The San Francisco Giants, who have won two of the last three World Series, have been forgotten by most of the media, partially because they had such a poor season and partially because it was such a long time ago. In 2012, to refresh our memories, the US was fighting a war in Afghanistan, Barack Obama was president and Miguel Cabrera was viewed as baseball's best hitter. Many of the things that make the Cardinals a great organization were true of those 2010-2012 Giants as well. They developed a core of great young players like Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. They invested wisely in players thought to be washed up such as Aubrey Huff, Ryan Vogelsong and Andres Torres and they had a strong and deep bullpen. The Giants also had a manager who was at his best in the post-season. It is worth remembering that one of the reasons the Giants won in 2012 is because Bruce Bochy ran circles around Cardinal manager Mike Matheny in the NLCS that year.
Keeping Huff on the roster, and in the starting lineup, on the hope that he has another good season left would be a mistake if all it did was block Brandon Belt from getting a chance to prove himself in 2012, but putting Huff at first base will have a negative impact on two other young Giants. Brett Pill is old for a prospect, but because of his power from the right side and ability to play both first and second base, could be an intriguing and useful player if utilized properly. Additionally, although the Giants hope that Buster Posey will be fully recovered from his injury, he will probably not be able to catch every game and also has played first base in the past. If Posey could play first more, Hector Sanchez, a top Giants catching prospect could fill in behind the plate. If, however, Huff is the full time first baseman, Belt, Pill and Sanchez or Posey will lose playing time. If Huff hits like he did in 2008 or 2010 that will be ok, but it is unlikely that he will.
Posey is now out for the rest of the season. It will be a good scenario for Posey and the Giants if he is fully recovered in time for spring training 2012. The Posey injury, because of both how it occurred, due to a collision at home plate, and because it happened to Posey, one of baseball’s best and most marketable young players, has drawn a lot of attention. Two major themes have emerged from this attention: whether or not baseball should change its rules to minimize the chances of collisions at home plate and young players of Posey’s caliber should be moved away from the catcher’s position to allow them to play longer.
While the origins of this difference between the West Coast and the Northeast may be partially economic, partially random and partially due to ballpark effects, the result is that a distinct West Coast style of baseball has evolved. The home run heavy, weak starting pitching and strong veteran bullpen approach best represented by the New York Yankees is not tried by any West Coast team; and the Red Sox are the only East Coast team with any young starting pitches, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, who are good enough and young enough to stand out in the west. Given the recent success of the Giants, who one quarter of the way into this season, are still playing very well, this model, which seems to be applicable in Florida as well, may catch on among mid-sized market teams outside of the West Coast, thus becoming yet another trend that originates in California and makes its way east.
After about twenty games or so, however, something interesting happens. The numbers begin to take on more meaning as trends become discernible making it easier to determine which players may have lost a step or have become legitimately better and what off-season roster moves will work out. Obviously, it is a long season in which games and championships are usually decided in the margins, but these general trends become visible at around this point. The line between the sample size being too small and real trends becoming apparent is not altogether obvious. As Yogi Berra might say, the season gets late early sometimes.
The Phillies will probably still be a very good team in 2011 with a four man pitching rotation that could carry them very far into the post-season. However, there are still scenarios where things could go wrong for them. Key hitters could continue their declines; Werth could prove difficult to replace; or their pitchers might not all have great years like they did in 2010. More interestingly, the Phillies have become a team big market team with all the advantages, such as the ability to sign Cliff Lee, and disadvantages like being old and committed to big contracts that are almost impossible to move, like Ryan Howard’s. Big market teams sign the best players, but they also set very high expectations, favor veterans, and often overpay for talent. This will also be the Phillies’ story in 2011.
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.
The most overlooked story of the game is that while neither Lee nor Lincecum had their best stuff, Lincecum pitched a tough 5.2 innings and kept his team in the game, while Lee did not. Lincecum appeared to be unraveling in the first inning, but got it together and settled down enough. It turns out that the long haired pot smoker was able to bear down and tough it out better than the deer hunter from Arkansas.
It is probably the most politically polarizing World Series in history as one team’s most famous fan and former owner is former President is George W. Bush while the other team plays in the country’s most left of center major city and has long been probably the most progressive franchise in the game. The “Let Timmy Smoke” signs and t-shirts, referring to Giants’ ace Tim Lincecum’s marijuana bust would fit in as about as well at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington as prominent Republican politicians would at AT&T Park, or anywhere else in San Francisco. Somehow this is fitting for the first World Series that, should it go to six or seven games, will be the first to be concluded after Election Day.
The Phillies, even after a tough first game loss, are probably still the favorites in the NLCS, but the Giants should not be counted out. The Giants chances rest not on an anything can happen in a short series kind of optimism or solely upon their excellent starting pitching, but primarily on a match-up of skills that may make the Giants uniquely positioned to beat the Phillies.
Baseball, particularly National League baseball, on the west coast seems awfully far away from New York and Boston which continue to dominate the baseball media and thus receives little national attention. The Giants and Padres did not come to Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park this season, nor have they dominated recent off-seasone headlines with big trades and bidding wars over free agents, so it seems that few fans were aware of the race. Instead, the Giants and Padres spent the last twelve months bringing along top rookies such as Buster Posey and Mat Latos, giving a second life to veterans on whom most teams had given up like Aubrey Huff and Miguel Tejada and playing a very different king of baseball than the AL East.
One of the major exploitable market inefficiencies in baseball is that teams pay so heavily for past accomplishments. No team does this more than the Yankees who have evolved into something of a straw man in this debate. The long contract which they gave to Alex Rodriguez means that the team will be playing Rodriguez more than $20 million a year in 2015-2017. Nobody can seriously think Rodriguez will still be an elite player by that time. Even if his current season is viewed as an off-year, it is not realistic to expect him to still be a top star during the last three years of his contract when he will make a total of $61 million.