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January 3, 2005

Method to the Madness

Brian Sabean's Offseason

by Thomas Gorman

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For those who subscribe to sabermetric principles, there is no executive more frustrating than Brian Sabean, general manager of the San Francisco Giants. He signs declining and aging veterans, purposely eschews draft picks and makes little effort to develop talent in his farm system.

And he keeps on winning.

Since Sabean took over in 1997, the Giants have gone 738-557. That .570 mark is the second-best in the NL in that span (behind the Braves), and fourth best in all of MLB. Since '97, the Giants have never finished worse than second in their division. Of the 1295 games they've played in that time, no more than a dozen have failed to have playoff implications. By any accounting it's a sterling record of success.

I thought it might be interesting to walk through the Giants off-season and try to find a method to what seems to be more madness. Keep in mind that I've been accused in other spaces of being a Giants' apologist. Attacks are too easy against a man who once signed Neifi Perez to a two year/$4.26 million deal. Figuring out what the Big Sabes is up to is much more intriguing.

  • Starting Pitching: Sabean started his off-season by picking up the option on Brett Tomko for $2.5MM. At the time the 2005 rotation was all but full: Jason Schmidt, Jerome Williams, Kirk Rueter and someone from the trio of Noah Lowry, Brad Hennessey and Jesse Foppert.

    Tomko threw 194 innings of 4.04 ERA/4.55 RA ball with a nice 3.15 ERA after the All-Star break. He was the second-best pitcher on the staff by VORP, with a 26.2 mark. He's not electric, but considering the going rate for #4-ish starters, Tomko is a steal at $2.5 million. Schmidt is a bona fide ace, there is only one gaping hole (Rueter), and the back-end options have interesting upside implications: Foppert has an electric arm and was already recovered from Tommy John surgery at the end of last year; Lowry went 6-0 with a 4.01 RA in 16 games in 2004; Hennessey is just new getting fully healthy after a series of bizarre maladies. Beyond those guys, hard-throwing prospect Merkin Valdez is someone every team asks about when they talk trade with Sabean.

  • Infield: The Giants were second in the league last year in runs scored. At the beginning of the offseason, though, at least four offensive positions were probably due for a decline (1B, SS, CF, and RF) and that's assuming that Barry Bonds keeps doing what Bonds keeps doing. Second base is locked up solidly with Ray Durham, whose VORP of 40.3 was good for third on the team offensively, while increasingly chubby Edgardo Alfonzo and super-utilityman Pedro Feliz will split time at third base in '05.

    So Sabean's next move was to lock up his #2 offensive performer from 2004 for a cheap $2MM (just $1.75 more than his scheduled buyout). Remember that J.T. Snow exploded last year for what was arguably the best year of his career (.327/.429/.529). His post-All Star line of .387/.496/.646 was absurd and is well worth a $1.75MM flyer. No one expects him to repeat his 2004 performance, but an 800 OPS would be valuable at $2 million.

    Sabean also made a quick move on shortstop Deivi Cruz, who was cut in spring training by the Devil Rays, then posted a .254 EqA for the Giants when the Neifi experiment turned into a flaming car wreck of twisted steel, crying babies and screeching ambulance sirens. Cruz played far over his head in 2004--more around his 90th percentile PECOTA projection than his 75th. At $800,000 (with $300K more in performance incentives) he's not a bargain-basement backup, and his defensive abilities make him ill-suited at pretty much any spot on the diamond, especially his primary position of shortstop. Considering the cheap availability of perennially disappointing Cody Ransom, the move was perhaps based a little bit on Ransom's inability to field a critical grounder that would have kept the team in the playoff hunt last year.

    The shortstop problem was not solved by signing Cruz. How Sabean solved his shortstop problem created a fairly big stir, especially because the signing was made prior to the date by which teams had to offer their players arbitration, meaning that the Giants' first-round draft pick was automatically handed over to the Indians. I'm speaking, of course, of the Omar Vizquel signing.

    At first glance, and looking from the bottom up, a three-year/$12.25 million deal seems more than a little excessive for a 38-year-old shortstop with rapidly diminishing defensive chops. Vizquel has never been exceptional and if he's not in the twilight of his career then he's well beyond it. On the other hand the Giants had a real need at shortstop and a quick rundown of potential trade partners made it clear that there was nothing seriously available in that market (assuming that the jewels of the system were as unavailable in November as they were at the trade deadline when Sabean couldn't put any decent deals together).

