Sandy Alderston/Brian Sabean/Billy Beane; Donovan McNabb; Warriors Arena
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 31, 2010

A CONVERSATION I had with Sandy Alderson in the mid-80s, when he was general manager of the Oakland Athletics, changed the way I thought about the game I had watched and played from childhood.

We were sitting in the upper deck at the Coliseum, which was a great place to watch a game before the current ownership closed it, part of its ongoing push to prove the A’s can’t draw in Oakland.

Alderson had a sheets of statistical information. One showed team batting averages, another their on-base percentages and, finally, the standings of the teams. He showed me that there was very little correlation between team batting averages and position in the standings but an almost perfect correlation between OBP and a team’s standing.

Baseball teams had been tabulating on-base percentages for many years before that, at least since Branch Rickey with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1940s, but there was no real public revelation until Bill James started to publish his research. Batting averages were the yardstick used by the media and, indeed, it is still the one published daily.

Aderson told me the A’s were using OBP to evaluate minor league prospects and also to put together the major league team. Years later, many in the media would treat the A’s emphasis on OBP as the creation of Billy Beane (which he never claimed himself) but Beane was actually just following Alderson’s lead.

The other point Alderson made at that time was that, in building a team, it was important to look at the park in which they played. The Oakland Coliseum, built as a two-sport facility, has huge foul areas; foul balls are often caught there which would be in the stands almost anywhere else. Because of that, Alderson thought it would be futile to expect the A’s to string together hits to score runs. He thought it much more important to get power hitters to combine with hitters who had high on-base percentages – the three-run homer theory expounded earlier by Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver.

And, the best A’s teams have been built like that, with Jose Canseco-Mark McGwire in the 1988-90 period and, earlier in this decade, with Jason Giambi and Eric Chavez.

Flash forward to the present and look at how that applies to the Giants.

AT&T, the Giants home park, is much different from the Coliseum. It has almost no foul area, so foul balls which would be
caught in most parks (and certainly at the Coliseum) land rows back at AT&T. It isn’t a bad park for righthanded power hitters, as Jeff Kent proved, but it is a daunting for lefthanded power hitters not named Barry Bonds because of the distance to the power alley in right center. That area is often called “Triples Alley” because a ball can roll for some time before a fielder comes up with it.

Because they’ve overpaid for free agents like Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand and Edgar Renteria, the Giants don’t have the money to pursue powerful righthanded hitters. So, given the park they play in, I think the best way to build a team would be to emphasize line drive hitters with speed and a high OBP. The Giants, of course, have nobody like that. The closest would be Nate Schierholtz, a line drive hitter with speed, but he has a low OBP because he’s a hacker.

Almost all the Giants hitters are hackers, in fact. That works for Pablo Sandoval because he can hit pitches in the dirt, but not for the others. Carney Lansford was made the scapegoat for that after last season but it wasn’t his fault. The hitters just didn’t listen to him.

To make it worse, there’s no speed among the regulars. The Giants have had some speed in recent years in players like Eugenio Velez and Emmanuel Burris but they don’t hit enough (Velez is also a defensive liability) to play on a regular basis.

It’s almost impossible to change a hitter at the major league level.
It’s much easier with pitchers, because they initiate the action. A coach can work in the bullpen with a pitcher, perhaps changing the level of his arm on delivery, until the change is almost automatic. Once on the mound, the pitcher only has to repeat what he’s been doing in the bullpen.

In contrast, hitting is all reaction. Even if a coach gets a hitter to change, it’s almost always temporary, lasting only until the hitter goes 0-for-4 and reverts to his old habits, with which he’s comfortable.

The time to change hitters is in the minors, when they’re willing to make changes if they think it means they’ll have a better chance to make it to the majors. But there’s no evidence that the Giants are teaching plate discipline in the minors. The only one in recent years to show good plate discipline when he came to the Giants is Travis Ishikawa and that isn’t enough for Ishikawa who can’t hit good pitches with either consistency or power.

