Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The San Francisco Giants and the Formula for Sustainable Success

What makes the Giants so good? That question has permeated baseball in recent years, as San Francisco has danced to three World Series championships in five years despite sharing a division with the free-spending Dodgers, and despite operating a very modest payroll of their own.

In attempting to explain the Giants' success, it's important to understand that, firstly, San Francisco just has great players. For any team, that's the ultimate building block. Buster Posey, the all-world catcher, and Madison Bumgarner, the gritty ace personified, would make any team competitive. However, as we've seen with the spluttering Nationals and underwhelming Dodgers this year, pure talent alone isn't as important as the philosophy that underpins it, the system that unearths it, and the culture that incubates it at the Major League level. Ultimately, the Giants' success is derived from consistently nailing that elusive formula, and never losing touch with the core tenets of a battle-tested philosophy.

As with most sustainable powerhouses, that powerful Giants' ethos is inculcated from the bottom up. San Francisco may not have the flashiest farm system, in terms of headline-grabbing prospects, but, from a standpoint of actual development, theirs may be the most formidable of all. What the Giants do, picking low in the draft but actually working to tangibly improve every facet of their players' game, is far more impressive than what, say, the Astros have done, deliberately tanking so as to handpick elite, polished, readymade superstars with early selections. The latter requires only good scouting, while the former requires good scouting and an unwavering faith in the ability of coaches to develop talent.

The Giants' roster is littered with graduates of that system, disciples of that baseball vision. Posey and Bumgarner were selected early, but developed into even better players than anybody forecasted. Moreover, Brandon Belt, a very good Major League hitter, was unearthed in the fifth round; Brandon Crawford, a sensational shortstop, was found in the fourth round; and Ryan Vogelsong, so long a serviceable big league pitcher, was taken 158th overall in 1998. Elsewhere, Joe Panik was a first round pick, but one perpetually underrated even by prospect gurus until a phenomenal performance in the 2014 World Series catapulted him to superstardom; Chris Heston was discovered in the twelfth round in 2009 before throwing a no-hitter in 2015: and Matt Duffy, currently a Rookie of the Year candidate, was selected 568th overall just three years ago.

Nurtured by Bruce Bochy's culture of altruism and hard work, this homegrown core is highly functional at the big league level. However, aside from the productive farm system, palpable chemistry and evident work ethic, the question still remains: what makes the Giants so good? In a fundamental, roster-building sense, what exactly is Brian Sabean's modus operandi? How does he judge players and so routinely excavate hidden gems from uncharted areas of the market place?

For the casual fan, these teasers can often be frustrating. Just last year, people branded the Giants unworthy winners because, quite frankly, they're not flashy, they're not showstoppers, and they're not one-dimensional. The fair weather fan often views explosive plays such as home runs and stolen bases as the ideal barometer for judging a team's ability and, well, the Giants just aren't that team. Between 2010 and the present day, San Francisco ranks 28th of 30 Major League teams in home runs hit and 26th in bases stolen. Moreover, after Bumgarner, their pitching is more workmanlike than elite, their defence more functionary than superlative.

However, when you watch the Giants for a week or so, one thing becomes abundantly clear: they hit. Oh boy, do they hit. Right now, Posey is batting .314 on the season; Panik is at .309; and Duffy has a .308 clip. Accordingly, among all qualified Major League hitters, the Giants have three of the top nineteen in terms of batting average, or three of the top nine National League batters. 

Furthermore, Belt has a .274 average and Crawford is at .267, while Nori Aoki is at .301 through 84 games; Gregor Blanco has a .292 average through 102; and Hunter Pence was at .275 before landing on the disabled list. 

As a team, San Francisico is currently hitting .269, third best in the Majors and tops in the NL. Extrapolated to include all years from 2010, the team average is .258, seventh best in the bigs and third in the Senior Circuit. 

Due to the phenomenal success enjoyed during that six-season run, one can justifiably speculate that batting average is a key ingredient in the Giants' magic potion; that Sabean has gone back to basics in the unending quest to discover the next great market inefficiency when evaluating players. 

Without access to the team's inner sanctum, my analyses are based only in logical conjecture, but, from the outside, it sure looks possible that the Giants have reconsidered batting average as a primary weapon in their tool box. Perhaps sabermetrics have advanced so far, and people have become so preoccupied with WAR and OPS, that the oldest metric of all is neglected. Perhaps plain old batting average, a postcard in an email world, is the ultimate fuel of Sabean's San Francisco superpower.

Obviously, the analytics community looks upon batting average with native skepticism, and I share many of the reservations about it's inability to eradicate luck. But, more generally, when used to evaluate and potentially acquire veteran players with a considerable track record, average can still be hugely indicative of talent, especially to an organisation programmed to seek that particular skill. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all.

Looking back through some of Sabean's bigger moves to supplement his core with external commodities, a solid batting average is common among many of his targets. Aoki was a career .286 hitter when signed by San Francisco last winter; Pence was at .287 lifetime when acquired by the Giants midway through 2012; and players such as Marco Scutaro and Angel Pagan also featured strong batting average floors before joining the Giants.

Of course, the presence of a strong batting average in many players acquired by San Francisco could pure happenstance. The Giants may have liked Pence's clubhouse presence or Aoki's approach, and a good average just happened to be one part of a tantalising package. But I still believe there is a conscious effort, on some level within the Giants' front office, to prioritise batting average over other metrics.

This apparent emphasis on exceptional pure hitting, rather than gluttonous slugging or nimble base thievery, is also a hallmark of nearly all graduates through the aforementioned farm system, completing the philosophical cycle that works so well for the Giants. Seemingly every year, a guy like Panik or Duffy emerges from that system, that proving ground for fundamental hitting, and, once attuned to Bochy's landscape of total selflessness, genuine superstars are born.

