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A Giant Coronation

With savvy roster moves and the ability to endlessly fend off elimination, San Francisco earned its place in history

The 2002 San Francisco Giants may have been the least homegrown baseball team of all time. They were an ancient ball club, with only one starting position player under 30, exactly zero of whom had been drafted and developed by the Giants. Only two starting pitchers were homegrown, and none of the team’s top five relief pitchers were. Then-general manager Brian Sabean probably had some sort of roster-building strategy beyond hiring old guys from other teams so Barry Bonds could fill out his weekly Parcheesi game. It was just really hard to figure out what that might be.

A decade later, the Giants are World Series champions for the second time in three years. And the composition of this year’s team couldn’t be more different from the 2002 squad.

The World Series MVP is a Venezuelan-born cartoon character who signed as a 16-year-old amateur free agent six months after the most painful Game 6 loss this side of Freese and Buckner. The starting catcher is probably winning the regular-season MVP award. The starting first baseman and shortstop are defensive stalwarts. The no. 1 starter threw a perfect game, started the All-Star game, and started the deciding games of the NLDS, NLCS, and World Series, all in just over four months’ time. The no. 2 starter fired seven innings of two-hit scoreless baseball in the World Series. The team’s shutdown relief pitcher is a two-time Cy Young winner who was completely unhittable throughout the postseason. The oldest player in that group is 28 years old. All of them have been Giants for life.

Whenever someone new wins the World Series, there’s a temptation to dig into the roster and try to find some secret to success, some brilliant way of thinking that everyone else missed. If the same club wins twice in three years — something only three other National League teams had done in the previous 68 seasons — you put teams of number-crunching detectives on the case.

The model seems simple here. The Giants just allowed fewer runs than any World Series team since the 1966 Orioles. They became just the second team in 90 years to toss back-to-back shutouts in the World Series, joining … the 1966 Orioles. If ever a team sounded a clarion call to get back to the basics of pitching and defense, it would be the 2012 Giants.

Except that’s not it at all. As we’ll see, the Giants were actually a better run-scoring team than run-preventing team for 162 regular-season games. Over the long haul, they didn’t do one particular thing better than everyone else. Not even close. What they did do was beat the competition with shrewd scouting, drafting, player development, and trades — plus a bunch of wildly unexpected performances in the postseason. In other words, they found better players, and they were luckier than their competition, too. Good luck replicating that formula.

To fully grasp the way this team was built, let’s ditch the 2002 Giants and focus on the 2010 version instead. The ’10 Giants led all of baseball in ERA+, a stat that adjusts run prevention for league and ballpark effects. Matt Cain dominated that year, as he did this year. But Tim Lincecum was still a front-line starter in his own right, not the pitcher who got bumped from the playoff rotation by Barry Zito (who didn’t even make the playoff roster in 2010). Seems hard to believe now, but Jonathan Sanchez was really good in his own right, whiffing more than a batter an inning and compensating for his high walk rate with the lowest hit rate in the league. Madison Bumgarner was just 20 years old, but already emerging as a very good starter. The bullpen was nearly bulletproof, with the trio of Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, and Santiago Casilla carving up the league. The best defense in all of baseball made all of these very good, very young pitchers look even better.

The lineup was another matter. The Giants sat squarely in the middle of the pack in offense by metrics that adjust for league and park effects, such as OPS+ and Weighted Runs Created Plus. Though Buster Posey enjoyed an excellent rookie season, many of that year’s biggest hits belonged to players like Pat Burrell, Juan Uribe, and Edgar Renteria, all three at or near the end of their usefulness as major league players. Of the eight position players who saw the most playing time that year, just two, Pablo Sandoval and Posey, were under 30; just one, Posey, started in the clinching game of the World Series.

