Brian Sabean is all in

Texas Hold ‘Em is a game filled with odds, but the numbers are pretty simple. If you have a 35% chance to hit your flush on the turn when someone raises you 45% of your stack, you don’t have the odds to call. However, odds become finicky when you get more and more productive on the margins. For example, if I’m 35% to hit my flush, but I also know my opponent is holding a straight, I can reasonably expect a big payday if I make my hand. However, if I believe my opponent is holding a pair of deuces, then it’s not worth it, as my expected earnings are drastically less. Basically, when my future earnings increase I don’t have to stick to the odds as conservatively. The relatively small gamble I take could earn me a huge outcome.

This is why I was baffled when I saw some of the comments from Giants fans over at one of my favorite blogs, McCovey Chronicles. Anger, rage, and shock were expressed as if the Giants had just dealt Nathan, Liriano, and Bonser for Pierzynski all over again. Now, I won’t hold an intelligent fan base to their gut reaction to a deal that involves one of their better prospects, but many fans are still acting as if Neal Huntington simply pulled one over on Sabean. That just didn’t happen. Thus far in 2009, the Giants have allocated about 600 plate appearances to Emmanuel Burris and Edgar Renteria to respectively play second base and shortstop. Burris has been awful with an OPS+ of 49. Renteria isn’t much better at 66. However, Giants fans would be quick to point out that Juan Uribe has been solid at second base. This is true, but his .339 BABIP will not last, and Fangraphs has him sitting on an extremely generous .315 wOBA the rest of the way. If Uribe were to do that, it would be his best season since 2004, so it is pretty unlikely. On the other hand, Freddy Sanchez is off to a torrid start with his new club, and has been worth about 3.1 WAR per season over the past four years, a number severely lowered by his outlier 2008 campaign. In fact, the Giants would improve themselves even more if they took Keith Law’s advice and moved Uribe over to shortstop (his UZR at short has been bad this season, but it’s a tiny sample size and he’s been solid there historically).

Tim Alderson is not Tim Lincecum. One the day of the trade, BP’s Kevin Goldstein tweeted (@kingclip) that Alderson has been “continuously overrated throughout his career.” After the deal, other reports had come out that Alderson’s velocity has been down recently, and Goldstein even wrote about a scout describing Alderson as a big league pitcher, but “strictly back of the rotation.” While that’s still pretty good for a prospect, there has to be some diminishing returns for the Giants. They have a rotation that will include Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Jonathan Sanchez, and Zito/someone else in the near future. At some point, the Giants were going to have to deal from their strength (young pitching) to bolster their weakness (quality hitting). And that’s exactly what they did.

Now, back to poker. So far we’ve dealt with this deal in a semi-vacuum, disregarding most of the context. But let’s not forget that the Giants are currently leading the NL Wild Card race. Since making the deal their odds of making the playoffs, according to PECOTA, have increased by about 10 percent. In analyzing this trade, we’re going to assume that the Giants lost in a strict value sense, just like a poker player would if he paid 45% to hit 35% of the time. The player would be making an unwise move if he were simply playing for some measly blinds, just like Sabean would be at a loss if he was making this deal in December rather than near the trade deadline. But just as the flop has come and the player has seen a big opportunity available, Sabean has seen the first four months of the season go by and knows the hand he is playing. The playoffs are a big deal for any team; they are exciting, lucrative, and strengthen/grow the fan base, and entering the playoffs with Lincecum and Cain makes you a good bet to bring home the hardware. So with every percentage point the Giants come closer to making the playoffs, Sabean is closer to hitting his flush and watching as a drunk European kid in a Full Tilt visor and shades turns over his busted straight in fury. The bottom line is that the Giants did slightly overpay for Freddy Sanchez, but context truly matters, and sometimes you take a risk if it means the possibility of huge earnings in the near future. Brian Sabean has taken his risk, and now we’ll wait for the cards to play out and see if the Giants can cash in.

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  1. Tom said...

    I think you’re glossing over a couple of criticisms Giants fans (e.g., myself) have of this deal:

    1) They had an in-house replacement available. Kevin Frandsen is viewed as a similar player to Sanchez and has never gotten a fair shake at second (PECOTA weighted mean projections for 2009: Frandsen = .273/.334./.379, Sanchez = .285/.323/.389; PROPS thinks Sanchez has been lucky to date, and sees his season line as .281/.322./.402 – very much in line with PECOTA’s projection), and

    2) They did not get enough return for Alderson, or the right kind of return. If the Giants were giving up Alderson, they should have gotten an impact bat back (e.g. Dunn – obviously not 1 for 1, but as the lead prospect in a package of 2-4). Sanchez is simply not enough. The Giants are desperate for hitters who excel at getting on base and hitting for power. Sanchez excels at neither.

    3) Alderson is good. Though Goldstein may think Alderson’s overrated, that didn’t stop him from putting Alderson at 60 on his top 100 prospects list, just behind Jordan Zimmermann, and ahead of guys like Mat Latos, Aaron Poreda, and Nick Adenhart. By my count, the only prospects dealt this year who ranked ahead of Alderson on Goldstein’s list were Carrasco and Lawrie, and they both (as the lead prospect in packages) brought back significantly better players than Sanchez. Poreda – a lower ranked prospect – brought back Peavy in another package deal. This point dovetails with point number 2.

