Before 2010, the San Francisco Giants had one of the longest championship droughts in American sports. Just four years later, the MLB club will meet the Kansas City Royals in the Fall Classic in what has become a regular occurrence for the organization.
San Francisco is the closest thing MLB has seen to a dynasty since the New York Yankees of the late 1990s. The Giants have a chance to become the third team to win three World Series championships in five seasons since 1974.
How has San Francisco achieved so much success in an era when more teams than ever are competitive? One word: pitching.
In 2010, the Giants had the best staff in the Majors, pitching to a 3.36 earned-run average. Two years later, the eventual champs ranked seventh in ERA with three 15-game winners in the rotation. During their current playoff run, San Francisco has been unhittable, posting a 2.18 ERA, allowing just 68 hits in 99 innings.
San Francisco has certainly benefited from some timely hitting, namely Travis Ishikawa’s walk-off home run that sent them to the World Series, but they have only been an above-average hitting team. Former Giants teams were known for having sluggers like Willie McCovey, Willie Mays and Barry Bonds, but it’s been a decade since San Francisco had a top 10 offensive team.
Each Giants team has had an ace that’s been among the best pitchers in baseball. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain have both led San Francisco to a title, and Madison Bumgarner is looking to do the same in 2014. It comes as no surprise that all three have been very good for the Giants. Each starter was a first-round pick, and highly touted heading into the MLB Draft. Bumgarner, in particular, was so sought after by MLB teams that his father built a wall around his high school bullpen to keep scouts and agents away.
Clayton Kershaw may be on his way to a second straight Cy Young Award, but Bumgarner has been the league's best pitcher when it's mattered the most. The 25-year-old has thrown 31.2 innings, allowing just five earned runs in four starts.
“No. 1, he’s got good stuff. He’s got good command of his pitches and that’s the key, and he looks like he’s a great competitor,” former World Series winning manager Jack McKeon told International Business Times. “He’s fearless out there and he’s not afraid to challenge hitters. He doesn’t walk anybody; he makes you put the ball in play, plus he’s got two quality pitches. He can strike you out on the breaking ball and the fastball.”
While San Francisco’s top pitchers were largely expected to be stars in the pros, the team’s scouting department deserves a lot of credit. Cain was thought by many to be a second-rounder, and the three pitchers drafted immediately after him never even reached the Majors. Lincecum was taken just ahead of future MLB pitchers Kyle Drabek, Ian Kennedy and Daniel Bard, who never reached the heights of the Giants right-hander.
The three starters have been a major part of San Francisco’s success, but the rest of their staff has been just as important, especially this season. Lincecum has fallen off so much that manager Bruce Bochy hasn’t used him once in the playoffs, and Cain underwent a season-ending surgery in early August.
Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmerio Petit have both been productive pitchers for the Giants in their last two playoff runs, following less-than-inspiring stints with other teams. Even veteran Jake Peavy is finding renewed success with San Francisco, recording a 2.17 ERA in 12 starts with the Giants, after having a 4.72 ERA with Boston in the first half of the season.
Dave Righetti has been instrumental in helping turn average pitchers into unlikely stars. The longest-tenured pitching coach in the league, Righetti, has been the one constant in a revolving door of reclamation projects.
With an MLB career that spanned 16 years, Righetti might be the perfect pitching coach. Not only did he find success with the Yankees as a starter, but he also became one of the game's best closers, totaling 252 saves.
“He has been through everything in this game that you can as a pitcher – starting, relieving, closing,” Vogelsong said after the team’s 2012 World Series win. “He’s really good about knowing what to say or not to say. He doesn’t always go right to mechanical things. He’s knows when you need encouragement or reinforcement. He’s just very good at communicating.
Recent MLB history has shown the importance of having a good pitching coach. As the pitching coach of the St. Louis Cardinals, Dave Duncan reached the NLCS seven times from 1996 to 2011. Aside from Righetti, Tampa Bay’s Jim Hickey might be regarded as the best coach, and his starting staffs have finished in the top three in AL ERA for five years running.
Righetti and San Francisco’s staff has one more challenge ahead, facing a team that has won all eight of its postseason games. The Giants and Royals begin the World Series on Tuesday in Kansas City.