It’s September, and that means the playoff races are heating up in Major League Baseball. However, not everyone makes it to the promised land. Tom Wright tells us what went right and what went wrong in the elimination of the San Francisco Giants.
While the even-year Giants continue to demonstrate how to construct a roster that can win a World Series in the wild card era, the odd-year Giants continue to show how much luck is involved in the process.
The Giants are fundamentally a good team. They’ve got an offense with plus hitters at most of the positions, a shutdown bullpen and a solid (though unspectacular) rotation. Buster Posey has not-so-quietly turned into one of the best players in baseball, and free agent departures like Pablo Sandoval and Mike Morse have been suitably covered by the likes of Matt Duffy and Nori Aoki. If anything, the 2015 Giants may well be better than last year’s world champion squad; nearly every spot on the roster except center field is at least as good as the corresponding spot on last year’s team.
So how does a team like that end up watching the playoffs in October? Bad luck, mostly. The Giants (despite their strong bullpen) are 18-28 in one-run games; if they had gone .500 in those games, we would be talking right now about an exciting weekend in the NL West where the Giants and Dodgers are duking it out for the division crown. Sure, the Giants had some injuries to key players like Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Mike Leake and Hunter Pence, and Madison Bumgarner hasn’t quite made the jump to elite (his ERA+ is only 11th in the NL), and closer Santiago Casilla (nee Jairo Garcia) walks a few too many guys… but every team is going to have injuries and problems over the course of a 162-game season. The bottom line is that any playoff-bound team needs a little luck, and this year the Giants didn’t get it.
Part of what keeps the Giants dancing on the razor’s edge, though, is that while they’re perennially a good team, they’re never a great one. They haven’t won more than 94 games since 2003, and their playoff seasons came in years when they had the 2nd, 3rd and 5th-best records in the National League. Despite their reputation for great pitching, the Giants haven’t had a pitcher in the top ten in the NL in WAR since 2009, and apart from Buster Posey, the lineup has been a bit of a revolving door. In the postseason, when benches and bullpens are shortened and a single hot hand can carry a team, the Giants have been lucky enough to have a pitcher get hot at the right time for all three of their World Series runs – first Lincecum, then Cain and then Madison Bumgarner. With a good but not great team, though, the margin of error in the regular season is small; if the Giants come up just a few wins short of expectations, they’re out of the playoffs.
The Giants “dynasty” doesn’t look anything like historical dynasties; it’s tough to think of a dynasty that alternated championships with missing the postseason altogether. It’s different in other ways, too – the players who led the team in 2010 barely played a role in 2014, and there’s not a single star who’s been a key contributor to all three titles. Perhaps this is the modern blueprint for success? The baseball Giants, the basketball Spurs and the football Patriots created dynasties by obeying the twin principles of a.) simply putting the best players they can find on the field/court and b.) not mortgaging the future for any one year. It’s worth noting that recent MLB teams who went “all in” for a single season included the 2014 A’s, the 2011 Brewers and the 2008 Cubs – not one of those teams made it to the World Series, and all of them are currently paying the price for their decision. Nowadays, it seems that the best strategy for World Series success might involve nothing more than cobbling together a decent team every year and then hoping for the best in the tournament.
Next year will be an even-numbered one, and city planners are likely already planning the parade route. For the Giants to fulfill their numerological destiny, however, they’ll need a little luck in two ways. First, they’re going to have to start hitting better in the clutch; they hit .240 this year in late and close situations, which isn’t awful but probably won’t get you to the postseason. More importantly, though, they’re going to have to hope that either the second wildcard comes back down to a more reasonable number of wins (95 wins is a lot for the Giants) or that the Dodgers continue to be somewhat less than the sum of their parts (a team with a $200 million payroll and two of the best pitchers on Earth should probably be winning more than 90 games a year). Are these possible? Of course. In an even-numbered year with the Giants, anything is possible – first place teams can lose ten games in a row, over-the-hill infielders can turn into Ted Williams for a series, unflappable aces can choke in major contests, gimpy DH’s can get stuck in right field for key World Series games…
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