The San Francisco Giants are, once again, getting hot at just the right time. After a season in which they executed passable impressions of both Dr. Jekyll (a big-league best 57–33 record in the first half) and Mr. Hyde (30–42 in the second), they've managed to slip into Wednesday night's National League Wild Card Game against the New York Mets. If they win, they will play for a chance to become the third-ever franchise (after the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox) to secure a fourth World Series title in eight seasons.
In other words, the Giants are a very successful baseball team. And yet, in an era where the front office is fetishized more than ever before, the Giants offer no hotshot young executives talking up proprietary algorithms, nor any crusty old scouting directors waxing nostalgic about the good old days.
In fact, these Giants don't take sides in the sabermetric wars. Their success over the past decade has been driven not by adherence to any one analytical principle but rather by an uncanny, unflinching, unusual self-awareness. They are less concerned with finding the extra two percent than with the totality of the thing—the 100 percent, if you will. Competence isn't sexy. But it gets the job done.
With front-office tenures usually measured in years, not decades, executives are sometimes under pressure from ownership to produce results that "play" well in the press. Not so with the Giants.
"There's a clear 'we're in this together' mentality," General Manager Bobby Evans, who has been with the club since 1994, told VICE Sports this week. "I think it starts with the continuity that exists within ownership itself—the investor family is very close-knit and connected, and even as different generations have taken over [over the last 20 years], they continue to have a passion for the Giants and the game of baseball. It's kept us stable in a way that makes the job that we all do together so much easier."
When you've worked with the same team for the better part of two decades, the fear of being fired eventually gives way to the fear of failing to take the right risks. In recent years, the Giants' risks have paid off. Consider Madison Bumgarner, Santiago Casilla, Matt Cain, Sergio Romo, and Buster Posey, all of whom have been with the team since 2010, all of whom are still performing at high levels, and none of whom—save Casilla—have played a day of major league baseball as anything but a San Francisco Giant.
At least six other men on the 2016 roster—Ehire Adrianza, Brandon Belt, Trevor Brown, Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, and Derek Law, —have known no MLB organization but San Francisco. This is not particularly normal. The nature of player development is that even one homegrown player—in other words, one drafted, signed, and developed in-house—is a tremendous organizational achievement. To have 11 such players on a single roster is extraordinary, even more so when that number includes the team's three most valuable hitters and its staff ace.
This is not to say that other teams don't have a number of homegrown players. They do. But there's a big difference between, say, the Colorado Rockies' home cooking and the Giants': the Giants players are better. That sounds obvious, but it's obvious in the same way that "having better players" is an obvious strategy for a baseball team. Easy to say, hard to do.
Evans declined to share the secret sauce for his organization's remarkable record of player development hits. That's understandable. But during our conversation, he repeatedly emphasized the degree to which he and his team focus on acquiring players who put the team first.
"I think that you want to see guys that hate to lose as much as they want to win," he said. "It helps when you see guys come through a farm system together; they build a bond early in their careers, and it carries over into the big-league level. They're clearly players that have a lot of respect for each other, and they believe in one another, and they pick each other up. They all have different personalities, obviously, but at the end of the day they're teammates, and they know they can't win alone, and they want to win together."
The Giants have succeeded, in short, not just because they develop their own players but because they develop the right players for them. They don't care, in general, about how good the industry thinks a prospect is, or how other teams value their players. If they think a player is good, they'll keep him. If they don't, they'll trade him for as much as they can get. It doesn't matter if you think he's the second coming of Mike Trout; if the guy is someone the Giants are willing to trade, they clearly don't agree—or they believe they're getting someone better in return.
"Everybody's entitled to their opinion," Evans said of outside evaluators. "I certainly respect the hard job those publications have to do—they're trying to evaluate 30 organizations full of players, and it's not easy to do. From our standpoint, though, all I ultimately want to be sure of is that our scouts, our player development, and our players get the respect that they deserve. We're not necessarily looking to always grab the high-profile guy, necessarily. We're trying to draft and sign winning players who have upside and winning potential—and if we have kids who are coachable, and are prepared to make the adjustments we see for them, I don't let the external evaluations really affect how we value our guys."
Take, for example, the Hunter Pence deal in 2012: the Giants gave up a big-league piece in Nate Schierholtz, a pitching prospect in Seth Rosin, and a minor-league catcher in Tommy Joseph. At the time, the view was that the Phillies had gotten a solid return for a 29-year-old outfielder on the wrong side of the aging curve. A few years later, Pence is still putting up solid numbers in San Francisco, and Joseph—the highlight of the trade, in retrospect—is playing below average baseball at a position the Giants already had covered. This has happened time and time again. The Giants just understand their players better than almost any other team does theirs.
This offseason, Evans went out and fixed the two biggest holes on his club—the outfield, and the starting rotation—with money spent on Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, and Denard Span. There's no way he'd have been able to do that if the rest of his roster wasn't jam-packed with players making the league minimum, or close to it, and if stars like Posey and Bumgarner hadn't taken rich-but-less-than-superstar deals to stay with the club that brought them up, and to which they retain an unusual loyalty. By Wins Above Replacement, Crawford and Cueto have been the two biggest contributors to the Giants' success this season, followed closely by Bumgarner, Posey, and Belt.
"I give [my predecessor] Brian Sabean a lot of credit for our approach," Evans said. "He didn't ever let us get too emphatic about the new information we started receiving in the mid-1990s. He wanted to blend it in, and make it part of the discussion, but he never allowed any one piece of information to become overly dominant. In the draft room, we have the same concept. He didn't want to get too bent on any one piece of information and instead said, 'Let's look at everything we have, and make decisions on that basis.' We always want to use information to help us, but not allow it to overpower us. And I think we've been able to do that effectively."
So, as the calendar finally turns to October, do the Giants have one more run in them? Evans was cagey when asked about San Francisco's recent postseason success.
"That's a great question," he said when I asked if he—and the Giants—believe postseason success can be planned for. (Most external evaluators believe the answer is no.) "I don't know how to answer it. I'll say this: When you get into the postseason, you have a new challenge altogether once you get there, your options are all internal—there's no external option—and you've got to figure out how to put the puzzle together internally. I think that, having been through it, all I can say is that you plan while you're in it."
Secret sauce or not, odds are that the Giants won't win the World Series this year—although to be fair, that's more about the randomness of the playoffs than it is about the Giants. Even the current favorites, the Chicago Cubs, which are by far baseball's best team, have only about one in four chances of going all the way, according to Baseball Prospectus.
But the Giants just might win it all again, starting tonight, and if they do, it'll be in the same quiet, understated, yet distinctive way they've won before, the one they've been perfecting for the last seven seasons: by knowing themselves, by acting with confidence, and by not worrying about what the rest of baseball thinks. It's not sexy, but it works.
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