So Much Awesome (or Some Thoughts on Leadership)

Many many great articles have already been written so please go and read these:

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I don’t have a whole lot to add to that. This was truly a team effort and there are so many great stories and characters, it can be difficult to know where to start. I spend a lot of time thinking, planning, and working to be a leader and to shape others to lead, so I want to talk about the leaders of this organization and team.

Brian Sabean. Sabean has taken loads of crap over the years, and some of it was very much deserved. I know I have been critical of him at times.

He still gets an anti-SABR rep in the press, and certainly many of us Giants fans would love to see more guys like Scutaro and Posey and Belt (meaning guys who can work counts, take walks, etc), but Sabean has mastered a very Moneyball-esque art form.

Moneyball, at its heart, is not about on-base-percentage, it is about finding value that other teams have overlooked. It just so happened that in the late 90’s/early 00’s OBP was the thing.

But in this day and age (an age where the Giants are paying 3 pitchers 20+ million dollars a year), the new OBP is the non-roster/minor league invitee. Remember, Juan Uribe was one of these guys. Pat Burrell was one of these guys. Andres Torres was one of these guys. Santiago Casilla was one of these guys. Last year it was Ryan Vogelsong. This year, add Ryan Theriot, Joaquin Arias, and Gregor Blanco to the list.

The other Moneyball principle that gets a lot of play is the importance of drafting and developing your own players. Free agency is costly and rich teams can afford to throw money around (and make and absorb bad signings). The “smarter” approach, and we’ve seen the A’s/Rays/Cardinals/etc do this to perfection, is to draft and develop guys.

Let me write some names down: Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Hector Sanchez.

And let’s not forget about the home-grown assets who have turned into Freddy Sanchez, Javier Lopez, Marco Scutaro, and Hunter Pence.

AND, we have yet to see what might happen next with Gary Brown, Francisco Peguero, Joe Panik, Heath Hembree, and several others who might be making an impact on this team in the near future.

So, does Sabean care about ERA+ and xFIP and WAR? Probably more than he cares to let on (although probably not as much as we like). But, he has been shrewd and wildly successful at several skills that are normally associated with the Moneyball crowd.

Most important of all, Sabean has led (and this is where my leadership radar goes off) a total organizational transformation. For the first decade of his tenure the Giants were planet Bonds and everyone not named Barry Lamar was just a moon in orbit. There were some great years and Sabean perfected the flawed art of building a team around one monstrous superstar.

But the better way is always pitching, pitching, pitching, and a total team philosophy. It’s easy to make fun of the “band of brothers” stuff, but this is exactly what the Yankees did in the late 90’s. Their payroll back then was nothing like it is today. They developed and drafted young stars, and they plugged the right guys in around them (seriously, who is going to take Scott Brosius over A-Rod in a fantasy draft. No one. But the Yankees won multiple championships with guys like him).

This is what the Cardinals have done for the past decade.

It’s what the A’s did a decade ago and are doing again right now.

And it’s what the Giants, under Brian Sabean’s leadership, have done for the past 4 years (more on this in a future post) better than anyone else in baseball.

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Bruce Bochy. I’ve written before about my reaction to the Bochy hiring. It was uninspiring. It lacked boldness and vision. It was typical Sabean.

It was pure genius.

I have come to love Bochy. He does some stuff in-season, especially with young players, that drives me crazy. Sabean had to trade Bengie Molina to force Boch to put Posey in the lineup. But that aside, Bochy is the perfect baseball manager.

I enjoyed Dusty Baker, but the rah-rah, emotionalism that he displayed (and continues to display) might endear him to some players, but it is not the strong, steady hand needed to navigate a long spring training, a long 162 game season, and a long post-season.

Sabean has said that Bochy has no doghouse and that is a whole leadership post waiting to be written right there.

He believes in his guys, he trusts his guys, and he is as steady as they come. Which makes him the perfect leader for a group of goofy characters who grow weird beards and throw crap on each other to get pumped up for the game.

AND, final thought, Bochy is a master of the bullpen and the best manager I have ever seen work with a lead.

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Which brings me to the last piece of the puzzle: Buster Posey. Buster was the only everyday player to be in the lineup for both clinching games (2010 and 2012). There are a number of remarkable things about that last sentence.

First, the dude is only 25 years old.

Second, that’s a lot of roster turnover (see my ode to Sabean above).

Third, he suffered an injury last year that could have ended his career. I don’t if people really get that. My wife is a physical therapist and she will tell  you that lower leg/ankle injuries are some of the hardest to come back from. Remember that Posey ran for the first time in February. We were all hoping for 100 games out of the guy. But he came back so well and so strong that I think a lot of us forgot that at this time last year he could barely walk.

And, it’s not like he’s a DH/1st basemen. He plays catcher, one of the most difficult positions to play in all of sports. I can’t quite summon the words to capture how unbelievable his year really was.