    The free-agent options were the big three (Nomar Garciaparra, Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera), Vizquel, and then a lot of ugly names. Of these the only possible options were maybe Jose Valentin, Chris Gomez and Rich Aurilia.

    So if you know that you can't afford the $7MM/year it'll take to get the big three, and you're also not the type to notice that Valentin's power and defense make him an interesting option in spite of his horrendous batting average and OBP last year (.216/.287), is it any surprise that you go hard for Vizquel?

    Once that decision was made the price was decided by the market. Kenny Williams, the general manager of the Chicago White Sox, offered two years and $10 million and it was up to the Giants to guarantee a third year and an additional $2.25 million. To help the team in 2005 and 2006, the money is backloaded to give the team more flexibility in these next two years (while Bonds and Rueter are still on the books). While it's a deal that could look very ugly in the third year, if we accept that Sabean wasn't ever going to turn to Valentin there really wasn't another serious option out there.

    Perhaps this will look like a case of the winner's curse in 2007, but that's the problem with blind auction systems. To win you have to offer more than the next guy, and that usually means overpaying slightly. When the alternative is Deivi Cruz, it's hard not to countenance a couple extra million.

  • Relief Pitching: San Francisco's bullpen last year was a disaster. Giant relievers converted only 62% of save opportunities, leading to 28 blown saves. Sure, saves are a silly statistic, but when the only teams worse than you are the Reds and Rockies, you know something is in desperate need of repair.

    The best Giants reliever in 2004 was Jim Brower, who not too long ago was traded in exchange for Livan Hernandez, before Hernandez dropped his arm slot and aliens inhabited his body. Brower was just 43rd in the league in Expected Wins Added vs. Replacement Level (adjusted for opposition), and even that is largely because of his huge workload (93 innings pitched in 89 appearances). The second-best reliever in black and gold (Felix Rodriguez) is now wearing navy pinstripes (after a brief time in Philadelphia cranberry).

    How far do you have to go to get to the Giant closers? Dustin Hermanson was ranked 168 out of the 233 relievers in the majors with at least 25 IP. Herges was 227th (only better than Aaron Fultz, Vladimir Nunez, Chad Harville, Roberto Hernandez, Mike Dejean and Shawn Chacon).

    It's not surprising, then, that Sabean's next move was for a solid back of the bullpen reliever. Given that, it is impossible to argue that Armando Benitez wasn't the best option on the market. His 2004 1.29 ERA/1.42 RA in 69 2/3 innings is certainly not something that can be expected year in/year out, but the last time he had an RA above 3.82 in a full season was when he was 22 years old. His career ERA is 2.85 and he holds a career strikeout rate of 11.4/9IP. A lot of fuss has been made over his declining K numbers and it's true, in terms of K/9 the rate has fallen precipitously in the past 5 years.

    
    Year   K/9
    -------------
    1998  11.46
    1999  14.77
    2000  12.55
    2001  10.97
    2002  10.56
    2003   9.25
    2004   8.01
    
    Looks bad. But remember the Nick Neugebauer lesson. Pitching rate stats can be very deceiving when they're only analyzed in terms of innings pitched rather than batters faced. As an experiment lets look at strikeouts in terms of K/Total Batters Faced and K/BB. Let's also throw up RA (Runs Allowed / 9 Innings).
    
    Year  K/TBF  K/BB   RA
    -----------------------------
    1998  30.1%  2.23  3.82
    1999  41.0%  3.12  1.96
    2000  34.8%  2.79  2.84
    2001  42.2%  2.33  3.77
    2002  28.7%  3.16  2.67
    2003  30.0%  1.83  3.33
    2004  23.6%  2.95  1.42
    
    Still see the precipitous decline? It's more like a drop to a different level of performance after 2001, but stable since then. There isn't any great trick to it. Each of these years represents, at most, just a little over 300 batters faced. By comparison, a starter will face something like 900-1000 batters in a full season. What's my point? These are small sample sizes. Which leads to the second half of the explanation: there are small sample size peculiarities in small sample sizes. The walk rate here is fluctuating pretty wildly. So is the hit rate. As a result the RA is moving all over the place. Using a three-year moving average for the rate stats smooths out almost all of that noise.

    What's the moral of the story? Benitez is still a good pitcher. His 2004 was off the charts because his walk rate was miniscule (21 BB/262 TBF) and the Marlins played great defense behind him. That won't repeat, but there is no reason to think that he's going to collapse because he's not striking out 11 men a game. If you look at a three-year moving average instead of year by year numbers he is still solidly striking out 9.3/9IP.

