Lessons from San Francisco

Every year the team that wins the World Series uses a different formula from which different lessons can be learned. The Giants built their championship through a few obvious strategies and some less obvious ones. Some of these strategies had to do with the construction of the team, while others were honed over the course of the season and were more related to how players were used.

First, the Giants developed a core of five pitchers and one top flight catcher: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner, Brian Wilson and Buster Posey who carried them through much of post-season. These five pitchers combined to start all of the Giants’ post-season games and pitched 80% of their post-season innings. The entire Giants pitching staff was excellent throughout their run, but these five pitchers made it easier for the rest of the staff.

In addition to the obvious benefits of having such strong pitching, the Giants pitching turned an older piece of conventional wisdom on its head. In previous years, it was believed that a team with two dominant starters was best positioned to win in baseball’s three tiered post-season tournament, as the Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling Arizona Diamondbacks did in 2001. As recently as last year, the Yankees won the World Series using a three man rotation through the entire post-season. However, with the new schedule and fewer off days during the playoffs and World Series, this approach is less reliable.

The Giants greatest pitching advantage was at the back end of their rotation. While the Phillies and Rangers both had an ace that was comparable to Lincecum, nobody had a number four starter comparable to Bumgarner. The depth of the Giants rotation also made it easier on manager Bruce Bochy who, rather than agonize over questions of whether Lincecum or Cain should, or even could, pitch on short rest, knew that he could go with his number four starter. This was a luxury that Ron Washington, Charlie Manuel and Joe Girardi did not have with their pitching rotations.

Catcher Buster Posey also emerged as a star player within weeks of his mid-season call up to the Giants. Posey was one of the top hitters on the Giants and played a key defensive position. During the post-season he caught every inning of every game while batting third or fourth. If Posey had spent the entire year in the minors, this run would not have happened.

Much has been made of the “misfits” who helped lead the Giants to their championship. This term refers to player like Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell and Juan Uribe who the Giants were able to pick up, or in the case of Uribe resign, cheaply because other teams had given up on them. The Giants were able to get these players and use them well because they approached team construction strategically. First, the Giants sought these players to fill gaps in their team that were important but not all that difficult to fill. Corner outfielders and first baseman who can produce good, but not quite great, offense are reasonably easy to find. The Giants did not need to find a top notch catcher, middle infielder or starting pitcher during the regular season. These would have been more difficult needs to fill in this way.

Huff, Burrell and Cody Ross were the players who ended up playing in the World Series, but there were other players such as Jose Guillen, Mark de Rosa and Benjie Molina who were also acquired in the off-season or the regular season, but who did not play a significant role in the team’s success. These players, either through injury or lack of productivity, played their way off of the Giants and were traded, left off the roster or shelved for most of the season. The Giants strategy of building their team from other team’s castoffs worked because they acquired good players, but also because they were willing to cut their losses when a player did not work out. If they had stuck with Molina and Guillen the Giants would not have won.

Lastly, the Giants roster was very flexible with key players like Huff, Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Uribe all playing several positions. Huff played 63 games in the outfield and 100 at first base; Posey played 30 at first and caught 76; Sandoval played 11 at first base and 143 at third; and Uribe played 24 games at second, 26 at third and 103 at short. On many teams the only players with this kind of versatility are light hitting backup infielder such as Ramiro Pena, but on the Giants key contributors moved around the diamond. This made the team less vulnerable to injury or slump.

It also allowed Bochy to use the players who were hitting well during the post-season without too much concern about how to get them in the lineup. The left side of the Giant infield for every game of the World Series had Edgar Renteria at shortstop and Uribe at third, but the Giants only fielded this combination 20 times during the regular season. This is not simply attributable to Renteria’s injuries during the season but to Bochy benching a slumping Sandoval for much of the World Series. Had it been Freddy Sanchez instead of the Kung Fu Panda who had been slumping, Uribe would probably have become the Giants starting second baseman for the World Series.

Like most winning formulas, the Giants approach is not fully replicable. Any strategy that begins with developing five top notch pitchers and an all-star quality catcher all within a few years of each other will be tough to follow, but most good teams are able to develop a core of top talent. That is more or less what defines a good team. The Giants strength lay in recognizing this was their moment and developing a good strategy to augment their core talent.