The Giants Do It Old School

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With the tiered playoff system, single game play-ins, and short series, two World Series titles in three years counts as a dynasty in today’s game. By that metric, the San Francisco Giants are a new-age dynasty. That they accomplished this with decidedly old-school principles in the era of stat-based dominance and condescension, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michael Lewis—the chronicler of the paragon of stat-based theories of Billy Beane in Moneyball—step over Beane and saunter over to Giants’ GM Brian Sabean and declare that he always knew there were alternate methods to success in baseball, but simply forgot to say it; that Moneyball was about more than just numbers and Ivy League educated “geniuses” permeating (or infecting) baseball morphing front offices from cigar-chomping old men using randomness into put their teams together to something resembling a Star Trek convention. It was actually about value and was not a denigration of alternate methods to finding players.

Of course that would be a lie, but truth has never stood in the way of Lewis when he has an ending in mind and is willing to do whatever necessary to get to that ending—accuracy be damned.

The boxing promoter Don King was famous for his sheer and unending audacity in this vein of going with the winner, exemplified early in his career as a boxing promoter (and not long after his release from prison) when he walked to the ring with then-heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and rapidly switched allegiances to George Foreman when Foreman knocked Frazier out. King magically emerged as part of the celebration in Foreman’s corner.

But King is a genius and Lewis isn’t. In fact, King wallowed in his amorality; Lewis doesn’t realize what he’s doing is amoral to begin with. Masked by legitimacy and critical acclaim, Lewis is far worse than King could ever be.

Because the Athletics had a shocking season in which they won 94 games and made the playoffs, losing to the AL Champion Tigers in 5 games, Lewis and Moneyball again entered the spotlight as if the 2012 A’s validated a long-ago disproved narrative. As this Slate article by Tim Marchman shows, such is not the case.

Had the Athletics been as awful as many—me included—predicted, would Lewis have abandoned his vessel out of convenience? Or would have have stuck with Beane still trying to find a reptilian method of explaining away the fall of Moneyball?

I’ll guess on the latter, but don’t discount the possibility of a new book extolling the virtues of Sabean; his veteran manager with the 1880s-style mustache and grumbly voice, Bruce Bochy; and the way the Giants championship club was built.

Before that can happen, let’s get in front of whatever the latecomers and opportunists try to pull and examine how this team was put together.

Players acquired through the draft

Brandon Crawford, SS

Crawford was taken in the 4th round of the 2008 draft out of UCLA. He received a $375,000 signing bonus.

Brandon Belt, 1B

Belt was selected in the 5th round of the 2009 draft out of the University of Texas at Austin. He received a $200,000 signing bonus.

Buster Posey, C

Posey was drafted from Florida State University in the 1st round with the 5th pick by the Giants in the 2008 draft. He received a record (at the time) signing bonus of $6.2 million.

Sergio Romo, RHP

Romo was drafted in the 28th round of the 2005 draft out of Mesa State College in Colorado. Romo took over for injured star closer Brian Wilson and was brilliant.

Madison Bumgarner, LHP

Bumgarner was drafted in the 1st round of the 2007 draft with the 10th pick out South Caldwell High School in Hudson, North Carolina. He received a $2 million bonus.

Tim Lincecum, RHP

Lincecum was drafted from the University of Washington in the 1st round of the 2006 draft with the 10th pick. He received a $2.025 million signing bonus.

Matt Cain, RHP

Cain was taken in the 1st round (25th pick) of the 2002 draft—the “Moneyball” draft that was documented by Lewis as exhibit A of stat guy “genius” from Paul DePodesta’s laptop. He was taken out of high school in Tennessee—exhibit B of “mistakes” that clubs make when drafting players because selecting high school pitchers was presented as the epitome of risk and stupidity.

Cain received a $1.375 million signing bonus. The A’s took Joe Blanton out of college the pick before Cain. Blanton received a $1.4 million signing bonus.

Acquired via free agency

Pablo Sandoval, 3B

Sandoval was signed by the Giants out of Venezuela as an amateur free agent at age 17 in 2003.

Gregor Blanco, OF

The veteran journeyman Blanco signed a minor league contract with the Giants after spending the entire 2011 season in Triple A with the Nationals and Royals. He was an integral part of the Giants’ championship team with speed, defense, and a key homer in the NLDS comeback against the Reds.

Ryan Vogelsong, RHP

Vogelsong’s signing was mostly luck helped along by opportunity and the alteration of his game under pitching coach Dave Righetti. Vogelsong was a journeyman who has become a post-season star and rotation stalwart at age 35.

Jeremy Affeldt, LHP

Affeldt was signed as a free agent from the Reds in 2008.

Ryan Theriot, INF

Theriot signed a 1-year, $1.25 million contract before the 2012 season.

Aubrey Huff, 1B/OF/PH

Huff was a low-cost free agent signing in 2010 and was a large part of the World Series title that year. He re-signed for 2-years and $22 million and didn’t contribute on the field to the 2012 title.