The other method of improving the offense is to bring in the right kind of hitters but general manager Brian Sabean seems incapable of doing that. He’s often brought in veterans past their prime, from Edgardo Alfonzo to Renteria. He’s apparently been misled by power numbers of players coming from teams with bandbox parks. Case in point: Rowand, who is in the third year of a $60 million contract, as he declines before our eyes.

Meanwhile, the A’s have gotten away from their winning formula, too, with largely punchless teams. Not surprisingly, they’ve fallen in the standings, too.

Last year, apparently at the urging of managing general partner Lew Wolff, who wanted some names in the lineup, Beane brought in Jason Giambi and Matt Holliday. Neither player worked out. Giambi might have been OK if he’d just been the DH but he broke down when he was asked to play first base much of the time. Holliday turned out to be a hitter who looked good in a strong lineup in a hitter’s park in Denver – and was also productive when he was traded to the Cardinals, where Albert Pujols gets the pitchers’ attention. He was not suited to be the main man in the lineup.

When the A’s traded Holliday and released Giambi, they started running more than they had in years, with Rajai Davis leading the way. They’ll probably continue that, at least in the first half of the season, with Rajai Davis leading the way. There are fans who think that the running game is “real” baseball – and some in the media who agree – but the last teams to be really successful with that style were the Royals and Cardinals in the ‘80s, when they both played in parks with artifical grass. It’s real grass at the Coliseum.

Realistically, the A’s chances for future success probably rests with two players who were just sent down, Chris Carter and Michael Taylor, who have real power. Carter, especially, looks like a player who can be a middle-of-the lineup hitter for years. One of The Sporting News experts predicted that Carter will be the A’s cleanup hitter by August at the latest.

Both the Giants and A’s are built around their pitching. The Giants have the advantage of being in what will probably be the weakest division in baseball; the A’s may be in the strongest. But Beane has shown that he knows where he went wrong by trading for or drafting power hitters. I see no indication that Sabean has a clue.

MC NABB TO RAIDERS? I’ll believe this one, put out by ESPN on Monday, when it happens, but there are two things I like if it happens:

1) It could mean that the Raiders cut their ties with JaMarcus Russell, who has been a huge bust. (The idea that McNabb could tutor Russell is a fantasy. Stars are interested in their own careers, not in helping a rival at the same position.)

2) Part of the price for the Raiders would be their second-round draft choice. The fewer high draft picks Al Davis has, the better.

The Philadelphia Eagles downplayed the rumors while admitting that they’re entertaining offers for McNabb. He’d be very unhappy to be traded to the Raiders but, like Richard Seymour last year, he has no say. .

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: The NCAA tournament always brings out those who say teams which do not graduate their players should be banned. While I agree that colleges fall far short of the ideal in educating their athletes, finding a reasonable standard is difficult. Take an example close to home: Though the starting lineup of the Cal Bears featured one player (Theo Robertson) who has already graduated, and three others – Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher and Jamal Boykin – who are expected to graduate in June, the Bears would have been ineligible under current standards.

The standard measures the graduation of players within six years from the time they entered. That means any player who left early for the NBA, even after being in school for three years, is not counted. Also, any player who transfers is not counted even if he graduates from his second school. That’s the current problem for Cal because so many of Ben Braun’s recruits transferred to other schools, for very good reasons. Boykin counts on the negative side for Duke, his original college, though he’ll graduate.

The NBA could help by changing its rules so that any player who enrolled in a four-year college would not be eligible for the draft until after his third season. Baseball already has this rule, so there is a precedent.

The colleges should also police themselves. The real problem is that athletes are put in programs that are there only to keep them eligible, not to educate them. Yes, I know it’s unrealistic to expect colleges like that to change their policy, but it’s also unrealistic to put in a standard which does not account for what’s actually happening.

WARRIORS SALE: As soon as it was announced that the Warriors were for sale, stories popped up that they’d be moved from the Oracle Arena in Oakland.