The 2012 Giants allowed 66 more runs than the 2010 squad did, a jump of 11.3 percent. This despite playing in a slightly tougher league environment (average MLB OPS was four points lower in 2012 than in 2010) and a significantly tougher AT&T Park (only Seattle’s Safeco Field suppressed run-scoring more than AT&T in 2012, and no stadium was tougher on home-run hitting).1 The main culprit, of course, was Lincecum, who detonated memories of his Cy Young days with a terrible regular season in which he posted a 5.18 ERA and struggled badly with command all year. But there were other issues that cropped up, too, including a bullpen that needed to sort out roles when Casilla’s gopherball tendencies and lopsided splits left him ill-suited to close.

Meanwhile, the Giants actually scored 21 more runs this year than they did two years ago, despite toiling in a slightly tougher league and a notably tougher park for offense, and hitting 59 fewer home runs. Posey was the man most responsible for that gain, generating about 28 more runs (nearly three more wins) with his bat alone. Other homegrown players also chipped in. Sandoval continued his strange trend of excelling in odd-number years and being merely good in even-numbered years, but he still provided a spark in the middle of the lineup. So, too, did Brandon Belt, who couldn’t match Aubrey Huff’s out-of-nowhere 2010 season, but still crushed Huff’s 2011 and 2012 results, hitting .275/.360/.421 while also playing solid defense and showing surprising speed for a first baseman. Brandon Crawford hit .248 with four homers, but the Giants played him for his defense, and he did more with his glove than any Giants shortstop since … well, it had been a while.

But it was Sabean’s trademark deal-making ability that really rounded the roster into shape. Where players like Jason Schmidt and Jeff Kent were once the big gets, this time Sabean reached for players with more modest pedigrees, yet still reaped big results. You can dispute Melky Cabrera’s methods, and his missing the final third of the season, but trading a broken-down Sanchez for someone who hits .346/.390/.516 is the kind of move that comes around once a decade, if you’re lucky. Speaking of luck, Sabean traded for Scutaro after four months of the 36-year-old looking washed up in Colorado; he hit .362/.385/.473 over the final two months of the season with the Giants, posting an astronomical .400 batting average on balls in play in September and early October. Angel Pagan netted nearly five Wins Above Replacement, hitting .288/.338/.440 and ranking among the best base stealers and base runners in the game, after coming over from the Mets in what proved to be a lopsided deal in San Francisco’s favor. The move with the least on-field impact was actually the most ballyhooed, as Hunter Pence stopped hitting after arriving from the Phillies. All told, the Giants finished third in the majors in OPS+ (trailing only the Yankees and Angels), and ninth in wRC+.

Looking at full-year stats doesn’t fully capture the improvements the Giants made over the course of the season, such as adding new personnel and figuring out the best roles for incumbent players.2 Still, heading into the playoffs, the Giants had lost the would-be batting champion in Cabrera, endured an ugly stretch run from Bumgarner, and generally didn’t appear to have quite as much talent as some other top contenders.

That’s when everything in the world that could have gone right for the Giants did. Gregor Blanco posted an ugly .244/.333/.344 line during the regular season and stayed in the lineup only because of Cabrera’s suspension; he led Giants starters with a .946 OPS in the NLDS while also playing his usual great defense through the playoffs. Scutaro continued to defy the luck dragons, hitting .500 against the Cardinals and winning NLCS MVP honors, as everything Scutaro touched seemed to fall in somewhere for a hit. There were isolated incidents, too, like the Angel Pagan roller that hit the third-base bag and turned into a fluke double, or the Blanco bunt that somehow stayed fair, both incidents playing big roles in the Giants seizing the early World Series lead they would never relinquish. San Francisco’s bench was so barren that Bochy tapped Ryan Theriot to DH for the first time in his career, giving us his OPS+ of 83 making him the seventh-worst hitter to ever DH in a World Series game (hat-tip to Jay Jaffe). By the time Scutaro’s line drive in the 10th inning of Game 4 landed in front of Austin Jackson for what would prove to be the World Series–winning hit, the general reaction was, of course it would be Scutaro who’d find the hole. Really, though, given everything that had gone right for the Giants, seeing Theriot score the World Series–winning run, and actually smile as he slid into home, probably shouldn’t have surprised us either.

