Sabean-based analysis

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:

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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.

Sabes

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.

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Comments

  1. Greg Simons said...

    Kevin, Steve said, “he’s the longest-serving current GM in the major leagues, and at 14 years and counting…nearly twice as long as the even more legendary Branch Rickey ran the Dodgers.”

    Steve’s statement and yours agree.  Rickey was the Dodgers’ GM for seven years.

  2. Total said...

    Kevin, read it again.  He was referring to Rickey’s tenure with the Dodgers.  Nice snotty comment, though.

  3. Kent said...

    Steve, I’m virtually jumping up and down and hugging you.  Do we know one another?  Nope, but the Giants just W-O-N the World Series!!!!!  Virtual champagne shower!

    As a Giants fan (lifetime and younger than 56 years-of-age), I have to admit that Sabean has tended to tip negative for me.  I appreciate what he has done—well, he didn’t “do” it, but he’s the CEO if you will—with developing pitching prospects and, as of late, drafting pitching prospects. 

    1) I’m happy, happy, happy today.  I absolutely love everyone and that includes Brian Sabean.

    2) Bonds, Bonds, Bonds

    3) Every GM makes mistakes (e.g. See your 2006 points above).  That said, when a baseball fan (me) can tell you that Barry Zito and Aaron Roward (and Randy Winn and, yes, Edgar Renteria) are absurd contracts that will or have hamstring your budget, Sabean deserves criticism.
    Or, NOT signing cheap and better alternatives in, say, Orlando Hudson or Adam Dunn (both of whom were absolutely available) a few years ago, but welcoming Freddy Sanchez [hurt] and…well, I’m just happy, so lets stop there.  Who was that AJ guy?

    4) Sabean started his career with SF with great success—why more GMs don’t do this is a mystery—finding “formerly” successful players for cheap.  Of course the success of these players was aided by Bonds, Bonds, Bonds.  Sabean
    continued the method, but the results largely failed in recent years.  That said, he merits credit for getting just enough (just enough!) hitting to cover for the pitching staff this year.  Obviously, in this play-off run, Huff, Ross, Burrell and Uribe have been critical…

    Happy, happy, happy. 

    Btw, the MLB Network did a great job scoring a great number of players for post-game interviews.  I sat with a smile on my face at how “nice” (no I don’t know them at all) and “grounded” they seemed to be.  So, at least from an outside perspective, I guess Sabean deserves some credit for the “type” of player he’s signed as well.

    GO GIANTS!

    4)

  4. jordy said...

    I agree the Posey decision was short-sighted. Had the Giants missed the playoffs by a game, it would be talked about more. Obviously, the “results-based” analysis is that decision makes Sabean look like a genius.

    My amateur, non-insider sense is that GMs make decisions in light of what happened the last time. The last time Sabean called up a guy too early in a season they weren’t competitive, it was Tim Lincecum and it cost them at least $7.5 million this season.

    Frank Wren didn’t call up Tommy Hanson until June in 2009, and the Braves were in striking distance of the playoffs down the stretch. This season, Jason Heyward starts the season in the big leagues. Go figure.

    Let’s hope the next CBA does away with the Super-2 concept. It’s hard enough for a GM to evaluate talent and value it appropriately, let alone manage service time cheapness at the behest of a whiny owner.

  5. Sloolboy Jim said...

    Whoever signed Bruce Bochy is a genius.  Only a great manager could have gelled that group. He made all the right moves aside from maybe not sitting Pat Burrell the final game who couldn’t have hit a beach ball thrown at him.

  6. rob yontz said...

    As a Reds fan that came of age in the late 1970’s during the height of the Reds/Dodgers rivalry I’ve always had a soft spot for the Giants.  The 2010 World Series has added significance because the Giants are one of the game’s flagship teams and they have always placed added emphasis on honoring past players.

    Renteria has talked of retirement, but his World Series performance surely will garner him some interest this winter.  I wonder if Sabean will bite on the 10.5 mil option, thus exposing himself once again to the sabremetric vitriol?

