#14 — Brian Sabean

This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history.  For an explanation, please see this post.

NLCS - St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants - Game Five

In his 18-year tenure at the Giants helm—the longest of any active general manager—Brian Sabean has witnessed the evolution of the very nature of team building.  Sabean has the mindset of a scout but eventually became open to new perspectives, even when they seemed to conflict with a scout’s approach.  As analytics began to make inroads in the game’s front offices, Sabean’s methods and practices adapted to meet these new challenges.  Sabean won his first pennant by building around an aging but still potent Barry Bonds and then three World Series championships by restructuring his team around a young core with undervalued pickups.  As much as any modern GM, he represents a successful bridge between the old and new approaches.

After several years coaching college baseball, Sabean jumped to the professional ranks, joining the Yankees as a scout. From 1986 to 1992 Sabean played a key role in the Yankees scouting and drafting, a period in which the team landed many of the players that would make up the great Yankees squads of the late 1990s.  He also observed first hand well-respected general managers Bob Quinn and Gene Michael in action. When Quinn got the general manager’s job in San Francisco in 1993 he hired Sabean as a key assistant.  In 1996, after two last place finishes, principal owner Peter Magowan promoted Sabean to general manager.

Other smart, aggressive front office personnel and scouts had also recently joined the Giants, and Sabean judiciously delegated authority, creating a team of trusted lieutenants.  Assistant GM Ned Colletti remained with Sabean for nine years before starting his own successful run as general manager of the Dodgers.  Dick Tidrow and Bobby Evans are still with Sabean 19 years later.

Despite inheriting a last place club, Sabean had one huge advantage to work with: Barry Bonds, still in the prime of his career.  Sabean revamped the team around Bonds using both free agent signings and trades, most notably swapping popular third baseman Matt Williams for infielders Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino.  A couple of young, previously lightly utilized starting pitchers (Shawn Estes and Kirk Rueter) were given a chance, both had good years, and the Giants won the division.

The farm system Sabean inherited remained relatively fallow, and over the next several seasons he filled in around Bonds and Kent, who had developed into a great hitter in his own right, with short-term veteran solutions.  Overall, these mid-market players (J.T. Snow, Ellis Burks, and others) delivered impressive returns, and San Francisco remained consistently competitive.  The Giants opened their new privately financed stadium in 2000 and attendance boomed, freeing up additional revenues for player signings.

In 2002 the team came within one game of winning the World Series before falling to the Anaheim Angels.  As a consequence of the Giants fill-in-with-veterans strategy, they were an exceedingly old team.  For the next several years, Sabean continued to use veteran free agents to plug holes and try to win before his stars could no longer contribute. Bonds’s tremendous late-career peak essentially delayed Sabean from rebuilding. In 2003 the team won 100 games and in 2004 they won 91, capping an outstanding eight year run in which they averaged just over 92 wins a season.

Inevitably, however, a win-now strategy with a veteran team can only work for only a limited time and eventually comes with a cost. Without the necessary influx of young players, the Giants lost at least 85 eighty-five games from 2005 to 2008. On top of the disappointing seasons on the field, Sabean and Magowan did not come off well in the Mitchell Report, devoted to the prevalence of steroids in baseball. Sabean also made some baseball moves that backfired: signing free-agent pitcher Barry Zito to a record-breaking contract; overspending on free agent Aaron Rowand; and surrendering a couple of future all-stars to the Twins for A.J. Pierzynski.

Sabean had nearly run out of chances.  Bill Neukom, named managing general partner in 2008, spent the 2009 season evaluating the organization–another sub-.500 season and Neukom might very well have brought in a new GM.  Fortunately, Sabean and his staff had been effective in rebuilding the farm system, the team rebounded to 88 wins, and Sabean received a contract extension.  And over the next five years the Giants won the World Series three times.

Much of the turnaround could be attributed to a stellar collection of pitching prospects from the Giants farm system: Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner.  But there is more to great pitching than simply drafting youngsters with live arms. Sabean put an organization-wide emphasis on the health of his players, particularly pitchers, and it paid off.  In 2010 their top-four starting pitchers all started at least 33 games, and in 2012 the team’s top five starting pitchers started 160 of the 162 games.  (Matt Cain’s 2014 injury shows that no emphasis is fool-proof.)

Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy (hired in 2007) were also willing to integrate young positon players into the team. Venezuelan signee Pablo Sandoval broke out in 2009 as a 22-year-old and anchored third base for the next six years. Catcher Buster Posey spent just over a year in the minor leagues before he became the club’s starter and franchise player and captured the 2010 Rookie of the Year award.  The Giants lacked the top prospects to rebuild the rest of the offense, however, and Sabean once again needed to rely on his staff’s savvy to fill holes cheaply and efficiently without surrendering any key contributors.

