clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

World Series Preview: How the San Francisco Giants got here

The right mix of luck and smart moves turned the Giants into a team built for postseason success.

Christian Petersen

Call it even-year magic, call it luck, call it a carryover of the effect of Aubrey Huff's rally thong. Whatever the case, the San Francisco Giants wouldn't be making their third World Series appearance in the last five years with general manager Brian Sabean, who just might be better than anyone in the game at making something out of nothing.

That ability has been on full display this year, with the majority of Sabean's crafty, under-the-radar moves panning out in the Giants' favor. There's the fireballing rookie middle reliever, claimed off waivers from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the journeyman first baseman turned left fielder, signed as a minor league free agent after also being released by the Pirates. Don't forget the chinstrapped reliever-starter hybrid who has pitched nine shutout innings in the playoffs after holding the rotation together during the regular season, or the fiery competitor who came over from the Red Sox at the trade deadline and turned his season around.

Players like Hunter Strickland, Travis Ishikawa, Yusmeiro Petit and Jake Peavy have acted as the glue that has held the Giants together at the cracks, and the latter three have all been especially important factors during the postseason in guiding the Giants back to the World Series—during a year in which they were never supposed to make it past the division series, no less.

Is there a formula for building a World Series winner? Perhaps not, but Sabean has come as close to finding it as any general manager in the game today. There's a distinction between the league's best teams and the ones that are built for winning in October. The Dodgers, for example, won 94 games in the regular season and finished six games up on the Giants, but with a bullpen that was questionable at best and a rotation that crumbled after Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, LA's early exit from the postseason seems unsurprising in hindsight. Let's look at how the Giants put together a very different team than that.

Key acquisitions

Travis Ishikawa

It seems fitting to begin this section with the NLCS' most valuable hitter, who was almost as important off the bench during the regular season as he was as the starting left fielder against the Cardinals.

Ishikawa started the season with the Pirates, but they designated him for assignment back on April 23 after acquiring Ike Davis from the Mets. He rejected the assignment, and the Giants signed him as a minor league free agent two days later. Ishikawa then spent 71 games at Triple-A Fresno, where he was good enough (.271/.349/.446) to earn a late-season promotion.

The move ended up paying off for the Giants, who might not have earned a playoff spot without Ishikawa's hot bat (.344 average, 153 OPS+ in August) off the bench. Then, with regular left fielder Michael Morse missing all of September because of a strained oblique muscle, Ishikawa took over and, while struggling at the plate, still provided a huge upgrade in the field. The rest is history—he hit .385 in the NLCS, and both Morse and Ishikawa homered in consecutive innings in Game 5 on Thursday night to send the Giants to the World Series.

Hunter Strickland

The Giants really ought to give the Pirates a share of their World Series payouts, because Strickland also went to San Francisco after the Pirates released him. In April 2013, the Giants picked him up off waivers and sent him to High-A, a notoriously difficult level for pitchers. After allowing two runs and 10 hits in 21 innings, Strickland underwent Tommy John surgery—only to return in 2014 with a 2.02 ERA and 0.81 WHIP in 35.2 innings at Double-A Richmond.

The pitcher who began as a soft-throwing (rather, softer-throwing) starter had transitioned to a flame-throwing reliever with a possible future as a closer. The success hasn't carried over into October thus far, however. The home run Strickland allowed in the NLDS to Bryce Harper still hasn't come down from orbit, and hitters in general have been pouncing on his fastballs, with four solo home runs in 4.1 innings this postseason.

But the value of Strickland's seven shutout innings this September can't be overstated. Aside from sealing a few key victories, the rookie reliever helped the bullpen rest a bit going into the postseason. He also nailed down the save in arguably the Giants' most important game of the postseason, an 18-inning marathon win over the Nationals that gave San Francisco a two-game lead in the NLDS.

The Giants won seven of the first 10 games after Strickland's Sept. 1 promotion, four of which he appeared in; they've also gone 21-15 overall since he was called up. Though his real impact will be felt in the coming seasons, Strickland has undoubtedly been a key contributor to the Giants this season, even with his troubles in October.

