I am, by order of where I have lived, a Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, and Washington Nationals baseball fan. The last five years have been good to me. The Giants have now won three World Series in five years. The Cubs' seasons have ended by July and the Nats' two playoff runs have ended during the playoffs in managerial snafus. And this year has been particularly sweet. The Giants lost their other star pitcher, Matt Cain, to surgery in August, and their seemingly indispensible leadoff man and center fielder Angel Pagan to injury in September. When they limped into the playoffs, I confidently predicted that they would be gone after the Wild Card game. I expected the Nats or the Dodgers to be playing the Tigers in the World Series. Luckily, I don't bet on baseball or politics.
If you look at the three Giants' World Series teams, what stands out is their improbability. They were not favored to win in 2010, 2012, or 2014—and I am referring here to the opinion of experts with their reams of statistics on WAR and OPS. On paper, they were decidedly inferior to the Phillies, Braves, Yankees, and Rangers in 2010; the Cardinals, Reds, and Tigers in 2012 (although that year they were not impossible underdogs); and this year to almost every other National League team. The Giants, after all, had only one ace pitcher going into the playoffs. The Nats had three, or maybe four. The Dodgers two, one of whom was headed toward his third Cy Young award, along with a power lineup.
But the Giants have managed to win each time. This year, of course, the secret was a Hall-of-Fame performance by ace Madison Bumgarner, but in each of these years there was another factor that could be overlooked: the sudden emergence or revival in the fall of players who were either unknown rookies or journeymen whose careers were either in decline or who had never quite lived up to their potential. In 2010, it was Cody Ross and Juan Uribe (who was the MVP of the World Series); in 2012, it was Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan, and Barry Zito; and this year, it was Travis Ishikawa, Juan Perez, Michael Morse, Joe Panik, and Yusmeiro Petit. (The Giants specialize in players whose name or nicknames begin with "P" or "B".)
If that happens once (as it did with the 2003 Florida Marlins with their “ace” Brad Penny or perhaps even the Red Sox last year), you can attribute it to dumb luck. But with the Giants, it is testimony to superior coaching and management, particularly manager Bruce Bochy, pitching coach Dave Righetti, and general manager Brian Sabean. They have been together since 2007. There were telltale decisions along the way: Bochy and Sabean's decision in 2010 to bench Pablo Sandoval in favor of Uribe; the decision in 2012 to leave Melky Cabrera, who had deceived the team about his drug use, but who had been its leading hitter, off the playoff and World Series lineup and to roll the dice with Gregor Blanco, and to rest the team's fate in the playoffs on the hitherto shaky left arm of Barry Zito, while consigning two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum to the bullpen; and the decision this year to try Travis Ishikawa in left (who had rarely played the position) and to play the weaker hitting but better fielding Perez in left in the seventh game (where he ended up making a game-saving catch that Ishikawa and certainly Morse would not have made) and, last but not least, the decision to keep Bumgarner in the last game (Nats manager Matt Williams probably cost his team the playoff by pulling ace Jordan Zimmerman while leading in the ninth inning of the climactic 18-inning game with the Giants that the Nats eventually lost.)
What was also sweet about this year's playoffs was the ouster of two teams who had used their payrolls to buy a World Series. None of the top six payrolls made it even to the League Championship Series. The Dodgers, with a top payroll of $235 million, flamed out to the Cardinals with a payroll of $111 million. The American League winner, Kansas City Royals, had the 19th largest payroll, a paltry $92 million. The Giants paid out $145 million, but that was due to having to retain stars rather than to buy high-priced free agents. Most of the Giants' stars, like those of the Royals or Cardinals, are home grown. And the success of both teams shows the extent to which superior management, coaching, and a team that plays well together trumps the acquisition of high-priced stars.
That is not to say that money is unimportant. If Kansas City wants to remain in contention, they will have to pay to keep some of their rising stars. Tampa Bay manager Joe Madden finally left the Rays this month and looks like he is going to the Cubs, probably because the Cubs, unlike the Rays, will be willing to retain their best players. The Giants, too, will face a financial challenge in the months to come over signing free agent Sandoval (who in the last two World Series has been their best hitter) and may have to reach into the bank to buy some first-rate starting pitchers to supplement Bumgarner and Cain. I'm expecting a rebuilding year or two from the Giants, a resurgent Cubs team, and a Nats' team that finally (after Matt Williams studies Bruce Bochy's decision-making) redeems its promise. But I was dead wrong in 2014 and could be dead wrong in 2015 as well.