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Welcome to the Baseball Prospectus 2015 season previews. For the next three weeks, BP authors will be writing about what each team does best in pursuit of wins. We will parse statistics, transactions, news, and quotes in an effort to identify the market inefficiency each team is taking advantage of. Wins are the end goal, but each of the 30 teams are obtaining them in different ways by prioritizing certain initiatives. Today, we begin the series with last year's World Series players, the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals.Andrew Koo

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 84-78
Runs Scored: 634
Runs Allowed: 612
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .253/.310/.369 (.258)
Total WARP: 29.2 (11.5 pitching, 17.7 non-pitching, including 0.7 from pitchers)

What the Giants did to become three-time World Series champions, no one can reliably replicate. Hell, the Giants couldn’t reliably replicate it. They scouted, drafted, and developed well, but also got very lucky, when three straight top draft picks panned out and became superstars. They trusted their best eyes and took their chances on Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner, a couple of unorthodox arms. They pounced when the Royals fell in love with Eric Hosmer, which led to Buster Posey dropping to them in 2008. Lincecum, Bumgarner, Posey. That’s the core of the team.

It’s not like it’s an unmatched core, though. Lincecum and Bumgarner haven’t even been ace-caliber at the same time, but for perhaps 2011. The Giants couldn’t have won without something else: a supporting cast that lent them depth, balance, and some added upside. There’s a well-loved, saber-friendly way of assembling such a group. It involves methodical, incremental improvements, made mostly via trade and player development. The idea is to build a relatively deep, cheap group of major contributors, and to commit to a player either early in his career (while his distance from free agency gives the team leverage and creates an opportunity for a bargain) or not at all.

The Giants do things almost exactly the opposite way. They willingly lean on the guys at the top of their roster, and they spend a whole lot more on the middle of it than most teams do. They beat teams by being marginally better in a large number of places, and they do that by rolling the profit they’ve made off of Posey, Lincecum, and Bumgarner into a series of free-agent signings other teams would never make. Some GMs always look smart. Some even look too cute, sometimes. Brian Sabean never looks too cute. He rarely even looks that smart, except when he’s lifting the Commissioner’s Trophy.

That’s because Sabean goes for the guys who don’t fit the smart guys’ profiles. If you want to call Tim Lincecum’s two-year, $35 million deal—a contract Sabean handed out a fortnight before Lincecum would even have become a free agent—a sentimental thing, fine. That doesn’t explain away the five-year commitment Sabean made to Hunter Pence three weeks before signing Lincecum, though.

I count the following contracts, stretching back as far as 2010 (but mostly concentrated within the last few years), as signature Sabean moves:

Player

Contract Terms

Seasons Included

Age During Contract

WARP

Hunter Pence

5 Y / $90 MM

2014-18

31-35

3.9+

Tim Lincecum

2 Y / $35 MM

2014-15

30-31

-1.2

Angel Pagan

4 Y / $40 MM

2013-16

31-34

3.3+

Tim Hudson

2 Y / $23 MM

2014-15

38-39

-0.5

Jake Peavy

2 Y / $24 MM

2015-16

34-35

?

Marco Scutaro

3 Y / $20 MM

2013-15

37-39

1.8

Jeremy Affeldt

3 Y / $18 MM

2013-15

34-36

0.0

Sergio Romo

2 Y / $15 MM

2015-16

32-33

?

Javier Lopez

3 Y / $13 MM

2014-16

36-38

-0.3+

Aubrey Huff

2 Y / $22 MM

2011-12

34-35

0.7

Mark DeRosa

2 Y / $12 MM

2010-11

35-36

-0.1

Edgar Renteria

2 Y / $18.5 MM

2009-10

32-33

1.1

There are three multi-year deals for relief pitchers here. There are three for position players who were never elite, and were well into their mid-30s before signing. Then we have two true long-term deals for outfielders in their 30s, and three two-year pacts for starting pitchers five years past their primes.

Here are a fistful more: guys who cost the team much less to sign on one-year deals, but who still came with some attached stigma—underperformance the year before they signed, injury issues, age, or limited skill sets:

Player

Contract Terms

Seasons

Age During Contract

WARP

Norichika Aoki

$4.7 MM

2015

33

?

Ryan Vogelsong

$5 MM, $4 MM

2014, 2015

36, 37

0.8, ?

Michael Morse

$6 MM

2014

32

1.9

Miguel Tejada

$6.5 MM

2011

37

1.1

Juan Uribe

$1 MM, $3.25 MM

2009, 2010

30, 31

3.6, 2.7

Sabean caught at least some flak for every one of these deals and from a pure marginal-cost, marginal-win perspective, it was justified. Those deals didn’t make the Giants money. Here’s what they laid out, and what they got back, for the above-listed players, season by season.