    In any event, though you may have a different take on the deal, Giants fans have some legitimate gripes about this deal based on actual thought and analysis, not a misguided “gut reaction.”

  2. Pat Andriola said...

    Hey Tom, thanks for the reply.

    1) Kevin Frandsen isn’t very good. He’s 27 and has a career line of .242/.306/.343 in 441 PA. He’s also found a way to be worth -.3 runs this year in just 16 games. He has a .799 OPS in AAA, which is nice, but if you do his major league equivalence he’s at .260/.304/.372, much worse than Sachez’s line. ZiPs would give him a .293 wOBA for the rest of the season as well. He seems like your typical Quad-A player.

    2) With position players you also get defense, and while Dunn’s bat would’ve been nice, you also get his awful defense. Fangraphs has Dunn at 1.6 WAR this year, whereas Sanchez is already at 2.4. And yes, he Giants need some pop in their lineup (Garko will help), but this isn’t mutually exclusive. They could’ve gotten Dunn as well but balked at the offer. The bottom line is that we don’t know what Sabean was offered. Maybe other GM’s weren’t that high on Alderson.

    3) Alderson is good. I agree. How good is the question, and I think I dealt with that.

    Overall, I agree with you that this wasn’t the best deal straight-up value-wise. The point of my post was more looking at the opportunity presented and slightly overpaying to possibly get a big return back. I understand Giants fans still have gripes about the deal, and I could see why, and I wouldn’t hold them to the gut reaction at all. I just think letting some air out of the Alderson balloon and giving Sanchez some credit for what he provides (good value for his contract and position), along with understanding just how close the Giants are to the playoffs, is important.

  3. Tom said...

    We could go back and forth on the merits of the various points (for example, I could point out that in the one year that Frandsen, who is by no means awesome, actually got semi-regular playing time, he put up a .269/.331/.379 line, which is (1) almost exactly what PECOTA thinks he can do, (2) only marginally worse than Sanchez’s career .300/.337/.422, and (3) was very unlucky, according to PROPS).

    My real point is that your insistence on dismissing the reaction of Giants fans to the deal as some sort of unreasoned, overly emotional “gut reaction” ignores the fact that there are well-reasoned, logical counterarguments to your position (as well as the fact that many respected, impartial commentators such as Sheehan, Szymborski, and Kahrl all hate the deal for the Giants). It does your argument no credit to treat the opposing view so dismissively, and is frankly somewhat insulting to Giants fans generally, and the McCovey Chronicles gang specifically.

  4. Pat Andriola said...

    Tom, I really don’t think I was trying to hurt feelings. In fact, in the article I was quick to point out that McCovey Chronicles is one of my favorite blogs, that they have an intelligent fan base, and that it would be unfair to hold them to gut reactions. I’m sorry if I came off as being demeaning in any way; trust me, I hold McCovey Chronicles and the people there in high regard, along with the people you mention that disagree with me.

  5. Tom said...

    Last comment: I don’t mean to say that you intended to hurt anyone’s feelings, and you haven’t hurt mine (and the McCovey Chronicles people are probably pretty thick-skinned, on average). I’m just pointing out that by continuously saying (for the third time now) that it “would be unfair to hold them to their gut reactions,” you are dismissing the views of those who disagree with you as overly-emotional and poorly reasoned, when in fact I – and likely others – believe that they have thought about their opinion and hold that position based on more than just a “gut feeling.”  Dismissing it as less than that is condescending, and doesn’t show much respect for the people who disagree with you, even though you may not have any ill-intent. You can legitimately disagree about the merits of the trade while still crediting those you disagree with as having given some thought to the issue as well.

  6. Pat Andriola said...

    Thanks for the comments, Tom. I didn’t mean to marginalize the people who disagree with me and their analysis- in fact I think I humbly concede ground many times in the article. The link I gave from McCovey Chronicles was just the immediate reaction, which was emotional (just read the comments), but I didn’t mean to characterize the rational arguments against mine as just hot-headed and lacking credence. Sorry again if it sounded that way.

  7. Mad Bum said...

    Not a horrible trade (yet) but Sabean did overpay, plus he got no cash out of the deal. But this deal seems more about getting Sabean an extension than anything else as he tries to cover up his other free agent blunders.

  8. hilarie said...

