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October 31, 2012

Punk Hits

Brian Science

by Ian Miller

"I cannot forecast to you the action of Brian Sabean. He is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.”

—Winston Churchill

OK, so maybe Churchill was talking about Russia and not Brian Sabean, but the point stands: he’s a tough man to figure out. Depending on whom you ask, he’s either the best GM in the game or an idiot who has no business running a banana stand, much less a multimillion-dollar corporation.* So who is the real Brian Sabean, and why is public opinion so divided on him?

The Good
Brian Sabean is the longest-tenured GM in baseball, serving in that capacity for the San Francisco Giants since 1997. Under his leadership, the Giants have won three pennants and two World Series. He’s made some of the shrewdest pickups in recent baseball history: Cody Ross, MVP of the 2010 National League Championship Series, was acquired off waivers from the Marlins, and Sabean traded for Marco Scutaro, the 2012 NLCS MVP, at the deadline.

He also drafted or signed Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Crawford, Sergio Romo, and Buster Posey, each of whom played a huge role in winning the 2012 World Series.

The Bad
It hasn’t all been champagne and trophies, however. Even two World Series victories haven’t been enough to dispel the lean years of the mid-2000s (although they've certainly helped). For every 2012 Marco Scutaro there’s an Aaron Rowand, and for every Cody Ross there’s a 2011-2012 Aubrey Huff.

The Barry Zito deal—which, admittedly, looks a lot less bad now than it did two weeks ago—also occurred on Sabean’s watch. (There have long been rumblings that Sabean did not go willingly into that long contract and that erstwhile managing general partner Peter Magowan pulled rank and insisted they sign Zito. I have no idea if that’s true, but I’ve heard it repeated often enough that I think it’s plausible. Since we’ll probably never know either way, I’m willing to give Sabean the benefit of the doubt here.)

The Psychology
So which is the real Brian Sabean: the mastermind with a World Series ring on each hand or a veteranophilic Bronze Ager who dismisses advanced metrics? I used the power of Twitter to reach out to baseball people and experts on psychology and human behavior for some help, and was pleasantly surprised by the depth and breadth of responses I received.

Grant Brisbee, head cheese over at McCovey Chronicles, sees Sabean as a GM who’s learned from his past mistakes—or some of them, at least.

“Sabean had his problems identifying good hitters on the free-agent market. He spent tens of millions on old shortstops and he spent $60 million on Aaron Rowand. But he also does a hell of a lot right.” He cites Sabean’s recent draft successes and also points out the dramatically different composition of the two World Series rosters.

“His work between 2010 and 2012 was masterful, turning over 75 percent of a championship lineup to get to another one. He's always been able to build a bullpen. And he avoided the temptation (and demands) to trade pieces of his young rotation for middle-of-the-order hitters.”

“He's a good GM,” Brisbee said. “I wouldn't have said that four years ago, but either he's changed or his luck has.”

The problem is that humans aren’t all that flexible. We arrive at an opinion about something or someone, and often that’s that.

Chris Teeter, a postdoctoral fellow in Psychology at McMaster University, says it’s simple confirmation bias. “Armed with their initial idea of Sabean, people will seek information that confirms their idea of him and ignore any evidence to the contrary. So when he makes a bad move it reinforces their idea of him being less intelligent and when he makes a good move it is ignored or explained away. This keeps our mental model of him stable.”

Craig Goldstein, a graduate of UMass Amherst’s sports management program and a writer at FakeTeams.com, referred to this phenomenon as anchoring.

“People have already decided what they think about Sabean,” Goldstein told me. “They decided what they thought of him and since reality now disagrees with that perception they can either reassess (unlikely) or declare that Sabean got lucky.”

Goldstein offered up another possible factor in Sabean’s poor public image: his lack of interest in maintaining said image. In this regard, Sabean is truly old school. He makes no apparent effort to cultivate public opinion; his job is solely to put a winning ballclub on the field. Yes, he appears once a week on KNBR, the San Francisco-based sports-talk station, but he seems to do this grudgingly, and is never especially forthcoming in his answers.

“Epstein, Beane, and Friedman are all saber-oriented but they're also all media-savvy,” Goldstein added. “Media savvy is important when discussing which GMs are considered smart and which aren't.”

Andrew Gill, a clinical psychology doctoral student, put the blame not on Sabean’s lack of media savvy but on a natural human reliance on cognitive schemas. “In cognitive schemas, we base our assumptions on how well a person or thing fits into an organization of previous experiences. And guys like Sabean, Jim Hendry, or Dan Duquette just fit so easily into those pre-established understandings of what old, frumpy, out-of-touch baseball guys are supposed to look and feel like. And Brad Pitt isn't playing any of them anytime soon.”

BP’s own Russell A. Carleton, who also has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, concurs. “He doesn't talk like a sabermetrician,” Carleton told me. “Some GMs and front office people will drop WARP into a conversation, but Sabean's not that guy.”

Sabean doesn’t talk like a sabermetrician, nor does he talk like a San Franciscan. If you’ve ever heard him speak, you know he sounds like a mixture of the guys from Car Talk and the crusty New Englander from those old Pepperidge Farm commercials. Here’s some Sabean footage in case you don’t believe me. I started wondering if Sabean’s speech didn’t play a role in how he’s perceived.

Stuart Wallace, a neuroscientist and baseball fan, told me it might, and introduced me to the concept of “accent prestige.” Wallace says that here in the U.S., Southerners and New Englanders are often perceived as less intelligent, friendly, and attractive based solely on their accents.

“People who speak with an English accent are considered to be better educated, and more trustworthy,” Wallace told me, “while conversely, those with New England accents are considered to be of lower intelligence, less caring, and even more apt to commit crime.”

Wallace also suggests that the cosmopolitan, heterogeneous Bay Area might not be a great fit for a New Hampshirite like Sabean. Wallace, who attended school and worked in Boston for 10 years, told me his “townie” classmates went to great lengths to lose their accents. “They all said that their parents worked very hard to be sure they spoke with a neutral accent, with the hopes it would help them go further in life, because the regional accent had such strongly negative connotations associated with it.”

My Conclusions

1.    Brian Sabean has made some questionable roster moves during his Giants tenure.

2.    He’s also made some really shrewd ones.

3.    The team that employs Brian Sabean as general manager has won the World Series twice in the last three years.

4.    Luck has certainly played a role.

5.    The roster moves that Sabean and his staff have made have also played a role.  

6.    There are a few basic explanations for why people think Brian Sabean is an idiot.

7.    Even though he’s probably not.

8.    Although he does talk funny.

9.    This was a lot of fun, and I appreciate all the thoughtful and thought-provoking responses I got.

* If I were a real journalist, I’d provide examples to support my premise, but I am not one of those. Instead, I ask you to accept this as an article of faith. Of course I understand if you’re unwilling or unable to do that, but I’ll ask you to do your own research. You can start here.

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

16 comments have been left for this article.

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