    In 2005 he'll almost definitely put up at least twice as many strikeouts as walks and whiff at least 25% of comers. As a flyball pitcher he'll have an advantage in SBC and should help the Giants slot guys like Brower, Herges Foppert, and Scott Eyre into lower-leverage innings. Considering that the other bonafide "closer" this offseason got two years/$12 million despite being 35, unable to throw more than 50 innings a year, showing huge Vegas casino-sized neon signs of decline, and still not definitively over a stubborn shoulder injury, is it surprising that Benitez went for three years/$21 million? The Cubs were solidly in the chase when Sabean inked the deal.

    Sabean did the "I'll just use last year's setup guy as my closer this year" thing for two years now. He deserves some credit for that, and for trying to slot Hermanson into the ninth inning when he couldn't make something happen at the trade deadline. But overall he got burned badly in 2004. You could easily argue that the Giants would have made the playoffs last year if they had had one top 30 reliever. Sabean just wasn't going to chance it in 2005.

  • Catcher: Everyone has trashed the decision to go with Mike Matheny over Yorvit Torrealba. Ditto.

    I can summarize my thoughts thusly: Even if Sabean felt he needed a defense-first/pitcher-friendly backstop why waste money on the free-agent market (or better yet, why waste $10.5 million on the free agent market)?

    The Giants have had Yorvit Torrealba on the bench for three years. In each of those three years he has been an exceptional defender (Davenport Defensive Rates of 105 in 2002, 125 in 2003, 108 in 2004). His career caught stealing rate is 35.5%, and that's with a Giants staff that is notoriously poor at holding runners on. For comparison, Mr. Matheny's career rate is 34.8%, A.J. Pierzynski 29.2%, and Ivan Rodriguez: an absurd 48.3%. Torrealba has had just two passed balls in more than 1300 innings behind the dish (one every 73 nine-inning games). Matheny's career figure is one every 18 nine-inning games.

    There's no reason to even bother with an offensive comparison. Even if you don't think Torrealba has much, if any, possible upside, he's certainly better than Matheny and his career .293 OBP. Yup, thats right, he's a worse hitter than Nifty Neifi. Know how many active players have a worse career OBP (career minimum 2000 plate appearances)? Five. John Flaherty, Deivi Cruz, Pat Borders, Rey Ordonez, and Alex Gonzalez. Esteemed company, to be sure.

    In case you lost count, all their free-agent activity means the Giants will now give up their first three picks in the 2005 draft. In a twisted way this actually might be one of the reasons for the move. Giants owner Peter Magowan has previously instructed Sabean to calculate overall payroll as a combination of major-league 40-man roster payroll and bonus money for draftees. The more picks Sabean gives up, the more money he can spend on the 2005 team. A third-round pick in 2004 made at least $400K and its possible that that might bounce up again in this crazy year. I am not defending this strategy, just grabbing at possible explanations for signing a guy like Matheny to make outs on a regular basis.

    This is a move which really makes no sense on any level. The only positive is that the deal is heavily backloaded so the financials don't restrict the Giants payroll in 2005.

  • Outfield: Sabean wanted Steve Finley to take over in center field, pushing Grissom over to right or possibly into some sort of super-platoon role with Finley and Michael Tucker. This could have been pretty interesting. The Grissom option was $2.75MM and he still kills lefties (933 OPS vs. 715 against righties). Finley would have been a legitimate, if aging, offensive force in the lineup and playing Strat-o-Matic with Grissom wouldn't just give you the lefty-masher, it would have eliminated the righty-swatter. Addition by subtraction.

    Alas, it was not meant to be, and through no fault of Sabean's. The Giants offered Finley more money, an extra guaranteed year and an option year. Finley wanted to stay in SoCal. I explain this only because, just like with Vizquel and Benitez, there is a context to the signing here.

    Once the Finley option disappeared Sabean was in a tight spot. He could stick with Dustan Mohr and Tucker in right field, but it would be hard to imagine that twosome being anything but a defecit offensively. Mohr's .394 OBP in 2004 was a nice surprise, but totally out of line with his numbers going all the way back into the minor leagues.

    So he signed Moises Alou. Felipe's son is quite old (38 and 39 during this contract) and an atrocious defender (6 RAR/-4 RAA in left field last year), In 2004 Alou had a career year in homers, RBIs, doubles and plate appearances, numbers he can't possibly be expected to repeat.