Before the 2009 season, Sabean signed Juan Uribe and Triple-A outfielder Andres Torres, and in mid-summer he traded for Freddy Sanchez.  For 2010 he signed Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell (after his release in May), and claimed Cody Ross off waivers in August.  All these undervalued players contributed to the 2010 World Series victory.  But because most were temporary solutions, Sabean had to repeat this strategy, and for the team’s next championship he landed Melky Cabrera, Hunter Pence, and Marco Scutaro.  Similarly, he always seemed to have pieced together an effective bullpen.

To find this underappreciated talent during the Giants’ stretch of World Series victories, Sabean was both receptive and innovative when it came to the evolving tools for player evaluation.  For a man who spent his formative front office years in scouting and player development, and would naturally have resented the way Michael Lewis portrayed scouts in Moneyball, statistical analysis eventually assumed a meaningful part of the evaluation process.  At least as important, Sabean recognized that the Giants needed to take advantage of their location in the heart of the technology industry and were at the forefront marrying video downloads with high-powered computing. As the USA Today put it, the Giants “applied a mixture of tech and baseball savvy that helped the baseball and business side. . . . You might call it Techball.”

Over Sabean’s tenure the Giants have won four pennants and three World Series, an enviable record.  The team has produced some high-end talent, Sabean has proved adept at finding key contributors at low cost, and he and Bochy have kept the team winning and free of drama.

— Dan

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.

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9 thoughts on “#14 — Brian Sabean

  1. The assumption that general managers make all baseball moves by their teams is becoming an outmoded one, and Zito and Rowand are examples of this. Both were signed over Sabean’s objections by ownership, and indeed much of the sign-veterans strategy of the mid-2000s was mandated from above by a we-won’t-rebuild-while-Bonds-is-on-the-roster decision. This makes understanding a team’s inner political workings of greater importance now than ever, as owners are becoming more personally involved in player acquisition (see Arte Moreno’s decision on Albert Pujols).

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    • If I accept your premise that Sabean shouldn’t take (any?) heat for the awful Zito and Rowand contracts, then I hope you won’t mind providing an itemized list of each and every move — every executive hiring, each free agent inking, his level of input and preferences on draft picks — and the degree to which Brian S. gets the credit/blame.

      Take Zito. (Please.) You say ownership signed him over Sabean’s objection. Okay fine, but does that mean that Sabean didn’t want him at all, or just not at that specific AAV for that specific number of years? Did Sabes want Zito at, say, 5 years and $15M per? You see, we’re already going down the rabbit hole here….

      Anyway, as Mark says, you *have* to judge him, just like every other GM, based on every single move he makes, regardless of real or perceived influence from above. If he’s really opposed to a move, I mean fervently opposed, he should threaten to quit the job. “This is my job. You hired me, now let me do my job.” The Zito decision was part of his job as GM — he broke it, he bought it.

      Sabean hired Bochy. For that, huge kudos. And he put the infrastructure in place that did some spectacular drafting & developing — even bigger kudos for that.

      Wonderful writing, by the way. Cannot wait for the book!

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      • I hate seeing this argument: if you don’t like it, you can threaten to quit.

        There are only 30 jobs in the majors, and precious few of them are open in any year, and plenty of other candidates. And if you happen to love where you are working, then you are just screwed is what I’m hearing.

        And yet, look at how it played out. Now, if Magowan was the sole owner, yeah, Sabean was stuck. However, there was a group of owners, and clearly it was Magowan who was blamed for the Zito disaster by the other owners, as he was forced out, “to spend time with his grandchildren”, replaced by a man who was even older than he is who also had grandchildren of his own.

        And then I love the part, Well, he probably loved him to some degree, so he should get blame for that. So he should get blamed because someone thinks he probably like Zito to some degree?

        If they (and there are a lot of Giants investors) thought that Sabean had any large degree of blame for those contracts, it would have been pretty easy to have Sabean “spend time with his children” and replace him with Tidrow or Evans. Or they could have also make him sweat by giving him a year to year deal when his deal ended during the new owner’s tenure, but they didn’t hesitate giving him a two year deal again, once his deal was over.

        Where are these people when it comes to Billy Beane? Why don’t he get blame for choosing to sign Chavez long-term while letting Tejada and Giambi go away with nothing but a lousy draft pick or two? Why didn’t he get blame when Ethier, in the VERY NEXT SEASON, outperformed the player he was traded for, Milton Bradley? Why didn’t he get blame for trading away Hudson for a pocket full of nothing? Why didn’t he get blame for trading away CarGone, Hudson Street, and a couple of starting pitchers for Holliday, and then he played out the trade chain and ended up with nothing? And why isn’t he getting any blame for the A’s horrible finish when he made a ton of teams specifically to avoid a bad finish? And I expect that the Addison Russell trade will end up on side of very poor moves. I’m not saying that he’s a bad GM, as I like him, but I never see these point brought up in any discussion of him, whereas I always see the same old stuff every time regarding Sabean.

        And Sabean has never traded away a prospect who became a good player, Liriano is the closest but his continual injuries (which he was already having when the Giants had him) kept him from that lofty status, leaving Wheeler as the only one who might break that streak. That’s why a prospect analyst wrote that article, I think for the USA Today, about how teams should not ever trade with Brian Sabean.

