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February 1, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Standing Pat in San Francisco

by Sam Miller

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It’s been a quiet winter in Lake Wilsonbegone, my hometown. The local nine had a nice parade down Market Street, and the smell of the city made everybody act a bit peculiar that night. A few weeks later Frank Romo’s boy was on his way home to see his sweetheart when he got fired up by the protest spirit and ended up serving a few minutes of hard time in the custody of the Las Vegas Police Department. Skinny Timmy won a GIF contest, and the old-timers at the Chatterbox Cafe had a fun time guessing what a GIF contest is.

There’s not much other action for GM Brian Sabean these days. His Giants won the World Series last year, and when you win the World Series your honey-do list gets pretty simple.

1. Re-sign everybody.
2. To reasonable deals, if possible.
3. But if it’s not possible
4. No worries, just do it anyway.
5. The screen door is squeaking, make it stop.
6. If you have time left, sign Aubrey Huff again?

He figures he's got a formula that works, after all, and he’s got a gang of winners everybody likes, and even if everything goes wrong he’s got a 12-month head start on all the second-guessing.  

But a lot of things could have happened other than World Series winning. Back when Frank Romo’s boy was pitching in Game 3 of the NLDS, for instance, and the Giants were down two games to none and it was a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, and Frank Romo’s boy began to

back up sliders

like he was

aiming for the 10 pin. Sabean’s squad could have lost it right there, almost did lose it right there, in infinite iterations of this universe did lose it right there, and then Sabean’s honey-do list would have been long and lustful this offseason.

There’s not much difference between the winners and the losers, but the words themselves are plenty different and make the difference. A loser can’t help but see himself as the subject of a Newtonian law: An object at loss stays at loss and an object in victory stays in victory with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon. So the losers act and the winners forget about what could have happened and just revel. Here’s a chart for you, showing what percentage of each World Series team's World Series hitters and World Series pitchers (as weighted by ABs and IP) were retained for the following season.

Year Winner's Offense Winner's Pitching Loser's Offense Loser's Pitching
2012 95% return 100% return 83% return 99% return
2011 77% 84% 97% 72%
2010 79% 100% 76% 73%
2009 72% 97% 82% 38%
2008 90% 100% 93% 93%
2007 99% 82% 86% 77%
2006 89% 55% 98% 99%
2005 81% 91% 99% 100%
2004 83% 61% 68% 76%
2003 76% 79% 59% 32%
2002 98% 100% 47% 73%
2001 91% 96% 56% 98%
2000 86% 84% 87% 76%
Total 86% return 88% return 78% return 74% return

This is a simple chart and it doesn’t tell you all sorts of things. It doesn’t tell you the quality of players that were let go (though, by weighting by playing time, it sort of does) or why, and it doesn’t tell you whether the teams upgraded, and it doesn’t adjust for how many players on each team were eligible for free agency, how old each team was, what the team’s competitive trajectory was, what the team’s payroll was, or what the exceptions on each side tell us. It’s so simple that it won’t tell you any of those things, but it does tell you one thing: Winning teams bring nearly all of their players back, and losing teams bring fewer of their players back. By a pretty good margin.

It was a quiet offseason for the Giants, short of transactions and short of rumors. The Giants re-signed Jeremy Affeldt, Angel Pagan, and Marco Scutaro. They signed Andres Torres, perhaps by mistake when they forgot that he was on the 2010 champs, not the 2012 champs. Sandy Rosario, 27 years old and with eight career innings in the majors, is the next-biggest move. There were no trades. The few rumors were of two varieties: weak rumors about so-so players, and so-so rumors about weak players.

(All “reportedly”)

They are, meanwhile, showing interest in re-signing Ryan Theriot. If they do, then 99 percent of their World Series at-bats and 100 percent of their World Series innings will be accounted for on the 2013 roster. (Aubrey Huff is the exception.) (Brian Wilson seems likely to leave, but he wasn't part of the World Series run.)

What might an offseason have looked like had the Giants not beaten the Reds in Game 3, and beaten the Reds in Game 4, and so on until the end of the World Series? You could imagine almost anything. You could imagine that Tim Lincecum, without that redemptive relief work in the NLDS, NLCS and World Series, might be held in significantly less regard by the Giants right now, and might have been shopped around to a team like the Royals or Blue Jays. You could imagine the same about Barry Zito had he not been an LCS and World Series hero. You could imagine the Giants panicking about the Dodgers and chasing after Zack Greinke or Josh Hamilton. You could imagine Michael Bourn looking like a pretty sexy upgrade over Angel Pagan, or Ichiro looking like a pretty sexy upgrade over Gregor Blanco, or a frustrated front office trading Brandon Belt and signing Adam LaRoche or Marco Scutaro signing with a team that has happier vibes or Romo, unproven closer after all, back as the understudy to a tendered Brian Wilson or a signed Rafael Soriano.

This topic comes up because somebody asked Ben Lindbergh and me to talk on our podcast about “the historical results for a team ‘staying pat’ as much as the Giants look like they are going to do this year.” It’s obviously very complicated because every team that stands pat is standing pat for a different reason and from a position of different strength or weakness. The Angels of 2002 stood more pat than any team of recent success, and in 2003 they tumbled under .500 and got successful only when they let a bunch of guys go and spent a ton of money before the 2004 season. But that was a championship team that had just won 24 more games than it had in 2001, with little personnel change. Regression was pretty predictable. The Phillies of 2008, by contrast, stood mostly pat and won progressively more games in each of the next three seasons.

Logically, it would make sense that the stand-pat strategy would be the wrong one. A team that wins the World Series likely got some better-than-expected performances, so they would be re-signing their players when the players have artificially high salaries. A team that wins the World Series might have been peaking, and standing pat merely locks in the impending decline. A team that wins the World Series likely played better than their true talent—since 1990, 17 of 21 champions have won fewer games the following year; even excluding the firesale Marlins of 1997-1998, the average team won six fewer—and standing pat overestimates the team’s abilities.

The counterargument is that winning a World Series makes for a nice attachment between the player and his employer, and a team in an afterglow might be able re-sign its happy players for less than it could sign some stranger. This wasn't true after 2010, when Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria (generously) rejected the Giants' offers, but maybe it was true this year. I like two of the Giants’ re-signings a lot: Marco Scutaro was the best second baseman on the market and signed for Jeremy Affeldt money; Angel Pagan signed for around half of what B.J. Upton did, and even if you can convince me he’s a worse player, you won’t convince me he’s half the player. As for Affeldt, eh. You got me there. But teams of all success levels re-sign their relievers for way too much and too long.

So it was a quiet offseason. It was really noisy at first, with the parade and all, and then quiet. It’s probably a little better for an organization to be hungry than to be content. But, realistically, a team isn’t going to win more than a World Series or two in a generation. Within reason, there’s no substantial harm in sitting back to enjoy it.

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:  World Series,  Giants,  San Francisco Giants

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