By Jonathan Northrop, AngelsWin.com Contributor -
The most successful franchise in the last six year is, by a long-shot, the San Francisco Giants - they've won three of the last six World Series. The next team to have three World Series titles would be the Boston Red Sox, but over twice as many years (going back to 2004).
Now I personally tend to prefer when a team builds from within, with a strong farm, an emphasis on international signing, savvy trading, and minimal free agent signings. By and large, big free agent contracts just don't seem to work out - at least in most cases. But certainly some teams have been able to build contenders with money - if they use that money wisely.
But the point of this (looong) post is to ask: How did the Giants do it? What sort of team have they fielded over the last six years and how did they build it? On the surface it is hard to characterize them over the last six years, so let's take a look at the Giants, from 2010-15.
- They have one superstar in Buster Posey, a homegrown talent who has totaled 29.6 fWAR over that span of time - 9th most among all major leaguers during that time and 1st among catchers by a good margin (Yadier Molina is next with 22.3).
- After Posey, there's a big drop-off to Pablo Sandoval (14.1), Hunter Pence (12.5), Brandon Crawford (12.4), and Brandon Belt (11.4) - all solid contributors and good to very good players, but no true stars.
- In terms of individual seasons by position players, the Giants have had only seven seasons of 5+ fWAR performance (what we could describe as "star caliber") - three by Posey, one each by Pablo Sandoval, Andre Torres, Aubrey Huff, and Hunter Pence. Of those seven, four have been during World Series seasons and three not.
- They've also seen 25 seasons of 2-5 fWAR position players (what we could call "Average to Very Good" players). In the World Series years, they are distributed like so: 4 in 2010, 5 in 2012, and 4 in 2014.
- Among pitchers, the highest total fWAR is Madison Bumgarner at 22.5, followed by Matt Cain (13.6) and Tim Lincecum (11.4). Bumgarner is 11th in the majors over that span of time.
- As far as single seasons go, there are six total 4+ fWAR pitching performances, only two of which were in a World Series year (both in 2010).
- Nine seasons were in the 2-4 fWAR range (which is above average to very good for a starter), six in WS years.
- Of all position players, only one regular has been part of all three WS teams: Buster Posey. Several others, including Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt, and Brandon Crawford, have been part of two.
- Of all pitchers, Bumgarner, Cain, and Lincecum have been part of all three.
The Giants present us with an odd case, because every time they won the World Series, no one expected them to win another. They were--on paper--a very good team but never a great one; their WS seasonal win totals were 92, 94, and 88. Yet from 2010 (2009, actually) they won at least 84 games in all but 2013, and somehow managed to win three World Series. In other words, they were generally good enough to compete to make the postseason and when they did, they won.
As far as money goes, their payrolls during the World Series years were 10th, 8th, and 7th - so they were willing to spend, but weren't among the top spenders (and less than the Angels, Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies, and Tigers in all three years).
So how exactly did the Giants succeed? What is their "recipe for success?" Looking at the above, and the team year-to-year, it seems like a combination of things. They have a core of homegrown players--most of their best players came up through the farm--but they also supplemented with some savvy acquisitions. What about big contracts? I don't see any except for those given to home grown players. Here are the players making $10M or more in each of the three WS seasons:
2014: Matt Cain ($20.83M), Tim Lincecum ($17M), Hunter Pence ($16M), Buster Posey ($11.2M), Tim Hudson ($11M), Angel Pagan ($10.25M)
2012: Barry Zito ($19M), Tim Lincecum ($18.25M), Matt Cain ($15.83M), Aubrey Huff ($10M)
2010: Barry Zito ($18.5M), Aaron Rowand ($13.6M), Edgar Renteria ($10M)
Interestingly enough, the Giants won 2010 despite the three big contract players, all of whom were free agents and signed before the Giants got really good (Zito was signed in 2007, Rowand in 2008). The three together contributed only 3 fWAR for the over $40M they were being paid. In 2012, Zito was still on the books but not really contributing. Lincecum and Cain were homegrown, and Huff was basically done but being compensated for his excellent 2010. In 2014, all but Hudson and Pagan were homegrown talents who had come of age.
So here's one interesting point to consider: The Giants WS wins were not built on free agent mega-contracts; the only mega-contracts that turned out to be major contributors were homegrown talents.
What sort and quality of players have the Giants won with? Well as should be clear from the bulleted list above, among starting pitchers you really only have two bonafide stars in Bumgarner and Cain, and then a bunch of other starters who have contributed to much lesser degrees in Lincecum, Vogelsong, Sanchez, Hudson, and Zito. Among position players, you have just one big star in Buster Posey, a handful of very good regulars in Pence, Sandoval and Belt, and then standout seasons here and there from an assorted cast of characters--journeymen, many of them--including Pagan, Torres, Huff, Melky Cabrera, Pat Burrell, and several others, including rising star Joe Panik.
(I'm intentionally avoiding bullpens for the sake of relative sanity).
So what to make of all of this? Well, it is worth noting that like the Giants, the Royals won the World Series with a team that wasn't top-heavy with stars and/or big contracts. As did the 2002 Angels, while we're at it. Now there are a lot of other teams that have won the World Series, and many of them with big names and big contracts, bu the point is: there are many ways to build a World Series team, and not all of them require spending huge amounts of money on free agents.
How did the Giants do it? Well much of it has to do with team chemistry, clutch play, good management, and other factors that are hard to see in the record. All of that is very, very important. If you're a front office, you need to take that into account. But to a large degree it is also out of the front office's control. What they can do is assemble the parts; how those parts work together is up to the manager, coaches, and players.
It seems the Giants formula has been relatively straight-forward: Build from within with homegrown talents, and keep those talents as long as you can; supplement with free agency, but stay away from mega-contracts; also, look for veteran players coming off sub-par seasons who might surprise - e.g. Aubrey Huff - or former prospects from other teams that might need a change of scenery, e.g. Andres Torres or Ryan Vogelsong.
So again, the core of the team--in the "SF Giants World Series Winning Philosophy"--should be homegrown, and then supplemented through free agency and trades.
Another interesting thing to note is that if you look at Baseball America's farm rankings, the Giants don't stand out as particularly exceptional. From 2005 to 2008, the declined in ranking each year from #18 in 2005 to #24 in 2008. Then they jumped to #6 and #5 in 2009 and 2010, when players like Posey and Bumgarner, as well as complementary players like Crawford and Romo, came through. In other words, the Giants did have a strong farm, but only for a couple years - with a single big wave of homegrown players. From 2011 to 2015, BA has ranked the Giants no higher than #19.
The takeaway from that is that the farm doesn't need to rank highly every year, but what it does need to do is produce "waves" of talent every five years or so - like the wave of talent that populated the Angels contenders in the 2004-09 range.
Chances are the Giants won't win a 4th World Series in 2016, but they've retooled with a couple of big free agent signings in Jeff Samaridzja and Johnny Cueto, so you never know (although that goes against their previous winning formula) - and regardless, they remain the most successful franchise in baseball over the last six years, and it isn't particularly close.
Anyhow, that was a lot of words - but I'm hoping that it brings to light some of the elements that make a successful franchise, and I'm hoping that Eppler and Co are looking into this sort of thing. Who knows.