Over the course of the past decade, the San Francisco Giants put together one of the strangest dynasties in baseball history. And now it is officially coming to an end.
The Giants still have five players left over from their 2014 championship season, but the returns have diminished greatly since then. The team is in last place in the National League West; the FiveThirtyEight model currently predicts it to finish 70-92, which would be one of the worst records in franchise history.1 And it could get worse by season’s end, with ace Madison Bumgarner (among others) on the trade block.
The Giants got here in part by trying to extend the dynasty past its expiration date. But who can blame them? When a team’s initial successes defy the odds, it can be especially difficult to know when a downturn is permanent or just a detour along the road to another title. This is especially true of San Francisco, which sandwiched two mediocre nonplayoff seasons in between World Series titles. But we come here not to bury the Giants’ dynasty but to praise it — and imagine how Farhan Zaidi, the new president of baseball operations, might construct another one where the original once stood.
So what makes the Giants’ dynasty of the 2010s — and yes, it was a bona fide dynasty — maybe the most interesting ever?
Up and down
The simplest answer to that question lies with the team’s every-other-year pattern of success. In even-numbered years from 2010 through 2016, the Giants’ winning percentage was .557; in odd years, it was only .506. But plenty of teams have gone on wild championship roller-coaster rides. The Giants’ version was one of the most memorable because of how unexpectedly it materialized and how difficult it was to get a handle on, even while it was happening.
Sabermetrics pioneer Bill James has a method of determining dynastic runs that involves giving out points for seasons of various accomplishments. He keeps a running tally of a team’s dynasty points after each season; whenever a team’s running total hits 10, it automatically becomes a dynasty — of which there have been only 38 in baseball history.
Bill James’s dynasty accounting system
What an MLB team must do in a season to earn or lose dynasty points
|Made Playoffs?||Won Division?||Won Pennant?||Won World Series?||Losing record||90+ Wins?||100+ Wins?||Dynasty points|
But every dynasty also has to end. When a team has a zero-point season, its rolling tally drops at least 2 points (it falls by 3 if the team also has a losing record). When the rolling tally dips to zero again, or the team has three straight pointless seasons, the dynasty is definitively over.2
This decade’s Giants officially qualified as a dynasty by hitting 10 points after the 2014 World Series victory, ultimately extending the span of their run from 2010 to 2016 with one additional playoff appearance.3 But of those seven seasons, three contributed nothing to (and therefore actively detracted from) San Francisco’s running dynasty total. Among the 38 distinct teams that James’s system considers dynasties, only one — the 1963-71 St. Louis Cardinals — had a higher share of their “dynasty years” contribute nothing to the dynasty itself.
The weirdest dynasties ever?
Among MLB dynasties (as defined by Bill James’s point system), largest share of seasons during a run that contributed zero points to the dynasty
|Team||Start||End||Titles||Max Dynasty Pts||Zero-Pt||Total||Zero-Pt Share|
Keeping in mind that the majority of San Francisco’s dynasty took place in the double-wild-card era, where in theory it is easier to snag an occasional playoff berth to keep the run going, you could argue that a Giants-like run is even harder to pull off now than during the Cardinals’ era (most of which happened when the “playoffs” consisted only of the World Series).
If all of this sounds like a knock on what San Francisco accomplished, it’s not. It actually just makes it more fascinating: Only nine teams in history ever won three World Series in a five-year period anyway, and none of those had anywhere near as many ups and downs — nor proved as many doubters wrong — as the 2010-16 Giants did.
Growing a dynasty … on top of a dynasty?
Surprisingly, that run actually began on the heels of another dynasty, at least according to James’s accounting system. The 2000-04 Giants hit a running total of 10 points as well, despite not winning any championships, because they won at least 90 games five years in a row with two division crowns, a pennant in 2002 and 100 victories in 2003. That team was powered by Barry Bonds at the peak of his historic hitting powers,4 with help from second baseman Jeff Kent, pitcher Jason Schmidt and shortstop Rich Aurilia. But the club’s performance fell after much of Bonds’s supporting cast signed elsewhere (SB Nation recently made a great video about the bitter Bonds-Kent feud), and the Giants’ main attraction in the ensuing seasons was Bonds’s largely joyless pursuit of Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record.
By 2008, Bonds was out of baseball and the Giants were terrible, winning just 72 games. They had just three players who had been ranked among Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects in the previous few seasons: pitchers Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez. Their farm system ranked just 23rd in baseball. Practically nothing about the Giants’ situation suggested that another dynasty was around the corner.