Yusmeiro Petit

One could argue, with pretty sound reasoning, that Petit has been the most valuable player on the Giants this season. Not in terms of actual value accumulated, of course, but rather by how much he has exceeded expectations, his clutch long relief appearances out of the bullpen and his ability to fill in as a replacement starter due to injuries and underperformance from other members of the rotation.

Petit's career history isn't glamorous. He was "one of the minor leaguers" traded from the Mets to the Marlins in exchange for Carlos Delgado back in 2005, then was traded to the Diamondbacks before being selected off waivers by the Mariners. They subsequently released him twice in a 13-month span before he finally signed with the Giants in January 2012.

This season has been Petit's best in the majors—by a long shot. He has set career-highs in appearances, wins and innings pitched while posting his second-best ERA along with a 1.02 WHIP, thanks to just 22 walks allowed in 117 innings along with his MLB-record streak of 46 straight batters retired.

Now, he's doing it in the postseason as well—except he has been even better: two hits and no runs allowed in nine innings, including six shutout innings during that 18-inning victory in the NLCS. Would the Giants be in the World Series without Petit? I'm not in the business of predicting alternate realities, but without Petit's pitching during the regular season, the Giants might not have even made the playoffs.

Jake Peavy

Matt Cain pitched his last game this season on July 9, after which the Giants theoretically should have gone in a downward spiral and missed out on the postseason altogether.

Instead, they went 37-33 during the remainder of the regular season (plus an 8-2 run in the playoffs), thanks in large part to Peavy's performance (2.17 ERA, 1.04 WHIP in 12 starts with the Giants and two runs allowed through 9.2 innings this postseason) since he was traded from the Red Sox near the non-waiver trade deadline.

Given the way Cain pitched this year and how successful Peavy has been since coming over to San Francisco, it can be considered something of a blessing in disguise. The Giants might have Cain and Peavy in the rotation next year if they re-sign the latter starter this offseason, in addition to Madison Bumgarner and Tim Hudson. Winning the World Series probably wouldn't hurt the chances of that happening.

Smart drafting

The Giants get a lot of flak for the quality of their farm system, but in truth, a sizable contingent on the NLCS roster came by way of the amateur draft.

All but two infielders on the roster were products of the draft, and those two were Pablo Sandoval (signed as an amateur free agent) and Joaquin Arias, who had by far the lowest WAR of any infielder on the team. Both catchers (Buster Posey and Andrew Susac), as well as Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Matt Duffy and Joe Panik were all Giants draft picks.

It hasn't just been draftees from several years ago like Posey, Belt and Crawford. Panik, Susac and Duffy all began the year in the minor leagues, and each has played a role in the Giants' postseason run—especially Panik.

Before Panik came along, the second base position was essentially an open tryout for anyone who could field a ground ball, similar to the Giants' left field woes of 2013.

Except even those who couldn't field had a chance. Dan Uggla, signed to a minor league contract on July 21 and released weeks later in early August after committing a pair of errors and going 0-for-12 with six strikeouts, provided little help. Brandon Hicks, who had a .342 OBP with five homers in March before declining quickly to a .191 slugging percentage in June, wasn't the answer either.

Panik, who hit .321/.382/.447 in Triple-A prior to his call-up, started slowly before exploding in August with a .379 batting average and an even .900 OPS. To even have a replacement-level second baseman would have been a significant upgrade for the Giants; Panik has instead exceeded expectations, and he figures to be a key player in the World Series out of the No. 2 spot in the lineup.

Contract extensions

Pablo Sandoval is set to become a free agent this offseason, and if recent history is a good indicator, he has an excellent chance of returning to San Francisco.

That's because Sabean doesn't often let his best players even sniff the free agent market. Hunter Pence, Posey, Bumgarner and Cain—all signed to long-term extensions, including Pence's five-year, $90 million deal this past offseason. Even Lincecum was signed to a massive contract extension on the heels of back-to-back ERAs of 5.18 and 4.37.

When it somes to keeping the core intact, Sabean's mentality seems to be something along these lines: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.