Sabean-based analysisby Steve Treder
November 02, 2010
In the realm of business analysis and management consulting, one often encounters the phrase “results-based analysis.” It describes a no-no. The gist of results-based analysis is: to judge the wisdom of a decision, or the soundness of a strategy, based purely on how well or poorly it turned out, while overlooking its underlying premises and logic.
A more folksy term might be, “Monday morning quarterbacking.” The idea is that, after the fact, anyone can see what worked and what didn’t. What’s much harder is to know beforehand what will work and what won’t. Thus, by indulging in results-based analysis, we run the risk of blinding ourselves to other possibilities, because we fail to do the work of examining what might have happened, but didn’t, or perhaps even what probably should have happened, but didn’t. Thus, we fail to learn much about what to do next time.
This is important, the prevailing wisdom holds, because it’s crucial to distinguish between process and results. A management handbook from 2001 entitled Winning Decisions, by Edward Russo and Paul Schoemaker, boiled it down to a handy little matrix:
Obviously this oversimplifies reality, but its essential soundness is undeniable: What we can control is limited to the process (our actions, if you will), while the result is a function not only of the process, but also of variables (perhaps many variables) beyond our control. Thus, sometimes great plans fail, and sometimes lousy plans succeed, but in the former case the planner shouldn’t be given much blame, and in the latter he shouldn’t be given much credit. And a results-based analysis would do both.
While this is all a valuable lesson, like most things in life it can be taken too far. Because while certainly an analysis shouldn’t limit itself just to results, neither should an analysis stubbornly ignore results. Because results, you know, kind of matter too.
In this light, it’s time we take stock of the career of one Brian Sabean, who has been serving as the general manager of the San Francisco Giants since 1996.
This is a very long tenure for a baseball GM; he’s the longest-serving current GM in the major leagues, and at 14 years and counting his is one of the longest stints in history. Sabean has been the Giants’ GM for longer than the legendary George Weiss was GM of the Yankees, and for nearly twice as long as the even more legendary Branch Rickey ran the Dodgers.
This extensive career heading up a single organization has provided an abundant volume of evidence for those wishing to assess Sabean’s performance in the role. And assess it they have, often with great alacrity. The strongly prevailing opinion, especially among those presenting the more sabermetric mindset, has been quite clear: Sabean is, well, a bumbling idiot. And very often the terminology isn’t that polite.
The criticisms of Sabean tend to center on three themes:
(1) His success with the Giants in the late 1990s/early 2000s was simply a function of his being lucky enough to inherit a roster that included Barry Bonds in his prime. Any GM could reach the postseason a few times with an inner-circle all-time great like that in his lineup, so Sabean was just along for the ride.
What’s more, Sabean did a paltry job of assembling Bonds’ supporting cast; a good GM would have extracted more from that opportunity than Sabean’s lone pennant and zero World Series titles. Once Bonds declined, the Giants’ immediate descent into sustained sub-.500 territory couldn’t hammer the point home any more emphatically.
(2) Sabean displays a preference for “proven veterans,” and a corresponding lack of confidence in young players, that doesn’t just border on the ridiculous, it resides fully within the land of the ridiculous.
Through many seasons in the 2000s, nearly every Giants starting regular was at least 30 years old, and the situation reached the point of absurdity with the 2006 edition, quite literally the oldest team to take the field in major league history: The 41-year-old Bonds was joined in the San Francisco outfield by a 41-year-old center fielder (Steve Finley) and a 39-year-old right fielder (Moises Alou), while the infield featured a 39-year-old shortstop (Omar Vizquel). Only on such a ball club could the 34-year-old second baseman (Ray Durham) and the 35-year-old catcher (Mike Matheny) seem young.
(3) Sabean’s minor league organization has been spectacularly weak at producing position-player talent. Until the recent arrivals of Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey, in Sabean’s long tenure the very best non-pitcher the Giants’ system had produced was, yes, the immortal Pedro Feliz.
There is, to be sure, some degree of validity to these complaints. But as we examine each, we find that none quite seals the deal.
Sabes and Barry
It’s beyond obvious that having Bonds on the team was immensely helpful to Sabean’s endeavor at building and sustaining a winner in San Francisco. But it’s simply incorrect to assert that Sabean was a passive recipient of the help.
Yes, Bonds was on the roster when Sabean took over as GM. But he was nearing the end of his first long-term contract with the Giants, and there was no guarantee that the egotistical superstar would remain on board. Several well-heeled suitors were keenly interested in obtaining his services, most conspicuously George Steinbrenner’s Yankees.
But it was under Sabean’s direction that the Giants successfully negotiated a new deal with Bonds following the 1998 season, and yet again to a third long-term contract following the 2001 season. Certainly, it’s easier to re-sign a free agent than to capture one on the open market, but Sabean deserves due credit for helping to engineer the fact that Bonds remained on the Giants’ roster all the way through his stupendous performances of 2000 through 2004, winning four MVP awards and finishing second the other time.
And the claim that Sabean did a poor job of constructing the roster surrounding Bonds fails to withstand scrutiny. The very first move that Sabean made upon arriving as GM was to swing a bombshell trade that horrified the fan base and local media: He swapped beloved star Matt Williams for a package that primarily included an unheralded journeyman named Jeff Kent. This brazen gamble would turn out to be one of the great trades of all time, as Kent immediately blossomed into a superstar and captured the only NL MVP that Bonds didn’t in 2000-'04. Regardless of Bonds, without Kent the Giants wouldn’t have been close to as good as they were in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s.