But it was the Giants’ pitching that drastically exceeded anything they’d done in the regular season, or anything nearly any other team had ever done in the postseason. Ryan Vogelsong had a strong regular season, making it two straight above-average campaigns after a half-decade away from the big leagues; he went completely bonkers in the playoffs, going 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA, including striking out 13 and allowing just two runs over two lights-out NLCS starts. The poster child for this team’s where-the-hell-did-that-come-from performance, though, was Zito. You’re forbidden by law to mention the veteran lefty without citing his 2002 Cy Young award, and the $126 million contract he signed four years later that proved to be a train wreck. He did run up a superficially impressive streak to close out the regular season, winning his final seven decisions of the year to finish with a shiny 15-8 record. But neither that streak nor his season-long numbers looked markedly different than what he’d done during the rest of his disappointing time with the Giants: He allowed too many base runners, gave up too many runs, and was no better than a fifth starter (and a mediocre one at that). When Zito got torched in Game 4 of the NLDS but the Giants bailed him out yet again to make it 12 straight Zito starts that they’d won, you had to wonder if something was up. Still, just when you might’ve been ready to write the whole thing off to horseshoes and posteriors, the curveball returned with a vengeance and Zito made two straight excellent starts, shutting out the Cardinals over 7⅔ in the NLCS, then allowing just one run in 5⅔ against the Tigers in the World Series.

There’s no earthly way we should have expected results like these from Vogelsong and Zito. They happened anyway.

Still, you have to temper the luck talk a bit and tip your cap to the manager. Bochy probably didn’t expect that many zeroes in his wildest dreams from Vogelsong, and especially not from Zito, who got left off the NLDS, NLCS, and World Series rosters in 2010. But one thing he might’ve imagined was Lincecum becoming a different pitcher once moved to relief. From Dennis Eckersley to Eric Gagne to even the great Mariano Rivera, we have decades of evidence telling us that pitchers who are merely good (or worse) as starters can become legends in the bullpen. Free to fire his fastball with impunity without sweating the long haul of a 120-pitch start, Lincecum became unhittable during the postseason, and was one of the biggest difference makers the Giants had en route to this improbable title run. In five appearances, he tossed 13 innings, allowed one run on three hits, struck out 17, and walked two. That’s Rivera stuff, but with the added degree of difficulty that comes with throwing multiple innings at a time out of the pen. Though Lincecum had only made two relief appearances in his big-league career before this year’s playoffs, Bochy kept rolling him out in big spots. He stapled Scutaro to the no. 2 spot in the order,3 rolled with Zito (and Bumgarner) after some frightening results, mostly avoided pointlessly giving up outs, pulled his starters at the right time, and pushed the right buttons with his bullpen.

The 2011 Cardinals pulled off the greatest September comeback of all time, went down to their final strike multiple times during the World Series, won one of the most thrilling games ever played, and came away with the trophy. The 2004 Red Sox delivered the biggest single-series comeback of all time, did it against their arch rivals, erased 86 years of bad memories, and ensured we’d never read the words “No, No, Nanette” in a baseball column ever again. The 1985 Royals won six straight elimination games of their own, only they managed the feat by coming back from two straight 3-1 deficits, culminating in a triumph over their intrastate rivals that makes St. Louisans curse the D-word to this day.

And then we have the 2012 Giants, the team with the revitalized stable of homegrown talent, the one that made an array of excellent, low-cost moves. The team that rode unlikely performances, stretches of good fortune, and a manager at the top of his game. It all added up to two wildly improbable series comebacks, six straight wins in elimination games, and a World Series sweep no one saw coming. Given everything they just accomplished, and the path they took to get there, we should rank the 2012 Giants right there among the four greatest playoff stories of the past 40 years.

Filed Under: NCIS, TV

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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