[Hat-tip to MrLefty for the idea for today’s column and for steering me to David Lombardi’s article about the 49ers in The Athletic. I’ve added some complementary ideas of my own, as well.]
Well, I think we’ve established that I suck at “manifesting” things. Declaring that the Giants would sign a Scott Boras client before I posted Out of Left Field today was my first and last attempt at trying to speak something into existence. Turns out that’s not actually a thing.
So, instead of writing about the Giants’ addition of Blake Snell, Matt Chapman, Cody Bellinger, or Jordan Montgomery today, I’m going to write about the San Francisco 49ers, who have their first playoff game coming up late this afternoon. Unlike the current version of the Giants, the 49ers are a shining example of organizational health and success. What can be learned from the turnaround of the 49ers that could guide our Giants?
Burke Robinson teaches at Stanford. Every year, he teaches a graduate course called “The Art and Science of Decision Making.” In 2014, one of his students was none other than current 49ers GM John Lynch, returning to campus to complete the degree he’d started in the 90s. When Lynch started his new job with the 49ers in 2017 and hired head coach Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers were an organization lost in the wilderness. They’d just finished a 2-14 season and had gone through four head coaches in four years. Lynch knew that the 49ers needed some order in their chaos, a unifying vision–what Jim Collins, in his 2001 business book Good to Great, called a “Hedgehog Concept.” As Collins put it:
The essence of a Hedgehog Concept is to attain piercing clarity about how to produce the best long-term results, and then exercising the relentless discipline to say, “No thank you” to opportunities that fail the hedgehog test.
Lynch asked Robinson to come and meet with him and Shanahan and lead them through a visioning exercise. The result of many hours of discussion and brainstorming boiled down to two lists, one called “49er Talent,” and the other called “49er Spirit.”
We’ll talk about the two lists–“Talent” and “Spirit”–and how they might apply to the Giants. But before we get there, I want to point out a very important part of the story. The 49ers in 2017 were not “Great.” They were not even “Good.” However, they had a history and a tradition of being a proud franchise that had won championships and featured some of the greatest names to ever play the game. When Robinson, Lynch, and Shanahan were “visioning,” two important words used were reestablish and back. Here are two key quotes from the vision document:
“Our nucleus of dedicated players will reestablish The 49er Way and lead our organization back to the top of the NFL…These players will represent our core values and beliefs in both their talent and spirit.”
“We firmly believe that players who embody these core values will change the culture and reestablish the 49er Way — a Brotherhood that will lead us back to competing for championships year after year.”
The message of all this is clear: We’re not just some sad sack group of losers, recent history notwithstanding. We’re the $%&@ San Francisco 49ers, and we need to remember that and and start acting like it again.
So now let’s break down how this analysis might inform the current iteration of the San Francisco Giants.
The list of “49er Talents” was as follows:
- physical toughness
- character traits
- scheme fit
- football IQ (knows the game)
It’s easy to see that some of those apply to football more consistently than they do to baseball. Speed, for example, is a great characteristic for an outfielder but less important for a catcher or a pitcher. “Physical toughness” means something different for a football player than it would a baseball player. (Deebo Samuel was the first name that popped into my mind for this one, but George Kittle and Christian McCaffrey, not to mention Fred Warner and Nick Bosa, were not far behind.) But “character traits, fit, and IQ” seem just as important in building a baseball team as they do a football team. “Fit” in particular is an interesting one. The Giants have some unique characteristics in their park that make certain pitchers better fits than others and make righty pull hitters more likely to succeed than lefty sluggers not named Barry Bonds.
Of the current Giants, the name that comes to mind first is Mike Yastzremski. Maybe he doesn’t have the baseball equivalent of “physical toughness” because he gets injured often, but he has all the others. (Yes, I know that late in the season he forgot how many outs there were, but I think he was honestly distracted and distressed by how badly the team was spiraling. As for his baseball IQ, I think of the wild play at Dodger Stadium in June where Casey Schmitt dropped a popup and Jakob Junis then winged the ball into right field. The Giants escaped disaster and won the game because Yaz retrieved Junis’s throw, calmly ran the ball back to the infield, saw that two Dodger runners were converging at third base–LOL Mookie Betts–and threw to Crawford, who initiated a rundown that ended up in an out.)