And Kent wasn’t the only slick acquisition by Sabean: key contributor after key contributor, from J.T. Snow to Robb Nen to Ellis Burks to Livan Hernandez to Jason Schmidt to David Bell, were picked up by Sabean in a sequence of downright larcenous trades. He also displayed a knack for finding just-right, reasonably priced, role-player free agents in those years.
To be sure, following about 2002, Sabean entered a period in which his trading/free agent signing record turned, well, somewhat dismal. But for the first half-decade of his tenure with the Giants it was superb. To fail to grasp this is to betray having failed to examine the actual cases, and instead to superficially glance at the team’s results and assume that with Bonds on board they should have been better. It’s to commit the sin of results-based analysis without even getting the assessment of the results correct.
Sabes and the graybeards
The familiar criticism of Sabean’s extraordinary penchant for signing superannuated free agents fails to address the obvious question: How did the graybeards perform?
It’s important to understand that Sabean didn’t always go out and sign every geezer he could find. For his first several years, Sabean employed no more ultra-veteran players than most other teams do, and rarely used them in front-line roles. It was only into the 2000s, as his core ball club began to age, and as—most significantly—Bonds climbed past 35 years old, that the Giants became a noticeably old club.
And thus Sabean’s logic becomes obvious: As Bonds got that old, his future became ever more uncertain, thus it made ever more sense for the Giants to adopt a go-for-it-now, the-hell-with-the-long-term posture. Thus Sabean filled every hole with the most cost-effective short-term fix.
One thing to remember is that 35-and-older free agents don’t typically have a whole lot of teams bidding for their services. This renders them cheaper than similarly-talented players just a few years younger. So the team signing them gets a real bargain—assuming the player doesn’t crash and burn, which is of course a distinct risk in very-old players.
So the simple question becomes: How many of Sabean’s very-old players crashed and burned, and how many succeeded as planned? Of the 15 (and that’s a whole lot) 35-and-older-when-acquired players deployed by Sabean between 2001 and 2007 (Bonds’ final year), just one—Eric Davis—flopped. All the rest did various degrees of reasonably well, and indeed one—Marquis Grissom—confounded the experts by performing splendidly, far better than expected, for two full years. The fact is that the graybeard program was a rather remarkable success.
Sabean’s overall player acquisition record includes its share of howling blunders. But his specific record of getting useful performance from extreme veterans has been impressive. The critics who declare it a weakness on Sabean’s part (almost always presented with stale attempts at sarcastic humor) are taking the don’t-commit-results-based-analysis command way too far: They’re entirely wrapped up in the process (old players = bad process) and blind to the results.
Sabes and the barren farm
This is the criticism of Sabean that holds the most validity: for a farm system to go more than a decade without delivering a bat better than Pedro Feliz is appalling.
But here’s the thing this criticism rarely acknowledges: The purpose of a farm system isn’t to produce good position players, it’s to produce good players. And, how about this: Pitchers are players too. In the same period the Giants’ system was failing to deliver hitters, it was succeeding at delivering pitchers such as David Aardsma, Jeremy Accardo, Matt Cain, Kevin Correia, Keith Foulke, Aaron Fultz, Clay Hensley, Bobby Howry, Tim Lincecum, Scott Linebrink, Francisco Liriano, Noah Lowry, Joe Nathan, Russ Ortiz, Jonathan Sanchez, and Brian Wilson. And within the past few years it’s also served up Madison Bumgarner and Sergio Romo.
That’s a boatload of pitching talent, more than most systems have produced in this period. And thus while the Giants’ farm production under Sabean has been below average, overall it’s been by no means among the worst. To focus strictly on the poor production of batters is to become distracted by an element of the process, and thus to fail to comprehend not only the result of the process, but the full process itself.
Sabes and 2010
So here we are at the conclusion of Sabean’s 14th season at the helm of the Giants’ organization. This bumbling idiot of a GM who couldn’t be expected to win anything without riding on Bondsian coattails has rebuilt the team into a World Series winner in just three post-Barry years. This bumbling idiot of a GM who never saw an over-the-hill veteran he wouldn’t sign has done it without a key player older than 33, and with two 23-year-old regulars, and with his four best starting pitchers aged 27, 26, 25 and 20. This bumbling idiot of a GM who’s incapable of home-growing hitting talent has done it with his farm producing both the best-hitting young catcher in the game and a third baseman who a year ago placed seventh in the league’s MVP voting.
In his 14 seasons, Sabean’s teams have finished under .500 just four times. His teams have reached the postseason five times, having won 90 or more games seven times. Including even the losing seasons, they’ve averaged 86 wins. Sabean’s .535 winning percentage over 14 years ranks among the better any franchise has ever achieved over that long a period.
Is this deserved success, or dumb luck?
Please understand that I’ve sided with the Sabean critics much more than once. Heck, there’ve been times when I led the charge. I’ve torn my hair over some of his moves (okay, his “process”) even in 2010, most certainly including his reluctance to promote Buster Posey, which I found stupendously wrong-headed from every conceivable angle. There can be no question that Brian Sabean, like every one of the rest of us, has fully demonstrated the capacity to commit the egregious error.
But results-based analysis be damned, there comes a point when it’s only sensible to take a step back and comprehend the results as well as the process. There is something to be gained by looking at the whole picture, and not just its components. And the whole picture that this Sabean guy continues to paint is looking, well, rather pretty.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.