Al Davis/Hue Jackson; Cal Defense; Bad/Good Brian Sabean; Moneyball/Bill James/Billy Beane; Delusional Lew Wolff
by Glenn Dickey
Sep 28, 2011


A FUNNY THING happened in the Raiders-Jets game on Sunday: Because numerous injuries in the secondary forced “who’s he?” substitutions, the Raiders went to a zone defense against passes. That befuddled Mark Sanchez, who was expecting to see nothing but man-to-man coverage. Of course he would, because he was facing the Raiders, the last team to use man-to-man coverage as virtually its only defense.

Much has been made of Al Davis clinging to the past with his deep passing offense, but his insistence on playing man-to-man defense exclusively has been equally damaging. That worked in the late ‘6s and even into the early ‘80s, but there have been enormous changes since, both offensively and defensively. Staying with an old-fashioned defense was a killer.

Along with that, Davis discouraged the use of blitzes, though every other team was using them effectively.

The Raiders actually have an excellent scouting/personnel department, which is why they’ve been able to pick up good players after the first two rounds of the draft. I’d love to tell you who they are but in Raiderland, the spotlight doesn’t extend much beyond Davis. It was comical when coach Hue Jackson said, in his postgame media conference, that the game was a testament to the Raiders organization, “Coach Davis, Amy Trask…” and then Hue faltered. He didn’t know anybody else to name, either.

WARRIORS: New owners Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber continue to make all the right moves, the latest naming long-time NBA executive Rick Welts as the club president.

The contrast between this ownership and the last one couldn’t be clearer. Chris Cohan named his friends to important positions, and the arrogant Robert Rowell was his team president. Rowell meddled in the basketball operations, despite evidence that he knew nothing about them, and irritated everybody he dealt with, including me. I thought he would be the first to go when the new ownership took over but he stayed for awhile. I can imagine what finally happened. Lacob was in the office on day and saw Rowell. “Are you still here? You’re fired.” To which Rowell retorted, “You can’t fire me, I quit.”

Adding Welts, along with general manager Bob Myers and coach Mark Jackson, should greatly improve the Warriors. Of course, we won’t know for sure until the NBA season starts up again, which may not be until after the Super Bowl, if then.

GIANTS CHANGES: Brian Sabean has truly been the Good Brian and the Bad Brian in his tenure as the club’s general manager, which started in 1997.

The Good Brian has definitely been his emphasis on developing pitchers. The current starters include pitchers drafted by the Giants: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong, Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sanchez, though there should be an asterisk on Vogelsong because Sabean traded him and then got him back this season in the best feel-good story of the year.

I would also give Sabean very high marks for his recognition of the importance of the bullpen and his ability – or his scouts – to identify pitchers who could help. Javier Lopez is the latest, and it is essential that the Giants re-sign him. Sabean also recognized early that it was cheaper to build a good bullpen with free agent or traded pitchers than to have to sign free agent starters, a lesson that was emphatically reaffirmed with the Barry Zito contract.

But his judgment on free agents has been terrible. Two years at $8 million a year for Aaron Rowand might have been reasonable; $60 million for five years was ridiculous, and the Giants had to swallow the last year and a month of this year. Zito you know about. Edgar Renteria had no range left as a shortstop but Sabean gave him $18.5 million for two years. There are others, such as Randy Winn and Edgardo Alfonso, who were terribly overpaid. Now, the Giants are stuck with another year of Aubrey Huff at $11 million.

Just in what they’ll have to pay Zito, Rowand and Huff next year, the Giants will be shelling out $41 million. If Zito and Huff remain, as I think they will, they’ll continue to be a drag on the team. I know that Larry Baer likes Sabean but, as the new head of the Giants organization, Larry is going to have put a brake on Sabean’s reckless spending on free agents.

The good news for Giants fans is that, since John Barr joined the organization, the Giants have done a much better job of identifying young hitters in the draft. In the near future, they should have more young players in the starting lineup, which is a much more economical way to build the team. Bad news for over-the-hill free agents, though: No more free lunch in San Francisco.

GO BEARS! Cal has a bye week, but that only postpones the inevitable: They have to play Oregon and USC in the following two weeks. Cover your eyes.

The softness of the early Cal schedule has somewhat disguised the fact that they don’t have a clue how to stop the pass, but Colorado shredded them and they were further exposed by the Washington Huskies last Saturday. The Huskies are probably in the middle of the expanded Pac-12, so I’m not optimistic about the rest of the season.

The Bears have a lot of young talent and one of them, Stefan McClure, will be playing more against Oregon. It’s always risky playing a true freshman at cornerback, but how much worse can it get for the Bears?

THE PISTOL OFFENSE: This offense got a lo of favorable notices when Colin Kaepernick was running it last year, but any scheme is only as good as the players running it. Now, UCLA is running it but we’ll see how good the Bruins look against Stanford on Saturday. My guess: Stanford wins in a rout.

MONEYBALL: In 1977, Bill James, then only 28 but a lifelong baseball fan (Kansas City Royals), started publishing the “Bill James Baseball Abstract.” The first one was only 80 pages but it soon grew into a more substantial publication. Though he’s long since ceased doing that, “The Baseball Prospectus” has taken up where he left off.

What James and those like him did was to apply mathematical formulas to baseball players and situations. I have no understanding of these formulas and my first reaction to James’s findings was “Bullshit”, because they often contradicted what I had come to believe in a lifetime of watching games – and playing them through high school. But, James didn’t just present his conclusions. He backed them up with normal baseball statistics which proved his point. I became a disciple and even had lunch with James one time at the old Washbag.

