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Brian Sabean: GM Genius

From 1997 to 2014, General Manager Brian Sabean led the San Francisco Giants to eight postseason trips, three World Series titles, and a .535 winning percentage. As Bill Felber argues, Sabean’s 18-year GM run may be baseball’s best, capped by the crucial moves leading up to and during the 2010 season.

By Bill Felber, January 10, 2018

Brian Sabean has not always been a fan favorite through the years. He has made many trades that fans questioned but he always has a plan in mind and has proved very successful.
Source: David Gallagher on Flickr

Ask any culturally alert fan to identify the best general manager of recent vintage and 10 out of 10 will point knowingly to Oakland’s Billy Beane. Their one-word rationale—Hollywood—will be as simple to grasp as it will be erroneous.

Nobody has written a book or made a movie about Brian Sabean, the genius general manager of the San Francisco Giants between 1996 and 2014 . . . but that’s the media’s problem, not Sabean’s. Aside from producing three World Series champions, the Giants under Sabean made eight trips to the postseason, more than any other NL West team, and compiled a .535 winning percentage. In the partisan environment that is California National League baseball, the best way to judge Sabean may be against his team’s mortal rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Here’s the comparison:

Giants vs. Dodgers, 1997–201 Giants
World Series titles 3 0
Postseason trips 6
Winning percentage .535    .531
General managers 1 6
Seasons with payroll superiority 1[i] 17

Ponder those final two lines for a moment. Between 1997 and 2014, the Dodgers raced through a half-dozen front office bosses—Fred Claire, Tommy Lasorda, Kevin Malone, Dan Evans, Paul DePodesta, and Ned Colletti—in an effort to keep organizational pace with Sabean. Despite the fact that the Dodgers had a larger payroll virtually annually, only Colletti was eventually able to keep pace. And while Colletti did lead five Dodgers teams to the postseason—two more than Sabean during their overlapping tenures—his Dodgers could never win the big prize that came to the Bay Area three times in that span.          

In the free agent era, the job of a general manager is to improve his team in one of five ways. He can acquire talent from other teams via trade, purchase, or waiver; he can trade, sell, or waive talent from his own roster; he can sign free agents (or extend/re-sign his own pending free agents); he can release talent onto the open market or refuse to sign imminent free agents; and he can promote talent from his own farm system.

Source: David Gallagher on Flickr

A GM is judged on how well he utilizes those options. Granted, financial constraints can play a limiting role in the pursuit of the end goal of winning. But as a general proposition, even GMs with limited budgets eventually succeed or get fired.

Sabean was brilliant at each of those skills, perhaps never more so than in stamping his impact on the 2010 team. The 2009 Giants had a veteran roster on the decline. That lineup featured an aging Bengie Molina at catcher; an insufficiently productive and aging outfield headlined by Randy Winn, Fred Lewis, and Aaron Rowand; and a .257 team batting average that ranked 11th in the National League. There were no such qualms about the 3.55 team earned run average, second best in the league . . . but No. 2 starter Matt Cain was a looming arbitration case, No. 5 starter Randy Johnson was retiring, and reliable closer Brian Wilson badly needed setup help.

Absent front office triage, the 88-win Giants of 2009 would have been headed statistically toward 73 wins in 2010. To head off that eventuality, Sabean made 39 personnel decisions affecting the Major League roster between the end of the 2009 season and the end of August 2010. Nearly two-thirds of them had a positive impact on team performance as measured by Wins Above Average, and in the cases of a dozen of those moves the positive impact exceeded one full game. The total impact on the 2010 Giants of Sabean’s moves amounted to +19.6 games. Only a handful of team owners or GMs in all of baseball history have initiated a better season-to-season improvement, and all of those involved chicanery or outside influence that effectively asterisked the achievement.[ii]

In other words, Brian Sabean’s performance leading up to and during the 2010 season can be characterized as the best in history by a chief executive.

