One of the last holdouts in Major League Baseball has finally gone the way of analytics. The San Francisco Giants have hired Farhan Zaidi to be their president of baseball operations. As far as data guys go, Zaidi is about as hardcore as they come. He doesn’t have any background as a player, a coach, or a scout. Before he went into baseball, he was in a doctorate program at Berkeley. He was a promising academic before he left. But Zaidi’s true love was baseball.
While at Berkeley, he got an interview with the famous coach of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane, who gained fame from the book and subsequent movie, Moneyball. Beane was on the cutting edge of analytics in baseball. He used data to turn the A’s from a bottom to a top tier team. And Zaidi knew all about it. Before his interview with the athletics, Zaidi put together individual and team projections for the A’s. Beane recalls that it took only a few minutes to know that Zaidi was their guy.
Zaidi took the job and dropped out of his doctorate program. Once in the baseball world, he never looked back.
Zaidi’s New Role
After working for the Athletics and studying the system under Beane, Zaidi went on to work for the Dodgers, helping them to two World Series. But now he finds himself in his highest profile role yet, as president of baseball operations in San Francisco.
Zaidi’s new job has him more in the public eye. He recently had to make it through a press conference in which he threw out the idea of a starting pitcher only going one inning. He faced boos for this suggestion. But he responded with poise, saying that he believed the new practice could help the team win. And doesn’t everyone in San Francisco want to see the Giants win more games?
San Francisco’s Reluctance to Embrace Statistics
San Francisco is an old team with a storied past. They’ve been slow to give up the old ways of scouting for talent and going with a guy based on a gut reaction. But the Giants haven’t been doing well in recent years. So they’ve brought Zaidi in to shake things up. He’s made some unusual moves so far, bringing in two unheard of outfielders before quickly canning them both. But that’s what baseball based on analytics looks like. It can look random. Moves can be made seemingly out of nowhere.
However, there’s a method behind each step of Zaidi’s madness. He doesn’t make decisions based on gut reactions. And if he listens to scouts, they’re the kind that crunch numbers. It’s not that traditional scouting isn’t used anymore, but the guys behind the computers now have as much if not more power than the guys with the clipboards.
It’s yet to be seen whether Zaidi starts having his team pull the starter after an inning. That idea may take some getting used to. But if he can show that it can help the Giants win games, eventually everyone might get on board.
Using analytics to organize and run baseball is still a hard idea for many people to get behind. Taking the human element out of the game just seems wrong to fans that have been watching the game for decades. But statistics don’t lie. And if teams can find ways to win more games, they typically go for it. The Giants are just the latest team to follow suit. Whether we like it or not, data is intertwining itself in sports in such a way that sports may never go back to simpler times.
But if you’re going to have analytics, you definitely want Zaidi on your side. It’s interesting to consider what he can accomplish in San Francisco. If we’ve learned anything in the past twenty years, it’s a safe bet that the Giants are about to turn things around.