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October 30, 2012

BP Unfiltered

Do the Giants Signal the End of Moneyball?

by Colin Wyers

From Bruce Jenkins, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle:

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 and 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.

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

Related Content:  Giants,  The Who

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

BP Comment Quick Links

Dan McKay

It's funny that Jenkins mentions Blanco in the excerpt above. In a recent interview, Goldfarb actually cited Blanco's batting-average-on-balls-in-play as factor in the Giants' interest in him last winter.

Oct 30, 2012 11:19 AM
rating: 5
 
carligula

Jenkins doesn't "cover" the team per se... they let him out of the basement occasionally to do his Andy Rooney impersonation. The Bay Area media provides outstanding baseball coverage, for the most part.

Oct 30, 2012 11:59 AM
rating: 4
 
frampton
(870)

He's been playing the part of old curmudgeon in the SF Chronicle for 30 years (and I don't think he's much over 60). It's to the point when it annoys me if he ever says anything I agree with. At least that happens only very rarely.

Oct 30, 2012 13:39 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Controlf/x sounds awesome, and as the name implies, it will reveal much more than catcher-framing ability - it will measure true command vs control for their pitchers.

Though they should call it Commandf/x.

Oct 30, 2012 12:01 PM
 
Schere

I wouldn't be sure - pitchers aren't always trying to hit the target, particularly with breaking balls.

Oct 30, 2012 13:18 PM
rating: 3
 
Rob Miller
(162)
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Bruce Jenkins ==> baseball writers
Paul Krugman ==> Economics

Oct 30, 2012 12:34 PM
rating: -11
 
NoHRTyner

Bruce Jenkins has won a Nobel Prize for baseball writing!?

Oct 30, 2012 13:11 PM
rating: 12
 
ofMontreal

He's won 5 bro.

Oct 30, 2012 15:58 PM
rating: 3
 
mikebuetow

We heard similar things about John Schuerholz, and then there he was, keynoting SABR 40.

Oct 30, 2012 12:39 PM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

And in response to a question posed by a particularly handsome young man, using the term "replacement level" in a sentence.

Oct 31, 2012 08:55 AM
 
yoshiki89

Sadly, Bruce Jenkins won't be reading this.

Oct 30, 2012 13:30 PM
rating: 1
 
Matt Hunter

His email is freely available at the bottom of his article; if you want him to read it you could email it to you. I would, but I already sent him an email in response to the article earlier today...

Oct 30, 2012 13:39 PM
rating: 0
 
Matt Hunter

email it to him*

Oct 30, 2012 13:40 PM
rating: 0
 
yadenr

Bruce Jenkins doesn't use newfangled nerdy technology like email, he prefers the timeless quality of Sanskrit scrolls.

Oct 30, 2012 14:44 PM
rating: 6
 
zeeekz

Overall, I agree with Mr. Wyers and the commenters above. I think that Mr. Jenkins was showing a bit of provincial exuberance in light of the Giants' success, especially given that the archrival Dodgers could not spend their way into the playoffs and that the cross-bay A's left the party early. . On the other hand, he is not the type of writer that I would take seriously.

Oct 30, 2012 14:02 PM
rating: 1
 
ofMontreal

I know that the term 'moneyball' is a flashpoint for sports writers to aim at boomers but what I find most funny is that it's used a label to cover what ever crap they want to write about. If there's ever a good example of moneyball, it's the Giants: top of the league homegrown pitching, a few high draft pick position players who are core stars, and a bunch of useful under-rated regulars. Plus a solid manager. I mean this is a description of the Bobby Cox Braves too. Moneyball is really just great starting pitching. It's just that that isn't a very sexy story.

Oct 30, 2012 16:04 PM
rating: 1
 
ofMontreal

* grammatical errors included

Oct 30, 2012 16:05 PM
rating: 0
 
jdeich

It's also the story of the 2002 A's. Moneyball talked a lot about how they were cobbling together value from undervalued or discarded pieces like Chad Bradford, Ricardo Rincon, Scott Hatteberg, etc. However, the A's made the playoffs largely of their core of young starting pitchers (Zito, Hudson, and Mulder), and their two best position players (Tejada and Chavez) were homegrown stars signed before Beane was GM.

