2021 MLB Executive of the Year: Farhan Zaidi (San Francisco Giants)
They led the majors and set a franchise record for wins with 107. They led the National League and set a franchise record for homers with 241. They led the majors in bullpen ERA at 2.99 en route to winning their first division title since 2012.
Yes, the Giants put together a stunning, historic 2021. And when one considers they had not had a winning season since 2016, it’s easy to comprehend why Farhan Zaidi, the club’s president of baseball operations, received Baseball America’s Executive of the Year award.
“It’s very humbling,” Zaidi said. “It really feels like an organizational award and recognition in the truest sense, which makes it all the more gratifying.”
Zaidi made those comments in a Nov. 12 phone interview, a few minutes after the Giants had announced a two-year extension for manager Gabe Kapler.
In a phone interview a few days earlier, Kapler said he’s “obviously thrilled for Farhan” to get BA’s award. “What stands out to me is that the clubhouse’s perception of Farhan as a leader matches the industry’s perception of Farhan as a leader. I think there’s a great deal of trust and belief in his leadership and his guidance, not just on the baseball side between the lines, but in the community as well.
“That’s the reason we’re all just excited for this honor and recognition.”
The Giants hired Zaidi away from the Dodgers, for whom he was general manager, in November 2018. Among the moves made by Zaidi and the front office from last offseason through this season’s trade deadline of July 30:
- He acquired three-fifths of the rotation. Kevin Gausman accepted a qualifying offer, and Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood signed as free agents. Gausman recorded a 2.81 ERA in 33 starts and struck out 227 in 192 innings. He finished fifth in NL Cy Young Award voting. DeSclafani and Wood helped round out a healthy, effective rotation that posted a 3.44 ERA, third best in baseball.
- He made key additions to the bullpen. Jake McGee, who notched 31 saves, Dominic Leone, Jose Alvarez and Zack Littell all signed as free agents. All four ranked among the top 10 Giants pitchers in terms of WAR. The Giants reacquired veteran lefty reliever Tony Watson from the Angels at the trade deadline.
- The Giants signed backup catcher Curt Casali as a free agent. They went 42-13 in Casali’s starts, and he caught nine of their 16 shutouts.
- Their splashiest move was acquiring Kris Bryant from the Cubs for a pair of prospects: outfielder Alexander Canario and righthander Caleb Killian.
When asked to pick his favorite move of the previous 12 months, Zaidi chose one that at the time did not generate a ton of notice. On Feb. 4, the Giants acquired outfielder LaMonte Wade Jr. from the Twins for righthander Shaun Anderson.
Wade had hit two homers in parts of two seasons with the Twins. For San Francisco, he went deep 18 times in 336 at-bats.
Zaidi said he especially liked the Wade acquisition because it involved “a collaboration across a number of people and even disciplines in the organization.”
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Zaidi referenced the Giants’ analytics group, their hitting coaches, their outfield coaches, their player development and Triple-A staffs and director of travel Abe Silvestri as instrumental in both the decision to acquire Wade and in his subsequent success with San Francisco.
“Maybe it wasn’t the transaction itself,” Zaidi said, “but I think LaMonte’s journey is one that’s particularly gratifying for a lot of us because there were a lot of hands in it, and the biggest of all were his, of course, carrying this out and taking a big step forward in his career.”
Wade earned the nicknames of “Late Night LaMonte” and “LaNinth” because of his late-game performances. He had six game-tying or go-ahead hits in the ninth inning. Per Stats Perform, that’s the most by any MLB player in a season in the past 40 years.
He also earned the respect and admiration of his teammates, who helped him win the Willie Mac Award. That annual award, named in honor of the late Hall of Fame first baseman Willie McCovey, goes to the Giants’ most inspirational player.
Zaidi graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with an economics degree in 1998 and received a Ph.D in economics from California in 2011. He likes to combine the analytics that have become so prevalent in the game with a philosophy that values qualities beyond numbers.
“One thing that’s really important for us is to do a lot of work on the personality fit of people coming into the organization, whether it’s a player or a staff member,” Zaidi said.
Zaidi spent 10 years from 2005 to 2014 in the Athletics organization before becoming the Dodgers’ GM in 2014. He spent three seasons in L.A.’s front office working with Kapler, who was the Dodgers’ farm director.
When asked to use four to six adjectives to describe Zaidi, Kapler responded with “relentless, supportive, humble, thoughtful and flexible.”
Over the past decade or so, there has been a growing sense that some major league executives micro-manage their team’s managers. Kapler said that’s not an issue with Zaidi.
“Farhan is a great thought partner, but he provides a great level of autonomy,” Kapler said. “I think he trusts the people who he hires to go out and do good work. And in return, I think those people feel a pretty strong sense of loyalty to perform and to make him proud of the work that they’re doing.
“It is a really good sweet spot. It never feels overbearing. It always feels like a partnership.”
Said Zaidi: “I think that comes from the personal trust that we have. I definitely am pretty hands-off as far as the sort of modern interaction between managers and front office goes. And partly because we have the sort of relationship where he’ll seek out my thoughts or opinions himself when he needs them, and when he doesn’t feel like he needs them, I completely trust his judgment.
“Having somebody who has proven himself so good at the job, so self-sufficient and somebody who seeks input when it makes sense and when it can be helpful to him, that really is the sweet spot. I think it’s worked really well between Gabe, (GM Scott Harris) and myself.”
Many things worked really well for the Giants in 2021, but they face uncertainties heading into next season. Beyond the industry-wide issue of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Giants must rebuild their rotation. They re-signed Anthony DeSclafani to a three-year deal on Nov. 22 and were working to bring Alex Wood back. Before that, only Logan Webb was signed for 2022. The Giants also must find a successor for retired catcher Buster Posey.
“I think the motivation for us is really sustainability,” Zaidi said. “You win 107 games, nobody can really take that away from you, but I do think there are people around the game who have a raised eyebrow on—not whether we can do that again because nobody expects to win 107 games—but maybe there are even questions on whether we can be competitive again.
“And maybe people, to some degree, are almost resetting their expectations of us to where they were at the beginning of last year. So, I think we view that as a challenge . . .
“We have a lot of free agents. We have a lot of work to do on our team. So, (success) is certainly not a given, but we have a lot of confidence in the players we have, the front-office group that we have and in our coaching staff that we’ll be able to carry the momentum of 2021 forward into next year.”