First off – congratulations to the San Francisco Giants. Winning the World Series is a tremendous accomplishment, but to do it twice in three years is even better. They are the first team to win two in three years since the Yankees won three straight in 1998-2000. Add to that the fact that in their two appearances the Giants beat two heavily favoured opponents by a combined eight games to one, and you have a special team.
But that is just the point here – they are a special team. To be a special team you need talent, obviously. But you also need a lot of luck and a lot of things to fall just right. The Giants had a lot of all of those things in 2012.
I know exactly what is coming now. Over the next few weeks and months there will be an outpouring of armchair GM’s telling us precisely how to build a winner in Toronto. Not surprisingly, the blueprint for success will include building a roster that looks an awful lot like that of the 2012 San Francisco Giants, just like last offseason it included constructing a team that highly resembled the St. Louis Cardinals. People have short memories, so whoever last won the World Series is obviously the team we should copy. Now that San Francisco has won twice in three years, it’s obvious that we should do exactly what they did.
But it just doesn’t work that way folks.
Toronto can’t simply replicate the San Francisco Giants roster, and even if they could, there’s no guarantee it would be successful.
For starters, Toronto plays in a much, much harder division, making it much more difficult for the Jays to even reach the postseason. The best way (in my opinion at least) to measure the strength of a division is to look at the winning percentage of the division against teams outside of the division (i.e. how well does the AL East play against the AL Central, AL West, and the NL during Interleague play). A division will always play .500 baseball within itself, so looking outside of the confines of division alignment should give us an indication of what divisions are the best.
Here is the chart of winning percentages vs. other divisions in 2012, 2011, and 2010:
There are four things to point out from the above chart:
1. This past season the NL West was the third worst division in baseball. This is not surprising with how bad the Colorado Rockies have been and with the Padres and Diamondbacks struggling most of the year.
2. The NL West has actually been getting worse, down from a winning percentage of .511 in 2010 to .491 in 2012, an indication that it is now easier to win.
3. The AL East has had the best, best, and last year the second best winning percentage in all of baseball, meaning the Jays have a tough chore in trying to win that.
4. Like the NL West, the AL East’s winning percentage has also been going down over the past few years, but two things counteract that: the first is that it is still over 40 percentage points better than the NL West, and the second is that the rise of the AL West makes the Wild Cards that much tougher to win.
Now it should be noted that the NL West may become more difficult to win in the next few years, what with the Padres showing life at the end of 2012, the Diamondbacks only one year removed from winning it, and the Dodgers having over $500 kajillion to spend on players.
But you get the point – just by being in the division that they’re in gives the Giants an inherent advantage over the Blue Jays. It doesn’t really matter if Toronto replicates the Giants roster if they can’t play the Rockies 19 times a year.
And as for the roster, you will hear it time and again that the Giants were built on pitching. That is true in terms of traditional statistics: San Fran hit 103 home runs in 2012, by far the fewest in all of baseball. No single player hit 25 HR, and only one (Buster Posey) drove in more than 65 runs. But this was not an offensively challenged team. In fact, they pretty much produced the exact same number of runs as Toronto (718 to Toronto’s 716), the same OPS as the Jays (.724 to .716), and the same number of steals (118 to 123).
So it must have been pitching. The Jays should focus on using San Francisco’s pitching blueprint.
I don’t think so, for two reasons.
One is that a large part of the Giants success was the strength of their bullpen. Except…the Giants bullpen wasn’t all that special in the season. They finished 15th in reliever ERA (3.56), 23rd in reliever WHIP (1.34), and 27th in reliever K/9 (7.6).
Plus, anybody who has followed baseball at all over the past decade knows one thing – bullpens are basically random. Players that are dominant one year often fail to repeat that the next. Remember how good Jose Valverde was last year? Exactly. So trying to build a team from the bullpen out is a recipe for disaster, Try to find a few solid arms and hope that you catch lightning in a bottle from a few others. That is what the Giants did, and that is what Toronto is trying to do. There’s no guarantee that Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, and George Kontos will repeat their 2012 success, nor is there any guarantee that Brian Wilson returns to his old form. Who knows – maybe Steve Delabar, Brad Lincoln, and Jason Frasor have incredible 2013’s?
And as for the belief that the San Francisco Giants built a tremendous starting rotation? I don’t buy it. Yes they have Matt Cain – he is a no doubter, a true ace. But look at the rest of the starters. You have a young first round draft pick, a lefty coming off a career year with a high ceiling in Madison Bumgarner. Toronto had that as well coming into 2012 and things didn’t really work out so well for Ricky Romero. You have a guy with one of the worst contracts in the history of baseball, a guy that the Giants tried to give away for years in Barry Zito, often called a colossal mistake. You have a 34 year old journeyman who spent three years pitching in Japan and went over five years between major league appearances in Ryan Vogelsong.
And then you have Tim Lincecum, who looked like he was on route to becoming the best pitcher in decades, a two-time Cy Young award winner. He was a bonafide ace, the type of pitcher that Toronto hadn’t had since Halladay. But then Lincecum put up a stinker of a season: 10-15, 5.18 ERA, and lost his starters role for the playoffs. So it turns out that Toronto did have that pitcher on the roster this year – Ricky Romero.
In fact, it can be argued that the Giants won this years World Series in spite of Lincecum, not because of him.
Does that sound like the type of rotation that teams dream about? Didn’t think so.
So at the end of the day, with no disrespect to San Francisco intended, the Giants didn’t really do anything special. They weren’t a superpower of a team that dominated. In fact, the pieces that they had in place to lead them – Brian Wilson, Melky Cabrera, and Tim Lincecum- all failed. They simply put together a decent pitching staff, had career years from a few guys,caught a good year from the bullpen, played in an easy division, and got hot in the playoffs.
To me, the Jays are already on that path. Yes, a few pieces need to be added and replaced, but there’s no sense looking to the Giants for guidance.
There’s nothing to copy.