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February 27, 2013

Pebble Hunting

The 30-Second Story of the San Francisco Giants

by Sam Miller

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From a chat I did last week:

briangilespopsup (San Jose): Let's say the Giants win the World Series again. Three championships in four years means they will get a paragraph in the book of baseball, probably in the chapter on the post-steroid era. We know what the 30-second elevator story is on other teams who've won multiple championships in a small period of time, but how will that paragraph describe a Giants team that really wasn't dominant at anything?

In 2012, the Giants won 94 games, and so did the Braves. In 2010, the Giants won 92 and the Braves won 91. In between, the Giants won 86 and the Braves won 89. Over the course of those three seasons the Braves and Giants were pretty close to even offensively (with the Braves holding a slight edge) and pretty much identical defensively and pitching-wise (with the Giants holding a minuscule edge). Yet for all the symmetry, the Braves won one postseason game and the Giants won 22. Which is to say that, for baseball's World Series winners, almost every elevator story should probably be one of two things:

1. Good team had great postseason success for reasons we don’t yet understand, or
2. Good team, got a little lucky

Further complicating any Giants narrative is that the Giants of 2010 and the Giants of 2012 were, despite some consistency in personnel, radically different in performance. The 2010 Giants had arguably the league’s best pitching but were below average at the plate; the 2012 team flipped that entirely, and both teams survived the postseason when the weak half got hot. The 2010 team had young pitchers and old hitters; the 2012ers had old pitchers and young hitters. The 2010 team could field, the 2012 team had good baserunners. The closest thing to a strategy story you could tell might be about Bruce Bochy and a bullpen that was situationalized to the hilt, but that story will have the guy getting off the elevator a few floors early and taking the stairs.

What both teams have in common is a shared draft history. In 2006 the Giants drafted Tim Lincecum in the first round. In 2007 they took Madison Bumgarner, and in 2008 they took Buster Posey. All three players were significant to the Giants making it to the postseason, and all three were significant to the Giants making it through the postseason. Every dynasty team has good players, so it’s not notable that the Giants had good players. But few teams, dynastic or otherwise, have managed to hit in three consecutive first rounds. What the organization did during those three Junes might actually turn out to be historic.

Lincecum, in six seasons, has produced 16.8 WARP. Bumgarner, through three, has produced 7.8 WARP. And Posey, in three plus change, has produced 11.4. If Bumgarner matches his 2013 PECOTA projection, he will top 10 career wins this year and make the Giants just the ninth team in draft history to take a 10-win player in three consecutive first rounds.

A few teams with active players might still hope to join this group. The Phillies, for instance, just need Brett Myers to added two-tenths of a win to his career total and create a bridge between Pat Burrell and Chase Utley. And there are a couple teams that would be on the list but for a season without any first-round pick.

But considering a lot of teams get multiple first-round picks in a year, 10 wins turns out to be a surprisingly difficult total to count on from a first-rounder. It’s also a fairly low total—it basically puts a player between Darren Lewis and Kevin Stocker—and not enough to really promise a championship-caliber core. Simply picking three players who look likely to clear 10 puts the Giants into a trivia answer but not necessarily the World Series.

But the Giants’ three are, obviously, better than 10-career-win players, and could eventually go down as the best three consecutive picks ever. Keeping the minimum per pick at 10 wins, here are totals produced by the best sets ever—along with the Giants’ trio, adding in PECOTA’s (tentative) 10-year projections:

  • White Sox: 146 (Thomas, 73.9)
  • Mariners: 143.5 (Rodriguez, 105.7)
  • Giants: 134.0 (Posey, projected 54.8)
  • Brewers: 122.4 (Sheffield, 76.2)
  • Blue Jays: 88.1 (Green, 42.1)
  • Phillies: 73.9 (Utley, 42)
  • Rangers, 71.1 (Brown, 35.8)
  • Phillies: 68.1 (Smith, 38.1)
  • Mets, 64.8 (Strawberry, 41.6)
  • Diamondbacks, 37.8 (Drew, 13.1)

Obviously, things could go wrong, and the Giants might end up at the low end of this list, or not on the list at all. Things could also go much righter, and PECOTA isn’t generally known for its optimism.

But, if PECOTA gets it just right on Posey, Bumgarner and Lincecum’s futures, the Giants would have one of the three best first-round runs ever. So that’s the elevator story.

In a way, it’s not much different than the generic “good team, got lucky” one that we were trying to improve on. The Giants probably aren’t that much better than every other team at picking in the first round, if they’re better at all. That’s not meant as an insult; most people who rise to the top of a major-league front office are incredibly smart and talented, and the Giants are probably as smart and talented as the rest, and maybe even slightly smarter and slightly more talented. But, while it’s easy to believe that some teams might have structural flaws that persist over time, it’s harder to see evidence* of a team having a persistent and significant advantage, an advantage proportional to the Giants’ first-round successes. And if, somehow, a team did, it’s hard to think that it wouldn’t be identified and copied quickly.

The Giants under Brian Sabean, for instance, haven’t otherwise distinguished themselves at the top of the draft. Of the 17 players he took before Lincecum, just one—Matt Cain—has an All-Star appearance. The nine position players he took before Posey have combined to hit eight major-league home runs, five fewer than Sabean-drafted pitchers have hit. Maybe something changed and the Giants are that much better than the rest of the league at drafting impact talent (Zack Wheeler was picked the year after Posey), but the safer assumption (from our viewpoint, at least) is that they aren’t.

So, unless the Giants keep this success going indefinitely, the elevator story is probably going to be “good front office, got a little lucky. Built a good team, then got a little lucky again.” There may be no higher compliment.

*Convincing evidence, of course, would be a challenge, and producing a conclusive study of GM/scouting director drafting abilities would require multiple articles for methodology alone. Front offices change, for starters. “First-round picks taken by GM X” will by definition always be a small number of data points. Furthermore, each pick in the draft might call for its own strategy, dictated by draft position, bonus allotments, and draft strength, etc. And a huge portion of player value would be credited to the player development side of things.

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

Related Content:  Draft,  Giants,  San Francisco Giants

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