Much of Sabean’s offseason work entering 2010 had involved solidifying the Giants’ talented but impetuous rotation. He did so by tearing up Cain’s contract and locking him in for three additional seasons at $27.25 million, and also by signing Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $23 million deal, eliminating Lincecum’s arbitration seasons. The Giants were also weak at first base, normally a power-producing position. In 2009, the regular, Travis Ishikawa, had combined just nine home runs with modest on-base and slugging numbers. In January 2010, Sabean signed free agent Aubrey Huff to a one-year, $3 million deal. It was not an obvious step; one season earlier, Huff had produced a .241 average and 15 home runs for two American League teams. But it was the right move. With the Giants, Huff batted .290 with 26 home runs and 86 RBIs, all significant upgrades over Ishikawa.

Matt Cain went on to pitch a perfect game June 13, 2012 against the Houston Astros. This was the first perfect game ever to be pitched in franchise history.

The remechanized Giants stood third, only 26–22 in late May, with an ongoing power weakness in left field, where John Bowker and Andres Torres divided time ineffectually. Beyond that, Molina, re-signed as a free agent the previous January for $4.5 million, was showing the wear and tear associated with a 12-year career behind the plate. When Molina batted just .184 through the month of May, Sabean dipped into his farm system, summoning rookie Buster Posey from Fresno in late May. By June’s end, Molina had been shipped to Texas.

To cope with the problem in left, Sabean went for a veteran presence with a low cost and a big upside. Pat Burrell, 33, had been released in mid-May by the Tampa Bay Rays from a $9 million deal after batting just .202 in 24 games. Sabean got him 10 days later for what amounted to the league minimum, and Burrell responded by batting .266 with 18 home runs in regular duty. He and Huff combined to fill the vital three and four spots in the team’s revitalized batting order.

Despite all that, the Giants remained essentially a .500 team in midseason. The obvious problem was the rotation, where preseason free agent signee Todd Wellemeyer had gone just 3–5 with a 5.86 ERA in 11 starts. Sabean summoned his second prime prospect from Fresno, left-hander Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner lost his first two starts—but then won his next four, allowing just four earned runs in 27 innings of work. That coincided with a July stretch in which the Giants won 18 of 23 games, climbing from fourth place to second, just two and a half games behind the Padres. Wellemeyer was released a few days later.

In their reshaped form, the Giants accelerated through the season’s final month, winning 20 of their last 30 games. They outscored opponents 111–62 over those final 30 games, allowing more than three runs in just five of those games. In the postseason, they validated Sabean’s work, eliminating the Atlanta Braves in four games, the Phillies in six, and the Texas Rangers in five. Lincecum won four games in those series, one of them being the World Series clincher. Bumgarner and Cain each added two wins, and Cain allowed no earned runs in 21 innings of work. Posey and Huff combined for 32 postseason hits, both homering in the pivotal 4–0 Game 4 victory when the Giants assumed a three games to one advantage.

Sabean may only be the second-best-known GM in the Bay Area, but his 2010 season was second to none.

Tim Lincecum is a two time Cy Young Award Winner, three-time World Series champ with the Giants, and lead the NL in strikeouts three years in a row.  
Original Artwork: 
Robert Marosi Bustamante

[i] The exception was 2012, when the Giants’ payroll was $141 million, the Dodgers’ $105 million.
[ii] In 1876, William Hulbert earned a +19.6 rating as owner of the Chicago White Stockings. But that achievement was colored by the fact that Hulbert surreptitiously signed talent prior to recruiting other owners for his newly forming National League. In 1884, a wealthy St. Louis sportsman, imitating Hulbert, created a league called the Union Association then made sure most of the available talent went to his club. His +25.0 WAA score for 1884 was substantially mitigated at year’s end when the Union Association collapsed. In 1891, the owners of the Boston American Association franchise improved their club by 25.2 games by vulturing talent off the recently collapsed Players League; one season later, the AA itself collapsed. In 1899, the Robison brothers, concurrent owners of the St. Louis and Cleveland National League franchises, concentrated all of their talent in St. Louis, artificially creating a +35.0 WAA impact there. But it was more than offset by a -59.0 game impact in Cleveland. Sabean himself rated +20.2 in 2002, but almost half of that involved the re-signing of Barry Bonds. 




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