The Giants' triumph has hitherto been cloaked in secrecy. And, after all, if we actually knew how they guaranteed such repeatable success, we'd all be millionaires tinkering with real life Major League teams for a living. Therefore, this can only be adjudged as my best attempt, reading between the lines, at solving the inexplicable conundrum of winning San Francisco ball. But perhaps, ultimately, we should all just sit back and continue to enjoy Sabean's Giants for what they really are: a phenomenal baseball team for the ages.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Meet the Mets, A Model Franchise of a New Baseball Era

After six years of struggle, Citi Field, the Mets' evocative ballpark, is finally a portal to exciting baseball, a hub of burning dreams. Whether by luck or judgement, New York's forgotten team has emerged from its prolonged slumber with a cast of fresh-faced phenoms electrifying huge crowds and daring people to forget the past. 
Citi Field, alive at last.

In recent years, the Mets have been painful to watch; a seemingly parochial club swamped by the thriving market it calls home. A lack of investment matched a lack of talent, as losing seasons mounted and fans became disillusioned. Once a colourful and intriguing team, the Mets became boring, irrelevant, an afterthought even to diehard baseball aficionados. They simply weren't worth the time.

However, this year, management's vague and meandering plan for this franchise has finally come to fruition, delivering from the depths of indifference a highly energetic, greatly talented and thoroughly likeable team that romantics cannot help but root for. Now, the Mets have an ace taking the mound almost every night, sending a jolt of adrenaline through baseball, which is once again relying on the Amazins' for a fresh, unique and vibrant story. We can't look away.

On a most basic level, aside from the minutiae of statistics and records, the Mets are just aesthetically pleasing again. Citi Field is packed with fans, whose excitement courses through the stands, creating a playoff atmosphere beneath the summer lights. These fans, so frequently tortured, are among the very best baseball has to offer. Their passion is incredible; their yearning tangible. They scream and holler and yell encouragement, genuine encouragement, like few fanbases in the game. They care, but they're not too serious. Attending a ballgame is supposed to be enjoyable, and Mets fans get that.

This summer, Citi Field has rocked and gyrated in a manner redolent of Shea Stadium, that crumbly old park we loved so well. After all, Mets fans have been starved of success, with no postseason appearance since 2006 and just one taste of October baseball in the past fifteen years. Moreover, during that time, this organisation, and those fans, have been the target of vitriol, the butt of jokes, the doormat of the National League. Sure, sometimes they deserved it, when refusing to spend any money in the nation's biggest market. But, at other times, people have lost sight of what a great franchise this can be during moments of peak excitement. When they're going good, the Mets are just plain fun, and it's fantastic that, now, an entirely new generation of baseball fans are able to experience that firsthand.

The Mets seem to form one brilliant team to befit and describe each passing era of Major League Baseball. The team's brushes with success have been fleeting and far between, but they've always been hugely emblematic of the epoch. In 1969, for instance, the Miracle Mets blazed a trail with Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, winning the World Series against all odds. In '86, Daryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden captured the free-flowing spirit of the time, pitching and hitting and running the Mets to victory at tender ages. And, more recently, in 2006, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran and David Wright were leading products of the modern age, bashing New York to within smelling distance of another pennant.

In much the same way, this current Mets team is incredibly expressive of a new baseball age, where homegrown stars are priceless and where pitching dominates. After much toil and criticism, Sandy Alderson has built the consummate pitching staff of the generation; his starting rotation quickly becoming the envy of baseball executives from Fenway to Chavez Ravine. There's Matt Harvey, the dark knight of Gotham with a rocket arm and a warrior's guile. There's Jacob deGrom, the reigning Rookie of the Year with a blistering fastball and remarkable poise. There's Noah Syndergaard, the twenty-two year old with a crackling speedball and a juggernaut's physique. There's Steven Matz, the uber-prospect with an easy delivery and exceptional athleticism. Then there's Bartolo Colon and Jon Niese, two elder statesmen who round out a phenomenal corps. 

The Amazin' rotation.

In a pitching rich era, the Mets have a 3.24 team ERA, third best in baseball, while the team WHIP, my preferred measurement, is an infinitesimal 1.160, tops in the Majors. Naturally, this group of brilliant starters has elicited comparisons to the great Atlanta Braves under Bobby Cox. However, I truly believe that, collectively, the Mets' rotation has the potential to outperform even Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz.

Just think about it. Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard and Matz have a combined age of 24 and a combined 2015 WHIP of 0.977. This is an outstanding building block that allows the Mets tremendous flexibility moving forward, with Alderson basically only needing to recruit position players for the next four seasons at least. Accordingly, it's very reasonable to suggest the Mets have created for themselves a window of sustainable opportunity, and that a deep World Series run cannot be too far away.

For all the invective directed at Alderson and ownership during the recent lean years, the Mets have emerged stronger and braver. In many respects, they're now a model twenty-first century franchise, built on a foundation of young, cost-controlled, power arms that could pitch their way to the Promised Land. So often decried as anachronistic and myopic, the Mets front office has actually been very perceptive in understanding the changing climate of baseball business, away from brash expenditure on ageing free agents and towards a wiser and more organic investment in sustainable assets.

The journey was often treacherous, but Alderson weathered the storm and believed in his convictions. He knew that, in order to be successful for a prolonged period, the Mets would have to endure some darker times, as their safeguarded prospects matured into genuine superstars. Sure, that philosophy often tested the patience of fans, who want instantaneous success, but, now, the merits of such an ethos are clear to see. So frequently beleaguered, the Mets have a nimble framework of cheap and gifted players, around which more expensive imports can be accommodated, in the prudent quest for repeatable glory.