  7. Matt said...

    Very interesting article.  I have one problem with it though.

    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… He swapped beloved star Matt Williams for a package that primarily included an unheralded journeyman named Jeff Kent.

    Sabean has admitted that he was targeting Julian Tavares, and that Jeff Kent was a throw in.  That trade working out was dumb luck.

  8. Dusty Baker's Ghost said...

    It’s easy to fall into your own trap.

    Sure, he’s only had four losing seasons. But besides the last two, all the winning seasons were with Bonds at the core.

    Of all the developed talent you listed, outside of guys currently on the roster and Russ Ortiz none of them provided much if any value to the major league club. And they were traded away for players that provided little to no value to the major league club.

  9. Danmay said...

    I’m surprised that noone has mentioned money. Firstly, the Giants payroll has hovered between roughly 15th and 10th in baseball throughout Sabean’s run. So while he didn’t do it all on a shoe-string budget he never had a very high payroll either. Secondly, while Bonds clearly provided a lot of surplus value, it is also true that he was consistently among the highest paid players in baseball.

  10. kevin said...

    I’m not sure what version of Wikipedia you’re using for your facts, but to suggest that Branch Rickey was a GM for 7 years or less (half of Brian Sabean) is crazy. He was the Cardinals GM for 20-plus years and then Brooklyn Dodgers GM for 7 years, and then had a kind of weak finish with the Pirates. The total is about about 35 years, depending on what you define as GM.

  11. John R. said...

    “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. . . 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.”

    Results-based analysis! Bonds turned 34 in 1998. Neither Sabean nor anyone else could possibly have foreseen that Bonds’ prime years were still ahead of him at that time. Sabean’s process was to make the biggest offer to a player who everyone should have expected to decline. He got lucky when Bonds had a one-in-a-million late-30s power surge.

  12. Sherman said...

    1st: LOVE the game-theory-like grid of results and decision making.

    2nd: Sabean better be going “downtown” on Mrs. Lady Luck after this (sort of) historic come-back-season for the Giants.

    3rd: Let’s not forget San Francisco served as a “fountain of youth” to many of the elder-statesmen who joined Mr. Bond’s in his Rice-esque-off-season routine…. wink BALCO wink.

  13. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Not quite 1 in a million.  :^)

    There have been four in major league history that I’m aware of:  Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Darrell Evans, and Barry Bonds.

    Bonds, well, we all know what happened there…

    According to rumors, Aaron’s was a result of the Braves moving in their fences during that period.  Checking on fences via Baseball-Reference.com’s link to stadium history, that appears to be true, it was moved in around time his boost came, and it was moved back out soon after he got the record.

  14. Justin said...

    Shocker, a Giants fan rationalizing Brian Sabean’s poor decisions after their team wins the WS with a pitching staff and spare parts.  I think we all know why/how those super veterans panned out in the late 90’s and early 2000’s…BALCO

  15. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    It was not wrong-headed to keep Posey down in the minors to start the season.  He was not ready in almost all ways plus it was good resource management. 

    BA’s book stated that he still needed defensive work, and from that one would think that he should have started in the minors to pick up that experience.  I saw that in other discussions about him as well. 

    In addition, his MLE for April was very low, around low 700’s (unfortunately minorleaguesplits isn’t working right now, else I would link), and it was not until May that he got it into the 800’s, and he fell into a mini-slump mid-month, that is probably what pushed his call up to late May.  That is an indication that he was not ready for the majors. 

    And as we saw with Weiters, just because you were hitting in the minors did not mean that he was ready to hit in the majors when you are a catcher, there are other issues that might interfere with his development.  You are taking a huge risk starting the season with a young unproven catcher, because if he fails, then you at best have a back-up catcher to finish out your season (in worse case scenario) or be forced to give up value in a trade.  This is improper risk management when you are hoping to make the playoffs this season. 

    The Giants also felt that he would tire at around the 100 game mark for catching.  If you count his games in the minors and add to his starts in the majors, you will find that he started to slump right around the 97th start mark, if I recall my research correctly, and his batting line wasn’t so good anymore for the rest of the season.

