Read national media accounts of the Giants win over the Nationals and you will discover a seething frustration with how this (apparently terrible) team continues to win postseason series. I’ve seen everything from luck to dark magic posited as explanations. I would like to address the question of lucky or good.
The facts: The Giants have won 8 straight postseason series (including the 1-game wild card playoff this year). During that time they have won 26 games and lost 10. That is a .722 winning percentage., which is obviously higher than one could expect over the course of a regular season. There is no doubt that in order to win that often you must catch your share of breaks. And the Giants have. Kinsler’s ball that hit the top of the wall and came back. Cody Ross getting hot at the right time. Barry Zito. That Pagan ball that hit the third base bag in the 2012 World Series. Certainly there are numerous other examples.
There are also a number of breaks that went against the Giants that could have spelled doom. When they lost game 2 to the Braves back in 2010, it was a classic Giants postseason meltdown. Blowing a lead, leaving runners on, a rally that died on the vine. They nearly blew a 6-0 lead in game 5 against the Reds in 2012. Bumgarner threw a ball down the left field line on Monday afternoon. Posey got thrown out at the plate (twice) by mere inches in this latest series.
The point here is to say that weirdness happens in the postseason and it affects both teams in any given series. The Giants aren’t any more lucky or unlucky than anyone else.
Some will then point out the unbelievable nature of individual performances. Again, Cody Ross in 2010. Zito and Scutaro in 2012. Pablo’s three home runs in the 2012 World Series. Petit in 2014. Let me address a few of these.
The fact that Cody Ross got hot in 2010 is fortunate, there is no doubt about that. But, Cody Ross is/was a really good player, one talented enough to pull off such a feat. This is one of the main themes of the Giants success. The timing of the performance is what is remarkable, not the performance itself. He’s hit over 20 home runs in three seasons, and often hits them in remarkable bunches. Eli Whiteside hitting several postseason home runs would have been lucky. Cody Ross, though, is a good player going off at the right time.
Same conversation for Marco Scutaro, only this time the player is even more skilled. Scutaro was designed by God to be a good postseason hitter. Everything about his approach: the swing, the patience, the ability to make contact, and his relaxed demeanor are ideally suited for playoff baseball. It just happened to be that he was on the Giants in 2012.
Barry Zito providing two quality starts in 2012 was improbable, but not lucky. This is a guy who won a college world series, who won a CY Young award, and who tended to pitch better later in the season than earlier during his Giants tenure. Did anyone see it coming? No. But lucky is Jeff Weaver and Anthony Reyes pitching well in the 2006 World Series (shots fired Cardinals). Zito rediscovering his old form one last time is unlikely, but not lucky.
Finally, the two that really get me are Pablo and Petit. Were the Giants fortunate to have Pablo hit 3 home run in Game One of a World Series? Absolutely. But, Pablo is a very skilled hitter, with incredible power, who quite honestly should have more games like that. When a hitter like Pablo has a game like that, that’s a reflection of his great skill. Yes, the timing was fortuitous, but luck would have been Brandon Crawford or Scutaro hitting 3 home runs, not Pablo.
And then, Petit. All this guy has done is nearly pitch a perfect game (last September), and then set the record for most consecutively retired batters. And that record isn’t two amazing starts in a week where he was really feeling it. That record came by pitching over several weeks, in a variety of settings, on different mounds, and against all sorts of batters. It is really one of the most remarkable records in baseball if you think of it. Are the Giants lucky to have such a great weapon on their staff. Maybe. But, I think it is more about shrewd roster construction, and a battle tested pitcher coming through in a big moment to help the team win the longest game in postseason history.
To sum it all up, the Giants are a team that is more than its parts. It doesn’t have the names and the numbers of other squads. But, that does not mean it is a team devoid of talent. There are some highly skilled players on this roster. Those skilled players are deployed by a smart manager (one of the best?) in such way that allows them to be successful.
They are constructed to succeed in these settings. They are load with great arms who can strike out batters and keep the ball in the park. They play mistake free (for the most part) defense, and they have some of the best range in the game (meaning over the course of the season they will make errors, but at any moment can get to a lot of balls). They are strong up the middle (Posey, Crawford, Panik, and Blanco). They make a lot of contact, and when you make contact weird/good things can happen. And they have a manager who is active and willing to mix it up and do what it takes to win a particular game.
In other words, they are not designed to win 99 games (like the Angels), but they are designed to be able to win any given game. And that is really important to understand. Take the 2001 Yankees for example. That World Series was full of dramatic moments, and of course everyone remembers the game 7 walk off moments. But, the game before that, which the Yankees could have won to secure the title, the Diamondbacks blew out the Yankees 15-4. The Giants have never had a game like that in these 3 postseason runs. I can only think of one game where they were truly out of it in the last third (the Lincecum, Game 4, start against the Cardinals). In a short series, the ability to stay close in every game dramatically helps your chance of survival.
Finally, three more things. First, timing (or context) is everything: the Giants have constructed the right roster for this era of baseball. It is a much more wide open game than 15 years ago. You don’t need the firepower or star power that was once needed to take down the Yankees. The Giants somewhat flawed teams can succeed in this era of parity.
Second, don’t discount the importance of a presence like Buster Posey. I know the stats people won’t like this, but I do think there are winning players and losing players. No disrespect to Adrian Gonzalez, but I think he is a losing player. Again and again, his teams fade and falter at the end of seasons. Posey’s seem to get better. Pay attention to that.
Third, I don’t believe in Karma as a life philosophy, but I do see some sort of symmetry (or coming back aroundness) in the Giants history. For example, the 2010 team was the perfect counter point to the 2002 team that blew the World Series. The 2002 team had a great lineup, the 2010 squad had great starting pitching. 2002 choked it away, 2010 slammed the door on any weird comebacks.
2012 served as the counterpoint to 2003. Both were incredibly steady teams that did everything fairly well. In 2003 the Giants dropped a fly ball and crumbled. In 2012, with their backs up against the wall they just won.
If this 2014 version goes on to win it all, it will, in a small way, make up for 1993. I would give just about anything for a glimpse at the alternate reality where the 1993 Giants get to play in the postseason, but short of that I’ll take this team winning it all as the baseball gods making things right.
Previews and thoughts on the NLCS forthcoming.