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Why can't the San Francisco Giants defend their World Series titles?


With one with week left in the 2015 MLB regular season, the San Francisco Giants are practically eliminated from playoff contention. The last few weeks served just as a formality for a team that hadn't been in any serious consideration since late August, when they were brutally swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers (all 3 games were decided by one run), and so fell behind their rivals by an insurmountable amount of games in the NL West. As the Cubs and Pirates continued to win in bunches, the wild card was also left well out of reach of the Giants.

This means that we will have another year without a franchise winning consecutive World Series titles (the 1999-2000 Yankees were the last to do it), while the last defending champions to at least win a playoff series were the 2012 Cardinals. This is nothing new for the Giants, who have won 3 of the past 5 World Series, but have gone 0-for-3 in their attempt to at least make the postseason following their title. It has left San Francisco's year-to-year ledger in a very weird state:

2010
92-70 1st in NL West
Won World Series vs. Texas Rangers

2011
86-76 2nd in NL West
Missed Playoffs

2012
94-68 1st in NL West
Won World Series vs. Detroit Tigers

2013
76-86 3rd in NL West
Missed Playoffs

2014
88-74 2nd in NL West (won Wild Card)
Won World Series vs. Kansas City Royals

2015
81-74 2nd in NL West
Missed Playoffs

While we could chalk this to #EvenYearMagic or just an amazing string of coincidences, the fact is that we are now witnessing how the Giants have again failed to pose a serious defense of their title. It is understandable that any championship team in any sport is almost doomed to suffer a pullback due to a combination of roster rotation, natural regression, or plain old luck; however, seeing the Giants fail again at reaching October just a year after winning it all has led me to wonder if there are any key factors in this extreme run of success and futility.

For this, I went ahead and pulled back some of the team's key stats in every year from 2010 to 2015, alongside their respective MLB rank for the season:

Pitching

Year

FIP

Rank

K/9

Rank

WAR

Rank

2010

3.74

3rd

8.20

1st

18.5

4th

2011

3.33

2nd

8.07

2nd

20.5

5th

2012

3.78

8th

7.67

12th

13

19th

2013

3.80

12th

7.81

9th

9.3

26th

2014

3.58

10th

7.52

20th

10.8

26th

2015

3.92

12th

7.36

20th

8.9

25th

Hitting

Year

OBP

Rank

wRC+

Rank

WAR

Rank

2010

0.321

19th

98

14th

26.3

6th

2011

0.303

29th

88

24th

15.6

17th

2012

0.327

8th

101

7th

28.3

4th

2013

0.320

14th

100

11th

26.8

7th

2014

0.311

18th

101

9th

24.4

7th

2015

0.327

5th

107

2nd

30.9

2nd

If you are also wondering, the Giants finished 1st, 9th, 9th, 6th, 16th, and 2nd respectively in terms of Fangraphs Defensive Rating from 2010 to 2015. To me, this suggests that the only truly dominant Giants team that won the World Series came in 2010, when San Francisco finished in the league top 10 for pitching, fielding, and hitting, with the starting rotation being conformed by a truly special group. Outside of them, the teams formed by the Giants have presented a lot of variance.

The trend has grown apart for San Francisco, as their pitching has regressed while their offense has just gotten better, as highlighted by having 2015's #2 offense in baseball and the first in the National League, by a comfortable margin. So if the pitching has been mediocre every year after 2011, how did the Giants manage to win two more championships? Here's a look at their run differentials to find out if they were particularly lucky.

2010: +114 (-2 wins)
2011: -8 (+6 wins)
2012: +69 (+6 wins)
2013: -62 (+2 wins)
2014: +51 (-1 win)
2015: +76 (-6 wins)

Again, we are left with the same conclusion: the 2010 team was a juggernaut, while the 2012 and 2014 versions probably overachieved in many aspects, while being fueled by timely mid-season pickups. If anything, what has probably cost San Francisco a chance to defend its titles have been untimely injuries.

In 2011, Buster Posey was infamously barreled at home plate and was limited to only 185 plate appearances. Pablo Sandoval only played 117 games, while a declining Aubrey Huff was the only Giant with at least 500 plate appearances. The offense just couldn't be saved by the ill-advised trade for Carlos Beltran, which deprived the franchise of the chance of developing Zack Wheeler. Even as the pitching remained healthy and productive, the Giants just couldn't do much with the bat.

In 2013, the costly injuries came to affect Angel Pagan (71 games) and Marco Scutaro (127 games) on the offensive side, while the year also gave the Giants the first true glimpse of their regressing pitchers. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, and Ryan Vogelsong combined for 106 starts, went 27-41 in them, and none of them posted an ERA below 4. Out of all their most recent teams, the 2013 Giants were the only truly bad team.

In 2015, the offense has endured long absences by Hunter Pence, Nori Aoki, and Angel Pagan, but it still has been a potent attack. The pitching has again suffered outside of Madison Bumgarner, with Vogelsong, Tim Hudson, and Jake Peavy struggling. Cain came back from injury and has been terrible, while Lincecum pitched decently for a while only to succumb to a season-ending injury that might end his San Francisco tenure. Even with all the bad luck in terms of what their run differential suggests, the Giants were probably a couple of solid starters away from presenting a solid threat.

In the end, the Giants are still in pretty good shape going forward. Their offensive core should remain intact for 2016, with budding stars in Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, and Matt Duffy creating an enviable infield. Hunter Pence and Buster Posey will be around to anchor the attack, while the team may be finding a new gem in outfielder Jarrett Parker.

San Francisco's status as a high-payroll franchise gives them the chance to go after a couple of high-priced free agents during the offseason, which may start with Mike Leake, who was acquired via trade during the year but is not under contract yet. Outside of him, it wouldn't be surprising to hear that the Giants are linked to the likes of David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, and all other premier arms in the market.

With the Dodgers establishing themselves as the team to beat in the NL West for years to come, the Giants must find ways to remain competitive and relevant. Even as they were not able to defend a title yet again, the franchise has a good foundation and should be considered a contender for 2016. At this point, it is almost foolish to count out their Even Year Magic.



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