On Wednesday night, with the Phillies and Giants tied in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, San Francisco’s Juan Uribe lofted a fly ball deep into left field to score his teammate Aubrey Huff. That game-winning sacrifice fly—not to mention the Giants’ entire postseason run—was a small victory for rationalism. The peculiarities of baseball economics have put the Giants, long one of the sport’s least progressive teams, in the avant-garde. As the world has moved around them, the team has stayed stubbornly still. The result: San Francisco’s long - mocked commitment to that most ridiculous of baseball figures, the “proven veteran,” has almost become shrewd.
To understand how this is so, you first have to appreciate how much the game has changed over the past few years. After the 2006 season, 43 different players signed free agent contracts worth $10 million or more. Gary Matthews Jr., a 32-year-old fourth outfielder, signed for $50 million. Nomar Garciaparra, a player so glass-fragile he once tore his groin while stepping out of the batter’s box, signed for $18.5 million at the age of 33. Even 34-year-old outfielder Jay Payton, who hadn’t been an average hitter in three years, scored $9.5 million for no evident reason.
Last winter, by contrast, just 20 players signed for $10 million or more. Old designated hitter Frank Thomas got an $18 million deal four years ago; old designated hitter Jim Thome got $1.5 million last year. Toasted outfielder Trot Nixon took $3 million four years ago; toasted outfielder Jermaine Dye took this year off for want of offers. Veteran presence just doesn’t pay like it used to.
This year’s dearth of signings was partly caused by the economic slump, but the bigger factor was the increasing acceptance of sabermetrics in baseball’s front offices. For decades, researchers had shown that players tend to peak in their late 20s and to decline rapidly thereafter, making all but elite veteran free agents a terrible investment. While this was simply common sense—who wants to spend big on rapidly depreciating assets?—it took the rise of the wonky Oakland A’s and Boston Red Sox to convince most MLB executives that there might be something to it.
Giants general manager Brian Sabean, though, has remained cheerfully oblivious to the changing times. In 2006 he signed the preposterously aged Dave Roberts (34), Ray Durham (35), Rich Aurillia (35), and Pedro Feliz (31) to contracts worth an average of $11.25 million. (He also threw $126 million to soft-tossing lefty Barry Zito.) Even with Barry Bonds in the lineup and young stud pitchers Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain in the rotation, the team lost 91 games.
Giants fans should be thankful that these horrific signings didn’t affect Sabean’s calculations at all.
The lineup for this year’s San Francisco squad isn’t quite as old as the one propped up around what was left of Bonds in his final season. Still, it’s pretty damn old. Uribe, 31, is a utility infielder with a career on base percentage of .300; the Giants signed him to a $3.25 million contract last year. Huff, 33, was gifted a $3 million deal coming off a year in which he was probably one of the 10 worst players in baseball. Pat Burrell, Freddy Sanchez, Mark DeRosa, Edgar Renteria—the Giants are overstuffed with aged, light-hitting infielders and sluggardly pseudo-sluggers, all picked up in trades or signed as free agents.
These are exactly the kinds of players Bill James and his disciples have been warning executives to avoid since ballplayers were wearing Afros and polyester double-knits. Even granting that the better part of the Giants’ success comes down to young pitchers such as Lincecum and Cain and brilliant rookie catcher Buster Posey, a lineup filled with the likes of Huff and Burrell still qualifies as the living antithesis of right thinking in baseball. Which may be why it works.
A common defense of A’s general manager Billy Beane’s techniques, as laid out in Moneyball, is that he was never interested in, say, fat catchers. Rather, Beane was going after bargains—players other teams didn’t value properly. Inadvertently, in his blind faith in the power of 33-year-olds with middling power and plate discipline, Sabean seems to have chanced on a Beane-esque arbitrage opportunity. Today’s trend-chasing general managers can think of nothing more absurd than building a team around unimpressive veterans. Assuming, reasonably, that bargains are to be found among players no one else wants, Sabean has his pick.
Let other teams hold open roster spots for developing young prospects and undervalued glove men. Sabean will happily suffer through ungodly bad hitting from the likes of DeRosa and Bengie Molina if it increases his chances of landing a player like Huff, who somehow transformed from a horrid performer into a legitimate Most Valuable Player candidate. And given the depressed value of such players, he can land a guy like Huff for a lot less money than he might’ve cost four years ago.
While Sabean is the most advanced practitioner of the veteran presence ploy, a look at this year’s playoff teams will show that he isn’t alone. The Minnesota Twins, for example, might have been sunk without their investments in Thome, second baseman Orlando Hudson, and starter Carl Pavano, who came in for a combined total of less than $14 million. The Phillies, in turn, have enjoyed the work of iffy signees Placido Polanco and Raul Ibanez. Take these as small proofs that when everyone is turning left, a right turn is a good plan.
The nature of the baseball market is such that if lame veterans really are being undervalued, their prices will soon enough come up. The nature of Brian Sabean is such that he’ll pay for these veterans no matter the cost, instantly eliminating a temporary competitive advantage. (This is, after all, a man who once defended a trade by declaring, “I am not an idiot.”) If his Giants win the pennant, most of his fans won’t care. The unsporting among them might even mock their friends across the Bay. Billy Beane has the accolades. Sabean is a win away from the World Series, a place Beane’s Moneyball-era A’s have never been.