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March 25, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

Scrutinizing Sabean

by Grant Brisbee

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Grant Brisbee has been writing about the Giants since 2003, and for McCovey Chronicles on the SB Nation network since 2005. He was a columnist for Giants Magazine for the past two years, and he will be an editor at SBNation/MLB this season. His performance as "Action" in a high school staging of West Side Story received rave reviews from Jeff Brantley, whose babysitter was in the play.

Somewhere out there, a stathead is hunkered down in his neighbor’s gazebo1, furiously trying to separate defense and pitching. He's swirling around vials of FIP, mixing them with SIERA over a Bunsen burner, and trying to perfect the secret elixir. Godspeed, mathemagician. Godspeed and good luck. Giants fans know what it’s like to attempt to isolate two concepts that seem hopelessly and inextricably linked. For eight seasons, GM Brian Sabean and Barry Bonds were just as inseparable as pitching and defense.

From 1997 through 2004, the Giants were 90-win machines, perennially contending well into September. The debates raged at the ballpark and local taverns. Someone would mention that Sabean’s teams were only good because of Barry Bonds, and someone else would counter with the Jeff Kent trade. That always would lead to someone bringing up the fact that Julian Tavarez was supposed to be the centerpiece of that deal, not Kent, and before you knew it, someone was chasing someone else around with a broken pool cue, spitting blood and gurgling something about Joe Carter.

On and on it went, season after season, acquisition after acquisition. For every inspired and helpful acquisition (Ellis Burks), there was some poor, confused ghoul lurking in the alley (Shea Hillenbrand). It was impossible to evaluate Sabean clearly. He resided on a spectrum that ranged from incompetent to occasionally inconsistent, and every time you felt ready to nail down your evaluation, he’d do something that was completely at odds with what you had just been about to decide.

Then Barry Bonds slowed down. His last couple of seasons were still fantastic, mind you, but they were injurious affairs. Bonds was suddenly someone who might have been a fantastic complement to a complete team, but not someone who could make a bad GM look good. And, oh, how the GM in question looked bad. For five years, the Giants fumbled around, refusing to rebuild at the same time they refused to win. The offense—already iffy in those later years with Bonds—sunk to new lows, settling deep into the ocean floor. If it was once impossible to separate Bonds and Sabean, it wasn’t anymore. The teams Sabean had built post-Bonds were analogous to an Art Garfunkel rock opera. The starting lineup on Opening Day, 2008:

Dave Roberts—LF
Rich Aurilia1B
Randy Winn—RF
Bengie Molina—C
Ray Durham—2B
Aaron Rowand—CF
Jose Castillo—3B
Brian Bocock—SS
Barry Zito—P

The answer was clear: Brian Sabean was incapable of building a decent offense. Completely incapable. And if the Giants were ever going to compete again, Sabean needed to go. Naturally, he was given a contract extension.

It was a disheartening time to be a Giants fan. In 2009, Sabean managed to build one of the more unbalanced teams in recent memory, a collection of hitters and pitchers that was absolutely allergic to runs, scoring, and games lasting longer than three hours. His big acquisitions between 2009 and 2010: adding an injured Mark DeRosa and a first baseman who—after positional adjustments—might have been the least valuable player in the majors in 2009. It looked like it was going to be more of the same: a team torpedoed for the sixth straight season because of a complete and utter lack of offensive talent.

Then the Giants won the World Series.

It was a stunning, unexpected surprise of the highest order. A team that started the season with Aaron Rowand hitting leadoff ended the season on top. Sabean building a championship team challenged everything a stat-fearing fella believed in. Was it possible that everything we had believed was wrong? Was Sabean really a brilliant GM?

No. But, well, sort of.

I’m still completely convinced that Sabean doesn’t know how to build an offense. My evidence is as follows: Jose Guillen. Late into last season, Sabean thought Jose Guillen could help the Giants. It’s not like Guillen was some point of contention in an overplayed scouts v. stats debate—everyone on both sides of the aisle hated him. If you looked at his stats from the previous two seasons, you saw a declining power hitter without the power. If you watched him play, you saw a hitter whose bat was bound to the gravity of an alien (and far more massive) planet, a fielder who could make an error as a DH, and a baserunner who couldn’t outrun a single first-base coach in the league. The last two were inarguable, but Sabean got Guillen to be a middle-of-the-order hitter even though he couldn’t hit, and everyone in the world—Royals included—knew this. So if you think that all of Sabean’s faults were all washed away with celebratory champagne, remember this: Jose Guillen. It was a truly bizarre acquisition.