The acquisition of Jung Hoo Lee to lead off and play centerfield will, hopefully, be a great example of the kind of talent the Giants need to focus on. Did they overpay him? We’ll see, but the speed/fit elements seem to be in place.
The “49er Spirit” list included these items:
- football passion–loves the game
- contagious enthusiasm
- mental toughness
- dependable on commitments
- accountable to self and others–“protects the team”
This is a tougher one for me to comment on as an outside observer, but I’d say that Logan Webb, of all the Giants, exemplifies every item on this list. It was Webb who stood at his locker in the last week of the season and did some truth-telling that within days led to the firing of manager Gabe Kapler, even though Chairman Greg Johnson had given Kapler a vote of confidence not even two weeks earlier. Webb is competitive, he’s tough, he’s loyal, and he’s accountable. He’s embraced being the public face of the Giants and has participated in free agent meetings. Today he’ll be on his home turf in Sacramento, meeting with fans on the new Fan Fest “tour.”
I’ll give honorable mention to Alex Cobb, who’s been a great Giant for the last couple of years, limping through the second half of the season when he needed hip surgery because he knew the team needed him. I have high hopes for Kyle Harrison in this regard, too–by all accounts, he’s got the same competitive drive and mental toughness that Webb has, and they have quickly bonded. It’s a little harder to peg Patrick Bailey, who like his predecessor Buster Posey is a pretty quiet guy, but perhaps he’s also a good example of the “spirit” list.
Work to Do
You’ll notice that these are not long lists of names who provide the “talent” and the “spirit” that the Giants need throughout the organization to reestablish their identity as a proud and winning franchise. Again as an outsider, if I had to venture a guess, I’d say the current regime does prioritize the “character” aspects when they acquire major leaguers or draft/sign prospects. There have been blind spots, though. For example, Farhan Zaidi’s devotion to Joc Pederson, who didn’t check off many items on either list, was an expensive mistake that definitely cost the Giants in 2023 especially. Nor does Zaidi appear to value “physical toughness,” since he keeps signing players with recent serious injury histories because they’re a bargain. Eating the balance of Tommy La Stella’s contract last year and offloading Mitch Haniger and Anthony DeSclafani in a trade for (injured) Robbie Ray are good examples of how those penny-wise, pound-foolish decisions have not paid off.
One point that Lombardi made toward the end of his article about the 49ers is that along with a plan there needs to be adaptability. In the seven-year regime of Lynch and Shanahan, they haven’t done everything right. Trading up to the third pick and drafting Trey Lance was a costly misstep that gets papered over by the unlikely rise of Mr. Irrelevant, Brock Purdy. And there was the painful Super Bowl loss in 2020 and the even more galling loss in last year’s NFC championship game after both Purdy and his backup were injured. But Purdy himself is a great example of Lynch/Shanahan’s ability to pivot. Instead of stubbornly doubling down on Lance because they’d given up so much to get him, they looked at what was happening before their eyes, they let him go and went all-in with Purdy. At the same time, having seen what happened last year, they signed a credible backup in Sam Darnold so that if something disastrous happened to Purdy again in the playoffs, they had a semblance of a Plan B (beyond the corpse of Josh Johnson).
Adaptability is the characteristic I have not yet seen in Zaidi as an executive. Frenetic roster-churning is not “adaptability”–it’s just chaotic flailing. For Zaidi and the Giants, I’d say that “adaptability” needs to go beyond obvious surface issues such as “DFA Tommy La Stella” or “give up on Joey Bart, already.” Zaidi needs to adapt his clearly unsuccessful free agent strategies–stop wasting time jousting with the Dodgers and the Yankees for the A-listers and focus on guys–like Lee–who will be ecstatically happy to be Giants. He and his team also need to rethink their approach to drafting. Stop playing games with the draft budget–“if we draft So-and-So, we can pay him under slot and then get Such-and-Such in the third round”–and just sign the best damn talent on the board, please. I have some hope that maybe the strategy shifted in 2023, as the Giants were the only team to sign four players from the top-50 list, and I’m pretty excited about first-rounder Bryce Eldridge (as a slugging lefty first baseman)–but only time will tell.
A Few Caveats
It’s possible to get a little too cute with this “49ers Way” analogy, even if it is pretty timely and slick. There are some differences between the two situations that are fair to note.
