These Saber-Savvy San Francisco Giants

The Giants? They’re just a bunch of stat geeks. Look at some of the aspects of their play on the field, and it’s clear that this is not a club that sticks only with tradition. Talk to Bobby Evans, Vice President of Baseball Operations, and you get a sense of a team with a strong process that includes inputs from both the old and the new school of baseball. And this isn’t some sort of new phenomenon in San Francisco.

Some of their most innovative moves have come recently. Look at their lineups against left-handed and right-handed pitchers this year, and you’ll see a team rife with platoons. Though taking the platoon advantage is no new thing, it’s possible that they are taking it to new heights. Only two players on the team (Buster Posey and Angel Pagan) will cross the 600-PA threshold this year. That’s on par with a rebuilding team like the Astros (one) and Cubs (two), and less than most of the other contenders like the Braves (five) or Brewers (five). Yes, the Nationals (three) and Reds (two) are similar, but there have been more injuries on those teams.

The Giants, on the other hand, were built to take advantage of their depth. Utility bats like Joaquin Arias and Ryan Theriot were specific acquisitions that the team targeted this offseason because of their versatility and handedness. “Having seen [Brandon] Crawford’s defense and having known that he struggled at the plate, especially against lefties, we absolutely wanted a right-handed utility infielder,” said Bobby Evans. And so the Giants went into the season planning for platoons at first base, second base, in right field, and at shortstop — rare for a contender, but a strong way to take the platoon advantage as often as possible.

That philosophy extended to the bullpen this season. It may not have been by plan, but the Giants are currently employing a platoon at closer. That unique situation is one that the sabermetric community has desired for some time. Some have dabbled, but few have stuck with the plan for any length of time.

Once again, the Giants’ success with the tactic is a credit to their planning. These important bullpen pieces that are collectively playing the role of The Closer are hardly newcomers — draftee Sergio Romo, trade acquisition (and extended) Javier Lopez, free agent Jeremy Affeldt, and free agent Santiago Casilla are all veterans. “Once it became apparent that we should go back to a shared role, the makeup of the staff was key to our success,” said Evans before praising the work of Pitching Coach Dave Righetti and Bullpen Coach Mark Gardner. Specifically, the coaching staff fostered a mentality or an approach that have helped them get high-leverage outs.

Interchangeable relief aces, all with their own strengths and weaknesses, all being used in situations that allow them to succeed — that sounds pretty saber. “There’s no lack of passion here for the closer,” says Evans, but “we have a group of guys that can all be a factor late in the game.”

There have been some head-scratchers this year. 261 of Ryan Theriot’s 343 at-bats have come in the second slot in the order, despite his specifically poor walk rate and generally below-average bat. Does Bruce Bochy decide the lineup on his own? While “the lineup is mostly his,” Evans affirmed that his manager is “very good about using the information that is available to us, and in fact asks for it and is very committed to looking at different lineup constructions.” The front office “could make it tough on him if the relative choices were limited,” Evans added. “We all like to play lineup shuffling,” but “there’s some genius on [Bruce] Bochy’s part, in getting the best out of his guys,” said Evans as he pointed out that sometimes, it’s about evening out the lineup at the bottom, too. On-base percentage is just one factor.

In general, it is on-base percentage that keeps many from appreciating some of the innovative things that the Giants do. From 2006-2011, the team had the second-worst walk rate in the National League, and they also scored the fewest runs. This year, the walk rate is up to ninth in the NL, and they’ve scored the sixth-most runs. Was on-base percentage something the team targeted this offseason? What happened in those other years? Where were the walks?

Maybe we got too emphatic about the home run, and we maybe we got too emphatic about the defense behind our pitchers. We have never lost sight of the value of getting on base, though. — Bobby Evans

It’s a difficult question for Evans to answer. Part of it is just the personnel available to the team. There were those years when Barry Bonds got hurt, Evans pointed out. There is a way to explain to players the value of getting on base while also allowing players like Pablo Sandoval to shine, he adds. But he admitted that “our club has had some success and failures that we’ve learned from.” For example, the Giants “have to make sure that there are rewards for players coming up that show good patience and get walks,” and maybe they weren’t emphasizing that in the past.

In any case, on-base ability is something that is attractive to the team. “It’s one of the things that attracted us to Brandon Belt,” Evans said. The Giants’ scouts are well incorporated, but it’s all part of their proprietary information system that helps the team make their decisions.

Proprietary information system?

Apparently, the Giants have taken advantage of Silicon Valley — their IT department is celebrating it’s 20th birthday. They’ve been building an internal scouting system since the early 90’s, at the behest of current General Manager Brian Sabean. Crucial to the system is video — Vice President, Player Personnel Dick Tidrow has been pushing the envelope on video usage since he came to the Giants 16 years ago — as well as a collection of “publicly available data resources and articles,” PITCHf/x and HITf/x data, and eventually FIELDf/x data. That’s right, the Giants see FanGraphs content and data.

“It’s a one-stop shopping place to evaluate players and the roster,” said Evans, but in a way it’s all about Brian Sabean. Sabean is “all about the process, a process that is repeatable and that will lead us to the best decision,” and that’s why he helped build the system, and that’s why he has full-time staffers maintaining and perfecting it.

“Decisions here clearly can’t be made on video or the relative feel of the players’ makeup alone, nor what a sabermetric analysis might reveal on it’s own — Brian’s big on taking all the elements and not putting too much weight in one area.” — Bobby Evans

Talk to Evans about the final roster spot on the postseason roster — one that might go to Aubrey Huff — and you realize there’s a lot of gray area in baseball. “We’re looking for a blend of experience and the ability to contribute,” Evans said, “and as a fairly young club, having a veteran presence can be a strategic advantage for us.” Huff has a strong chance of making the roster because of that, but also because the other options “have all had mixed reviews at the big league level, too.” It will be all hands on deck for that decision, and he’s glad to have Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy leading the way. His coach, in particular, “studies the game as much as anyone” he’s ever seen.

And he’s one of the longest-tenured managers at this point, too, Evans points out. Along with the longest-tenured GM in Brian Sabean, and one of the longest-tenured scouting directors in Dick Tidrow. Is there really a chance they kept their jobs this long without the benefit of studying the numbers?

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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11 years ago

I can’t really rip into Sabean and Bruch Vichy now that they are division champs; although I am still skeptical of your article.

You got one thing right: Bobby Evans is legit and should be GM one day.

Well-Beered Englishman
11 years ago
Reply to  Herbalist

Bruce Vichy = bizarre freudian slip of the month club selection

11 years ago

…or, more likely, perhaps that “slip” was nothing more than the result of an iphone auto-correct.

11 years ago
Reply to  Herbalist

Didn’t you know that if your mom drinks Vichy water during pregnancy it increases your skull size?

11 years ago
Reply to  Herbalist

He’s also an excellent Little League coach