    Signing Alou and placing him in right field leaves the Giants with a combined starting outfielder age of 116. In 2005, a 116-year-old would have been born in 1889, the year the Eiffel Tower opened and the Dakotas were added as states to the Union. BP writer and Futility Infielder Jay Jaffe questions whether the trainers may want to leave bedpans in the gaps "just in case." Practically speaking, if Alou is only as bad in right field as he was in left field last year, and if Bonds and Grissom don't regress, Clay Davenport's defensive Runs Above Average would have the trio at -10 runs versus average. Defensive metrics based on play-by-play data probably would have them at quite a bit worse.

    These are all very bad things. But when your back is against the wall, when Barry Bonds is heading into his last years, and when the alternative is Mike Tucker, Dustan Mohr, and maybe Tony Torcato, is it still bonkers to throw some money at Moises Alou?

    $13.25 million over two years, where the second year is voidable at the player's discretion, isn't so terrible, especially when the open market for center fielders after Finley amounted to "$200 Million" Carlos Beltran, "Rockie Mountain High" Jeromy Burnitz, "Philosopher King" Doug Glanville and "Craptastic" Tom Goodwin. Among corner outfielders the list was worse, unless you want to take an expensive leap with Magglio Ordonez. So it it any surprise that the Giants end up with Moises Alou? If Alou hits .280/.350/.490 with 50+ extra-base hits, and that's not at all unbelieveable, the money won't have been squandered, especially considering the alternatives.

    In part Sabean is responding to the perception, accurate or not, that the Giants need a legitimate "slugger" to protect Bonds in the lineup and cut down on the intentional walks. I'm not sure Alou can sincerely be called a slugger these days, but he's certainly more threatening than the alternatives available on the Giants roster or in the free-agent market.

What does it all add up to?

Sabean's moves don't always make sense, but overall the team is marginally improved. The backloading of contracts, the eschewing of draft picks and the presence of some albatrosses (Alfonzo, Matheny) bodes very poorly for the future, and while the present improvements are expensive, the team is certainly better off than it was at the beginning of 2004.

Perhaps it should go without saying, but being able to pencil Barry Bonds into the lineup every day cuts a general manager a tremendous amount of slack. Even if free-agent acquisitions don't work out perfectly the team is still poised to score a good number of runs because of Bonds' effect on the lineup. The concern, of course, is what happens after Bonds.

The other point to make is that Sabean's strategies may not be all that different from Billy Beane's. Because of payroll constraints the Athletics are forced to constantly turn over their roster in favor of young talent in their pre-arbitration and pre-free agency years. In those first few years of service time, baseball value is severly under-compensated.

On the flip side, Sabean may believe that on the other end of the performance bellcurve there is a market misvaluation. There is some preliminary evidence that this is, in fact, the case. Teams shy away from talent on the decline and this turns the market for free agents in the mid-to-late thirties into something of a buyer's market. The deafening sound of guffaws you hear everytime Sabean inks a free agent to a multi-year contract is proof positive that very few teams are willing to risk spending guaranteed dollars on players who pose increased risk of collapse or injury. The lack of competition allows for the Giants to sign older free agents at a substantial discount considering their performance record. Some credit should be granted to Brian Sabean on this point: he certainly has a significant record of success with older veteran position players.

The strongest counter-Sabean argument to make is that if he has X amount of dollars to spend in an offseason (at this point X for 2004-2005 is $25.5 million), he could do better than the death by 1000 mediocre cuts. It is a credible argument, and even after Snow, Tomko and Benitez's 2005 payroll numbers are chalked up, roughly $16 million is left over to spend. But maybe he just didn't want to dance with the Yankees and Astros and still maybe fail to win out on someone like Carlos Beltran. Or maybe he doesn't want to tie up such a large part of his payroll in two players.

One other point here: Because of buyout and arbitration deadlines these things have to occur in a certain order. If the Giants hadn't picked up Grissom's option, they would have had an additional $2.5 million available for 2005. But had they then failed to land a top-level free agent (as they failed with Finley) they would have been forced quite literally to Goodwin or Burnitz or Glanville. Perhaps one of the reasons Sabean spends money in smaller doses is to avoid running the risk of hoarding his chips for the superstar and later finding out that the superstar doesn't love him back.

Sabean has motives for his moves, and a short walk through some of his confusing free-agent acquisitions actually demonstrates that, like any general manager, he experiences pressures that aren't always perfectly appreciable from the sidelines. Alou at this price and Vizquel at that price don't make sense in a vacuum--they strain credulity even with all the facts--but the moves are far more reasonable when the alternative is to be stuck holding onto a fistful of dollars and missing the post-season in what is surely one of Bonds' last years of domination.

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