But as bleak as San Francisco’s outlook appeared to be, the ingredients were largely in place for the run that was to come. To go with Cain and Lincecum, fellow dynasty cornerstones Bumgarner, Posey, Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt would all be drafted in 2007-09, while third baseman Pablo Sandoval and reliever Sergio Romo both made their MLB debuts in the summer of 2008. Nine players were on all three Giants championship squads — Posey, Bumgarner, Cain, Sandoval, Romo, Lincecum, Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez — and of those, six were either acquired by or made their MLB debuts for San Francisco in the 18-month span between May 2007 and November 2008. The team had also hired manager Bruce Bochy away from the division-rival San Diego Padres prior to the 2007 season.
The Giants’ penchant for acquiring and developing homegrown talent helps explain a good amount of their success earlier this decade. From 2010 through 2016, only two teams (the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays) got more total wins above replacement5 from players who initially debuted with the team than San Francisco did. That group was headlined by Posey and Bumgarner, both of whom were top-10 draft picks, but it also included a fourth-rounder (Crawford), fifth-rounder (Belt) and 18th-rounder (Matt Duffy) who each peaked as 4-win players or better despite their lack of pedigree.
Spare parts to the rescue
Those Giants were made all the more interesting by the odd veteran pieces that filled in the gaps around the homegrown talent, particularly in the postseason. Journeyman castoffs Andres Torres and Aubrey Huff led the 2010 Giants in regular-season WAR, while that year’s NLCS MVP was Cody Ross (who had been claimed off waivers from the Marlins in August), and the World Series MVP was veteran shortstop Edgar Renteria, who had missed more than half the regular season with injuries.
The trend continued in subsequent title runs. Outfielder Angel Pagan rebounded from a disappointing 2011 season with the Mets to produce 4.4 WAR for the Giants in their 2012 championship campaign. Melky Cabrera, on his fourth team in four years, was the All-Star Game’s MVP and hit an NL-best .346 that year before being suspended for performance-enhancing drugs (and recusing himself from the batting crown). Second baseman Marco Scutaro, picked up via trade in July, claimed NLCS MVP honors. After Posey and Bumgarner, frenetic outfielder Hunter Pence, acquired four days after Scutaro, was the Giants’ best player by WAR in 2013 and 2014, posting an 1.167 on-base plus slugging in the 2014 World Series. Even in 2016, obscure third baseman Conor Gillaspie provided playoff heroics when his ninth-inning home run won the NL wild-card game over the Mets.
This quirky combination of young draftees and veteran reclamation projects helped each Giants championship team forge a different identity. The 2010 team was widely identified with Lincecum, Cain and eccentric, heavily bearded closer Brian Wilson. The 2012 version had evolved to become Posey’s team (he was named NL MVP) with Sandoval, the “Kung Fu Panda,” inheriting the role of postseason talisman from Wilson. And the 2014 season was all about the dominance of Bumgarner, who became virtually unhittable in October, winning the NLCS and World Series MVPs. Bochy and general manager Brian Sabean continually found ways to retool the roster on the fly, returning it to a championship level even after a 76-win season in 2013 suggested to many that San Francisco’s days of winning it all were probably over.
An extraordinary time
The Giants’ dynasty was also lucky to come along during an era of comparative parity in Major League Baseball. In 2015, my colleague Rob Arthur and I noted that MLB was getting tougher and tougher to predict during the decade of the 2010s, which happened to overlap with the entirety of San Francisco’s run to that point. In particular, the share of variance in team records explained by luck — which tracks with how compressed team records are across the league — had spiked upward to 64 percent that season, the highest mark since right after the 1994 strike.
The Giants weren’t particularly dominant on paper during their dynastic years, never finishing higher than sixth in baseball in Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System during any of their championship seasons, but it was the perfect moment to be a good team that gets hot at exactly the right time. Although it is unlikely that San Francisco’s World Series runs were wholly (or even mostly) the product of making the playoffs and having the postseason crapshoot fall in their favor three times, there’s no denying that the Giants’ path was made easier by the lack of super-teams across the rest of MLB.
And now, those days are gone. (Not that it would help the current Giants much if they weren’t.) Starting in 2016, the league became very much top-heavy and thus much easier to predict than it had been earlier in the decade. The simultaneous emergence of juggernauts in the Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians over the past few seasons have left the next tier of teams feeling the squeeze. Yes, some of today’s reduced parity also owes to the surplus of tanking teams trying to emulate the championship runs of the Cubs and Astros, but the teams at the top are also just stacked with talent. That has made it much tougher to be a merely solid ballclub with World Series aspirations.