Analogy to 2010-2012 Giants:
{ Zito, Hudson, Mulder } = { Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner }
{ Tejada, Chavez } = { Posey, Sandoval }
{ Random dudes like Hatteberg } = { Random dudes like Blanco }

'Moneyball' tried to make it sound like Beane beat the world with the Bad News Bears, but the reality is that Beane took a team that should have been somewhat above average and made them excellent through sabermetrics. That's still an amazing accomplishment (and a skill worth millions of dollars on the free market), if less obviously dramatic to the general public.

Oct 31, 2012 10:44 AM
rating: 1
 
begonias
(560)

I had serious problems with Bruce Jenkins for a long time, until he wrote a biography of his father, Gordon Jenkins, who produced records with Sinatra (among others). Jenkins can be a fine and elegant writer, and he has an appreciation for aesthetics that perhaps was fostered by a youth filled with music.

I think Jenkins looks at sports and finds aesthetic beauty. He loved J.T. Snow because he always looked good. He doesn't love statistical analysis because he doesn't see the beauty there.

For this reason, Jenkins is an excellent writer in the nostalgic mode when the subject is baseball's past. But he gets into trouble when his nostalgia for the aesthetics of the past comes up against modern analysis. In short, there are few worse writers when it comes to analyzing baseball, but that doesn't mean everything Jenkins writes is awful.

Oct 30, 2012 16:05 PM
rating: 9
 
frampton
(870)

He certainly doesn't lack for passion -- I enjoy his writing about surfing Mavericks, for example, and I agree about the excerpts I've read about his father. He does like to poke his finger in the eye of any kind of statistical analysis, which he seems not only to dislike, but to not understand at all.

Oct 30, 2012 17:32 PM
rating: 0
 
Rob Miller
(162)

Unlike Paul Krugman...

Mar 17, 2014 12:48 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

"Brian Sabean [...] surrounds himself with people who don't merely know baseball, but feel it, deep inside."

Was I the only one to read that line think think, "Gross!"?

Oct 30, 2012 16:58 PM
 
Pat Folz

You were not.

Oct 30, 2012 17:13 PM
rating: 4
 
Richard Bergstrom

If the A's weren't right across the bay and, especially, hadn't been in the playoffs, I imagine Jenkins would've made something else up to right about... but hey, why let facts stand in the way of a good mudslinging?

Oct 30, 2012 19:16 PM
rating: 1
 
John Douglass

"The San Francisco model is based on visual evidence..." Is this a Jason Parks riff on the #humid masculinity of one Angel Pagan?

Oct 30, 2012 20:48 PM
rating: -1
 
diryn1

I have been reading Jenkins for years in the Chronicle and I agree with the above comment that he is fine and elegant writer. He is just plain wrong in that article as he usually is when he ventures into the stats vs scouts storyline. But his baseball, basketball, tennis, and mavericks coverage is usually an enjoyable read. He is not the Giants beat writer ( I believe he was the A's beat writer in the early and mid 80's) but seems to have taken Glenn Dickey's place as the Chronicle's jack of all trades and commentator on any and all sports related items.

Oct 30, 2012 23:44 PM
rating: 0
 
greendrummer

he has never been the A's beat writer at any time

Oct 31, 2012 12:34 PM
rating: 0
 
marshaja

Enlarged hearts are a serious condition. If they saw that in Sergio Romo, they should have recommended he see a doctor.

I'd argue Gregor Blanco is a sign they do use statistics. He's a speed guy who plays good defense and gets on base at a decent rate despite lack of power.

Oct 31, 2012 07:54 AM
rating: 6
 
Richard Bergstrom

I will say, Sabean seems to operate a team completely different than the Bonds days where he'd just overpay for old veterans. Also, at the time, neither him nor Dusty could develop a rookie pitcher.

When/how did he get smart?

Oct 31, 2012 09:04 AM
rating: 1
 
juiced

He sent Colleti to LA

Oct 31, 2012 22:08 PM
rating: 2
 
drmorris

+1

Colletti to L.A. is the best (and likely to be the longest-sustained) strategic shift the Giants have made in the NL West.

Nov 03, 2012 10:46 AM
rating: 0
 
brucegilsen
(999)

Does Jenkins have a brother named Murray Chass?

Nov 05, 2012 16:47 PM
rating: 1
 
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