Friday, October 2, 2009

Friday baseball post

How do you evaluate a GM?

The Giants, with a lucky season that pushed them over .500 after four years in the dumps, are reported to be bringing Brian Sabean back for yet another year (he's been there since 1997), although during the broadcast tonight they said nothing is done yet. At any rate, here's Steven Rubio on the decision:

You could admit that Brian Sabean has some important skills as a GM, and still realize he’s the wrong guy for the Giants at this point in their evolution. The pitching is there, the hitting is not, and Brian Sabean doesn’t know a good hitter from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s smelly ass. He gets credit for some of the young studs on the current team, but he is also the same guy who openly and purposely blew off top draft picks. He’ll have money to spend in 2010, but he doesn’t know what kind of hitter to spend it on, so that’s money he will more than likely waste.

What the team needs from a GM right now is pretty obvious. It’s the same thing they’ve needed for some time, at least since the old-school notions of player evaluation gave way to the new paradigm of analysis. They need a general manager who can make use of all the tools of modern baseball analysis, who can go out and find any dumb fuck who can play first base and hit for at least the league average. They need someone who isn’t impressed because a player is old, who sees beyond batting average and W-L records, someone who understands the value of that most basic of offensive statistics, on-base percentage. They most definitely do not need someone whose idea of fixing an offense is to sign Edgar Renteria, Freddy Sanchez and Ryan Garko, who thinks an Aaron Rowand in his 30s is worth tens of millions of dollars, who will in all likelihood sign Bengie Fucking Molina and his worst-in-the-entire-league OBP to a contract extension. In short, they need the anti-Sabean.

Unfortunately, they’re going with the exact opposite of the anti-Sabean: Sabean himself.

Steven's a bit more intemperate than I am, but then again I only have to listen on to the radio broadcasts. Still, he's exactly right. It's exactly what TNC said in a slightly different context this week about another Bay Area sports team:

I wonder how much of the Raiders decline has to do with professionalization of football. It was obviously always professional. But I wonder if you could get away with a lot more sloppiness, say, 30 years ago.

I don't know enough about football, but I know baseball, and that comment applies perfectly to Sabean and the Giants, and that's what I want to write about a bit. Here's a few bits of evidence:

1. Baseball rosters used to have nooks and crannies. That is, they didn't really need 25 guys, and you heard about guys who hardly ever played (bullpen managers, pinch hitters). You even heard about guys (whether it was true or not) who were there primarily to go drinking with the manager and to spy on the other players for the manager. None of that exists any more; baseball people have figured out how to get maximum use of every roster spot, so much so that teams manipulate the rules to really play with 26 man rosters.

2. All Star Game pitchers used to pitch three inning stints. No more; teams aren't willing to rearrange their rotations to allow it. Thirty years ago, no one worried too much about the fractional loss in expected wins from pushing back the ace by a couple of days; now, even bad teams won't do it.

3. OK, here's the one that Coates was on about. Baseball has a long and distinguished history of crazy owners, who would treat the team as their personal plaything, intervening in even the smallest decisions. Sometimes that worked out well, if the crazy owner cared about winning and made good choices; sometimes, it didn't. But that's all gone now. Just from the expansion era, there were Charles O. Finley, Ted Turner, Bill Veeck, George Steinbrenner...there's nothing like that now, and hasn't been since Steinbrenner and Turner were tamed by the mid-1980s.

And that brings us to Brian Sabean. He does some things very well, but he has just huge blind spots. Not all of them are because he doesn't appear to understand basic modern baseball statistics...he also seems to just rule out a lot of the potential sources of talent (for example, the Giants don't compete for Asian players. Why not? Who knows? As I said, just huge blind spots). Anyway, in 1975, I think that would have worked out just fine. In 2009, the competition is just too fast for a guy like Sabean to be able to keep up.

Or, yet another way to see the problem with Sabean is the old correlation/causation issue. The Giants did very well during Sabean's first several years in San Francisco, from 1997 through 2004. You don't have to be much of a baseball fan to know why: Sabean inherited the best player in baseball, a guy who had probably the best run of anyone since Babe Ruth during Sabean's good years. A smart team would know not to credit Sabean for that, but the Giants don't seem to be a smart team.

He does do some things really well, but others are just so awful that there's just no excuse. And yet, we'll have him to kick around at least another year, it seems. Ugh.

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