SAN FRANCISCO—They are not leprechauns, unicorns or the Easter Bunny. They really do exist, and their names are Jeremy Shelley and Yeshayah Goldfarb.
They are the quantitative analysts in the Giants front office, which if you believe the prevailing opinion among baseball’s Internet Illuminati, still gathers most of its information from gut feel and tobacco-spattered scouting reports.
The Giants, and Brian Sabean, the longest-tenured general manager in the game, have long been an easy mark for what acronym-inclined bloggers perceived as old-school methods. Now that the Giants are checking to see if their ring sizes have changed in 24 months, analysts, both recreational and professional, are trying to figure out how the heck the franchise they love to lampoon has pulled off the nearest thing to a dynasty by a National League club since the Big Red Machine.
There’s the pitching, of course. There’s a dash of serendipity. And a whole lot of Buster Posey doesn’t hurt, either.
But if the Giants’ World Series title in 2010 was a happy accident of sorts, won by a waiver-wire band of misfits, their second championship in three seasons had less ad-lib and more script. Those six elimination games against the Reds and Cardinals notwithstanding, this was by design.
This was a team that featured smooth infield defense and speed in the outfield, a team that traded home run trots for frenetic doubles and triples, a team of tough, contact-oriented hitters who stayed in the middle of the field with two outs and kept the line moving.
This was the team that Sabean always talked about creating during all those years in the ownership-dictated Barry Bonds era, and the rough transition that followed: a pitching-and-defense driven approach and younger, more athletic position players who ran the bases with aplomb, created their own breaks and didn’t give away extra outs.
And hey, it doesn’t hurt to have Posey, either.
Just two years after winning the first World Series in the Giants’ five-plus decades in San Francisco, they’ve done it again. And there is a feeling this time that they weren’t lucky. They were just that good.
For that, Sabean was selected as the Baseball America Major League Executive of the year.
“I think we’re old school and new school at the same time,” Sabean said after the Giants’ World Series sweep of the Tigers, his eyes stinging from the champagne celebration. “You have to understand it’s still a game played by human beings, and you have to put human beings in a position where they believe they can have success.
“The whole organization has been built around continuity and mutual respect, and we enjoy pulling on the same rope. We have a great working relationship with the manager and the coaches. And the players are at ease because they know they’ll be put in a position to have success.”
No front office has more continuity than the Giants. Sabean is entering his 17th season, and many of his most trusted advisers go back with him further than that. He has known pitching architect Dick Tidrow and lieutentants Lee Elder and Paul Turco since his days coming up the scouting ranks in the Yankees organization, and he goes all the way back to high school in Concord, N.H., with hitting assistant Joe Lefebvre and advance scout Steve Balboni.
Pitching coach Dave Righetti, bullpen coach (more like pitching coach 1-A) Mark Gardner and bench coach Ron Wotus are on their third manager, not vice-versa.
And Bruce Bochy, hired prior to the 2007 season, might have been the best decision that Sabean has made since he traded for Jeff Kent as a rookie GM.
“He’s a Hall of Fame manager, enough said,” Sabean said of Bochy, who has won six NL West titles in 18 seasons with the Giants and before that with the Padres. “Understated, undervalued, maybe. With what he’s done, and the relationship we have, this is a just, just reward for someone who is a lifelong baseball name and a great person.”
Whether it’s Bochy, Felipe Alou or Dusty Baker in the manager’s office, Sabean does not believe in settling into a leather chair with the door open. He doesn’t lean on the cage during batting practice. He’ll watch from the stands, even after the gates open. He is riveted to every pitch once the game starts and fills his scoresheet with shorthand, so he’ll be able to discuss any and every pitch sequence with coaches afterward.
He believes in letting his manager run the clubhouse, a strategy of trust and delegation that extends to his chief negotiator, vice president Bobby Evans, to scouting director John Barr, to Tidrow, who remains a master mechanic when it comes to pitching.
Sabean likes to tell the story of how he sent former farm director and big league catcher Jack Hiatt down to Tallahassee, Fla., to see a converted shortstop by the name of Gerald Posey. When Hiatt signed off on Posey’s receiving skills, Sabean nodded his approval to take the Florida State catcher with the fifth overall pick in 2008.
“I’d trust Jack with my life,” Sabean said at the time.
Just four years later, Posey became the first player in history to win a Golden Spikes Award as the best amateur player in the country, and go on to win a league MVP award.
Posey is just one instance of what was an incredible run of draft success: The Giants hit on first-round picks with Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner, who became the core of both World Series championship teams, even if it took some imagination to turn Lincecum from a struggling former Cy Young Award-winning starter into a dominant weapon as a long reliever in the postseason.
Perhaps that is the greatest strength of a Sabean front office: a willingness to explore opportunities and think broadly when it comes to acquiring talent, analyzing talent and determining how to get the most production out of that talent.
Ryan Vogelsong, who had the lowest ERA by a starting pitcher in a postseason since Orel Hershiser in 1988, was a former Giants prospect who hadn’t pitched in the majors in six years before the Giants welcomed him back on a minor league contract in 2011. Gregor Blanco, whose catch saved Matt Cain’s perfect game and who contributed as many hits in the World Series as Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera combined, was a find from the Venezuelan League that Sabean’s scouts had highlighted in Triple-A the previous season.
Sabean turned over his outfield last winter by giving up spare parts in trades for Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera, the latter of whom was the All-Star Game MVP before his drug suspension on Aug. 15 cost him the remainder of the season. The Giants farm system isn’t as deep these days, but they had the chips to get Hunter Pence from the Phillies at the trade deadline.
And while the Dodgers’ new, deep-pocketed ownership made like a casino whale and took on hundreds of millions in salary to get Adrian Gonzalez et al from the Red Sox, Sabean made a much quieter and much more impactful deal when he dealt fringe prospect Charlie Culberson to the Rockies for Marco Scutaro.
No, the Giants didn’t envision Scutaro hitting .362 and then going 14-for-28 against the Cardinals to win NLCS MVP honors. But they did know his 94 percent contact rate was the best in the major leagues, which made him a perfect fit as the No. 2 man in a lineup that hit the fewest home runs in the major leagues.
That stat didn’t come from a unicorn or a leprechaun. The Giants use plenty of advanced metrics to inform or challenge their opinions, including some of their own formulas that they decline to disclose. It’s one of the reasons the front office implored Bochy to remain patient with first baseman Brandon Belt, even when his at-bats looked rough through long stretches during the season. It’s a reason the Giants have resisted overtures to trade Belt this offseason, too.
Not that Sabean is eager to publicize his methods. He cares less about how he’s perceived. He’d rather wave his flag for his manager and his players, all the while keeping an eye out for the next piece to improve his roster.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to bear down and keep our heads down like we always do,” Sabean said. “I don’t think we’re going to change our mantra of pitching and defense. Pitching is going to be our celebrity. It’s not the all-eggs-in-one-basket with one player approach. This is what works. It’s what is conducive to our ballpark and our division.”