He played the whole season. He led MLB in batting. He will likely win the NL MVP. He carried the offense in the second half of the season. He led the pitching staff through some rough times back to dominance. He caught three intense, long, difficult post-season series.

Remember, it would have been awesome if he were simply able to play in these games, but then, to top it all off, he hits two of the biggest home runs in Giants’ history. A grand slam, of course, off Mat Latos and the Reds to end the NLDS, and then a huge 2-run job off Max Scherzer in the clinching game of the World Series.

You just knew there was no way the Giants win this without a big Buster hit and he delivered, tired as he was, with a towering, just fair home run into the misty night sky.

Because he’s Buster Posey.

He is a truly special, once in a generation player. And, he is a leader. Pence fired everyone up, Theriot and Wilson kept everyone loose, Marco Scutaro was inspirational, but Buster Posey led this team to a championship.

Barry Bonds was incredible to watch. I don’t know that I will ever see a better hitter in my life time. But Buster Posey is a baseball player and while it is still early in his career, he is one of the best players I have ever watched.

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So, there you go. 2 Championships in 3 years. I never, ever thought I would see something like this. So many years of Jose Cruz Jr., and rally monkeys, and JT Snow getting gunned down by a mile at home plate, and now we get a second parade. Unreal.

There will be posts coming comparing 2010 and 2012. There will be posts coming looking ahead to next year. There will be posts analyzing this team and making declarations about dynasties.

But, that is for another day. Enjoy this Giants’ fans!

(-SB)

Game 3: Assorted Thoughts

1) Remember at the beginning of the post-season when it was absolutely obvious to everyone that Ryan Vogelsong would be left out of the rotation and go to the bullpen because he had some experience there. Every team that wins the World Series needs at least one starting pitcher who can dominate and eat innings. Cain was the obvious choice, and while he hasn’t pitched poorly, the man has been Vogelsong. Crazy.

2) Joe Sheehan points out that there just aren’t a lot of tactical decisions to be made by the managers in this World Series. The Giants simply get ahead and stay ahead. A couple of thoughts here…Bruce Bochy is the best manager I’ve seen at managing with the lead. This is not as easy as it might seem (see Baker, Dusty 2002). While there’s not a lot of second guessing to be done, I do think Leyland blew it by hitting Omar Infante 9th. Maybe that’s how they always do it against right-handers, but the dude has ownage on Vogelsong (9 for 13 after Game 3), and had been swinging well in the first two games. Quintin Berry looked overmatched all night. Thank you Jim!

3) One more thought on tactics. As I mentioned earlier this post-season the Giants have not faced a left-handed starting pitching once. The Cardinals only had one left-hander on their roster. The one big tactical question for the Giants this post-season was: what to do with a left-handed starter? Do you put Nady in left instead of Blanco? Do you use Arias at short instead of Crawford? Do you put Posey at first and catch Sanchez so that Belt sits? Do you at least try to break up the three lefties in a row at the bottom of the lineup? Bochy has never had to answer any of those questions. Think about all the big moments provided by Crawford and Blanco, with the bats, sure, but also defensively. Nady doesn’t catch those balls in left, and Arias doesn’t cover the same ground or make the turn the way Crawford does. So, thank you Reds, Cardinals, and Tigers for making this an easy decision.

4) One of the most remarkable things I’ve learned this post-season is that JT Snow had the record for most hits (22) before Pabo broke that record last night. I remember JT playing well in 2002 but I would have guessed Rich Aurilia had the record not JT.

5) I know that Tim Lincecum is going to be a starter next year (see the third section of this article). I also know that the biggest way the 2013 Giants can improve is by Tim regaining form and reclaiming the ace title. But, man, how cool is it watching him come out of the bullpen. There is a part of me that would love to see the Giants take a shot at someone to be the 5th starter, and then turn Lincecum into a good, old-fashioned bullpen ace. I think he could pitch 130-150 innings out of the ‘pen and get himself into the convo for the CY Young. Small sample size, but here’s what he’s done this post-season out of the ‘pen: 13 IP, 3 hits, 1 run, 3 walks, 17 strikeouts. That’s a 0.69 ERA and a 0.46 WHIP. Nasty.

One more win please!

(-SB)

Game 2: 2 Rants

Rant #1

I understand that the national media hasn’t been following the Giants day in and day out all season. I know they need to sell magazines, or drive traffic to their sites, or get ratings. I get all that. But, please allow me this rant on the national media.

One of the things that bugs me most is the shock and awe at how good some of the Giants have performed. Fact: Barry Zito is not a great pitcher like Justin Verlander. But he had a good season, and it’s not completely unreasonable that he shut out a team like the Tigers (who have struggled against left-handed pitching) for five innings.

If you haven’t been paying much attention to the Giants Zito (despite the teams 11 straight wins in Zito starts heading into the post-season) sure seems like a “where did that come from story.”

