October 30, 2012
Do the Giants Signal the End of Moneyball?
The Giants' world championship is a victory for John Barr, Dick Tidrow, Bobby Evans, a cadre of sharp-eyed scouts and especially general manager Brian Sabean, who learned his trade in the Yankees' system and surrounds himself with people who don't merely know baseball, but feel it, deep inside. They all played the game, somewhere along the line, and if you throw a binder full of numbers on their desk, they don't quite get the point.
The beauty of baseball is that it can be dissected in a thousand ways, each an engaging enterprise in its own way. The stat-crazed sabermetricians, as they are called, invent specific methods of evaluation without needing to witness the action in person. Numbers, they believe, tell the entire story - and their approach is worshiped by thousands of fans and bloggers who wouldn't last five minutes in a ball-talk conversation with Tim Flannery, Mark Gardner or Ron Wotus.
The modern-day general manager bears no significant resemblance to Sabean, rather an especially sharp accountant who can draw up contracts, analyze a salary structure and study esoteric numbers with the best of them. It's a new breed of geeks, in essence. Privately, they scoff at the likes of Sabean - although, as far as we can tell, the Giants take home the rings.
The San Francisco model is based on visual evidence, not statistics, and it clearly works - but it will fail, miserably, in the hands of organizations cutting their scouting staffs a>nd stocking computers. Those people wouldn't understand what the Giants saw in Gregor Blanco, a longtime disappointment, as he tore up the Venezuelan winter league. They wouldn't necessarily spot the massive heart inside Sergio Romo, or what Hunter Pence's relentless energy brings to a contending team. The Giants look at the face, the demeanor, the background, the ability to play one's best under suffocating pressure - all the components "Moneyball" lamely holds up to ridicule.
There's two problems here: Jenkins seems to misread Moneyball, as well as the way the Giants operate.
It would be as equally trite and reductive to say the Giants won because of the use of sabermetrics. The most we can say with any certainty is that the Giants won through a combination of talent and good fortune. (It's frowned upon, these days, to mention good fortune in connection with a team's successes, but there are no bad teams in the playoffs, and especially in a short series there isn't enough time for talent to prevail. That isn't to deny that the Giants were talented -- again, there are no bad teams in the playoffs. But it shouldn't be beyond the pale to acknowledge that chance plays some part in these things.)
What we can say, though, is that the Giants were certainly trying to use sabermetrics. They are not trying to use sabermetrics to the exclusion of other things -- but that's a strawman, even given the caricature of pro scouting that occurs in Moneyball the book. Nobody has ever seriously proposed getting rid of MLB scouting altogether in favor of statistical evaluation, certainly nobody within 50 feet of an MLB front office.
It's not like the Giants are some laggards in terms of using advanced analysis in the front office, though. In some regards, they're actually groundbreakers:
“This is like Moneyball 2.0,” said Hank Adams, chief executive of Sportvision, the company perhaps best known for augmenting reality on football fields with the yellow first-down lines. The company’s Pitchf/x technology, developed in Mountain View and pioneered by the Giants, tracks a pitched ball at 60 discrete points in its half-second flight from the point of release to the catcher’s mitt, measuring speed, arc, spin, break and location in the strike zone.
In stealth mode, the Giants are now able to track the ball in the opposite direction. Fieldf/x, which the Giants are fully deploying for the first time this year, tracks the hit ball and the defensive players as they react to it. For the first time since baseball statistics have been kept — we are talking 150 years — baseball statisticians will soon have objective data on how quickly fielders react to balls in play, how fast they get to the ball, and the accuracy and location of their throws.
On deck for the Giants: Controlf/x, which shows precisely where a pitch goes in relation to the spot where the catcher sets the target. Some catchers are better at framing a pitch for the umpires, Adams said, resulting in more strike calls, which in turn leads to as many as 20 extra outs a season. It does not sound like much, but it equates to two extra wins a season and potentially millions of dollars in extra revenue.
“That’s just one tiny example that a catcher might be undervalued,” Adams said.
Keeping a video eye on the ball during just one game generates as much as 2 terabytes of data, Adams said, requiring advanced algorithms, powerful graphics-processing chips developed by nVidia of Santa Clara, data storage tools and other technologies that are abundant in Silicon Valley.
The Giants were also the first team to adopt motion sensor suits, the same technology used to digitize human movement in video games and movies, to capture the nuances of a pitcher’s motion or hitter’s swing on a computer. They were first in the major leagues to embrace wireless Internet service in the stadium, to set up Internet kiosks and to welcome iPods and iPads into the locker room and stands. Fans can text-message the club to enter contests and to get exclusive updates on player injuries and insights from coaches and players during the game.
But clearly the Giants would never refer to what they're doing as Moneyball, right? Well:
[Yeshayah] Goldfarb’s title is long and clunky: He’s the Giants’ director of minor league operations/quantitative analysis.
What that means is that Goldfarb had a role in just about every player personnel decision the Giants’ baseball operations department made to shape this year’s team — from past amateur drafts to in-season trades to off-season free-agent signings.
“He’s one of our ‘Moneyball’ guys, if you will,” Giants president Larry Baer said last week, alluding to the process of finding valuable players that other teams might overlook. “He does a lot of our really important analysis on player acquisitions.”
Oh. But Sabean isn't actually listening to this guy, is he? Well:
Like Pat Gillick, Sabean is a firm believer in delegating authority and hiring good people and letting them do their jobs. Bob Evans, the Giants' vice president of baseball operations, oversees many of the team's free-agent negotiations and other daily operations. The Giants are also more progressive and Sabermetrically inclined than their reputation suggests. No move is made at either the major or minor league levels without statistical analysts Jeremy Shelley and Yeshayah Goldfarb crunching the numbers first.
Now, yes, the Giants don't just use stats. Nobody does. I could give you the beer and tacos spiel but you've heard it before a million times and I won't waste your time rehashing it. What's noteworthy here is that either Jenkins didn't do the work required to learn these things about the team he covers for a major metropolitan newspaper, or he knew them and wrote that piece anyway. Either possibility is, or at least should be, deeply embarrassing.