Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The San Francisco Giants and the Formula for Sustainable Success

What makes the Giants so good? That question has permeated baseball in recent years, as San Francisco has danced to three World Series championships in five years despite sharing a division with the free-spending Dodgers, and despite operating a very modest payroll of their own.

In attempting to explain the Giants' success, it's important to understand that, firstly, San Francisco just has great players. For any team, that's the ultimate building block. Buster Posey, the all-world catcher, and Madison Bumgarner, the gritty ace personified, would make any team competitive. However, as we've seen with the spluttering Nationals and underwhelming Dodgers this year, pure talent alone isn't as important as the philosophy that underpins it, the system that unearths it, and the culture that incubates it at the Major League level. Ultimately, the Giants' success is derived from consistently nailing that elusive formula, and never losing touch with the core tenets of a battle-tested philosophy.

As with most sustainable powerhouses, that powerful Giants' ethos is inculcated from the bottom up. San Francisco may not have the flashiest farm system, in terms of headline-grabbing prospects, but, from a standpoint of actual development, theirs may be the most formidable of all. What the Giants do, picking low in the draft but actually working to tangibly improve every facet of their players' game, is far more impressive than what, say, the Astros have done, deliberately tanking so as to handpick elite, polished, readymade superstars with early selections. The latter requires only good scouting, while the former requires good scouting and an unwavering faith in the ability of coaches to develop talent.

The Giants' roster is littered with graduates of that system, disciples of that baseball vision. Posey and Bumgarner were selected early, but developed into even better players than anybody forecasted. Moreover, Brandon Belt, a very good Major League hitter, was unearthed in the fifth round; Brandon Crawford, a sensational shortstop, was found in the fourth round; and Ryan Vogelsong, so long a serviceable big league pitcher, was taken 158th overall in 1998. Elsewhere, Joe Panik was a first round pick, but one perpetually underrated even by prospect gurus until a phenomenal performance in the 2014 World Series catapulted him to superstardom; Chris Heston was discovered in the twelfth round in 2009 before throwing a no-hitter in 2015: and Matt Duffy, currently a Rookie of the Year candidate, was selected 568th overall just three years ago.

Nurtured by Bruce Bochy's culture of altruism and hard work, this homegrown core is highly functional at the big league level. However, aside from the productive farm system, palpable chemistry and evident work ethic, the question still remains: what makes the Giants so good? In a fundamental, roster-building sense, what exactly is Brian Sabean's modus operandi? How does he judge players and so routinely excavate hidden gems from uncharted areas of the market place?

For the casual fan, these teasers can often be frustrating. Just last year, people branded the Giants unworthy winners because, quite frankly, they're not flashy, they're not showstoppers, and they're not one-dimensional. The fair weather fan often views explosive plays such as home runs and stolen bases as the ideal barometer for judging a team's ability and, well, the Giants just aren't that team. Between 2010 and the present day, San Francisco ranks 28th of 30 Major League teams in home runs hit and 26th in bases stolen. Moreover, after Bumgarner, their pitching is more workmanlike than elite, their defence more functionary than superlative.

However, when you watch the Giants for a week or so, one thing becomes abundantly clear: they hit. Oh boy, do they hit. Right now, Posey is batting .314 on the season; Panik is at .309; and Duffy has a .308 clip. Accordingly, among all qualified Major League hitters, the Giants have three of the top nineteen in terms of batting average, or three of the top nine National League batters. 

Furthermore, Belt has a .274 average and Crawford is at .267, while Nori Aoki is at .301 through 84 games; Gregor Blanco has a .292 average through 102; and Hunter Pence was at .275 before landing on the disabled list. 

As a team, San Francisico is currently hitting .269, third best in the Majors and tops in the NL. Extrapolated to include all years from 2010, the team average is .258, seventh best in the bigs and third in the Senior Circuit. 

Due to the phenomenal success enjoyed during that six-season run, one can justifiably speculate that batting average is a key ingredient in the Giants' magic potion; that Sabean has gone back to basics in the unending quest to discover the next great market inefficiency when evaluating players. 

Without access to the team's inner sanctum, my analyses are based only in logical conjecture, but, from the outside, it sure looks possible that the Giants have reconsidered batting average as a primary weapon in their tool box. Perhaps sabermetrics have advanced so far, and people have become so preoccupied with WAR and OPS, that the oldest metric of all is neglected. Perhaps plain old batting average, a postcard in an email world, is the ultimate fuel of Sabean's San Francisco superpower.

Obviously, the analytics community looks upon batting average with native skepticism, and I share many of the reservations about it's inability to eradicate luck. But, more generally, when used to evaluate and potentially acquire veteran players with a considerable track record, average can still be hugely indicative of talent, especially to an organisation programmed to seek that particular skill. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all.

Looking back through some of Sabean's bigger moves to supplement his core with external commodities, a solid batting average is common among many of his targets. Aoki was a career .286 hitter when signed by San Francisco last winter; Pence was at .287 lifetime when acquired by the Giants midway through 2012; and players such as Marco Scutaro and Angel Pagan also featured strong batting average floors before joining the Giants.

Of course, the presence of a strong batting average in many players acquired by San Francisco could pure happenstance. The Giants may have liked Pence's clubhouse presence or Aoki's approach, and a good average just happened to be one part of a tantalising package. But I still believe there is a conscious effort, on some level within the Giants' front office, to prioritise batting average over other metrics.

This apparent emphasis on exceptional pure hitting, rather than gluttonous slugging or nimble base thievery, is also a hallmark of nearly all graduates through the aforementioned farm system, completing the philosophical cycle that works so well for the Giants. Seemingly every year, a guy like Panik or Duffy emerges from that system, that proving ground for fundamental hitting, and, once attuned to Bochy's landscape of total selflessness, genuine superstars are born.

The Giants' triumph has hitherto been cloaked in secrecy. And, after all, if we actually knew how they guaranteed such repeatable success, we'd all be millionaires tinkering with real life Major League teams for a living. Therefore, this can only be adjudged as my best attempt, reading between the lines, at solving the inexplicable conundrum of winning San Francisco ball. But perhaps, ultimately, we should all just sit back and continue to enjoy Sabean's Giants for what they really are: a phenomenal baseball team for the ages.

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