I’ll give them a bit of a break on that one. But to act like Pablo Sandoval and Madison Bumgarner drank a magic elixir before the World Series started is just craziness. Pablo Sandoval is a really good hitter. It’s lazy to look at a stat sheet and go “OMG he only hit 12 home runs in the regular season.” And it’s true, he only hit 12 home runs, but he has the talent to hit 3 home runs in a game. The magic elixir story works for Brandon Crawford or Gregor Blanco. Not Pablo.

And then here’s the one that really fires me up: Madison Bumgarner is a really, really good pitcher. Driving around yesterday, listening to ESPN radio, you would have thought the Giants were starting me against the Tigers last night. It was ridiculousness to the nth degree.

It is borderline criminal that Bumgarner didn’t make the All-Star team this year. As of late July he was a legitimate CY Young contender. He did have a bad final month (he had a similarly bad start to 2010). But, the point here is he has the talent to pitch like he did last night (and better I might add).

Talented players will have great nights.

The Giants aren’t lucky because Pablo sold his soul to the devil to acquire a magic bat with home runs in it. The Giants are lucky because one of their very talented players had a great night in Game 1 of the World Series.

The Giants aren’t lucky because Madison Bumgarner was digging around in his backyard and found the holy grail of cut-fastball awesome. The Giants are lucky because their supremely talented young left-hander regained his form in Game 2 of the World Series.

So, let’s be clear: these are very talented guys, doing their best at just the right time.

Rant #2

While on the topic of luck…playoff baseball is weird. Weird stuff happens all the time. Giants fans have long suffered through earthquakes and flukey home runs and rally monkeys and Gold-Glove right fielders who drop balls at the wrong time and Cody Ransom and Benny Agbayani and Bobby Jones and Neifi Perez and on and on it goes.

If you want truth in baseball look at seasons and look at careers. If you want crazy and weird watch post-season baseball.

Sometimes Jose Cruz Jr drops a ball (bad luck) and sometimes an Ian Kinsler home run bounces off the top of the wall and lands back in play (good luck).

Giants’ fans have been on both sides.

Anyone who makes it through this far is the beneficiary of some good vibes.

But, as Michael Rosenburg points out, good teams help make their own luck.

2 examples from last night: if you watched Gregor Blanco closely last night it was obvious what he was trying to do…he was going to lay down a bunt to move the runners over but also try to turn it into a hit. His first attempt shot foul. Sometimes when you try to bunt the ball goes foul. And then sometimes it lands in the perfect spot.

So, did Blanco try to lay down the perfect bunt? No. But he was trying to get on, not just make an out and it happened to go in the exact perfect place. Tip your hat and get the next guy out.

Example 2: two Tiger at-bats demonstrate the point further. In the fourth inning Miguel Cabrera lined a ball right at Pablo Sandoval that the Panda will be feeling in his hamate-less hands well into his offseason workout regimen. Before that though, he swung through a 91 mph fastball on the outside corner. This is what Madbum does when he is right. He goes in and out and makes right-handed batters get so far out in front of pitches that they can only hit foul balls down the line. Cabrera happens to be a great hitter and was able to keep his fair but right at a fielder.

In the seventh, Omar Infante ripped two foul balls down the left-field line. Same principle: Bumgarner put them there on purpose…if the batter makes contact (especially non-Miguel Cabrera batters) the only place the ball will go is foul.

On the third pitch Bumgarner went up and away and the frustrated Infante went after it and missed. Joe Buck, on the first two pitches of the AB, seemed to suggest that the loud fouls were examples of Bumgarner running out of steam. I told Joe, as politely as I could, that this was exactly his intention. Then the strikeout.

My point is, there are some arguments today that Madbum’s success was the product of good fortune, but he made his good fortune happen through executing his pitches. Big difference.

Looking Ahead

Posey didn’t homer, but he was a huge factor in Game 2. Still expect him to have a big offensive game at some point in this series.

I also expect Games 3 and 4 to play out a lot more like Game 2. They will be close, tight games which favors the Giants and their bullpen.

(-SB)

Game 1: And Ode to the Zito and the Panda

I’m a huge Barry Zito fan. Loved him on the A’s (even bought a t-shirt). Loved the surfing and the guitar playing and the yoga weirdness and the stoner/zen proclamations. Mostly, I loved the curveball and the way he got swings and misses and that he was different. Randy Johnson was the premier left-hander of the day and the way he and Zito got batters out was very, very different.

In 2006, before hitting free-agency Zito made two playoff starts. In his first start he was masterful against the Minnesota Twins and beat another dominant lefty: Johan Santana. He fell apart against the Tigers (yep, those Tigers again), but the picture in my mind was of his triumphant defeat of the Twins.

