Monday, November 8, 2010

Looking Back at Brian Sabean's Tenure

Brian Sabean has been a popular whipping boy over his years with the Giants. I have wondered to myself what in the world is he thinking and wondering what was his plan.

Well now that the World Series trophy has finally come to San Francisco I find myself looking back and wondering was he really that bad?

There was a wonderful article in the Hardball Times that “results-based analysis" to look at how Brian Sabean has done as Giants General Manager. The whole thing is worth reading but I have picked out a few nice pieces.

The first part lays out the well known criticisms of Sabean.
This extensive career heading up a single organization has provided an abundant volume of evidence for those wishing to assess Sabean’s performance in the role. And assess it they have, often with great alacrity. The strongly prevailing opinion, especially among those presenting the more sabermetric mindset, has been quite clear: Sabean is, well, a bumbling idiot. And very often the terminology isn’t that polite.
The criticisms of Sabean tend to center on three themes:
(1) His success with the Giants in the late 1990s/early 2000s was simply a function of his being lucky enough to inherit a roster that included Barry Bonds in his prime. Any GM could reach the postseason a few times with an inner-circle all-time great like that in his lineup, so Sabean was just along for the ride.
What’s more, Sabean did a paltry job of assembling Bonds’ supporting cast; a good GM would have extracted more from that opportunity than Sabean’s lone pennant and zero World Series titles. Once Bonds declined, the Giants’ immediate descent into sustained sub-.500 territory couldn’t hammer the point home any more emphatically.
(2) Sabean displays a preference for “proven veterans,” and a corresponding lack of confidence in young players, that doesn’t just border on the ridiculous, it resides fully within the land of the ridiculous.
Through many seasons in the 2000s, nearly every Giants starting regular was at least 30 years old, and the situation reached the point of absurdity with the 2006 edition, quite literally the oldest team to take the field in major league history: The 41-year-old Bonds was joined in the San Francisco outfield by a 41-year-old center fielder (Steve Finley) and a 39-year-old right fielder (Moises Alou), while the infield featured a 39-year-old shortstop (Omar Vizquel). Only on such a ball club could the 34-year-old second baseman (Ray Durham) and the 35-year-old catcher (Mike Matheny) seem young.
(3) Sabean’s minor league organization has been spectacularly weak at producing position-player talent. Until the recent arrivals of Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey, in Sabean’s long tenure the very best non-pitcher the Giants’ system had produced was, yes, the immortal Pedro Feliz.
I have heard these often anytime the conversation turns to Brian Sabean, To me the biggest and most important thing that Sabean did was number 2. I think that Sabean did a decent job assembling a support cast around Bonds, it was often too old (see number 2) for my taste but he did put talent around bonds.

As for number 3, the draft is often a crap shoot and he did often draft later due to finishing toward the top end of the league. That being noted he didn't exactly go out of his way to build through the draft and saw the farm system as simply tools to acquire proven veterans (again see number 2).

The article continues by looking at Sabean's track record at getting talent around Bonds:
It was under Sabean’s direction that the Giants successfully negotiated a new deal with Bonds following the 1998 season, and yet again to a third long-term contract following the 2001 season. Certainly, it’s easier to re-sign a free agent than to capture one on the open market, but Sabean deserves due credit for helping to engineer the fact that Bonds remained on the Giants’ roster all the way through his stupendous performances of 2000 through 2004, winning four MVP awards and finishing second the other time.
And the claim that Sabean did a poor job of constructing the roster surrounding Bonds fails to withstand scrutiny. The very first move that Sabean made upon arriving as GM was to swing a bombshell trade that horrified the fan base and local media: He swapped beloved star Matt Williams for a package that primarily included an unheralded journeyman namedJeff Kent. This brazen gamble would turn out to be one of the great trades of all time, as Kent immediately blossomed into a superstar and captured the only NL MVP that Bonds didn’t in 2000-'04. Regardless of Bonds, without Kent the Giants wouldn’t have been close to as good as they were in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s.
And Kent wasn’t the only slick acquisition by Sabean: key contributor after key contributor, from J.T. Snow to Robb Nen to Ellis Burks to Livan Hernandez to Jason Schmidt to David Bell, were picked up by Sabean in a sequence of downright larcenous trades. He also displayed a knack for finding just-right, reasonably priced, role-player free agents in those years.
I think that Sabean did a decent job, it is always possible with hindsight to find better deals that could have been made but over all a good track record of producing a winning team. After 2003 the magic touch seemed to disappear but there was still an impressive run of getting good role players to compliment Bonds.

