July 6, 2012
Painting the Black
Tiptoeing Around Landmines
What does Andrew Friedman do well? He finds low-cost talent, drafts productive players in the first round, and banks on strong run prevention to win games. Where does Friedman stumble? Generally when dealing with relatively big-money free agents. Wait, my computer keeps autocorrecting “Brian Sabean” to “Andrew Friedman.” What a weird glitch.
Any card-carrying baseball fan can name four or five of Sabean’s greatest follies. He employed Barry Bonds for 11 seasons and failed to win a title. When Sabean did win a World Series, he allowed sentimentalism to interfere with upgrading his team, thus hurting its chances of a repeat. He favors veterans over prospects and once admitted to signing (not very good) players in order to forfeit draft picks. Then there are the times he signed Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand to budget-busting deals that looked no better at the time than they do now.
Sabean kept his job through it all. If the Giants top the .500 mark this season, and it appears they will, then Sabean will notch his 12th winning season in 16 tries. Any general manager capable of producing a winner 75 percent of the time is doing something right. Sabean, as the case may be, does a few things right. One of which is netting high returns on small investments, as the Giants essay in Baseball Prospectus 2012 explained:
Brian Sabean finds free talent. Here’s the headline in the San Jose Mercury News on January 14, the day the Giants signed Ryan Vogelsong: “Giants extend non-roster invitations to 22 players for Spring Training.” Can’t you just feel the impact of the move in every letter of that announcement? Vogelsong was an All-Star for the Giants this year. The Andres Torres invitation in 2009 didn’t even get a headline, yet adding Torres turned out to be one of the best moves any GM has made in the past three years, producing 7.2 WARP for a few bucks more than the major-league minimum. Pat Burrell, picked up as a waiver claim, gave the Giants a 127 OPS+ in 560 plate appearances over two seasons. Santiago Casilla, signed for the minimum, has the third-best ERA in baseball in two years with the Giants. Even Huff, before becoming dead weight, was a spectacular success, found before 2010 for just $3 million.
This season is on track to add three more names to Sabean’s list of victories. Rob McQuown devised a query to find the most commonly paired outfield for each team. The Giants, represented by Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan, and Gregor Blanco, had the highest total Wins Above Replacement Player in the league. Sabean is getting up-market production at down-market costs relative to the rest of the league:
Those lines define the league median in dollars spent and WARP accumulated. They also help to form four quadrants, which break down like this: