We’re just a few hours away from the Giants formally introducing their new President of Baseball Operations, Farhan Zaidi. The press conference will give us some hints about the team’s new direction, but wrapped around those nuggets will very likely be an overwhelming emphasis on Zaidi’s analytical background.
Ever since Moneyball, people have lost their mind over the idea that math could help teams better evaluate baseball players. Before Moneyball, math had never been used in any form to demonstrate or project the value and quality of a baseball player. Analytics has become a swear word and projections a boogeyman for older beat writers and the more vocal industry observers because their fears and crankiness have an audience with a vast percentage of baseball fans.
I’m telling you there’s nothing to fear about Farhan Zaidi. The Giants might have just hired the smartest guy in the room, but they’ve also hired a curious mind who incorporates all information available to him when making his evaluations. He’s not a machine and he’s not an instinct-driven gritmaster: he’s a baseball fan.
This was a guy who at the age of 30 pestered sent out his resume to the A’s, Dodgers, and Blue Jays just on spec to try to get their attention. When that failed, he applied through the MLB.com portal for an open baseball operations assistant position with the A’s in 2004. Susan Slusser wrote this wonderful profile of him back in February 2014 that included this nugget about that interview process:
In mid-December, A’s assistant general manager David Forst called in Zaidi for an interview, thinking he was in the Bay Area, but Zaidi was finishing up his Cal graduate studies at Harvard. When Forst learned that, he started backtracking; while he didn’t say so, it was clear that travel costs would squash any interest. Zaidi, horrified he might lose the opportunity, rushed to say he was going back to the Bay Area to go “house hunting.”
”I always remind David what a cheap bastard he was. I had to fly out on a fake house-hunting trip,” Zaidi said, laughing.
His quick thinking saved an opportunity that his preparation then made the most of. He came to that interview armed with a binder of his own projections for the 2005 A’s, but it wound up being his personality that sealed the deal.
“That’s the guy,” Beane said. “It wasn’t just his analytical skills, it was his incredible personality. It was important to us to find someone to fit into a very fraternal group.
All he did with the A’s was push hard for them to get Yoenis Cespedes (after memorizing four years’ worth of scouting reports), convert Brandon Moss to a first baseman to get him more playing time (he wrote “The Moss Manifesto” to make his case) and develop proprietary analytic models that made the platooning and projection process frighteningly efficient. He was a key figure in their last rebuild — no, you’re thinking of their most recent rebuild, I’m talking about the one before that — but it wasn’t all just because he knew how to program perfect linear regression models.
Said Brett Anderson:
“Farhan is ungodly smart, and he’s also really sarcastic and witty, it’s fun to be around him. You can ask him questions, have a conversation. Brandon McCarthy liked to go into the video room and ask him about obscure stats, and then I’d have to go Google whatever it was to figure out what they were talking about.”
Obviously, his personality might not mesh with every player, and it’s hard to know how his style will work with the current Giants roster (to say nothing of the coaches and existing support staff), but he recognizes that he’s just one person who needs to work with many others to build a successful organization.
After the Dodgers hired him away from the A’s in 2014 to become their general manager, Fred Flinstone ancestor Steve Dilbeck grunted this out for the LA Times:
The Dodgers have formed their very own Geek Squad. Not exactly sure how much baseball wherewithal they actually have, but I know where I’m taking my laptop the next time it has a virus.
Zaidi opened his introductory press conference with the following line:
“Is Steve Dilbeck here by the way? I brought my mini-screwdriver with me in case you want to leave your laptop after we’re done.”
And then all he did for the next five seasons is turn the Dodgers into an unstoppable killing in the National League.
He’ll become the Giants’ new President of Baseball Operations — a title they’ve created just for him (Brian Sabean was either Senior Vice President or Executive Vice President) — four years and one day after being named the Dodgers’ general manager. He’s walking into a really shaggy situation, as we all know, but also one that is an opportunity to make something that was once good good again by changing the way they do business.
The Giants have proven over the past few years that their old ways of doing business no longer work. The process needs repair. Zaidi isn’t going to come in and replace scouts with Baseball Mogul sim software, though, and whatever he did in the room to convince Larry Baer he’s the right person for the job provide skeptical or outright terrified fans some sense of security or at least a sliver of hope that this isn’t going to turn into a nightmare.
To that end, his immediate transactions after taking over the Dodgers, though done in tandem with Andrew Friedman, probably sound like music to a lot of Giants fans: he went with some known quantities and veteran players while also moving pricey veterans to fill out badly needed roster depth with upside players.
Dec. 11, 2014: Traded second baseman Dee Gordon, pitcher Dan Haren and infielder Miguel Rojas to Miami for catcher Austin Barnes, pitchers Chris Hatcher and Andrew Heaney, and infielder Kiké Hernandez. Then traded Heaney to the Angels for second baseman Howie Kendrick.
Dec. 16, 2014: Signed pitcher Brandon McCarthy to a four-year, $48-million deal.
Dec. 18, 2014: Traded catcher Tim Federowicz, outfielder Matt Kemp and cash to San Diego for pitcher Zach Elfin, catcher Yasmani Grandal and pitcher Joe Wieland.
Dec. 31, 2014: Signed pitcher Brett Anderson to a one-year, $10-million deal.
And then for his first trade deadline:
July 30, 2015: In a three-team deal involving Miami and Atlanta, acquired pitchers Bronson Arroyo, Luis Avilan, Jim Johnson, Mat Latos and Alex Wood, second baseman Jose Peraza and first baseman Mike Morse for pitchers Zach Bird, Paco Rodriguez, Victor Araujo, Jeff Brigham and Kevin Guzman and third baseman Hector Olivera.
The Canada-born Cal and MIT grad knows economics and science (Beane always worried he’d lose Farhan to Apple or Google), but he also embraces the uncertainty of human behavior and the chaos of baseball:
As predictable as we try to make it, as much as we try to understand it, between all the variables involved, between all the personalities involved, you can only know so much. All of these things you can only know to a certain degree, so you can’t get overly dogmatic about everything or think there’s a right answer, because baseball winds up being a game with a lot of grey area [...] the reality is every time you think you have something figured out the game will humble you. That’s an enduring lesson.
The Giants got themselves a good front office exec and someone who comes off like a good person. That’s a quality the team tends to seek out and put a lot of emphasis on and it happens to be a wonderful confluence of events that the best person for the job happens to be a good person.
So, no, the Giants did not buy themselves an android or life model replica who will reduce everything you love about baseball down to a single number that says that thing you like is actually bad and you’re a bad person for liking the bad thing. You’re going to see a good person doing his very best to remake the team we love into something good again, and he’s going to succeed because he only ever has succeeded wherever he’s been.