The next criticism is that Sabean loves him some old players. This looks to be true he would prefer a proven guy over someone who has little to no track record but when using the results based framework the more important question is how did these choices work out?
For his first several years, Sabean employed no more ultra-veteran players than most other teams do, and rarely used them in front-line roles. It was only into the 2000s, as his core ball club began to age, and as—most significantly—Bonds climbed past 35 years old, that the Giants became a noticeably old club.
And thus Sabean’s logic becomes obvious: As Bonds got that old, his future became ever more uncertain, thus it made ever more sense for the Giants to adopt a go-for-it-now, the-hell-with-the-long-term posture. Thus Sabean filled every hole with the most cost-effective short-term fix.
One thing to remember is that 35-and-older free agents don’t typically have a whole lot of teams bidding for their services. This renders them cheaper than similarly-talented players just a few years younger. So the team signing them gets a real bargain—assuming the player doesn’t crash and burn, which is of course a distinct risk in very-old players.
So the simple question becomes: How many of Sabean’s very-old players crashed and burned, and how many succeeded as planned? Of the 15 (and that’s a whole lot) 35-and-older-when-acquired players deployed by Sabean between 2001 and 2007 (Bonds’ final year), just one—Eric Davis—flopped. All the rest did various degrees of reasonably well, and indeed one—Marquis Grissom—confounded the experts by performing splendidly, far better than expected, for two full years. The fact is that the graybeard program was a rather remarkable success.
 To credit Sabean he did find some guys off the scrap heap that no one else really wanted and turned them in to gold. I have trouble with that strategy and think that it is very short sighted and prone to blow up if a few bets don't come up, however Sabean had and continues to have remarkable success with reclamation projects.

This season is another example of the Barry Bonds strategy, he has an elite talent (this time it is a pitching staff that is tops in baseball instead of a monster slugger) and he went out and got cast offs from other teams and guys no one else thought was worth while and it turned up roses. After a while you have to wonder if he isn't just incredibly lucky but sees something in these guys that allows him to get it right more often then it blows up on him.

The last part of the article addresses the farm system, which during the Bonds era was a weakness at least in producing players for the major league club.
The purpose of a farm system isn’t to produce good position players, it’s to produce good players. And, how about this: Pitchers are players too. In the same period the Giants’ system was failing to deliver hitters, it was succeeding at delivering pitchers such as David Aardsma, Jeremy Accardo, Matt Cain,Kevin Correia, Keith Foulke, Aaron Fultz, Clay Hensley, Bobby Howry, Tim Lincecum, Scott Linebrink, Francisco Liriano, Noah Lowry, Joe Nathan, Russ Ortiz, Jonathan Sanchez, and Brian Wilson. And within the past few years it’s also served up Madison Bumgarner and Sergio Romo.
That’s a boatload of pitching talent, more than most systems have produced in this period. And thus while the Giants’ farm production under Sabean has been below average, overall it’s been by no means among the worst. To focus strictly on the poor production of batters is to become distracted by an element of the process, and thus to fail to comprehend not only the result of the process, but the full process itself.
The one thing that I will say about this is that there was a change in the process when it was obvious that Bonds was on his way down. Before that it was win now and mortgage the future to try to get there. That left the farm system barren, after the Bonds Era there was a change toward stockpiling talent in the farm system and that has paid dividends especially in the 2010 team which features a good deal of homegrown talent.

To me there are two different eras in the farm criticism and recently with a renewed focus on the draft and looking toward the future the team has done much better in developing talent.

Taking this all into account the results of Brian Sabean's tenure have been pretty good. He hasn't been perfect or followed the process that some of us deem better especially early in his tenure but right now it is hard to argue that he didn't do a hell of a job rebuilding this team and changing his process after the Bonds era.

A tip of the hat Sabean, thanks for helping bring the World Series trophy to San Francisco.

If your on Twitter you should definitely follow the The Crazy Crabbers. If you're not you should really consider joining, lots of good stuff going on there.

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