Barry Zito, LHP

The Giants were in need of a star to replace Barry Bonds as they rebuilt from the “Build around Bonds” days and Zito was the biggest name available in the winter of 2006-2007. They signed him to a 7-year, $126 million contract that has $27 million guaranteed remaining for 2013. A pitcher being paid that amount of money is expected to be an ace, but Zito has been a back-of-the-rotation starter at best and was left off the 2010 post-season roster entirely. In 2012, he won 14 games and picked up the slack for the slumping Lincecum and Bumgarner to help the Giants win their 2012 championship.

Santiago Casilla, RHP

Casilla was signed as a free agent in 2009 after the Athletics non-tendered him.

Joaquin Arias, INF

Arias signed a minor league contract before the 2012 season. People forget about this, but in the Alex Rodriguez trade from the Rangers to the Yankees, the Yankees offered the Rangers a choice between Arias and Robinson Cano.

Neither the Yankees nor the Rangers knew what Cano was.

It was Arias’s defense at third base on the last out that helped save Cain’s perfect game in June.

Guillermo Mota, RHP

Mota has been with the Giants for three seasons and signed a 1-year, $1 million contract for 2012.

Hector Sanchez, C

Sanchez was signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2009.

Players acquired via trade

Melky Cabrera, OF

The contribution of Cabrera will be debated forever considering he failed a PED test and was suspended for the second half of the season. He was eligible to be reinstated for the playoffs, but the Giants chose not to do that. It was Cabrera’s All-Star Game MVP performance that wound up giving the Giants home field advantage for the World Series

Cabrera was an important factor in the first half of the season, but the Giants were 62-51 with Cabrera on the active roster and 32-17 without him. The Giants’ success was based on their pitching more than anything else and they won the World Series without Cabrera.

Cabrera was acquired from the Royals for Jonathan Sanchez, who was talented and inconsistent with the Giants and outright awful for the Royals.

Javier Lopez, LHP

Lopez was acquired from the Pirates in July of 2010 and was a key lefty specialist on the two title-winning teams.

Angel Pagan, CF

Pagan was acquired from the Mets for center fielder Andres Torres and righty reliever Ramon Ramirez. Pagan had a fine year at the plate and in the field, leading the majors in triples with 15 and stealing 29 bases including the one in the World Series that got everyone a free taco from Taco Bell.

George Kontos, RHP

The Yankees traded Kontos to the Giants for backup catcher Chris Stewart. Kontos is a solid reliever who’s more useful than a no-hit catcher.

Hunter Pence, RF

Pence was acquired from the Phillies for minor league pitcher Seth Rosin, catcher Tommy Joseph, and veteran big league outfielder Nate Schierholtz. The Giants are set at catcher, so Joseph was expendable. Pence had a .671 OPS in 59 games with the Giants, but it was his stirring, wild-eyed speech before game 3 of the NLDS against the Reds that was widely credited by teammates as waking them up to make their comeback. His teammates were either inspired or frightened by Pence’s intensity, but whatever it was, it worked.

Marco Scutaro, 2B

Scutaro was almost steamrolled by Matt Holliday of the Cardinals in the NLCS, but he came back from that and batted .500 in that series, winning the MVP. Then he had the game-winning hit in game 4 of the World Series.

Scutaro was acquired from the Rockies in late July for infielder Charlie Culberson.

Manager Bochy was run out of his longtime home as a manager, coach and player with the Padres when the front office wanted someone cheaper and more agreeable to the new age statistics and doing what he was told. Then-Padres team president Sandy Alderson allowed Bochy to interview for the Giants’ job—a division rival no less—and made utterly absurd statements of his policy being to allow his employees to seek other opportunities blah, blah, blah.

The Padres didn’t want Bochy back because Bochy didn’t do what he was told by the stat guys in the front office. In exchange, they got a far inferior manager Bud Black, and the Giants now have two championships and the hardware (and parades) to say there are different methods to use to win. Sometimes those methods work better without the fictionalized accounts in print and on film.


7 thoughts on “The Giants Do It Old School

  1. But…if Moneyball is not all about “statistics first, last, and forever, and the hell with scouting,” but rather about exploiting marketing inefficiencies (which Paul DePodesta himself would probably tell you is the case), then Brian Sabean actually does “practice Moneyball,” he just has his own system for doing it.

    By definition, “exploiting marketing inefficiencies” means you can’t just use the same stats to evaluate players that richer teams do, because eventually, the richer teams will catch on and can offer those players more money, and then you have to find other metrics for evaluating players. Witness Sabean drafting Tim Lincecum after multiple other teams passed on him, just because he didn’t “look the part” (remember, we’re not selling jeans here!) and swooping in and grabbing Angel Pagan for table scraps after a down year, which would never have happened if any other teams had been seriously interested in him.

