When the World Series began last week, the Tigers were considered strong favorites, with 23 of 28 ESPN commentators selecting Detroit as the eventual champion, myself included. After they rolled over the Yankees in four games to win the ALCS, the story became that the Tigers were “built for the postsesaon”, with four strong starting pitchers, two premium power hitters, and the ability to overwhelm their opponents with star power. Just based on their six best players — Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Austin Jackson, Doug Fister, and Max Scherzer — there probably isn’t another team in baseball that can match up with the top end of Detroit’s roster. After all, those six combined for +32.5 WAR in the regular season; 10 teams didn’t match that total with their entire rosters.
From 1-6, the Tigers are probably the best team in baseball. From 7-25, however, there isn’t a team in baseball better than San Francisco, and those 19 players were the guys who made the difference for the Giants in their playoff run.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the Giants depth can be found by trying to determine who their worst everyday player was down the stretch. In terms of raw performance, it was probably Hunter Pence, as he struggled to a .219/.287/.384 line during his time with the Giants in the regular season, and then was even worse in the playoffs. But, slumps happen, and prior to this season, Pence had been worth +3.2 WAR in each of his five Major League seasons. During his down year of 2012, he was still worth +1.8 WAR, making him roughly a league average outfielder. Not much of a weak link.
In terms of true talent, you could point to Gregor Blanco or Brandon Crawford, both of whom are light hitting defensive specialists with little power who strike out a lot, but both are legitimately excellent defenders, and they hit well enough to keep their gloves in the field. The combination of mediocre offene and excellent defense allowed both to put up slightly above average WARs, and even if you regress their defensive metrics a bit, it’s hard to make a case that either was a significantly below average player for the Giants. Their offensive issues might catch up them in the future, but for 2012, both hit well enough to avoid being any kind of drain on the team.
Add in Brandon Belt and Marco Scutaro, and the Giants essentially had five position players who could be described as roughly average players for their position this year. Buster Posey, Angel Pagan, and Pablo Sandoval were all better than that, but those three didn’t carry a weak supporting cast with them. The Giants rolled out a full line-up of average or better players on a daily basis down the stretch. And yet, the depth of position players wasn’t even their biggest strength in the postseason.
Much is made of a team’s top few pitchers heading into October, because the structure of the playoffs are simply different than the regular season. In most cases, a team doesn’t need a fifth starter, and sometimes, they don’t even need four. Innings can be reallocated to the better pitchers on the staff, and the value of having a quality back-end of the rotation is marginalized in October. At least, that’s the theory that everyone goes along with, and it intuitively makes sense.
But, the reality is that pitchers are complicated beings, and no team in baseball has ever suffered from having too many good pitchers in the postseason. While the usage may change, there is always value to be had from having pitching depth in October. In the Giants case this year, that manifested in two obvious ways:
1. Madison Bumgarner was able to skip his second NLCS start after struggling in the final few weeks of the regular season.
2. Tim Lincecum was shifted into a middle relief role, throwing higher leverage innings in shorter bursts.
In terms of overall talent level, Bumgarner and Lincecum are two of the better pitchers in baseball. Both have had their struggles at times this year, but that’s a formidable top two for a playoff club in most years, and yet, these were the guys that San Francisco was able to move around because of their depth. With Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong, the Giants had two additional quality starters, and while Barry Zito isn’t an ideal October starter, he’s not completely useless. The presence of this kind of rotation depth allowed the Giants to give Bumgarner a break to work on some things, and shifted Lincecum’s innings into providing another bridge to their already deep bullpen.
And, once again, the Giants bullpen showed the value of having shutdown relievers in October. Sergio Romo was basically unhittable in October, and Jeremy Affeldt provided a setup arm who could retire hitters from both sides of the plate. Toss in mach-up specialists Javier Lopez and Santiago Casilla, and the Giants had five relievers that they could turn to to hold leads. This wasn’t the White Sox or Yankees leaning on a half dozen pitchers in October like we’ve seen in the past. This was a multitude of useful pieces all providing value.
The Giants simply didn’t ask any bad players to play vital roles in October. What they lacked of the top end of the roster, they made up for at the back-end. Despite the fact that it’s an overused cliche, the Giants really did win through a team effort. And they won because the roster was smartly constructed to avoid pitfalls.
And this is where we just have to admit that we screwed up. Back in March, when we rolled out our organizational rankings, a number of people took umbrage with the fact that the Giants placed 27th among front offices. In retrospect, that looks like our version of the Barry Zito contract, and there’s no use in defending it. The Giants front office might not do everything right, but no front office does everything right, and they did a lot of things right last winter. The Angel Pagan acquisition was a fantastic decision. They correctly identified Blanco and Crawford as useful pieces on a contender, not the bench scrubs that their offensive issues suggested. They picked up Melky Cabrera for a song, then were aggressive in filling his void when he got suspended mid-season. And then, with a glaring hole at second base, they bet on Marco Scutaro’s track record being more predictive than his Colorado performance, and perhaps no move had a larger impact on any team down the stretch.
The Giants have a long history of drafting and developing quality pitching, but this year, they won because the pitching didn’t have to carry the position players. Brian Sabean and his staff assembled a really good roster from top to bottom, and including the postseason, they went 105-73 this year. And they did it with depth, finding value from players who were picked off the scrap heap. Their biggest free agent outlay last winter was Ryan Theriot. While the Giants may not be a classic “Moneyball” team, this roster was built in a style that Billy Beane would appreciate — strong pitching developed internally and useful pieces cobbled together to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Giants deserve to be called World Champs today, as they played some really good baseball over the last few weeks. But, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that they played good baseball in October – this was a good baseball team all year, and one that finished the season with a roster that really had no weak point.
This World Series was basically Star Power versus Depth, and Depth just kicked the crap out of Star Power. And roster depth is almost always a sign of a well run front office. Perhaps its time that we stop underrating the Giants organization, and stop underrating the value of depth in October while we’re at it.