Thursday, October 30, 2014

San Francisco's Sneaky Dynasty

Watching the Giants win the last game of the season has become commonplace
It took the Giants 53 seasons to win a World Series after leaving New York following the 1957 season. The drought, snapped in 2010, has been followed by a deluge, as San Francisco has won two more championships since, all under the guidance of future Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy.

The Giants have done it with solid all-around teams. None of those title teams had a 30 home run hitter or a 20 game winner, but they were all deep and balanced. Kudos to GM Brian Sabean for building winning rosters year after year.

The first of those teams--the 2010 edition--was a good one. The '10 Giants won 92 games and the NL West, scoring nearly 700 runs while allowing below 600 for a strong run differential of +114. They were middle of the pack offensively but fielded an elite pitching staff that led the National League in ERA and strikeouts. Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum fronted a rotation that included a 20 year-old rookie named Madison Bumgarner. The bullpen featured Brian Wilson at the peak of his powers (48 saves, 1.81 ERA) along with a pair of dominant relievers in Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla.

Minus Bumgarner, the pitching staff was largely comprised of players in their prime. The starting nine was an odd mix of young (20 year-old Buster Posey in his rookie season, 23 year-old Pablo Sandoval in his third) and mostly old veterans and cast-offs (Aubrey Huff, Aaron Rowand, Pat Burrell, Edgar Renteria). But pretty much everyone could hit for some power and get on base, and so the Giants cobbled together a surprisingly effective lineup. They beat the Braves in four in the NLCS, toppled Philadelphia in six for the pennant, then glided past the Texas Rangers in five games for the championship.

After missing the playoffs with an 86-win season in 2011, the Giants won their division again in 2012. Though they won two more games than and outscored their 2010 predecessors by 21 runs (thanks almost entirely to Posey's MVP-season, Melky Cabrera's PED-fueled outburst, a career year from Angel Pagan, and Hunter Pence's late-season contributions), their pitching wasn't as good and their run differential slipped to +69.

Looking back, it's hard to believe how that lineup scored more than 700 runs when only one guy (Posey) hit more than a dozen home runs and only three reached double digits. Similarly, only those three exceeded 60 RBI, with Posey the only one over 65. But while the Giants did not have much power, ranking dead last in home runs with 100, they did excel at getting on base and getting hits. With many of the veterans from the 2010 squad gone or phased out, San Francisco was a younger and more athletic team (as evidenced by their 118 steals).

The key to that team's success was a rotation that remained remarkably healthy. The starting five of Bumgarner, Cain, Lincecum, Barry Zito, and Ryan Vogelsong started all but two games that year. Lincecum went off the rails (10-15, 5.18 ERA), but the rest of the rotation was formidable enough to compensate. The bullpen was still led by Casilla, Romo, and Javier Lopez though Wilson had become irrelevant. Jeremy Affeldt, a member of the 2010 outfit, emerged as one of the team's best relievers to give San Fran a strong relief corps.

Those 2012 Giants were lucky to even reach the World Series. They went the distance against the Reds in the NLDS and prevailed over St. Louis in Game 7 of the NLCS. After that it was smooth-sailing, as they swept the heavily-favored Tigers in the World Series.

2013 was a nightmare season for San Francisco, which lost 86 games and was never really in contention. The Giants were better in 2014, good enough to make the playoffs but still not a great team. They earned a wild card berth with 88 wins and a +51 run differential mostly because of torrid second halves from Buster Posey and Jake Peavy.

The lineup, as always, had few standouts but was solidly constructed, overcoming significant injuries to four of the nine main contributors. Of the 10 players with the most plate appearances on the club, all but one (Brandon Hicks) had an OPS+ above 100. Like the 2010 version, they could all get on base and hit for a bit of pop, which goes a long way. The speed from the 2012 team was absent, however, as the plodding Giants swiped just 56 bases and finished last in the NL.

With Cain hurt and Lincecum ineffective, Bumgarner was the clear-cut ace. He had help in the form of Tim Hudson and, in the second half, Peavy, but San Fran's rotation was pretty thin (as exposed by the weak-hitting Royals in the Fall Classic). The bullpen was still headed by Affeldt, Romo, Lopez, and Casilla in addition to Jean Machi. Like the rotation, it was neither great nor terrible, which explains how San Francisco was so average.

But while this year's championship edition was the worst of the three, it had the easiest run up to the World Series. The Giants cruised past the Pirates in the play-in game, washed away the Nationals in four games in the NLDS, then upset the Cards in five games. They stumbled in the Fall Classic, nearly going down three games to one before rallying to win Games 4, 5, and 7. They may have needed plenty of help from Mr. Bumgarner, but at the end of the day they still got the job done.


  1. Actually 53 years to win it all since moving from NY.