    It’s tempting to think Sabean just got lucky with players he found on the scrap heap, the Cody Ross and Marco Scutaro-type guys who he always seems to hit the jackpot with. And when he’s signed so many of these lightning-in-a-bottle players for the following year, he’s gotten burned because he didn’t realize their performances were flukes. But the fact that he’s done it multiple times makes me think there’s something more going on than random chance. His scouting system must absolutely kick ass, for him not only to keep finding these bargains, but also to keep drafting stud pitchers. Why do you think coughing up Zack Wheeler was nothing to him? There’s more where he came from.

    1. The Pagan trade was an idea of mutual benefit. The Mets could no longer take his brain cramps and needed bullpen help. It didn’t work, but it wasn’t a robbery for Sabean because the team he was trading with didn’t know what they had. Pagan’s supremely talented and prone to mistakes.
      Stat guys didn’t want Cody Ross, but if anyone’s watched Ross for an extended period, they know what he is—a useful power hitter who hammers lefties. Scutaro was a salary dump from the Rockies who’s carved out a nice career for himself with overall solid play that is generally underappreciated.
      Sabean was one of the old-school GMs whose style was considered antiquated, but the truth is that he’s an experienced baseball man willing to take risks and trust his scouts and on-field personnel without requiring them to be under his thumb. The Giants develop pitchers because they’re not adhering to ridiculous edicts from outside telling them how to become 200+ inning arms. We don’t see that with the Yankees and others because they’re trapped in the vacancy of rules and regulations that fail time and again.
      It’s funny how we’re seeing the hard-core stat advocates pointing out the stat people in the Giants’ organization as if they were the foundation of the success. But every organization has stat guys now!! How is it possible to give Beane credit for Moneyball, but take credit away from Sabean? It’s not. Yet they’re still doing it. And won’t stop.

      1. Maybe “stat guys” don’t want Ross as an everyday player because he struggles against righties, and most pitchers are righthanded. Scott Hairston is very similar, though, and Sandy likes him just fine, if not necessarily as an everyday starter. He’d probably re-sign Hairston in two seconds if the price was right. It’s just a question of how much room you have in your budget for a platoon guy, and whether that player is content to remain a platoon guy or whether he (and/or his agent) thinks he should seek out a chance to play every day.

        As for Sabean’s spreadsheet monkeys, I’m sure they (like most teams) have their own proprietary system and they’d be fools to tell the media what it is. But scouting will never go away, and it shouldn’t; it’s just a question of what you’re looking for when you watch a player (as is true with statistical analysis). Relief pitchers, especially, I think you need to scout the living crap out of because their stats can be so misleading (because they face almost completely different hitters every year, and because their performance can fluctuate so dramatically from month to month). The Giants’ scouts are obviously looking for (and finding) something other teams aren’t seeing.

        (Of course, gushing fan support doesn’t hurt a player’s performance either. Pagan couldn’t help but get better when he wasn’t being constantly heckled by his own fanbase.)

      2. I’m a fan of Cody Ross because he’s a tough little bastard, but that’s not something that can be seen in a stat sheet.
        I wouldn’t get too crazy with Hairston. He’s a luxury, not a necessity and someone’s going to offer him more money, years and playing time than the Mets will and likely regret it.
        What was interesting regarding the Giants and Sabean with their stat guys was how people like Craig Calcaterra on Hardball Talk had a fit when others dared suggest that the Giants’ two titles signaled the “end” of Moneyball. This was assuming Moneyball was truly a successful strategy that anyone followed to the letter to start with. The early J.P. Ricciardi teams did adhere to Moneyball and the results were atrocious on the field and in the draft. They eventually abandoned it. Calcaterra wrote of a stat guy in the Giants’ front office and credited that person for the drafting of Lincecum and the signing of Javier Lopez—shaky premises at best. (I may have to write a posting about this.)
        The simple explanation with Sabean is he trusts his veterans to play as the back of their bubblegum cards say they will and doesn’t look at a pitcher’s height and weight or adhere to silly rules to promote their durability. He gives his staff the freedom to do their jobs and hires quality, intelligent people. He’s also not afraid to gamble and admit a mistake. He’s a good GM who doesn’t do things “their” way, and that’s why they’re reluctant to give him any credit.

  2. I take it from the lack of posts since the Hurricane that you are in the effected area. My safe wishes to you and a speedy return.

  3. re. sabermetricians’ talking point of ‘exploiting market inefficiences.’
    Newsflash: all baseball people, whether they be Moneyballers, old school types, some combination therof, all ‘exploit market inefficiences.’ all business people do too…dressing up an age old practice in new economic-speak isn’t a revolution and it isn’t noteworthy.
    this recladding of the moneyball ethos is a further embarassment to the sabermetricians. hey guys, when you can properly account for fielding statistics and when you can calculate the value of a hit vs a walk, come back and talk to me your ‘advanced statistics.’ until then i will stick with the classic stats and more importantly, with actual scouting of games.

    1. They’re functioning under the foundation of Moneyball having been accurate to begin with as they try to justify it, making their attempts worse.

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