The first rumor was that they’d be moved to San Jose. They’d have to share the HP Pavilion with the Sharks, which they did for one year when the Oakland arena was being expanded. That was not a happy experience, and I doubt they’d want to repeat that.

The second rumor, in the form of a big story in The Chronicle, was that the Giants were securing the rights to the property adjoining theirs at China Basin to build an arena for the Warriors. Citing a conversation he had with Dan Finnane when Finnane and Jim Fitzgerald bought the Warriors, the writer said the franchise might be worth 30 per cent more in San Francisco, insisting that signing rights would be worth much more.

Yeah, the Warriors might even be able to match the sweetheart signing rights deal the 49ers have at Candlestick….Oops, scratch that. The 49ers have no signing deal.

That’s the trouble with all this speculation: It’s almost 20 years out of date. I, too, talked to Finnane at that time, and his conclusion was that, politically, it would be too much trouble to try to build an arena in San Francisco. There was history backing that up. In the mid-70s, Mel Swig, who owned the minor league Seals hockey team, wanted to build an arena on the site of what is now Moscone Center which would house the Seals and the Warriors. Swig’s bid was rejected.

Earlier, the Warriors had moved to Oakland because they were shuttling back and forth between the Cow Palace and the Civic Auditorium, neither of which was really suitable for them. More than 30 years later, the city has yet to build an arena which could be used for sports, concerts and special events.

Finnane’s financial estimates were also made at a very different economic time. The economy in general and in San Francisco specifically was healthy at the time. You know what it’s like now. And, corporations like Chevron are leaving San Francisco for Contra Costa County, where they get more space for less money.

In the ‘90s, the Giants built their park in the China Basin and sold naming rights to PacBell for $50 million. Larry Baer, who made the deal, is a persuasive salesman but he’s admitted several times that he couldn’t make that deal today. In his words, he calls it the “perfect storm” because it was the high tide of the boom.

There was another factor: Willie Brown was the mayor. Brown wanted the Giants to get their park and he used his considerable powers to ease their way on things like the EIR. The Giants built the park with their money but there was also a lot of public money that went into the infrastructure. Brown always knew how to get things done.

In the current economic climate, with city workers being laid off or taking “furloughs” because the city has a massive debt, there’s no way current mayor Gavin Newsom could give the Giants and Warriors that kind of help.

Practically speaking, the Warriors are in a good spot, on a freeway and with easy BART access. There is ample parking for those who drive, from San Francisco, from San Jose, from Contra Costa County. If an arena were built at China Basin, it would almost eliminate parking for Giants fans and there would be correspondingly little for those coming to Warriors games. Not good. BART access would also be more difficult for the many fans coming from Contra Costa County. They can go directly to the current arena on BART but would have to transfer to Muni Metro to get to a park at China Basin.

There is also another niggling detail: The Warriors have a lease with Oakland and Alameda County that runs to 2027. Attempts to leave earlier would result in having to pay $60 million to cover debt service for the loan to remodel the arena.

Ah, well, it was a flashy story. Too bad there’s no substance to it.

EXAMINER COLUMN: Next week, I’ll be writing on Wednesday instead of Tuesday, for one week only.

JIM BROWN TRIBUTE: The Hall of Fame running back will be honored in an April 8 event put on by Rich Lieberman Presents, from 5-10 p.m., at Monaghan’s on the Hill in Oakland. Celebrity sports guests include Jerry Rice, Joe Morgan, Ken Stabler, Vida Blue, Jim Otto, Jimmy Johnson, Willie Brown, Raymond Chester, R.C. Owens, Bob St. Clair and Al Attles. “Chronicle Live” on Comcast will televise the event from 5-6 p.m.,repeated at 11 p.m., with Greg Papa as the host. XTRA Sports, KTRB (860 AM) will broadcast from 6 to 7 p.m., with sports director Ken Dito. Tickets are $25 and are available through Lieberman, (415) 999-4454 or Monaghan’s (510) 482-2500. The event is a benefit for the Amer-I-Can program started by Brown in 1988 to help youths to achieve their academic and social potential.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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