In all sports, the penultimate crown of achievement is winning the championship. This is a very difficult task. It is even more difficult to win the championship of any sport in consecutive years (unless your name is Tom Brady). This is especially difficult in major league baseball. Only 14 teams have ever managed this feat, the most recent coming 20 years ago with the 1998-2000 New York Yankees.
However, the San Francisco Giants accomplished a feat nearly as uncommon: they won three of five World Series Titles from 2010-2014. Every Giants fan is well aware of these improbable, memorable and spectacular playoff runs that these teams put together. But their fairy-tale run would not exist without the not so fairy-tale in between the Giants’ odd years.
What happened in between these Giants’ remarkable playoff runs? What made the Giants’ Odd Years so odd? Why were they not able to successfully defend any of their titles, let alone make the playoffs? The answer to these questions is not one large gaping hole, but rather many small unfortunate circumstances that seemed to make their championship-winning seasons even more special.
Odd Year 2011: The Hangover Season
Record: 86-76 (2nd in NL West 8.0 GB, 3rd in Wild Card Standings 4.0 GB)
After winning their first title, the San Francisco Giants honeymoon phase was inevitable. Aubrey Huff in particular enjoyed his victory parades a little too much. As a result, he returned as a mere shade of his former season’s glory. He drove in only 59 runs, hit a dozen home runs, and had a .246 batting average. However, Huff wasn’t the only bat that sputtered out. The 2011 Giants scored only 570 runs, which is one of the lowest in franchise history. This is of course due, in large part, to the absence of their knight in shining armor: Buster Posey.
As it is fairly safe to assume, all Giants fans remember the home plate collision heard ‘round the world. The future of the dynasty fractured his left leg on May 25th, 2011 in a home plate collision with Scott Cousins during a game and was out for the year. Combine these factors with a 94 win season from the Arizona Diamondbacks and 90 and 89 wins seasons from the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves respectively and BANG! The World Champions San Francisco Giants find themselves just outside of the playoff race looking in. For what its worth, yes the Cards did win the chip that year.
Odd Year 2013: Peaks, Valleys and DL Musical Chairs
Record: 76-86 (4th in NL West 16.0 GB, 6th in Wild Card standings 14.0 GB)
The squeaky wheel really does get the oil. And sometimes that comes at the expense of the other wheels. The Giants had improved their hitting, building off the momentum their bats had carried with them all the way through the sweep of the World Series. Sure, they weren’t ripping the leather off the balls, (last time they did that regularly was when a fellow by the name of Barry Bonds was playing) but their hitting was not significantly worse than what was previously enough to take them to the playoffs. However, their defense was.
Despite fan-favorite Tim Lincecum AKA “The Freak” throwing his first no-no at Petco Park on July 13th, 2013 (somehow it makes it better that it was at San Diego) and Yusmeiro Petit throwing a near-perfect-one hit-shutout against Arizona on September 6th, the Giants defense as a whole struggled. FYI, The only thing worse than missing the playoffs is being two outs short of a perfect game.
As Ryan Vogelsong, Matt Cain, and Angel Pagan each took turns on the DL, the outfield and starting rotation became disjointed and inconsistent throughout the season. Although Madison Bumgarner earned his first spot in an All-Star Game, he was also the only Giants starting pitcher to post an ERA below 3.00. This also marked the beginning of the end, or rather the end of the end, for Barry Zito who posted a 5-11 record and 5.74 ERA (although some may argue he never truly lived up to his potential or his price in the first place). Ultimately, the inconsistency on the mound left San Francisco far behind in the playoff race that year.
Odd Year 2015: All is Fair in Love, War, and Baseball
Record: 84-78, 2nd in NL West 8.0 GB, 3rd in Wild Card Standings 13.0 GB)
This year the media was more favorable towards the Giants’ title defense odds than years before. Baseball coverage seemed to speculate whether this ragtag group of misfits had actually solidified themselves into a dynasty. Were they worshipped like the Boston Red Sox? No. But they were finally being given a smidge of respect. And they felt that they had earned it. Aside from Pablo Sandoval’s free agency departure to sign with said Red Sox, Hunter Pence bouncing back and forth from the DL like a ping pong ball and the regular pitching injury carousel, there were not any glaring hole in this Giants team. There were no fatal season-ending dirt bike injuries, no home plate collisions, no glaring discrepancies that seemed completely insurmountable.
Sure there were bats that seemed more like tennis rackets. Sure the pitching rotation seemed more like characters from The Office at times than a real professional baseball team defending their championship. But doggonit, it wasn’t anything they couldn’t overcome! Bumgarner’s 18-9 record, 2.88 ERA and 234 strikeouts compensated for his contemporary’s shortcomings. Pair that with the golden gloves of Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, and Buster Posey, each healthy and all together in the same infield. These were at least enough to keep them in reach of any game. The aforementioned Posey’s .318 BA, 19 homers, 95 RBI season accompanied by Crawford’s.256, 21 homers and, 84 RBI, and Brandon Belt and Matt Duffy’s timely hitting seemed sufficient to make it back to the postseason. It certainly had been enough in the past. So what happened? Misfortune.
Giants’ Odd Years and Misfortune
As baseball fans are well aware, power within divisions and conferences in the MLB can shift from year to year. That year the NL Wildcard participants were the 98 win Pittsburgh Pirates and the 97 win Chicago Cubs (who both deserved it, don’t get it twisted) with the Giants being the next in line….13 games back. The AL Wild Card participants? The 87 win New York Yankees and the 86 win Houston Astros (it hurts just as much to type that as it does to read it). The difference between the Yankees and the next four teams in the wild card standings was a grand total of five games. FIVE. While the 84 win Giants were runners-up for the NL Wild Card playoff but missed by a whopping thirteen games. Of course the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs each deserved to go to the playoffs that year. It’s just unfortunate that they are all in the same division, leaving the Giants out despite having only two fewer wins than the Astros.
It’s the same reason Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls could make the playoffs with 30 wins. A lot of things need to go right to make the postseason but only one or two things need to go wrong to miss it. So, on behalf of all loyal and dedicated San Francisco Giants fans everywhere: they DESERVED to be back in the 2015 playoffs. Granted, even if the boys by the Bay had made the playoffs that year there is no guarantee they would have gone far (see the 2016 Divisional series against the Cubs) but it is fun to speculate.
Hindsight is…2020 (pun intended)
So, as it usually goes in the wild world of baseball, some things worked out for the Giants of the 2010s and some did not. The Giants’ odd years ultimately were forgettable but still closer to postseason redemption than any years since. Would history be different had there been some different moves or not been untimely injuries? Who’s to say. But the script of the 2020s remains to be written.
Embed from Getty Images