    Lastly and most importantly, by keeping him out as long as they did, they ensured that they had another cost-controlled season of Posey, to 2016 instead of 2015.  After his play this season, that should be a huge consideration and a plus to Sabean’s move (or lack thereof).

  16. John R. said...

    Williams’ home run totals declined slowly but steadily in his late 30s except for an anomalous 38 at age 38 (tied for 2nd most in his career) in 1957. Of course, if he hadn’t lost five prime seasons to war, he’d probably have hit that many homers several times.

    Darrell Evans’ home run totals ranged from 19 to 41 in his late 20s. Then he got traded to San Francisco, where he hit between 17 and 30. Soon after he left SF for Detroit he started hitting more, including 40 at age 38. That looks like park effects combined with an unusually large season-to-season variation throughout his career. Anyway, like Williams, he never did anything in his late 30s that he hadn’t already done in his “prime.”

    Aaron, as you noted, probably benefited from park effects, and like the first two guys all he did was avoid decline- he didn’t actually get better in his late 30s. Just sustaining such a high level of performance at such an advanced age is a rare achievement.

    Bonds is in an entirely different class. At age 36 he absolutely shattered his previous career high in home runs (and everyone else’s, for that matter), despite walking 177 times. In his age 37-39 seasons he would continue to exceed his “prime” home run totals despite walking in nearly a third of his PAs.

    Some of that is due to home runs being up all over the league in those years, but context-adjusted stats like OPS tell the same story: Bonds was a much, much better hitter at 38 than he had been at 28. Nobody else has ever done that.

  17. John R. said...

    On further review, it looks like Aaron actually had his best offensive season at age 37- he set career highs in HR, OBP, SLG, and OPS+. However, the difference between that and his other good years isn’t very big. Discounting park effects, he was almost exactly the same hitter from age 23 to 39, which is pretty amazing. Even so, that’s totally different from getting dramatically better at 36-39, which only Bonds has done.

    So, yeah, if Sabean saw that coming, then his genius is wasted on baseball.

  18. DrBGiantsfan said...

    Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Jonathan Sanchez, Brian Wilson, Pablo Sandoval, I think that list should forever put to rest the absurd notion that Sabean and Bochy hate young players and won’t let them play.  For people who still think that, I’m wondering just what other players in the organization they think should have gotten more of an opportunity?  In addition, key bench roles were given to Nate Schierholtz, Travis Ishikawa and Sergio Romo.  How many teams in MLB have brought more young talent to the majors in the same time frame?

  19. Doug said...

    Evaluatıng maınly on the process of a decısıon assumes that our evalutıon ıs suffıcıently thorough. Evalutatınd a decısıon based on process often ınvolves understandıng several aspects of that decısıon and then valuıng them agaınst each other accurately. Results based analysıs doesn’t assume to understand the process and can’t get caught up ın the arrogance of ıts own paradıgm. Perhaps our methods for evaluatıng gm decısıon makıng overlook some of the subtletıes of Sabean’s process that contrıbute to hıs success. It’s certaınly debateable, but just because our analyses doesn’t understand why Sabean wıns, that doesn’t mean that ıt has to be luck or cırcumstance.

  20. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Sorry John, when I was talking about increase in homers, I was referring to their AB/HR ratio.  The ratio went really down for them in their late 30’s.

    And I don’t recall whether the ratios were same as or better than in their late 30’s but I guess the main point is that they should not be hitting in their late 30’s like they were in their late 20’s.

  21. Steve Treder said...

    “Perhaps our methods for evaluatıng gm decısıon makıng overlook some of the subtletıes of Sabean’s process that contrıbute to hıs success. It’s certaınly debateable, but just because our analyses doesn’t understand why Sabean wıns, that doesn’t mean that ıt has to be luck or cırcumstance.”

    That’s exactly my point.  Or, part of it, anyway.  The other part of it is that Sabean’s organization, whatever else its flaws, has demonstrated a remarkable knack for identifying and developing young pitching talent, which was clearly the key to this champion 2010 team.

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