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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

21 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

kmbart

Should the "Lonnie Stearns" in the third position of the Phillies trio be Lonnie "Skates" Smith?

Feb 27, 2013 04:06 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Yes. Fixed.

Feb 27, 2013 04:08 AM
 
LorenzoLoon

You can't say all that in 30 seconds in an elevator. ;)

Feb 27, 2013 07:38 AM
rating: 2
 
Chomsky
(103)

John Barr joined the Giants in 2007 as head of scouting. While Lincecum was drafted under his predecessor, Bumgarner, Posey, Wheeler, etc. are all Barr's. Both Lincecum and Posey were Golden Spikes award winners, so it's a bit much to credit the team for going after them, but Bumgarner and Wheeler are major credits to Barr's draft philosophy.

Prior to Barr, Sabean had miserable drafts, seemingly out of spite; he even deliberately punted his first-round pick one year by signing the worthless free agent veteran Michael Tucker. It was the blossoming of 2002 draft first-rounder Matt Cain, who made the majors in 2005, that seems to have reminded Sabean of the value of first-round draft picks.

Feb 27, 2013 08:14 AM
rating: 5
 
Greg

"Good team, got a little lucky" is indeed the highest compliment a team can get these days. Death to the Division Series.

Feb 27, 2013 08:58 AM
rating: 2
 
Vicmill1

You made me more aware of the razor-thin differences between teams in MLB which is why we, the fans, love our voodoo rationales, upside down rally caps and totally fictional analyses of outcomes... Baseball has always been the home of fiction lovers because we can imagine and dream absurd outcomes for insane reasons and think we are making great sense. WARPS, and stats notwithstanding. And we keep coming back, unchanged.

Bravo.

Feb 27, 2013 09:44 AM
rating: 3
 
Marco Lepe

Zack Wheeler tears in my Giants fan eyes.

Feb 27, 2013 09:52 AM
rating: 0
 
RationalSportsFa

What I don't understand is why some fans get offended if you ever intimate that part of their team's success was luck-related. Given how often many fans blame their team's failures on bad luck, you would think that they would be willing recognize the opposite side of the luck coin.

Feb 27, 2013 10:54 AM
rating: 4
 
ScottyB

All championship-winning teams are both good and fortunate. Saying this about the Giants is just boilerplate.

Here's my 30 second pitch:

The Giants drafted and developed stud starting pitchers and one of the best young player in baseball. Their deep teams played good defense, pitched well out of the bullpen and had a well-rounded skill set. They made some questionable investments in veterans, but many of these investments paid off. San Francisco provides a great geographic market from which to build a solid financial base and fan support. Great stadium combined with good and stable ownership, front office and on-field management.

Feb 27, 2013 13:44 PM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

"The Giants are like the Moneyball A's. They developed great, cheap pitching and got enough of an offense to win games."

Feb 27, 2013 16:26 PM
rating: 0
 
jjpzebra

I'm not sure you could say the Giants didn't field well in 2012. Maybe not in the regular season, but, if my memory serves me correctly, in the last 10 or so playoff and series games, they only gave up something like one run that didn't score on a ball over the fence. You can't run down a dinger, but the Giants' defense strangled their opposition in the postseason last year.

Feb 27, 2013 21:34 PM
rating: 0
 
juiced

BP's own stats on this site show that the Giants were above average defensively during the regular season, ranking 13th in team defensive efficiency, moving up one notch to 12th once you adjust for their home ballpark effects. And yes you're right they performed at an elite level during the postseason which featured a healthy Sandoval and Scutaro at 2b.

Feb 28, 2013 00:31 AM
rating: 0
 
juiced

This "good not great but lucky" meme that surrounds much of the fan and pundit commentary about the 2010-2012 Giants is laughable. In one of the most competitive eras in baseball history the Giants, with basically the same exact pitching and coaching staffs + Posey have won Championships in 2 out of three years with an 86- win, largely Posey-less season sandwiched in between (gee the Giants sure were "lucky" that Scott Cousins veered left and plowed over their best player while he was a sitting duck). They went 22-9 over two postseasons against the best teams in baseball. What they did was remarkable, and the remarkable residue of design and a lot of roster and management continuity, not luck. Their performance hasn't really been matched a short period in the wild card era unless you count the Yankees, who operate with the luxury of a much higher payroll (is their large fan base and revenue stream "luck" moreso than the Giants reliance on other ways to win besides home runs?). The Cards and Sox have put up similar performances spread out over 4 years but not 3 like the Giants. Had Poseu not been injured in 2011 who is to say they wouldn't/couldn't have pulled off a trifecta? Maybe Giant critics should consider the possibility that the Giants have been unlucky to not advance 3 seasons in a row. When you repeatedly over course of years find gold at the trade deadline that other teams are missing out on (Burrell, Ross, Scutaro, Beltran) then its an organizational talent not a four leaf clover

