Thursday, November 13, 2003

2003 Management Awards Part I:
What Would Sabean Do?  

I thought I might go through the management awards baseball gives out and discuss what each recipient did to earn it and what might have been a contributing factor outside their control. That is to say, why was the award given, and how was it deserved and not deserved.

This year's recently announced "Executive of the Year" is Brian Sabean, GM of the San Francisco Giants (link thanks to Baseball Primer). A good, belated pick for a guy who's head of a team of front-office types who have built a remarkably persistent winner. Belated because his most marked accomplishments were made several years back when he was one of the first to adapt effectively to a changing labor pricing model. His task was particularly challenging (that is, trying out a new model where success was strongly expected) because:

  • The Gigantes financed their stadium differently from the generic public-funding deal,
  • The team's payroll is disproportionately weighted to one (transcendent) super-star
  • The division they play in has no super teams, nor super-terrible teams, creating a gravitational field that makes ownerships strive for competitive adequacy instead of big-winners (because you can win the div with 92, why spend-up to build a 100-win team?
  • The local press is particularly nasty, competing in the blood-sport competition of questioning/trashing every move.

In his first year, he traded Matt Williams, arguably the Giants most popular and second-best player for salary and balance reasons. He was reviled, but the team he inherited won 68 games and was buried in last place, and after his moves won the division with 90 victories.

According to John Shea's SF Chronicle article I linked to above: Still, 2003 presented a massive challenge for Sabean, who overhauled a team that lost a manager, ace pitcher, closer and four everyday players and still won 100 games. Quite a rebuild to accomplish.

He succeeds by applying a model he apparently invented as a response to the labor market shift that started occurring in the two years before he got the job. It's shopping for underpriced talent not on the Oakland As statistical model, but based on putting together pieces that are both underpriced and that fit together in complementary ways. He's more willing than most to churn guys, especially in the rotation and outfield where he'll get a player who's underpriced for a year or two and then let him sign elsewhere. And the front office is willing to roll in young players from the farm system. They kind of have to do this more than most teams to cover Bonds' prodigious salary. And he's been doing this with consistency decent-to-very-good results.

You can see a flipbook of Giants rosters by going to the 1997 Giants page on Baseball-Reference.com and advance it a year at a time by finding the (Franchise Index:  1996 / 1998) bar near the top of the page and advance a year at a time. To see the transactions the Giants made each year, there's a transactions link near the bottom of the page.

In his offense (things he may not have done as well), he's had a manager (Dusty Baker until this year) who has been popular with his players and seems to be good getting performances out of guys who were lesser elsewhere, and some of the credit of the plan's success has to go to field management. Ownership has defended him in the bloodsport press, and that's made his job a little less of a challenge.

I think he built his plan before he got the job -- by tracking what big shifts were occurring that he might exploit if and when he got a GM position, a classic strategic technique I recommend to all prospective managers outside baseball.

One other thing worth emulating that he does well: He shares credit with his whole workgroup. Again from the Shea article: "The sweet part is, it's a just reward for the whole organization, from ownership on down," said Sabean, who gave thanks to, among others, Ned Colletti (assistant GM), Dick Tidrow (vice president, player personnel), Ted Uhlaender (special assistant, player personnel) and Pat Dobson (advance scout).

There are at least two good anModel), one in people management (Second Base in the MBB Model), for managers outside baseball.

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