- Football and baseball are two different sports. Well, duh, but in this case, I mean that the business models are different. Baseball has the strongest players union anywhere, and there is no salary cap nor socialized revenue-sharing. MLB teams are not all on the same playing field as each other, certainly not to the extent that NFL teams are.
- A related caveat to #1 is “who are the decision makers”? One lazy take on the lack of parity in MLB is “All MLB owners are billionaires, so they can all choose to spend freely on the team. Don’t whine about the Dodgers/Yankees/Mets just because your ownership is cheap. They can make the same decisions.” Well, it’s not quite that simple. For one thing, LA and NY get TV deals that other markets can’t compete with. But more importantly, MLB teams each have their own ownership structure. The Padres’ owner, for example, knew he was dying of cancer, so he authorized lots of spending last offseason. In contrast, the Giants are owned by a large group of investors. Some of those owners (like Buster Posey, I’m sure) are highly and primarily motivated by wanting to win. Others, apparently, are more concerned with making money or “breaking even,” to quote Johnson. Not all owners of sports franchises care primarily about winning like fans and players do. Just ask A’s fans about that.
- Finally, in “the room where it happens,” whose voice(s) get listened to? The article about Robinson’s Stanford class reminded me of a study I heard about some years ago. It was about how decisions get made in weekly “tumor board” meetings at a hospital. A “tumor board” is where various experts–the radiologist, the oncologist, and so forth–come together to discuss difficult cases. These are not the straightforward decisions like “If Aaron Judge wants to sign with us, give him all the money.” These are decisions where the parameters and outcomes are not always clear and where different perspectives can tangle with each other. The researcher, who sat in on the meetings for three years, also noticed that certain participants in the tumor board got listened to more often than others, either because of their status and/or their forceful personality. Since the Giants are mostly playing at the “tumor board” level of decision-making, whose voices are being listened to when it comes to decisions such as “I know! Let’s sign Jordan Hicks to a four-year deal and make him a starter!”–I mean, who thought of that, and did anyone push back? (I’m not saying it was a bad decision–I clearly can’t predict the future–but it certainly was more of a “tumor board” decision than “sign the current NL Cy Young winner” would be.)
Just as there is a clearly articulated “49ers Way,” thanks to Burke Robinson, John Lynch, and Kyle Shanahan, there used to be a “Giants Way,” too, and it was not so long ago. Remember Bill Newkom, the bowtie guy who was CEO between Peter Magowan and Larry Baer? He wrote a whole book called “The Giants Way” when he took charge of the Giants in 2008. This was how he described his goals:
“We want to develop a Giants Way of playing baseball…My idea is that we adhere to it at the minor-league level and all the way up. It’s how you play the game, conditioning, fundamentals, a rigorous spring training regimen, everything. We want the best talent, the best teachers, the best leaders, the best trainers, and we want to have better communication on what we want and how we want it done.”
Well, we know two things about “The Giants Way,” as outlined by Bill Newkom. First, it paid off pretty quickly with a World Series championship in 2010. Second, Newkom was pushed out of power after the 2011 season, so the Giants Way went by the wayside, so to speak.
We also know that the Zaidi/Kapler regime made a pretty visible decision to distance itself from the championship era–as Andrew Baggarly described during last season, memories of those teams had been stripped from the clubhouse, the interview room named after legendary beat writer Bill Peters was turned into a workspace for the quant nerds, and even Mike Murphy’s old office was repurposed for more analytics guys. I can think of some good reasons why Zaidi et al. wanted to distance itself from the nostalgia–wallowing in the past can cut both ways and have its downsides.
At the same time, maybe the Giants should take a lesson from the 49ers. They are not just the boring, faceless, sad organization they’ve been since 2017 or so–they’re the $%&@ San Francisco Giants, winners of three championships in the 2010s, home of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Will Clark, Barry Bonds, and Buster Posey. If nothing else, they need to reconnect with those roots and with their history as a proud franchise. Perhaps the hiring of Bob Melvin, Pat Burrell, Matt Williams, and Dusty Baker represents a move in that direction. I hope so.
If I don’t get some actual Giants news to write about soon, my next analysis may be about the implosion of the Golden State Warriors and how they’re a cautionary tale for the Giants. That won’t be pretty. GO NINERS! Lefty out.