A third World Series appearance in five years could be called a baseball dynasty, but not if you’re the San Francisco Giants.
Quite frankly, some in the baseball world don’t know what to think as the Giants take the field for Game 1 of the 2014 World Series in Kansas City on Tuesday night.
Despite winning the World Series in 2010 and 2012 – and returning to the Fall Classic now – the national reaction to the Giants’ unexpected success is closer to incredulity than anything else.
“The Giants had the fifth best record in the National League and got to play in a division with the two worst teams in baseball,” David Schoenfield wrote for ESPN. “Giants fans can disagree, but if this was a great team … why couldn’t they beat out the Los Angeles Dodgers to win (their division)?”
The headline for Schoenfield’s piece: “Welcome to the worst World Series ever.”
That’s harsh, but hardly the opinion of one man alone. Baseball Prospectus, the statistics-mad baseball think tank, measured the Giants chances of winning a World Series in late July – along with their World Series opponent, the Kansas City Royals – and came up with a combined 4 percent.
Meanwhile, a Los Angeles Times headline on an analysis of the Giants’ season read like the white-flag surrender of an overwhelmed calculus student: “Giants’ blueprint for success isn’t easily deciphered.”
In truth, the Giants do not fit the mold of a traditional World Series team. Their 88 wins during the regular season was one of the lowest for a World Series aspirant in 40 years.
The Giants don’t have a player poised to win individual honors this season. For much of the summer, the team lost more than it won.
In a business defined by its fidelity to analytics and big data, the Giants are not a franchise on the cutting edge.
Baseball Prospectus ranked the Giants developmental operation 22nd out of 30 at the beginning of 2014, despite starting an infield developed completely from its own ranks.
But the Giants aren’t bothered by a lack of accolades.
“Whatever acclaim comes will come,” Giants CEO Larry Baer said Monday by phone from Kansas City. “And if it doesn’t come, it doesn’t. … We aren’t looking for credit.”
Baer said the words without a trace of resentment, annoyance or worry. He has been a consistent force in the Giants’ front office for 22 years, when an ownership group he helped form bought the team and prevented it from relocating to Florida.
Since then, the Giants have become a model of stability – and that’s their secret.
Brian Sabean, who has served as general manager since 1996, is the longest serving baseball executive in the game. The team has had only two GMs since 1992 and three managers, the unflappable Bruce Bochy being the latest. The front office staff has largely been intact since 1993, as has the minor-league operations and the senior coaching staff.
What the Giants have created is a culture of shared expectations.
“On the first day of spring training, we bring in our Hall of Fame players to talk the young guys,” Baer said. “They tell them what it means to be a Giant.”
This means a selflessness exemplified recently in one of the two games the Giants lost in the postseason – a 4-1 defeat on Oct. 6 to the Washington Nationals marked by a key throwing error by starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner. When it came time to answer media questions, catcher Buster Posey stepped forward to take the blame and shield his pitcher.
“There is a culture of togetherness here,” Baer said. “Players feel that bond, and it means something to them.”
Of course, the world of baseball analytics doesn’t believe in grit, poise, unity and all the other elements that Baer cites for the Giants’ success.
The number crunchers have to find other reasons why the Giants are making their third World Series appearance in five years. One is that the Giants hit bunches of home runs away from their cavernous home at AT&T Park. Giant hitters put the ball in play at a very high percentage and strike out relatively little, meaning that they put pressure on other teams to make plays.
In shortened postseason series, these traits have paid big dividends as the Giants have beaten favored teams by making relatively few mistakes while capitalizing on the errors spawned by their tenacious play.
The Giants’ penchant for identifying exceptional talent also has played a role. Bumgarner and Posey, Tuesday’s pitcher and catcher, were elite young players the Giants claimed ahead of the competition.
Others, such as Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Pablo Sandoval, were less heralded but now are contributing greatly to the team – examples of superb talent recognition by Giants scouts.
And when there were holes in the operation this season, Sabean made the right moves to fill them. Jake Peavy, the Giants’ starter on Wednesday, was plucked from the ranks of the Boston Red Sox. Meanwhile, Friday’s starter, Tim Hudson, was one of the top offseason acquisitions by any team.
Two rookies – second baseman Joe Panik and catcher Andrew Susac, a Jesuit High graduate and Roseville resident – excelled beyond expectations when injuries forced them into action.
“We had some very low lows during the season,” Baer said of an injury-riddled summer that included the losses of starting pitcher Matt Cain and outfielder Angel Pagan. “But there was a real commitment to getting solutions. Nobody would sleep until they figured it out.”
Baer acknowledges that sentiments such as those are viewed with suspicion in Tuesday’s game, but the Giants aren’t worried about it. They are secure with two World Series trophies on the shelf, a years-long streak of sold-out games and a surging fan base that goes from Fresno to the Oregon border – and cuts into a big slice of Nevada.
“When you come into this clubhouse, you see a team that has an amazing history to uphold,” Baer said. “We’ve seen great names like (Willie) Mays, Willie (McCovey). Now you are seeing names like Posey, Bumgarner, Cain. Those are the names people will talk about to their children.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been changed from an earlier version to correct the timing of Baseball Prospectus’ estimate of the Giants’ and Royals’ chances of winning the World Series.
Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.