    The argument many Giants fans (and others) have made is, curiously, the same one made here but lots wiser: Context matters. Sabean made thie trade in large part because he paid $18 million for Renteria, the worst starting shortstop in the NL. He made this and the Garko trade—aquiring average infielders—after steering the team into half a decade of futility while publicly blaming his grand scale ineptitude on Barry Bonds, the meal ticket he inherited from the Lurie regime. The team he built has been historically bad offensively for several years, not just theast two: Bonds, the old cancer in the clubhouse, camouflaged the abysmal wreck in box scores and tram stats page but could not hide the truth from people who watched the team every day. This is the context Giants fans are taking into consideration when analyzing the Sanchez trade. Sabean had to buy two average infielders just to give the team a shot at keeping their runs per game over four and in hopes of avoiding falling short of 100 HRs for the second year in a row. This is a guy who bragged in spring training about how the hitters he cultivated and acquired couldn’t care less about hrs, obp, or walks; his team is at the bottom in all three categories and he went so far as to say it was by design while also blaming 1) the park and 2) Barry Bonds. The real argument is that Hirkng Sanchez and Garko should not save Sabean’s job. I near Cleveland is looking. He should go there. Now.

  9. hilarie said...

    I’m sure what I meant to type, like “team stats” rather than “tram stats,” was clear, but sorry.

  10. Pat Andriola said...

    I understand your point, Hilarie, and I agree. Part of the reason Sabean made this deal was because he himelf had assembled a lackluster offense. I couldn’t adequately defend his GM tenure if I tried.

  11. Sam said...

    “While that’s still pretty good for a prospect, there has to be some diminishing returns for the Giants. They have a rotation that will include Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Jonathan Sanchez, and Zito/someone else in the near future.”

    I’ve heard people make this argument and while I hope you are right, I think that it is very optimistic.  It is still some time before either Alderson or Bumgarner will be ready to join the major league roster.  It is hard to say with any kind of certainty that by the time Alderson is major league ready the Giants rotation would be so good that they won’t have a place for him.

  12. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    First, Bonds was the first big move of the Magowan regime;  Sabean inherited that when he was named GM.

    Second, I’m getting tired of all the Sabean bashing.  Is he not the one who put together this team?  Is it not the 2nd best record in the NL?  No GM makes no mistakes.  And he’s been rather poor in the free agent area, though I don’t know if that was driven by Magowan’s edict to win with Bonds – as stupid as some of those deals were or turned out, at the time of the signing, many of them were the best player available to be signed.

    And I’ve never seen it anywhere that says that he is done rebuilding the team.  And if he’s not done, grading his offense bad is like calling a baby a bed wetter:  neither has been fully developed yet.  It would be like grading a painting when the painter is not done. 

    Take the Atlanta Braves.  Many of these comments by Giants fans – horrible farm system, horrible offense, horrible team – could have been directed at Bobby Cox as GM during the horrific 6 years he presided over the Braves as GM.  But it was his draft picks and free agent pickups that eventually contributed to the team that he took over as manager and led to its first winning season in a long while, and which he then led to a great streak that almost lasted 20 years.

    To be clear:  I was one who hated the trade.  While Sanchez is good defensively, and is an upgrade over what we had thus far in 2009, to take on his whole salary, plus next year’s at $8M (likely to happen unless he DL’s) and still give up a pretty good prospect (though it should be at least acknowledged that Alderson’s star had less of a shine this year as his velocity has visibly dropped, his peripherals has also correspondingly dropped, and his K/9 is dangerously low if he were in the majors, let alone still in AA;  he wouldn’t be rated so highly now as he was pre-season).

    The Giants should have gotten more for Alderson in terms of hitting, which is what we are missing.  Frandsen is considered to be a good defensive player at 2B, so Sanchez is not a huge upgrade over what Frandsen can do there defensively, in fact, in small samples, Frandsen has been better as in the few games he played in he has 1.2 UZR and Sanchez in 15 times more innings has 4.5 UZR.

    Maybe Frandsen has not done much in the majors thus far, but you can’t dismiss what he has done in the minors either.  He has hit well at every level he has reached. 

    And after he was done sulking in the minors in April – he was expecting to be in the majors, even in a bench role – his OPS in May and June was around .900, which has an MLE of around .740 OPS.  And that is roughly what he hit in 2007 if you combine his MLE for his minor stats and his hitting in the majors in 2007.  Plus, once he was given regular starts starting August, he hit .295/.347/.439/.786. 

    There are many data points that suggest that Sanchez is not a major upgrade over Frandsen, and to lose Alderson to achieve that is what got many Giants fans angry.  Is he an upgrade?  Yes.  Does he make the team better?  Yes.  Is what he provides worth losing Alderson?  Many of us don’t think so. 

    But while I hate it, I’m willing to keep my opinion open.  I think the trade is only worth it if he’s hitting like he did in April and May and not like how he hit in June and July.  If he can hit that well for us in the next two months, then I feel pretty good about our chances, we probably would make the playoffs, and it would be worth trading Alderson.  But Sanchez’s horrible June and July made me very leery about the trade and hence my hatred.

    And here’s how I defend his GM tenure:  Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, Wilson, Sandoval, top 5 record in the NL, Posey and Bumgarner on the way.  Look at the Giants runs allowed compared to the NL, then look at the ERA.  It’s a combination of both good pitching and good defense that is winning games for the Giants.

    And as a THT article once noted, when you have a great defense – pitching and fielding – you don’t need much of an offense to win with it.  That’s a function of the exponential function.  And the worse your defense is, the much greater your offense has to be.  The Giants are just taking advantage of that.

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