Yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle, columnist Bruce Jenkins argued that the San Francisco Giants have won two World Series titles in three seasons by relying on their scouts, not statistics and other Moneyball concepts.
From the column, "The stat-crazed sabermetricians, as they are called, invent specific methods of evaluation without needing to witness the action in person. Numbers, they believe, tell the entire story - and their approach is worshiped by thousands of fans and bloggers who wouldn't last five minutes in a ball-talk conversation with Tim Flannery, Mark Gardner or Ron Wotus...
The San Francisco model is based on visual evidence, not statistics, and it clearly works—but it will fail, miserably, in the hands of organizations cutting their scouting staffs and stocking computers. Those people wouldn't understand what the Giants saw in Gregor Blanco, a longtime disappointment, as he tore up the Venezuelan winter league. They wouldn't necessarily spot the massive heart inside Sergio Romo, or what Hunter Pence's relentless energy brings to a contending team. The Giants look at the face, the demeanor, the background, the ability to play one's best under suffocating pressure—all the components 'Moneyball' lamely holds up to ridicule."
While there's no question that the sabermetric community was too hard on scouts initially, and the portrayal of scouts in the book was ignorant, it's also true that the sabermetric community has since adapted.
Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and other statistically inclined websites now include scouting information as well as the numbers. Keith Law, the stat-head in Moneyball heading to Toronto with former A's executive J.P. Ricciardi, now blends scouting reports with the numbers in his excellent writing for ESPN.
Jenkins article might have been more accurate ten years ago, but today, the sabermetric community has, for the most part, come to appreciate the value of scouting, and the Giants, while still wisely relying on scouts, have also embraced sabermetric concepts.
Jenkins sights Blanco as an example of the Giants reliance on scouts over the numbers, but Blanco is actually more of a darling of the statistical community than the scouting one, or those that like high batting averages and RBI totals.
Blanco's value is in his defense (+9.4 career Ultimate Zone Rating), speed (+8.2 career base-running runs) and patience (.349 career OBP, 12.3 percent career walk rate), making him a valuable asset despite his low batting average and RBI numbers.
Jeremy Shelley, the Giants senior director of baseball operations and pro scouting, told Baseball America that while the Giants scouts liked Blanco, they also relied on sabermetric concepts to sign him.
Shelley said, "We saw a guy with a .360 career OBP....We also saw that he hadn't had much luck; his average on balls in play was low, and we thought that played a part in his low average last year. Even when he didn't hit, he still had a .350 OBP."
Jenkins also bizarrely uses Romo, another long-time darling of the statistical community, as an example of the death of Moneyball. Traditionalists have long said that Romo is too small (5'10"), lacks the fastball (88 MPH) and the experience needed to close.
Sabermetricians have long held that there's no special character traits or experience needed to close, nor are there certain height and fastball velocity requirements. Romo's outstanding career strikeout rate (30.4 percent), walk rate (5.3 percent) and home run numbers (only 17 allowed in 233 innings), the three most important things to look at when evaluating a pitcher, made him one of the best relievers in the game. His career strikeout-to-walk ratio is actually better than Mariano Rivera's, who is only the best reliever ever.
Even Pence is an odd choice to prove that numbers don't matter because his game isn't very pretty, which has probably led to some scouts overlooking him. Yet the numbers, an .813 career OPS to go with good base-running and fielding stats, show a darn good player, albeit a rather awkward one.
The Giants are also on the cutting edge of new technological advancements in ball tracking data called Pitchf/x and Fieldf/x that helps them to better evaluate pitching and defense. Jenkins claims Moneyball is useless to the Giants, yet they are relying on what the creator of this technology calls 'Moneyball 2.0.'
The Giants have had four straight winning seasons, plus the two World Championship runs, by allowing the fewest runs in the game since 2009. They've been able to pitch, keep their pitchers healthy, and play good defense, and it isn't a stretch to suggest that their reliance on new technology has helped them in that process.
If the Giants didn't have statistics that showed Brandon Crawford could be an asset because of his glove, they would have had to spend big money on a free agent shortstop last winter. Instead, they were able to hand the keys over to Crawford while paying him the league minimum, thus saving resources to put into the bullpen and outfield.
Crawford's fielding was so good that he was worth way more than his salary despite only hitting .248 with 45 RBI. The numbers traditionalists love, batting average and RBI, show Crawford is basically useless. However, the advanced numbers show a great defender (+8.7 Ultimate Zone Rating) and thus a valuable player (2.0 Wins Above Replacement).
The Giants still rely on scouting, as they should. However, they also are clearly relying on sabermetrics to inform their decisions.
Jerry Crasnick of ESPN writes, "The Giants are also more progressive and Sabermetrically inclined than their reputation suggests. No move is made at either the major or minor league levels without statistical analysts Jeremy Shelley and Yeshayah Goldfarb crunching the numbers first."
In the last decade, the sabermetric community has for the most part evolved to appreciate the value of scouts. The Giants have also evolved to blend sabermetric analysis into their evaluation process.
Jenkins column clearly demonstrates that he's either too lazy to have done the research to note that evolution, or he knows about it but has chosen to ignore it. The former is more likely after reading this gem from him last year:
"It won't be long before we get the first wave of nonsense from stat-crazed dunces claiming there's nothing to be learned from a batting average, won-loss record or RBI total. Listen, just go back to bed, OK? Strip down to those fourth-day undies, head downstairs....and churn out some more crap."
Luckily, Shelley, Goldfarb and the Giants team of analysts and scouts are running things, and not Jenkins. Otherwise, the Giants wouldn't have been able to give a contract extension to Matt Cain and his weak 69-73 career won-loss record during spring training.
The Giants won two World Series titles in three seasons, but that doesn't mean Moneyball is dead. In fact, the Giants reliance on new technology and advanced statistics shows that the concepts in the book are alive and well.
The A's, the sabermetric team from across the Bay portrayed in the book, won 94 games a decade after the initial publication on a shoestring budget, proving further that Moneyball isn't dying, it's actually evolving.
Alas, both teams are still employing a cadre of scouts. Jenkins seems to think teams have to make a choice between the numbers and the scouts. The two awesome Bay Area teams are proof positive that you can actually have it both ways.