Feb 27, 2013 23:53 PM
rating: -3
 
Lindemann
(852)

What would you have said if the Giants had lost one of games 5, 6, or 7 in the NLCS last year? That management was incompetent for not putting together a team capable of advancing to the World Series? Or that the Giants faced a hot, veteran-laden team and didn't have enough of the bounces go their way?

If a team can lose due to bad luck, it can win due to good luck. I thought the proposition that a team's won-loss record over a short span may be due to a combination of talent and luck would be uncontroversial on a site like BP.

Feb 28, 2013 06:16 AM
rating: 0
 
juiced

Of course postseason series are small enough samples to involve a lot of luck . But it is also true that the Giants as a team ran two regular season gauntlets into their two championship seasons and won 86 during a third where they lost Posey. That's not being "lucky". And in toto they won 22 out of 31 postseason games during that span rather than just winning 4 out of 7. That's domination over a larger span. As a whole they were excellent not lucky. Which doesn't mean you can't cite to lucky moments along the way, but it does mean that attaching the lucky meme to their 2010-2012 run, as seems to be in vogue, is bogus. Because that run ain't no small sample size.

Feb 28, 2013 07:04 AM
rating: -1
 
Lindemann
(852)

No one, least of all me, said the Giants weren't a good team. It takes more than luck to win that many games over a three-year period.

But to some extent, they got lucky in the playoffs en route to their two championships. They managed to win three in a row against the Cards in 2012, for example. Or, say they lose Game 5 of the NLDS to the Reds - say Jay Bruce gets a more of that fly ball in the ninth inning, pushing it out, and Cincy gets the walkoff victory - and the Giants' postseason record for the two years in question is suddenly 13-6. Not quite as impressive.

I clearly am not going to convince you, but I wanted to explain my position a little more anyway. That's life on the Internet for you.

Feb 28, 2013 11:54 AM
rating: 0
 
juiced

And I, in turn, never said that there was zero luck involved in the Giants championships, just that the growing overall meme that they were lucky was bogus. I freely admit the Reds series was extremely tight and the Bruce-Romo battle towards the end of game 5 in particular was epic and touch and go for the Giants. However, the Giants outscored the Cardinals 20-1 in the last three games of that series. They dominated, that wasn't lucky bounces. It used to be the case that coming back from those type of deficits, particularly playing stellar, smothering defense under that tension, was viewed as a team skill. It's now frequently cited as "luck" which is unfortunate.

Feb 28, 2013 16:22 PM
rating: 0
 
juiced

I believe that a lot of people are having trouble accepting that the Giant offenses weren't built around high secondary averages like "Moneyball teams". That also clashes with previous notions of what it takes for the Giants to win, an image burnished by the Bonds/Kent era

Feb 28, 2013 07:37 AM
rating: 0
 
jfranco77

Here's your 30-seconds:

It turns out that pitching and defense really do win championships. Now do whatever you like with your remaining 15 seconds.

-----

Or, alternatively:

Did exactly what the Rays did in terms of drafting and finding undervalued talent to build around a brilliant young nucleus, except had an extra 20mil and a beautiful stadium instead of the Rays' Tropicana Dumphole.

-------

It's not really that simple, but I think you're missing a key point looking at teams who picked 3 straight 10+ win players. How many of those teams got anywhere near 10 WAR out of those players IN THEIR FIRST SIX SEASONS?

Feb 28, 2013 10:58 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

What I don't understand is why anyone assumes that someone on an elevator wants to hear about the Giants.

Feb 28, 2013 11:02 AM
 
R.A.Wagman

It's a very special elevator.

Feb 28, 2013 11:41 AM
rating: 1
 
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