The Giants and the Skill Trap

The Giants are trying to trade for Giancarlo Stanton. To that end, Bobby Evans, Brian Sabean, and Bruce Bochy met with Stanton and his representatives in Los Angeles last night, the Marlins apparently willing to let some suitors make a pitch directly to Stanton, who possesses a no-trade clause. According to multiple reports, the Giants are willing to absorb either most or all of his remaining contract in order to compensate for the lack of high-end talent they have to offer, hoping to appeal to the Marlins’ desire to move as much money as possible rather than focus on talent brought back in return.

The reason the Giants are going all out for Stanton is pretty clear and is summed up in tweets like these:

The 2017 Giants were one of recent history’s weakest teams, in terms of power, once you adjust for the home-run spike that helped everyone else in baseball party like it was 1999. They hit just 123 homers as a team, 27 fewer than the next lowest total (recorded by the Pirates) and 98 fewer than the Dodgers, who won NL West. Thus, every rumor about Stanton and the Giants points out how much they need him, because he would fix the thing at which they were worst last year.

But that kind of thinking is often a trap. Believing that a team has to acquire one particular skill can lead front offices to ignore other reasonable paths toward improvement. Failing to recognize alternatives forces clubs to panic and pursue the irrational. The fear of missing out is real. But if the Giants think their only way forward to is to add an elite power hitter — and Stanton is really the most elite of power hitters — it could lead the team to a poor decision.

Stanton, of course, would instantly make the Giants better, as he would any team. But it’s not really true that the Giants have to acquire a home-run behemoth in order to win. At the end of the day, home-run total is only relevant to the degree it allows a club to score more runs than it allows. There are plenty of ways to outscore opponents, though, that don’t involve hitting home runs.

The untold story of the 2017 Giants isn’t that they had a weak lineup of slap hitters; it’s that they didn’t really make up for their lack of power in other ways. Low-power teams are at a disadvantage due to their lack of thump, but the trade-off they make is often increased athleticism, which allows for value to be made up on the bases and in the field. And it’s pretty common for speed-and-defense big leaguers also to make a lot of contact, as they try to make up with quantity of base hits what they lack in quality of them.

But almost none of that describes the 2017 Giants, either. They did run the fifth-lowest strikeout in baseball, but they were just two percentage points below the league average, not far enough away from the norm to make up for the lack of punch. And the win-without-power model relies not just on slapping a bunch of singles together, but also using the athleticism often gained by not focusing on sluggers to create value on the bases and in the field.

The 2017 Giants didn’t do any of that. They were below-average defensively by UZR and atrocious by DRS, and while Statcast is only measuring outfield range at the moment, it agrees more with the latter.

And they didn’t add much value on the bases either. Only 29% of their baserunners came around to score, the fourth-lowest percentage in the majors. Weak-hitting teams are less likely to drive in the baserunners they do get, of course, but good baserunning can make up for some of that weakness. For instance, Arizona scored 33% of their baserunners, the third-highest total in MLB, despite recording a 95 wRC+ as a team.

At the end of the day, the Giants fielded and ran like a team that had power but hit like a team that didn’t. That’s a bad combination, and the club won’t win until they fix those issues. But adding power isn’t the only way to improve the team’s overall production, and it’s often the most expensive.

For instance, let’s just say the Giants were willing to add something like $250 million in future payroll this winter. What else could they do besides trade for Stanton?

Well, we projected Lorenzo Cain to cost about $70 million, and he’d fix the team’s glaring hole in center field. Mike Moustakas is expected to cost about $85 to $95 million, and would amount to something like a +3 WAR upgrade over the team’s current void at third base, bringing that much-coveted power to the lineup, too. And there would still be enough left to sign another quality pitcher, maybe a decent back-end starter like Tyler Chatwood or CC Sabathia, or a bullpen upgrade like Mike Minor, Addison Reed, or Bryan Shaw.

Of course, part of the appeal of consolidating the spending into just Stanton’s deal is that it’s paid out over 10 years, the last seven of which might not even end up being a factor if Stanton opts out after the 2020 season. Stanton is due only $25 million in salary for 2018, and you won’t get Cain, Moustakas, and a pitcher to agree to split that salary for next year. The fact that so much of Stanton’s money comes way down the line — and might not come at all — makes him cost less than signing three free agents to shorter deals where the money is due in a shorter time frame.

But that’s one of the reasons deferred contracts have come into existence. The Nationals, of course, are the kings of deferred money in their contracts, but the Diamondbacks also used deferred money to sign Zack Greinke; the Orioles used it to re-sign Chris Davis; and the Brewers got Ryan Braun to take some deferred payments when he signed his extension to stay in Milwaukee. While they’d have to agree to increase the amount of guaranteed money to get multiple free agents to take deferred-money contracts, they still might be able to get Cain, Moustakas, and a mid-priced pitcher for a roughly similar payout structure to Stanton.

Would that definitely be a preferable option to acquiring Stanton? Not necessarily. Cain, of course, is significantly older than Stanton, and signing two of KC’s free agents would require the loss of multiple draft picks. While Cain, Moustakas, and a decent pitcher might project for roughly +7 WAR combined, Stanton only requires one roster spot, and would give the team the flexibility to find some upside to fill one of the other holes, potentially giving them more overall value than going with the spread-the-money plan.

But I think it’s worth noting that the Giants do have options to get better, and the choices aren’t either “trade for Stanton” or “be lousy again in 2018.” The Giants need better players, not just more power, and if they’re willing to take on almost $300 million, there are other ways to get better than just trading for Stanton. At the end of the day, acquiring Stanton might be the best option, but they shouldn’t see it as the only option. They don’t just need power; they need wins, and there are multiple ways to buy wins with that kind of money.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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4 years ago

@Dave Dombrowski, please read “But that kind of thinking is often a trap. Believing that a team has to acquire one particular skill can lead front offices to ignore other reasonable paths toward improvement.”

motown oden
4 years ago
Reply to  CatWolf

As a Tigers fan, I have to say I don’t quite get why Dombrowski gets knocked so much. Tigers were awful until he took over, and then the team competed every year. Or at least, started the season as contenders. Sure, I get wanting to keep a Margot or Moncada, but i’d rather have Kimbrel and Sale, quite honestly. I’m not the one paying these guys. Boston is going to spend, they may as well spend it on the best players, as opposed to trying to get by with more mediocre guys, like old regime did with guys like say Panda. Biggest knock of DD’s tenure was dealing Fister for Ray. How’d that turn out (well, if he hadn’t flipped him for–what did they flip him for?!?!? Shane Greene? So that actually was worst trade)? Most of the excessive $$/years contracts came from ownership, as Illitch wanted desperately to win before he passed, which sadly never happened. But DD made some brilliant moves: he got Fister for Charlie Furbush, picked up JD off waivers, Acquired Carlos Guillen for hot garbage, Getting Fulmer for a few months of Cespedes, and probably his best, getting Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson for Edwin Jackson and Curtis Granderson. Yup, he’s gotten dinged, too. Every GM has. When you try for greatness, sometimes you attain it, sometimes you fail spectacularly. That doesn’t make trying for greatness an unworthy goal.

4 years ago
Reply to  motown oden

2013 and the lack of a bullpen. The Tigers never should have lost to the Orioles.

4 years ago
Reply to  motown oden

In my mind he gets dinged because hes not a good asset manager, specifically when it comes to prospects.

Its about to be 2018 and the days of trading away prospects because they are “just prospects” should be long gone. Prospects have real value, something I’m not sure DD completely comprehends.

I’m not against trading prospects for MLB talent, but major overpays like the Kimbrel deal make me question Dombrowski’s process.