Long decried by the sabermetric community for his lack of public appreciation for modern statistics, San Francisco Giants general manager Brian Sabean is proving that the principles of Moneyball and The Extra 2% are not lost on him.
Michael Lewis' famous book on the success of the low-budget Oakland A's, and Jonah Keri's fantastic, though less scrutinized, book on the success of the equally impoverished Tampa Bay Rays nearly a decade later, highlighted those organizations' use of advanced statistical analysis.
However, the central theme of both books was actually the importance of finding undervalued assets through any means necessary. While the Giants are less public about their use of statistical analysis than other organizations, digging beneath the surface reveals that the team isn't the crusty old organization they are sometimes made out to be.
According to a 2010 article on J Weekly, led by the director of minor league operations/quantitative analysis Yeshayah Goldfarb, the Giants use statistical analysis as part of their evaluation process. From the article, current Giants CEO Larry Baer is quoted as saying, "He’s [Goldfarb] one of our ‘Moneyball’ guys, if you will. He does a lot of our really important analysis on player acquisitions."
However, finding undervalued assets is about more than just crunching numbers. It doesn't take a genius to realize that Buster Posey's .407 on-base percentage, .953 OPS and 22 home runs from the catcher position make him exceptionally valuable.
However, determining that Posey was the right choice in the 2008 draft was a much harder calculation to make, particularly after seeing other highly touted picks from that draft like Gordon Beckham, Tim Beckham, Justin Smoak, Brian Matusz and Brett Wallace struggle to adapt to professional baseball.
Posey's college statistics were excellent, but amateur statistics are very difficult to evaluate. When it comes to the draft, scouting reports trump the numbers, and draft day is where the Giants have flourished in the last decade.
Scouting is a much more nuanced and challenging aspect of player evaluation than statistical analysis. While many teams have become more reliant on the numbers, the Giants have become perennial contenders on the strength of their ability to scout the draft and under-appreciated major league free agents and trade candidates.
This season, Posey leads the Giants with 6.3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). However, five unheralded moves by Sabean this year have combined to give the Giants an additional 12.6 WAR. Posey should be the MVP in the National League, but Sabean has a legitimate case to win his second career executive of the year award as well.
Sabean dealt Andres Torres (0.7 WAR) and Ramon Ramirez (0.0 WAR) to the Mets for Angel Pagan (3.9 WAR) this winter.
While Torres and Ramirez have struggled, Pagan has delivered big-time for the Giants—hitting .289/.339/.440 while setting the franchise record for triples in a season to go with his 25 stolen bases.
Melky Cabrera has been out since mid-August due to a failed drug test, and he could face further punishment because of his ill-conceived scheme to cover up the crime.
However, his MVP-caliber performance for four-plus months can't be removed from the record books, even if you don't appreciate the means that were used to help enhance his numbers.
Cabrera is likely to win the NL batting title with his .346 batting average. He also remains second on the Giants with 4.5 WAR.
While losing Cabrera for the stretch run hurts, the fact that he performed so well before the suspension while also being acquired for the enigmatic Jonathan Sanchez (8.07 ERA, -0.7 WAR) should alleviate some of the pain of losing him.
You may not like performance-enhancing drug use, but watching Jonathan Sanchez pitch is much more offensive in my book.
Gregor Blanco, signed to a minor league deal for about the league minimum salary, has paid huge dividends for the Giants.
Despite a tepid .240 batting average, he's still been a revelation. In fact, he's actually been the Giants fourth-most valuable position player behind Posey, Cabrera and Pagan.
He gets overlooked because his value is in his defense, baserunning and patience, three areas that aren't easily noticeable. He leads the team in runs saved with the glove, is in a virtual tie with Posey and Brandon Belt in walk rate (11.4 percent) and is fourth on the team in baserunning runs.
Blanco may not be a great hitter, but he's become one of the best fourth outfielders in the game. On a team that didn't have a right fielder during the first half or a left fielder during most of the second half, Blanco has been a godsend.
Joaquin Arias was so obscure this past winter that Baseball Prospectus 2012, the fantastic yearly baseball encyclopedia that provides comment on every relevant player, didn't even include a mention of his name.
Like Blanco, Arias signed as a minor league free agent for about the league minimum salary. He's filled in for an injured Pablo Sandoval twice this season at third base before forming the right-handed portion of a platoon with lefty shortstop Brandon Crawford. Arias has hit .278/.313/.396 while providing the team with good defense, baserunning and versatility.
He's been a lefty masher, hitting .318/.352/.439 against southpaws. He also was a key component of the Giants' successful run in August after the loss of Cabrera when he hit .417/.438/.717 to help extend the lead over the Dodgers.
In Blanco and Arias the Giants spent about $1 million in combined salary for performances that have generated 3.2 combined WAR. For comparison, the Angels gave Albert Pujols a $240 million contract this winter and have received 3.6 WAR from him this season.
The Giants didn't win the war for headlines this winter, but their acquisitions have helped them win where it counts this summer.
All Marco Scutaro has done since being acquired by the Giants at the trading deadline is hit line drives.
The Giants had received limited production from Manny Burriss and Ryan Theriot at second base during the first half of the season. In just 46 games with the Giants, Scutaro has doubled the value Burriss and Theriot provided by hitting .346/.365/.447, including a .353 batting average with runners in scoring position.
Hitting in the clutch had been a major issue for the Giants during all of last season and the first half of this season. The addition of Scutaro and Hunter Pence (.304/.354/.661 with runners in scoring position with SF) has gone a long way towards curing what had previously ailed the Giants offense.
In the end, Sabean's acquisitions of Pagan, Cabrera, Blanco, Arias and Scutaro, combined with his track record of overseeing the first-round selections of Posey, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, has given the Giants a leg up in the NL West, and Sabean a leg up in the race for executive of the year.
The game's longest-tenured general manager isn't as media savvy as Billy Beane, his counterpart across the bay. He's not as young, well-educated, well-spoken and as handsome as Theo Epstein, Andrew Friedman, Ben Cherington, Jed Hoyer and the new wave of hip general managers that has taken the post-Moneyball baseball landscape by storm.
However, with a World Series ring, an executive of the year award, two pennants, five postseason appearances and the sixth-best winning percentage in the game during his tenure as GM on his resume, perhaps it's time for the sabermetric community to give Sabean credit where it is surely due.
As former manager John McGraw said, "The main idea is to win." On that front, Sabean continues to deliver the goods, and that is all that really matters.
He may not know what WAR stands for, and he may not care, but he knows how to scout, and that's the most valuable commodity that a GM can possess.