Farhan Zaidi is the new president of baseball operations for the San Francisco Giants, and for the first time since Julian Tavarez was supposed to lock down the late innings, the organization will be run in a completely different fashion. It’s exciting, even if the uncertainty is making me nauseous at the same time.
The first order of business is to condescendingly snort at the outdated takes about how the Giants are going to start using stats now. They’ve been using stats for years. The Giants won World Series championships because of stats, and during their run of success, their scouting department actually shrunk.
But that might have been the problem. The new divide in baseball isn’t stats vs. scouts. That idea is so 2000. Yeah, let’s play Conker’s Bad Fur Day and riff about the dumb teams that don’t believe in OBP, herp. The new divide in baseball is teams who know how to use the information available to them vs. teams that only kind of know. It’s not just about acquiring obviously talented players; teams now are just as interested in making better players.
Take the Astros, who signed Charlie Morton two weeks after he was eligible for free agency in 2016. They signed him because he had untapped potential, sure, but also because they saw someone with a combination of rare, desirable skills.
The Astros knew, however, that Morton had one of the highest curveball spin rates and above-average velocity. In their estimation, he was throwing too many sinkers (62% in his last full season, with Pittsburgh in 2015) and not enough curveballs, especially to lefthanded hitters.
That deal had nothing to do with Zaidi, but it represents how much baseball has changed. Everyone can sort a damned FanGraphs table now. Teams can’t go to high-OBP speakeasies, knock on a secret door, and get a .370-OBP player who was undervalued because he was chunky like the days of Moneyball. Baseball is about sifting through a hundred data points for 1,000 players and figuring out which players the other teams have overlooked. While I’m not sure if you can credit Justin Turner entirely to the Dodgers (he was working with an outside hitting coach), there’s definitely something to them scouting Chris Taylor and fleecing the Mariners.
For the decades that spanned the Brian Sabean and Friends era, the focus was mostly about how the Giants could get obviously better players through the miracle of transactions. Why would they go after Jose Guillen? Oh, sweet, they have Aubrey Huff now. Mark DeRosa is a multi-positional weapon! All of these players were (mostly) known quantities, as were most of the players the Giants acquired. This was the way baseball has always worked: Figure out how to get the obviously talented players on your team, dummy. That’s still important, of course, but it’s almost a secondary consideration now.
The Giants have had plenty of successes from the minor-league free agent ranks — Andres Torres, Gregor Blanco, Ryan Vogelsong, Santiago Casilla, and Dereck Rodriguez stand out — so don’t take this as an argument that the organization needs to be better about diamonds in the rough. But while they should get all sorts of credit for identifying those players, I’m not sure how much credit they should get for reinventing those players. The story about Vogelsong is that he showed up to spring training, and coaches could tell that something was different because of the sound his pitches were making in the bullpen. Blanco was a high-OBP and speed guy in the minors who had a history of rotten injury luck. Torres, like Turner, worked with an outside hitting coach. Rodriguez was impressing the team in spring because of his continuing progress as a new pitcher, not because the Giants taught him One Weird Trick to help him with spin rate.
However, the only consideration when thinking about a new, forward-thinking regime isn’t just how the organization is going to snatch up all the Chris Taylors or Charlies Morton the stores have in stock. Another important consideration has to do with the players the Giants currently employ and how they’re weaponized against the hitters or pitchers trying to best them. As a professional dummy, I can’t tell you exactly what was wrong with Evan Longoria or Joe Panik last year, or what happened in the second half to give the Giants one of the worst second-half lineups in the history of baseball. But I have a feeling that a team with a different batch of analysts, looking at the same data but interpreting it differently, would have been able to stop the bleeding just a little bit.
There’s no way to prove that. It’s just a strong hunch. The Giants were looking at launch angles and spin rates, too, but they might have been the Kelby Tomlinson of looking at launch angles and spin rates. They just gave a five-year contract to someone who they’re expecting to be more of a Jose Altuve of data. I’ll settle for a D.J. LeMahieu. But now we’re off track.
AT&T Park a tough ballpark to crack, sure, but the Giants have somehow fallen behind the weirdo-ballpark-shrug-emoticon standings to the Rockies. The Rockies! The goofballs who were screwing around with piggyback starters and intentionally acquiring pitchers who allowed balls in play! They’re light years beyond the Giants now! A fresh set of eyes should definitely help in that department. The previous plan of getting gap hitters who didn’t need to hit home runs worked all the way to three titles, and I will love it forever.
The league adjusted, though, and it’s been absolute hell to watch.
Zaidi is someone who has proven that he can navigate the angry seas of modern data. The Giants did not have someone who could do that, and it showed. They deserve credit for getting something/anything out of Andrew Suarez, Derek Holland, et al, so there’s at least a little something going right on the pitching side, but the Giants have been consistently lapped on the offensive side for years now, even though they employed several All-Stars who weren’t so old that we should have assumed they were going to be decrepit.
Plus, he has probably stolen all of the Dodgers secrets, and he also left with a suitcase filled with office supplies. That will all help, too.
Also, for most of my life, the GM was the guy in charge. Now most teams have a smart dude who outranks the GM, and it reminds me of when Emperor Palpatine first appeared on screen and Darth Vader knelt in submission. Wait, where did this guy come from? Wasn’t the other guy the boss? I just can’t get used to this.
But the important thing is that Farhan Zaidi is a proven evaluator who is coming from a team that might have been the best at analyzing a torrent of information and using its vast resources to acquire and create the best players. He should make the Giants better, if only because, buddy, they probably couldn’t get a lot worse.