Giants don't follow convention, but they keep producing pitchers
SAN FRANCISCO—Dick Tidrow was called "Dirt" during his playing career—an apt nickname that summed up his gritty, no-nonsense approach, his sinking fastball and his disdain for turning in a clean uniform.
But unbeknownst to him, Tidrow has also earned himself a nickname while working as the Giants' vice president of player personnel.
"In the minor leagues, we called him the Ninja," righthander Matt Cain says. "You'd know by word of mouth that he was at the stadium, but nobody would know where. He'd kind of sneak in and watch. He has that big, intimidating presence and I think he didn't want to freak you out."
Righthander Brad Hennessey said minor league teammates would make a game out of spotting Tidrow in the stands.
"It was like 'Where's Waldo,' " Hennessey says. "You'd see who could spot him first. One minute he'd be on the concourse, then you'd see him down the left-field line. One time he was behind the right-field foul pole and all I saw was his shoulder. The next minute, he was right next to me.
"You know how the next day's pitcher sits in the stands charting a game? Sometimes you'd turn around, and he'd be sitting right there."
This Ninja stands 6-foot-4 with a handlebar moustache, a dry sense of humor and a stable of pitchers that always seems to be the envy of baseball. Under Tidrow's direction, the Giants have drafted and developed more major league arms than anyone over the past decade.
Despite hard times in the big leagues over the past three seasons, the Giants' future isn't hopeless because their young nucleus of Cain, Tim Lincecum and Noah Lowry promises to keep them competitive into the future.
"We've always had a ton of arms ever since I got here," said Cain, who won't turn 23 until Oct. 1. "They take pride in developing pitchers. It's hard to connect the same lessons with different guys, but they have a plan and it works."Smart Drafting
Part of the Giants' success comes from smart drafting. Even though they have often punted first-round picks as free-agent compensation, they haven't missed when they selected pitchers in the top rounds.
In 2001, Hennessey and Lowry were seen as signability picks as first-rounders, but both have become solid major league contributors. Cain was the seventh high school pitcher taken in the 2002 draft but might end up with the best career of them all.
And Lincecum was dominating big league hitters less than a year after the Giants spent a 10th overall choice on him in the 2006 draft.
"Lincecum did too much too fast for us to disregard it," Tidrow says. "The other guys, it was more of a plan where they build up and understand what they need to do to pitch in the big leagues. The last spot of development is always going to be in the big leagues."
The Giants are an organization packed with pitching minds. Double-A pitching coach Bob "Steamer" Stanley has taught his signature sinker to Hennessey and many others. Ross Grimsley's staff at Augusta sent four starting pitchers to the South Atlantic League all-star game, led by righthander Kevin Pucetas (9-1, 1.67). Righthander Henry Sosa led the minors with a 0.73 ERA at one point but was promoted to high Class A San Jose before the all-star game. He will represent the hometown team in the Futures Game, however.
Roving pitching coaches Bert Bradley and Lee Smith bring even more major league experience, and special assistant Ron Perranoski trumps them all. Perranoski has spent more than four decades as a player, coach and executive. He is regarded as one of the greatest pitching coaches in baseball history.
But Tidrow is the spoke that makes the wheel turn.
"He's the one constant," Hennessey says. "I threw a lot of long bullpens with him. There was a series at Colorado Springs when everybody threw a 45-minute pen. You were dreading that day, but you needed to get your work in."
There is a method to the Ninja's silent maneuvers, too.
"He's moving around the ballpark to look at you from every angle," Hennessey says. "That's essentially what the video does. It helps you pick up all kinds of things."Reloading The Stockpile
Soon, Tidrow will have two new projects to monitor. The Giants had six of the first 51 picks in the draft this June, and spent their top two choices on high school pitchers: Madison Bumgarner with the 10th overall choice and Tim Alderson with the 22nd pick. Tidrow fiercely protects his draft strategy, but he said both pitchers fit the general profile the Giants look for when ranking pitchers.
"The better the athlete, the more ability they have to make changes in a rapid way if we see something that needs to be addressed," Tidrow says. "Athletics is part of it, arm action is part of it. But arm action becomes not as important if a guy can repeat everything he does.
"Having a certain amount of strength is important too, because there's a lot of guys running around the minor leagues that aren't strong enough to go through the grind. And obviously, they need to have pitches. We like to work off the fastball, but like many other teams, we like to see that a guy can repeat a fastball to a location."
Perhaps the best comment on the Giants' success is that Tidrow doesn't need high draft picks to find arms. Lefthander Jonathan Sanchez, the No. 2 prospect in the organization, was a 27th-rounder in 2004. Tidrow made one tweak in his delivery and he began throwing in the mid-90s.
Jeremy Accardo was a nondrafted free agent the Giants scouted as a shortstop in the Alaska League. He's now the closer for the Blue Jays. The Twins' Joe Nathan, who has become one of the most dominant closers in the game, started out as a shortstop in the Giants system. Cincinnati's Jon Coutlangus was an outfielder before Tidrow put him on the mound and helped to convert him into a quality lefthanded reliever.
"It's recently good scouting in some of those cases," Tidrow says. "In Coutlangus' case, we thought he could be a pitcher when we drafted him. He worked hard at it, to his credit he sucked up the knowledge.
"In a lot of cases these are kids who have worked very hard and persevered. You have to give credit to the kids, too."
The major criticism of the Giants' minor league system is obvious: They haven't drafted and developed an everyday position player since Bill Mueller in 1993. They haven't produced a true impact hitter since Matt Willams.
It's an unexpected failure for an organization run by general manager Brian Sabean, who helped the Yankees acquire such cornerstone players such as Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams while he was their scouting director.
But the Giants know their strength and they embrace it. They also know young pitching is always in demand, and they have used it to acquire what they need on the trade market.
Many of those pitchers—Ryan Vogelsong, Kurt Ainsworth, Joe Fontenot—didn't come back to burn the Giants. But the ledger was flipped prior to the 2004 season, when the Giants traded Nathan, Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano to the Twins for catcher A.J. Pierzynski. One tumultuous year later, Pierzynski was waived off the roster and Nathan was an all-star.
"We made decisions internally—it's no fun to let those guys go, but that's the essence of baseball," Tidrow says. "If you're trying to win every year, you'll give up some good ones."
And hopefully, keep the best for yourself.