opener, unparalleled roster shuffling, and a host of internal changes that have given fans reason for excitement. All that is moot if he fails where it matters most.