But if there’s a lesson to be learned from the triumph of a Sabean-built team, it’s that it’s possible to make far too much of a GM’s easily identifiable faults. Most of us think of a GM’s duties as twofold: assemble the best possible group of hitters, assemble the best possible group of pitchers, wind 'em up, and let 'em rip. With the aid of good drafting and development, the Giants had assembled a fearsome pitching staff. If Sabean wasn’t the one who was personally scouting the amateur talents, he was certainly listening to the right people. Just as important as drafting or signing the right pitching prospects, though, was holding on to the ones who would eventually succeed. In this, he has been a master. Since Sabean took over after the 1996 season, he has traded away 41 young pitchers with fewer than 200 innings pitched in the Major Leagues:

41 pitchers traded away since 1996

58.9 career WARP

Six homegrown pitchers on Giants' 2010 postseason roster

53.7 career WARP

Yes, trading Francisco Liriano was a mistake, but it was the exception rather than the rule. And, of course, it’s just a wee bit easier to talk yourself into keeping Tim Lincecum than it is to do the same with Todd Ozias. But think about the spot Sabean must have been in over the past few years. He knew he needed hitters. Everyone knew he needed hitters. He couldn't go into an Applebee’s without someone stopping him and saying, “Hey, did you ever think about trading some of that young pitching for some hitters?” Local sports-talk was a daily variation on the same theme. Cain for Prince Fielder? Cain for Cecil Fielder? Cain for Mike Felder? What about Jonathan Sanchez for anyone with a pulse and the ability to hit 15 home runs?

Sabean didn’t budge. He was committed to building a pitching-first team. The idea was that assembling an outstanding pitching staff was the hard part, and that slapping together something approaching an average offense could be done on the fly. And he was right. Teams from Florida left productive outfielders in bassinets on the Giants’ doorstep. Once-productive, older hitters recaptured past glories. Bench players emerged as starters; a top prospect lived up to every ounce of his advance billing. And none of it would have meant a thing if Sabean had given into temptation—with his job security in doubt—and traded one of the half-dozen young pitchers who were on the championship roster. You know he must have heard some propositions that seemed mighty tempting after the 234th 2-1 loss of the 2009 season.

If Sabean was loathe to trade his pitching staff, though, he wasn’t quite as attached to the offense. Of the eight position players who started on Opening Day of 2010, only three were in the lineup on the season's final day. An amazing amount of tinkering went on between April and October. And if you think it’s silly to give a GM credit for fixing his own mess, remember that there are a ton of GMs and organizations who don’t do anything of the kind, preferring to go down with the porous dinghy in which they floated out there in the first place. A proactive in-season approach to roster-building can be a mixed bag, but in Sabean’s case, it’s one of his strongest qualities.

Did Sabean get lucky? Of course. He was lucky that Tim Lincecum fell to the 10th pick, and that the Rays decided on a projected high-school hitter over a player more likely to help them soon at a position of need. He was lucky that Cody Ross hit like Hank Aaron in the playoffs. Every winning team gets lucky. The Yankees got lucky that the Expos liked B.J. Wallace more than Derek Jeter, Steve Renko more than Jorge Posada, and Scott Brocail more than Andy Pettitte. That’s one way to look at it. Or maybe the Yankees were able to combine exemplary amateur scouting with some welcome good fortune, and it turned into a period of sustained success. It might not be entirely a coincidence that Sabean was working in player development for the Yankees when all of those players were drafted.

There’s no way that I’ll ever be thrilled with Sabean’s theories on what makes a good offense—I’m absolutely expecting him to trade for Yuniesky Betancourt right after I finish this, just to spite me—but the guy can build a good pitching staff, both through the draft and by scouring the waiver wire for live-armed relievers. He can tell the difference between the expendable prospects and the franchise cornerstones. And he’s willing to completely blow up the lineup he built rather than expect his genius to shine through with a little patience. All of these strengths were, for one season at least, able to overcome his complete obliviousness as to how Major League teams manage to score runs without Barry Bonds.

Last season was a lesson that it's possible to make far too much of a GM’s faults. His completely obvious faults. His painful, unspeakable, and well-known faults. It happens. One of Bill James' famous quips was that bad teams tend to focus on what players can't do rather than what they can. Maybe fans aren't all that different.

Next up in the critically acclaimed series, “How GMs who were previously considered buffoons managed to win a championship by overcoming glaringly obvious weaknesses through greater strengths”: Dayton Moore and the 2014 Royals.


1 Just trying to start a new stereotype.

Related Content:  Brian Sabean,  The Who,  Bad Season

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