Season

Number of Players

Salary Paid

WARP

2009

2

$9 million

4.1

2010

3

$19.25 million

2.7

2011

3

$22.5 million

2.2

2012

1

$10 million

0.1

2013

3

$20.9 million

2.9

2014

9

$81.9 million

6.8

They owe 11 of these players a combined $98 million in 2015, and five of them are due $59 million in 2016. For a supporting cast, this collection of veterans is getting awfully pricey. Once, the punditry panned these moves as the work of the uninitiated. Sabean sure cut the figure of a sabermetric Luddite. As we get more and more information refuting that reputation though, we have to reassess. It seems clear that Sabean and his staff have an objective cause to believe that unfavorable age and skill profiles dent the value of some players more than they should.

As Sam Miller demonstrated on Friday, the Giants have the third-thinnest band of projected variance in starting rotation performance of any team in baseball. The story is similar for the bullpen and the positional corps. The Giants pay for stability, and to stay on the right side of average everywhere. They pay for track records, even though track records come with age. That’s an expensive and unsexy way to win, but it’s definitely a way to win. With each ring, their fan base gets more secure and their pockets get deeper. It’s only getting easier for Sabean to do what he does best. It’s not an exploitation of a market inefficiency; it’s an unusual willingness to be the market inefficiency. Efficiency is a means to an end, but it’s not a prerequisite for all success. In a market where almost everyone is focused on efficiency, Sabean isn’t. That creates opportunities, and Sabean and the Giants are getting very good at taking advantage of them.

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whatzitmather
3/16
Like the idea for this series - looking forward to more.
EMielke
3/16
So the simple takeaway is that when you are not as worried about winning the WARP/dollars spent championship you enable yourself to better focus on winning a World Series championship.
leleutd
3/16
Luck has a big factor in it. Let's consider the Giants overall record during that period. To me, they won *despite* their approach, not because of it, as you imply.
WaldoInSC
3/17
I agree with Travis. We're conflating winning the post-season tournament with fielding a top team. The post-season tournament is, in many ways, a lottery. During the last three years, when they won two titles, the Giants could be characterized as excellent-bad-good.
matrueblood
3/17
You're not wrong; the Giants have gotten lucky. I hope I haven't implied that this particular aspect of their operation is why they've won. It isn't; my lede lays out the reason for their success, which is good scouting and good fortune at the top of the draft. That said, I do think this approach has served them well, and it's clearly the thing that most sets the team apart from the other 29.
Zebedee
3/16
At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how you make the playoffs, as long as you do. History is especially kind to glossing over the details if you win the world series, which the giants obviously have done. Great little article, Matt.
tsweber
3/16
What if the Giants have just been really lucky?
howlingmoon
3/16
Three times in five years? After growing up with the 1960's Giants, I am enjoying seeing them win. Have never been a Sabean fan, but I can't argue the results.
anderson721
3/17
The Yankees won 4 championships in 5 years, when suddenly the magic stopped. The team kept winning lots of games April-September, though. If (when) the Giants stop winning titles every other year, I'm sure we will be told that the new Giants lack the grit of Sandoval, et al, and nobody except here at BP will chalk it up to random variation.
sbnirish77
3/17
Truth be told, these Giant teams weren't very good. They played very well in the playoffs but they weren't very good. Over the last 5 years the Giants won an average of 87 games per year while the Yankees won 91 games per year. The Giants are praised while the Yankees are ridiculed here at BP. "Luck has a big factor in it. Let's consider the Giants overall record during that period. To me, they won *despite* their approach, not because of it, as you imply." Fully agree.
matrueblood
3/17
I don't think anyone here ridicules the Yankees. These Giants have been good teams. Even the bad teams, especially the 2011 bunch, have been decent. I think we're still getting comfortable with what the violent variance within the game right now has wrought. Nobody looks good for even a single full season anymore, let alone consecutive seasons. But that doesn't mean they aren't good, anymore than winning three titles means they're gods. Luck has carried the day for every World Series winner since (at least) the 2009 Yankees, and in the same way the 2010,12,14 Giants were unimpressive during stretches of the regular season, the 1999 and 2000 Yankees were, too. Luck touches everyone. We shouldn't ignore process just because variance can outrun it.
rweiler
3/17
A good deal of the Giants success has been not just getting lucky with their top picks, but drafting well in general. Panik wasn't thought to be a first round pick but, as pointed out on BP, the Giants recognize that while he might not be flashy and an elite athlete, he had baseball skills. Crawford was a 4th round choice because many people didn't think he could hit well enough to be a starter. Nobody thought Brandon Belt was a potential starter, so he fell to the 5th round. The Giants apparently liked his swing. Romo was a 28th round pick because he was small and doesn't break 90 with his fastball. The Giants saw some value in a guy with a wipeout slider.Brian Wilson fell to the 24th round because he was damaged goods. Luck certainly plays a part, but one of the keys to the Giants success is they scouted well for the non blue chip prospects and took some risks that panned out.
mattidell
3/18
I don't see why one would dismiss the Giants approach due to their luck. Luck is a factor for everybody. If anything, as the author demonstrates, they have capitalized on that luck in a specific way we should give them credit for.