Sonny Gray’s back wasn’t up for a day game against the Jays today. It was having spasms, and subsequently got Gray scratched from the contest. Of course, as soon as that happened, the internet caught fire with speculation over whether Sonny Gray’s back was actually spasming, or was it his ego spasming at the thought of his potential CY Young season getting obliterated by the Blue Jays’ 100 megaton lineup—the one that put up a 10 spot less than 24 hours earlier.
These are just allegations, mind you. There is zero truth to it. Sonny Gray is a young Klingon warrior who would rather die in battle than in a training room, in dishonor. Besides, even a rough outing for Gray wouldn’t shift his season numbers that far out of whack. Therefore, any ascribed cowardice is a function of convenient narrative, a low hanging fruit for Jays fans to pluck as they beat their chest about how good their team has suddenly become, not a true representation of Gray’s demeanor.
That said, this does happen. Players do invent reasons to avoid tough encounters, avoid day games, or even take a pass on tough lineups/or pitchers.
As a matter of fact it happens pretty frequently, especially closer to the end of the season. For example, I played with a guy who wanted his batting average to be over .300 at the end of the year because having a batting average over .300 gets you into the Fall League faster than not having one over .300. It also gets you into Winter Ball, where you can collect $20,000 for a month or so of work.
There are entities around baseball that aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing beyond your stats. Winter Ball is one of the most notorious for this. Winter Ball clubs will literally look at your final season totals with NO IDEA who you are and decide you’re good—because your numbers say you are— and make you an offer. Then, when you show up and don’t do well, they’ll replace you, sometimes after just one bad outing. It’s not an efficient system, but its lack off efficiency doesn’t make it any less of a reality.
If this sounds like something that only happens in “The Jungle”, aka, Winter Ball, think again. It happens in MLB related pronouncements as well. Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, contract bonus thresholds… We’re simply programmed to look at quantitative data over qualitative in this profession, and while the industry has shifted to explore both in a more sincere fashion, it still has a long way to go.
If Sonny Gray took a pass on the Jays, but went on to steamroll the rest of the league, his body of work is so good that no one is going to look back and say, “yes, he’s good, but remember that start he could have made against the Jays but didn’t? FOR SHAME!” No, most likely they’ll debate other minutia, stuff about how the A’s offense didn’t have the clout the Astro’s offense did, and, therefore, Sonny is more deserving because he had less “help” or something. Who knows? And who knows how many of his opponents for the title didn’t do the same thing themselves?
Point is, players will, and do take selective days off purely to give themselves a better chance to preserve stats. It happens more when you’re on a team that’s not in contention. Bautista’s back has hurt toward the end of seasons past, when the team was out of it, usually on day games… Lots of great hitters pull the “food poisoning” vacation, or “hammy-itus “day off, or “LHP Flu.” Usually it’s on a day game after a night game, when the season is unofficially over. Some players have taken a whole week or longer before the end of the season off just so they can sit on their excellent stats, ensuring they are in a better negotiating position come next season.
Call it cheap or cowardly, but in a profession where accumulated numbers talk the loudest, it’s just good business sense.
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