By about 1985, Sandy Alderson was general manager of the Oakland A’s and we had talks about how they evaluated players, and the talks were very similar to what I would later have with Billy Beane, when he succeeded Alderson as the A’s GM. At the same time, the A’s were getting so much attention about their use of computers that it seemed almost as if the A’s were using them in the dugout, which was absurd. Sandy then told everybody in the organization that interviews about their computer use were forbidden. But, the A’s continued to rely heavily on the sabremetric formulas and the computer for their analyses.

Not many baseball writers ever paid any attention to James’s writings and, even today, they often scorn the “new statistics.” So, when “Moneyball” came out, there was much talk about Beane’s different approach, and that talk has increased since the movie came out last week. But, as I wrote in the Examiner last Friday, it’s nonsense to think that Beane was blazing new trails, and I think what I have just written about Bill James further proves that point.

There was even a long piece in Sports Illustrated this week about the Boston Red Sox, showing that they’re using the same mathematical statistics Beane used in 2002 but are able to put more money behind it. Ironically, as the magazine appeared, the Red Sox were doing their best/worst to lose what seemed earlier to be an assured spot in the playoffs.

Some of the sabremetrics findings go back even further than James. At least as far back as Branch Rickey with the Cardinals in the ‘30s, smart baseball men have known that on-base percentage is a more accurate method of measuring both individual and team success than batting average.

So, why is there so much nonsense about Beane blazing a trail in 2002? Because most sportswriters are lazy, never looking beyond the information handed to them in the press box before games. (An exception: Susan Slusser, who covers the A’s for The Chronicle, had an excellent piece detailing the many inaccuracies of the movie. Like me, Susan admires Beane but is also aware that he is not a trail blazer.)

I was fortunate in my early training because I worked for a small, very good newspaper, the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian. The two top editors, Frank Orr and Ward Bushee, father of the current Chronicle editor, were very good newspapermen who taught me quite a lot. When I was covering games, I had to do my own statistics, sometimes by walking on the sidelines at football games. I also covered many nonsports events – courts, school boards, police cases, and even two national political events, the appearances by John F. Kennedy at the Cow Palace and Richard Nixon in San Jose during the 1960 Presidential campaign.

So, when I came to The Chronicle, I had the background to write knowledgeably about Al Davis’s legal fight to take the Raiders to Los Angeles and the political struggles to build a new park for the Giants. I did my own play-by-play when I covered the Raiders, and I have always looked for the hidden stories.

Lost in the maze of stories about the statistical approach is the fact that even teams like the A’s and Red Sox who rely heavily on the statistical approach have also relied on their scouts to evaluate talent. Author Michael Lewis ignored any information which did not fit his main point, so the A’s pitching big three – Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito – were ignored in the book. In the movie, there’s apparently a cameo appearance of Hudson blowing a game in relief, for which he was never used. But any rational analysis of the 2002 A’s would say that their success devolved primarily from their Big Three, and none of them were “Moneyball” picks. Zito, the Cy Young Award winner in 2002, and Mulder were first-round draft picks, Mulder the second player taken. Hudson wasn’t taken until the sixth round because of doubts about his durability, but he was not only a fine collegiate pitcher but a good enough hitter to play the outfield or be the DH when he wasn’t pitching.

The movie has gotten generally good reviews. I haven’t seen it. I was invited to press previews but they were at night, and the only time I go out at night now is when my wife accompanies me – and sports movies don’t make the cut. If you do watch the movie, enjoy it – but also realize it’s more fiction than fact.

COULD IT get any worse for the A’s? Yes, Billy Beane has apparently told the agent for Josh Willingham, the A’s only power hitter this year, that he can’t make an offer to bring him back – though Willingham has said he would like to – because of uncertainty on the stadium issue.

A’s owner Lew Wolff apparently thinks that the change at the top in the Giants organization will lead commissioner Bud Selig to ask for the report from his task force (which he actually had many months before) and take a vote of the owners on the Giants territorial rights to San Jose.

I think this is another example of Selig’s delusional thinking. He bought the A’s thinking that, because he was once a fraternity brother of Selig’s, that he could get rid of the Giants’ territorial rights. Hasn’t happened, and there’s no reason to think it will now, either.

But, get this: Beane told Willingham’s agent that, if the A’s do get the go-ahead for San Jose, they’d go even lower on their payroll, going into a full restructuring mode for the future! And, thanks again, A’s fans, for your continued support.

When the Giants were working to get their new self-financed park going, they took financial losses to build a contenting team while they were still at Candlestick. That’s why the Giants are the best organization in the Bay Area and the A’s, with Wolff and John Fisher, are the worst I’ve seen since I’ve been writing on Bay Area sports, 48 years and counting.

When the A’s were putting enough money into scouting and minor league development, they were getting a steady stream of top prospects for the major league team. They didn’t need free agents. During the Haas family years, they rejuvenated the careers of seemingly washed up pitchers Dennis Eckersley and Dave Stewart, but neither then nor in the Steve Schott/Ken Hofmann ownership years did they actively seek out free agents who would be key to their success. That has become necessary only in the Wolff/Fisher years. You can draw the obvious conclusion.

Meanwhile, we can see the example of the Tampa Bay Rays, who have the worst stadium in the majors and low attendance but nevertheless went into the last day of the season tied with the much richer Boston Red Sox for the American League wild card spot. I’d like to think Wolff and Fisher are embarrassed by this but they’re probably just thinking they’ll get another fat revenue-sharing check from the owners who actually try o win, like the Giants.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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