SAN FRANCISCO — When longtime Giants employees sat down in a suite on the 62nd floor of the Delano hotel last Monday morning, they immediately noticed a difference. There were no scouts in the room.
For the first time in years, the Giants did not bring any of their scouts to the annual Winter Meetings, instead relying on a smaller group in the suite that had slightly different kinds of conversations. Now, that’s not to say the Giants are going all in one direction. It was notable that one of the first things Zaidi did as a Giant was beef up the scouting department, hiring Zack Minasian as director of pro scouting and Michael Holmes as director of amateur scouting.
But there was certainly a different vibe in the room, members of the front office said. Conversations were not as structured. As one person described it, the Giants used to focus on a player and then go through the check list, asking coaches, scouts, trainers and analytics people about said player one-by-one. With Zaidi in charge of the room, the conversation was said to be more wide-open. If there were 15 people in a meeting, Zaidi tried to bounce around and check in with all of them.
“He’s able to be very inclusionary in a meeting. Everybody had something to say that advanced the discussion,” said team president and CEO Larry Baer, who sat through several in-depth meetings while in Las Vegas. “He’s able to sort of moderate and curate that, and that’s a skill, because you’ve got to be thinking about it and synthesizing the information as it comes in. I had hoped that would be the case. I had heard that’s the case. But it really was the case, as we’re digging in now.”
The Giants have put their future in Zaidi’s hands, which made their latest Winter Meetings experience as much about their executives as any incoming players. Throughout, you saw hints at subtle changes behind the scenes.
Asked what the Giants liked about Mike Gerber, an outfielder claimed from the Detroit Tigers on Monday, Zaidi gave the kind of defensive assessment you haven’t heard around AT&T Park, at least publicly.
“We’ve got a really good analytics department that takes a look at Statcast data and really tries to understand what guys — from a statistical standpoint — what their range looks like, what their top speeds and sprint speeds are,” Zaidi said. “He registered well in those categories.”
For the Giants, being open about all of this is a departure. They always have done more in the analytics realm than is publicly known, but for some reason the front office spent years downplaying use of advanced methods. On the first day of Zaidi’s first Winter Meetings, team employees openly spoke about using Statcast and TrackMan, and talked of exit velocities and spin rates.
This change will be seen in the clubhouse next season, too. The Giants do not plan to replace Chad Chop, who was a batting practice pitcher and teamed with Shawon Dunston on replays. Instead, that spot in the traveling party likely will go to a second member of the organization’s analytics department. Last season, the Giants hired Michael Schwartze as a baseball operations analyst and had him set up in the clubhouse before all games, distributing data to players. The plan this year is to have two analysts available to players. Two of those players may be Rule 5 draft selections, as the Giants made two picks in that draft for the first time.
There will be plenty more changes over time. For now, Zaidi is making subtle tweaks, while also showing plenty of respect to the way the Giants built a dynasty. Baer hired Zaidi in part because he is equally comfortable sitting with analytics people and scouts, and while the Giants changed the nature of some discussions, Zaidi still honors both sides of the room. Brian Sabean, John Barr and Dick Tidrow remain integral parts of discussions, and all three will stay with the organization despite having their roles altered.
Time will tell if Zaidi can turn this around. For now, the staff he inherited seemed energized, and the man who hired him is pleased with the new direction of the franchise.
“He’s just bringing a different approach,” Baer said. “It doesn’t mean the things we’ve done in the past were wrong, but I do think it’s a very modern approach, and it’s based on a lot of the learning that he’s accumulated in his work with analytics and his work also with scouts.”