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The Giants Win! How Team Chemistry Trumped Statistics

This year’s World Series did not match last year’s in excitement. It was a 4-0 series sweep by the San Francisco Giants over the Detroit Tigers. Only last night’s game, which the Giants won 4-3 in the tenth inning, was a nail-biter, or in the Giants’ vocabulary, “torture.” What was most interesting, however, was that the Giants won at all – and took the Series for the second time in three years.

These kind of victories bespeak dynasties, like the late ‘90s Yankees, who won three championships in a row. But the Giants are a relatively modest team. They have only one potential Hall of Fame player, catcher Buster Posey, who will probably also win this year's National League Most Valuable Player award. (Pitcher Tim Lincecum might have been on the way to Cooperstown two years ago, but he has been on a slide since 2010, and Cain has yet to win a Cy Young.) The Tigers, by contrast, had three potential Hall of Famers on their roster, Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder.

If you look at the Giants’ team statistics, they don’t look like those of a dynasty. They had the fifth best batting average in the major leagues, but were dead last in homeruns and fifteenth in RBIs, and they were seventh in ERA, and fifth in fielding. Those are good, but not great, numbers. If you look at the 2010 team, the Giants were first in pitching, but fifteenth in hitting. In each of those years, you could have picked out teams more likely to win the World Series. This year, it would have been the Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees, and Texas Rangers. (The Giants also had the eighth highest payroll in the majors this year. In 2010, they had the tenth highest.)

And there’s another odd fact: this year’s World Championship Giants didn’t have much in common with the 2010 team. Outside of pitching, the World Series lineups had only one player in common: Buster Posey. Pablo Sandoval, this year’s most valuable player, was on the roster in 2010, but was benched in favor of Juan Uribe. The pitching staff was similar, except for closer Brian Wilson (who was out this year with Tommy John surgery) and Barry Zito, who was left off the roster in 2010 because he had performed so poorly. Still, there were anomalies in the pitching staff; Lincecum, the team’s ace in 2010, was in the bullpen this year.

What, then, made the difference? My guess, which is not controversial, is the manager Bruce Bochy, pitching coach Dave Righetti, and general manager Brian Sabean, who have remained in place over the two championships, and who managed to make the right moves at the right times. Here are several of them:

•In August, left fielder Melky Cabrera got suspended for 50 games for taking high-performance drugs. At the time, Cabrera was leading the league in batting average, was the MVP of the All Star Game, and was wildly popular with the fans, some of whom dressed up as “Melk Maids.” Cabrera was eligible to return for the playoffs, but Bochy and Sabean decided to leave him off the roster, and to play Gregor Blanco, who had a difficult year hitting, in his stead. The likely reason: team chemistry. Management and his teammates felt that Cabrera, who denied the drug charges and tried to construct an elaborate alibi (including a fake web page) had put one over them. Blanco played brilliant defense in the playoffs and World Series and made some clutch hits. And the Giants kept the kind of cohesion that allowed them to fight back in two playoff series, where they were on the verge of elimination.

•Several of the players who took the field for the World Series looked earlier in the season like they should be shipped down to the minor leagues. Shortstop Brandon Crawford was wobbly at the position, and couldn’t hit the ball, in the first half of the season. He had a credible last half at the plate but, more importantly, turned into one of the best defensive shortstops in the league, as he showed during the World Series. Brandon Belt hit .203 in May, and .316 in September, and knocked in a crucial run in the fourth game of the World Series. Closer Casilla replaced Brian Wilson, but fell apart in July--he had an ERA of 6.23 that month, but was completely rehabilitated as a setup man and had a perfect World Series. Zito had a very rocky start, but also revived and won crucial games in the National League Championship and in the World Series. That shows patience and good judgment on a manager’s part.

•Bochy, Righetti and Sabean pulled off the right moves for the playoffs and World Series. Not just Blanco for Cabrera, but the decision after a lousy start in Game Four of the Championship Series against St. Louis to move Lincecum to the bullpen for long relief, where he performed brilliantly in the World Series. Also the decision to skip over Madison Bumgarner in the St. Louis series after he had gotten shelled against Cincinnati, but then to bring him back in the World Series. You could say that there were lucky outcomes, but the Giants did the same thing in 2010 with their pitching staffs. The willingness of Lincecum to go to the bullpen, or of Sandoval to accept a reserve role in 2010, is also evidence of the way the team’s superior chemistry overcame its statistical disabilities on paper.