After falling short against the Cubs in the 2016 NL Division Series, the Giants hoped to return to contention with largely the same group plus ex-Nationals closer Mark Melancon (who’d been good the previous season). Instead, Bumgarner injured himself in an early season dirt bike accident, Melancon was terrible, and the team collapsed to 64 wins. Then San Francisco doubled down on reviving its even-year magic in 2018 by trading for 30-something stars Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria. It didn’t work: Longoria was a disappointment at 1.2 WAR, McCutchen was traded to the Yankees at midseason, and Bumgarner was injured again. After 73 wins last year and this season’s 20-26 start, and facing Bochy’s retirement at the end of 2019, the franchise has finally begun staring down the specter of a rebuild.
It’s easy to look back with hindsight and criticize the moves San Francisco made to try to keep its window of contention open. Well after the 2014 championship, for instance, the Giants signed pitchers Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Melancon to long-term deals totaling $282 million, which looks like a terrible waste now — as well as a betrayal of the dynasty’s original homegrown roots.
But this was also the same team that rode out a playoff absence in 2011 to win again in 2012, and a 76-win disappointment in 2013 to win again in 2014. As Bumgarner told the L.A. Times before this season, “Pretty much every year we’ve won, we were not expected to win.”
The retool-on-the-fly mindset served the Giants well — until it didn’t.
As much as the failure of recent big-name acquisitions to recapture their former glory has hurt the Giants, another big factor has been the failure of the team’s homegrown core to age gracefully — and the lack of anything in the pipeline behind it. Although Crawford can still make the occasional spectacular play, he is down from a 5-win player in 2016 to a subreplacement one now, and he’ll make $15.2 million each of the next two seasons after 2019. Belt was worth 4.2 WAR in 2016; now he’s on pace for a more middling 2.2 WAR in 2019 despite his $17.2 million salary, which also repeats in 2020 and 2021. Duffy fell off in 2016 and was traded for Matt Moore, who was miserable for the Giants in 2017 and was himself dealt for peanuts.
Even with Bumgarner healthy, the Giants have the league’s worst starting rotation according to WAR. And recent drafts have produced little of note. The farm system ranked 26th in Keith Law’s preseason rankings. Things suddenly look dire again.
Rebuilding the next dynasty
With Sabean’s successor, Bobby Evans, removed from his post as general manager last September, the man tasked with rebuilding the Giants now is former Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi, who has gained a reputation as an innovator and a genius since leaving his doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley to join the Oakland A’s front office under billion-dollar Billy Beane in 2005.
Zaidi began shaking up San Francisco’s usual methods with a seemingly endless stream of anonymous signings before the season, in the hopes that at least some of them turn into viable major leaguers. That dizzying roster carousel did not let up once the season got underway, either. The team has started to employ modern pitching tactics like using an opener (which went poorly) and having position players like Sandoval throw mop-up innings (which went well!).
But Zaidi has also run into friction six months into his new job. Already a figure of suspicion among Giants fans for his Dodger background, Zaidi was booed by season-ticket holders (granted, at Zaidi’s own urging) during a preseason meet-and-greet after he mentioned potentially using the opener. More seriously, he was openly criticized by Derek Holland after the pitcher was demoted from the starting rotation.
Maybe all the constant roster-shuffling and other analytics-minded front-office techniques will pay off for San Francisco in the long run. But for now, the Giants are a bad team that can only get worse. The players are noticing — and so are the fans. AT&T Park was home to baseball’s third-best attendance mark as recently as 2017, but no team has shed more fans per game this season than San Francisco, whose 2019 attendance is down by more than 6,000 as compared with last year.
How long will the Giants’ rebuild last? It might take a while to clear the current roster’s worst financial obligations from the books. Even in a world without Bumgarner, the team has $124 million committed to just seven players next year, with a payroll that could balloon to $172 million after arbitration and options are picked up. But as San Francisco’s ill-fated late push to sign Bryce Harper showed, the team hasn’t ruled out shelling out money for talent despite starting a new chapter in franchise history. Zaidi’s tightrope walk between alienating one of baseball’s best fan bases and genuinely refreshing the roster should be interesting to watch over the next few seasons.
But it does also mean that the Giants dynasty of the early teens is firmly in the rearview mirror. What San Francisco accomplished then still defies statistical explanation to a certain degree, even acknowledging that most dynasties need an unlikely string of good fortune to build a great roster with long-term staying power. Through a combination of strong starting pitching, an impressive homegrown core and unbelievably shrewd veteran pickups, the Giants put together one of baseball’s most improbable strings of championships ever — a run that will be better appreciated only as it recedes into the realm of history. Now we have to see what Zaidi can do as a follow-up act.
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