It was cold and rainy last weekend in Scottsdale. There was golfball-sized hail and cool winds and unhappy fans who’d traveled from the Bay Area to watch the orange and black get ready for the 2013 season.
But down the road in Phoenix, where the SABR Analytics Conference was underway, it was warm and dry inside the Sheraton Hotel. And the Giants were in the thick of the action. That’s right. The Giants were front and center at a sabermetrics conference. So put away your old jokes about Brian Sabean’s flip phone and aversion to on-base percentage and listen to what they had to say.
The Giants first appearance was by way of Javier Lopez. Along with former A’s and now Diamondbacks pitcher — and noted friend of sabermetrics — Brandon McCarthy, Lopez participated in a player panel discussion moderated by Diamondbacks play-by-play guy Steve Berthiaume, formerly of ESPN. George Kontos was also scheduled to appear but game-day responsibilities got in the way. Next time George.
Lopez was first introduced to sabermetrics when he pitched out of the Red Sox bullpen from 2006 through 2009. Boston’s front office flooded players with statistics and helped them figure out which ones would be the most useful for them. Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek was particularly skilled at distilling the numbers and using them to make effective game plans with the team’s pitchers. When asked if other catchers he’s worked with avoided advanced metrics, Lopez sheepishly said yes, but tactfully declined to name names. Let the speculation begin!
Even after leaving the Red Sox in 2010, Lopez has continued to use advanced stats. He favors heat maps that show a batter’s hot and cold zones. He uses that data to figure out how best to attack the batters he expects to face in each series. Lopez acknowledged that not everyone in the Giants bullpen is a “stat head” but many are.
During the Q & A session, I asked Lopez about manager Bruce Bochy’s move to a “closer by commitee” last season after Brian Wilson went down and Santiago Casilla lost effectiveness in late June. You may recall that I talked about this same issue with Jeremy Affeldt at the Giants Media Day and wrote about it in my first BASG post. You can read that story here. Like Affeldt, Lopez said that the “closer by committee” plan worked because Giants relievers are versatile and flexible and have experience pitching in different situations out of the bullpen. He also emphasized that the change was not one of kind, but of degree, given Bochy’s penchant for playing matchups and platoon splits in the later innings.
Sergio Romo is expected to be the Giants’ closer this season but Romo is unlikely to carry the same workload as Brian Wilson did. Romo simply doesn’t have the physical build to withstand the rigors of pitching five out of six days. Bochy’s use of a modified “closer by committee” when Romo is unavailable would be a welcome sight in the sabermetric community.
The Giants were also represented on the player development panel, held on the third day of the conference. Yeshaya Goldfarb of the Giants joined Derek Falvey of the Indians and Tryone Brooks of the Pirates to discuss how advanced metrics have altered the way teams assess players as they move through the minors. Goldfarb has been with the Giants for 12 years. He started as an intern working with the video group and has progressed to become Director of Minor League Operations and Quantitative Analysis. In his remarks, Goldfarb focused on the importance of integrating scouting, advanced metrics, and player development information to evaluate when players are ready — or not — to move to the next level. For example, Goldfarb said that minor leaguers typically show power first in batting practice and then in game situations. The Giants look carefully at strike-zone metrics of their minor-league power hitters because batters who can’t control the strike zone in the minors are highly unlikely to succeed in the majors.
I talked further with Goldfarb in the hallway after his panel had concluded. I said I was delighted to see the Giants take an active role in a sabermetrics conference, given the team’s reputation as one more reliant on scouting. We discussed why the Giants have that reputation. Goldfarb’s view is that the Giants’ front office is a tight-knit group that has worked together for years and is focused on building and maintaining competitive advantages. To the Giants, it’s not in their interest to talk openly about how they use advanced metrics. In essence, let other GMs be the poster boy for that.
I know what you’re thinking. That’s an easy way to avoid the stats/scouting discussion. But the Giants are not alone in their approach. During the GM panel, White Sox GM Rick Hahn made the same point. “We like to act in stealth mode,” Hahn said, because it gives the White Sox advantages when dealing with other teams. It was a sharp contrast to co-panelists Jon Daniels, GM of the Rangers, and Jed Hoyer, GM of the Cubs. Both of those teams have been much more public about their sabermetric approach.
When Goldfarb and I parted, I told him it would be great to have Brian Sabean at next year’s SABR Analytics Conference. He smiled. As did I.