        But Sabean isn’t perfect. No GM is. But I’m tiring of all the crap he gets for poor past deals. He has three World Championships to his credit now, isn’t that worth all the crappiest deals in the world? And since people like to blame him for the poor deals, why isn’t he then getting all the credit in the world for winning three championships?

        People can’t have it both ways. If you are going to blame him for poor bad deals, then you need to credit him even more for all the good deals he made as they led to three championships. If you think so much luck was involved that he don’t get much credit, then why do you follow a sport that allows something crazy like three championships in five years due mostly to luck? If you want to credit luck in, say, him picking up Buster Posey, because the Rays didn’t draft him, then you need to do that for every other team in the history of baseball (or at least for the history of the amateur draft) because each team has experienced that type of luck, except maybe the Nats getting Strasburg and Harper since both were #1’s. All I ever see is “If If IF”, but then these people never look in the mirror and see what all the if’s logically mean in the whole fabric of sports and competition.

        If it then is more to his credit for winning the championships, then why not praise all the good moves he made instead of revisiting deals that were made nearly 10 years ago, which is like two generations ago in baseball GM years? I don’t care if his mistakes are listed ad infinitem, but there never seems to be any balance involved. Kent, Schmidt, Cain, Lincecum, Posey, Bumgarner, Belt. Plus players who have been pretty good like Winn, Nen, Livan, Dirty Sanchez, Wilson, Romo, Crawford. Is the goal to avoid mistakes or the goal to win it all? All I mostly see is people mad as hell about his mistakes (and this is among Giants fans), with no credit given for his achievements. It’s about time that changed, and I’m happy to see him ranked among the best all-time.

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  2. Good point. For the most part, Dan and I have no choice but to rank GMs based on the organizational performance and decision-making that happens on their watch, without always understanding who to credit/blame. Sabean has certainly quieted the critics of late, and has done so without any drama or rancor within the organization. Pretty impressive.

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  3. Not a bad analysis of a hugely underrated GM who is (well, was) frequently the target of sabermetric ire. My favorite Sabean joke: Winter Meetings Scene: Cal Ripken, Steve Finley and Jim Leyritz are sitting on a couch in the Opryland hotel. Observer: “All that’s missing is Brian Sabean and a pen.”

    The new ownership group cut scouting budgets after the strike season. It really didn’t go anywhere until 2006 when they finally started spending money. Do all GMs have to deal with ownership issues? Of course. Sabean had to punt draft picks from 2003-05 to fill out the 25, most famously signing Michael Tucker before the arb deadline to lose his first round pick. You are going to eventually run out of old vets (who are usually the 2nd and 3rd tier free agents to snag anyways). Similarly, the Zito/Rowand signings were PR motivated at the behest of ownership – but also to have some semblance of a team while they rebuilt.

    Nobody has hit as well as Sabean & co did from 2006-08: Lincecum, Bumgarner and Posey is legendary drafting. And you didn’t mention that Sabean was directly responsible for drafting Petitte, Posada and Jeter while running the Yanks draft, they left to head west before getting to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Getting major pieces and then filling in on the fly is a huge strength of Sabean. The other huge strength is stability and loyalty – you see this not only with the field staff (Raggs, Gardner, Wotus et al) but also in the front office and scouting.

    You’re putting Beane ahead of Sabean, that’s definitely a great back and forth argument. I’d say Beane is as overrated as Sabean is underrated, that argument will be defined by ownership moneys most of the time, which I personally think is a pretty narrow way of thinking. Sabean’s trades from the mid 90s are a murderer’s row of rips, teams just stopped trading with him: Livan, Nen, Ellis Burks, Schmidt, Big Cat, Kenny Lofton – that all came to a screeching halt with Nathan-Liriano-AJ, a trade that still gets more attention than any other. The best part of Sabean’s last five years came from him stubbornly holding onto all of his pitching against all comers. That is the underrated part for Sabean: knowing when to hold them. He has a very enviable trade record, especially considering he’s the longest tenured GM in the game.

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  4. Very excited about this book–been trying to put together an overview of MLB analytics/innovations over time, highlighting teams & architects*–& you guys seem to be out in front of it! 1 small suggestion: not sure if HC’s already in press, & if so maybe consider for PB, but your cover pic is pretty uninspiring–how about a classic b&w shot of exec at desk on rotary w/ a cig/drink, or a split cover of that (or a suit talking outside BP netting) w/ more modern/younger GM crunching multi-media #s/video? Just an idea to get you guys a little more buzz, & like I said, very enthusiastic about the content!

    [*Roughly: Yankees (Stengel), Cardinals/Dodgers (Rickey), Orioles (Weaver), Indians (Hart), A’s (Alderson/LaRussa/Beane), Red Sox (Epstein), Rays (Friedman/Maddon), Astros (Luhnow), Cubs (Epstein)]

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  5. its funny that they rank Beane higher than Sabean…Beane hasnt won a championship, Sabean has won 3 yet Beane is higher….its because Brad Pitt played him in that movie…

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