I was excited when the Giants signed Zito (and bought another t-shirt), even if I hated the contract. Zito, Cain, Lowry. The Big Three. A new chapter of Giants’ baseball built around pitching.

And then it all went to hell. As it got worse and worse, the thing I kept hoping for, longing for, was a chance for Zito to do something important in the playoffs. If he could just contribute to a deep playoff run all would be forgiven.

Then 2010 happened and lo, it was awesome, but Zito’s big contribution was his non-contribution. So, yes, the Giants had won the long sought after Championship during the Zito era, but it was in spite of his presence.

Which makes 2012 all the more sweet. Zito, as has been noted, is not that much different of a pitcher this year than in any other year. He’s been healthy all year, he’s made all his starts, and he’s received better run support, but this could be 2008, or even 2010.

And yet, there is something different about him. A confidence that comes from long-suffering.

I was always a bit of a head case in my short baseball career and so I think that in some way I “get” Zito. I know that helpless feeling of doing everything right but still not having any idea where the ball is going. Pitching is so much between the ears, and thoughtful men don’t often make great pitchers.

And so, I honestly have never been more proud of a professional athlete in my life. Zito will never live up to, or live down, the contract but that’s pretty much irrelevant at this point. This is a man who made it to the top, who fell hard, who has suffered, and who has been resurrected.

Sounds dramatic, for sure, but it’s just true.

And here’s the crazy thing. Zito will be back next year (barring trade) to play out the last year of his ludicrous contract. There is an option for 2014, but here’s what I think will happen: if he proves to be serviceable again I can see the team working out a 3 yr/27 mil type deal to keep him around as the 4th/5th starter. At that point Lincecum and Vogelsong could be gone. There’s not much in the system to fill out the rotation. The team will need a reliable, cost-effective veteran type guy to fill out the Five.

A decade of Zito. Incredible.

—–

A lot has been/will be made about Pablo Sandoval hitting 12 home runs all year and then 6 (hopefully more) in the post-season, as if it were some kind of fluke. This is not unprecedented (see BJ Upton in 2008).

Sandoval is a really good hitter. He’s been hampered by weight issues, by hamate bones, and by hamstrings, but in 2009 if you had told me the Giants would be enjoying this kind of success, the only way it would make sense was if Pablo was at the center of it.

Before Posey, he was the great hope of the offense.

Now, I, nor anyone else, expects him to hit three home runs in Game 1, but this is not like Gregor Blanco hitting 3 home runs, or Brandon Crawford going off, this is a very, very good hitter who’s been going well since game 3 of the Reds series getting hot at the right time.

Melky gets a lot of love for “winning” the All-Star game for the NL, but it was Pablo who hit a triple off Justin Verlander to blow open the lead in the first inning. He was 10 feet from hitting a home run. In his three at-bats against Verlander in 2012 he hit a near home run triple, a home run to deep center, and an oppostite field home run. Incredible.

Which leads to this beautiful image:

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Game 2 thoughts: I think Madison Bumgarner will pitch well. Game 1 was great, and it sure helps the Giants keep the momentum and confidence going, but the other Tiger pitchers are also pretty good. I have a feeling this will be a more typical Giants affair, a 3-2 sort of ballgame.

Also, Posey will hit a home run tonight.

Go Giants!

(-SB)

A Modest Lineup Proposal

If I were Bochy this is what I would do today:

  1. Pagan CF
  2. Blanco LF
  3. Scutaro 2B
  4. Posey 1B
  5. Sandoval 3B
  6. Sanchez C
  7. Pence RF
  8. Crawford SS
  9. Lincecum P

Here’s why:

  • Blanco’s been doing well with the bat, he makes the pitcher throw a lot of pitches, and he can get on base. I have more confidence of him there than Crawford.
  • You typically want your “best” hitter third and that’s been Marco.
  • Panda give Posey some protection. Plus, I just trust him to get the little things done (like a fly ball with a runner on third and less than one out) more than Pence.
  • Take the pressure off Pence and hope he can run into something. I just can’t imagine the Giants getting out of this round without a Pence home run (or RBI for that matter).
  • Eliminate the three left-handers in a row. Not that it’s really been a big deal, but the Cardinals only have one lefty and this lineup forces Matheny’s hand. There is a lot more left/right balance.
  • Maybe the most controversial thing I will say here is this: I love Brandon Belt, but the Giants need to be aggressive in the lower half of the lineup. You cannot strike out looking with runners on base in the postseason. At least Pence is going down flailing. Sanchez will be aggressive. He might swing at a pitch above his shoulders, but this team needs patience at the top and aggression at the bottom. Doing that is the only way they can adequately help Buster.

All that being said, this is the defining moment of the season for Tim Lincecum. Either he shows up and dominates (and all is forgiven) or 2012 is always going to be remembered more for what might have been if the Giants had good Timmy than for what was actually accomplished.

(-SB)