Monday, October 20, 2014

Giant Years II: Less Dynastic, More Episodic

The Giants' 2014 National League pennant is the 21st pennant for the franchise since the beginning of the 20th century, but only their eleventh in the last 90 years and the Giants' sixth in San Francisco, and four of those NL flags are in this century. After winning 10 pennants in 21 years between 1904 and 1924, the Giants' stretch of competing teams became less frequent. Having already discussed the teams of the John McGraw-built and managed New York Giants baseball dynasty in the first quarter of the 20th century, this is the second of two articles looking chronologically at the Giants' best teams over any five-year period. 

Giant Years II: Less Dynastic, More Episodic

At the time John McGraw stepped down as Giants manager early in the 1932 season, the Giants' 10 pennants were the most of any major league team since the start of the modern era, said to have begun when the American League declared itself "major" in 1901. But the Giants had been mostly inconsequential since their last pennant and dismaying World Series defeat in 1924.

'Twas first baseman player-manager Bill Terry led the Giants to their next string of pennants--three in five years between 1933 and 1937. After winning the franchise's eleventh pennant in 1933 (at the time, still the most of any major league team since the start of the 20th century) and beating Washington in the World Series, the Terry Giants blew big leads in each of the next two years before winning back-to-back pennants in 1936, when they overcame a 10½-game deficit in mid-July, and 1937. Unfortunately, both years the Giants had the dubious honor of playing their excellent Joe DiMaggio-Lou Gehrig-led New York rivals across the Harlem River. Enough said. By the time the 1937 Yankees' mauling of the Giants was done, the Yankees had clearly usurped the Giants' dynastic mantle, with now nine pennants of their own (all in the previous 16 years) and more World Series championships--six--than any other team. For more on the 1933-37 Giants, please see my post from October 2, "Nationals vs. Giants (1933):

Through the remainder of Bill Terry's tenure, which ended in 1941, and all of Mel Ott's as manager, 1942-1948, the New York Giants were mostly a second-division club. Leo Durocher changed that when he took over from Ott in July 1948. Refashioning the Giants from a plodding, powerhouse team that set a record with 221 home runs in 1947, Durocher strengthened the team's infield defense and top of the order by acquiring second baseman Eddie Stanky and shortstop Alvin Dark from the Braves in 1950; rehabilitated pitcher Sal Maglie to bolster a starting rotation headlined by Larry Jansen; and welcomed the integration of the Giants with infielder Hank Thompson and Hall of Fame outfielders Monte Irvin and Willie Mays.

If not for the Korean War, which claimed Mays for the US armed forces in 1952 and 1953, the New York Giants from 1950 to 1954 might have challenged the Brooklyn Dodgers as the best National League team in the first half of the 1950s. The Giants finished strong to end up in third place in 1950, with the best record of NL teams after July 4th; shocked the world with their relentless pursuit of the Dodgers in 1951 that culminated in Bobby Thomson's (and radio broadcaster Russ Hodges') moment in history; finished second--4½ back--in 1952 without Mays in the line-up, which means they might well have overtaken Brooklyn if they had the Say Hey Kid; and in 1954 won both the franchise's final pennant--their 15th--and World Series--only five--in New York. 

Even though they won only one pennant--and that required a three-game playoff in 1962 against the Los Angeles Dodgers--the 1962-66 Giants are arguably the best Giants team over any five-year period since the move to San Francisco in 1958. In three tight Dodgers-Giants pennant races in '62, '65 and '66 the two teams played to a virtual draw in their regular-season series, an even split in 1962 and 1966 with nine wins each, and the Dodgers held a two-game edge (10 wins to 8) in 1965, which turned out to be exactly LA's pennant-winning margin of victory. The Giants were also in the pennant hunt till the final weekend of the 1964 season, while the Dodgers were out of that race by the mid-season.

This Giants team, especially in retrospect but even at the time, seemed more imposing than their direct contemporary 1962-66 Dodgers. Their core regulars during these years included five future Hall of Fame players—Mays, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Gaylord Perry. (The Dodgers had only two future Hall of Famers among their core regulars; of course, they were Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.) While the Dodgers had superb pitching to compensate for a mediocre offense, San Francisco had a far more powerful offense and their own dominant pitcher in Marichal, who won 18 in 1962 and then had four straight 20-win seasons, including 25 in both 1963 and 1966.  Mays for those exact five years put together the best five-year stretch of any National League position player in history based on the wins above replacement metric for player value, marginally better than Barry Bonds's cumulative WAR from 2000 to 2004. 

Although they won division titles in 1971 and 1987, the Giants' second pennant in San Francisco did not come until 1989. That flag was in a stretch when they finished first in their division only twice in five years between 1986 and 1990 and were otherwise middle of the pack. It wasn't until 2000 to 2004 that the Giants had their first stretch of five straight 90-win seasons since Bill Terry's 1933-37 Giants. The 2000-04 Giants, however, were first in the NL West only twice and won their only pennant during these years in 2002 as the National League's wild card team. Even though they were powered by Barry Bonds at his controversial best, including those 73 home runs in 2001, and second baseman Jeff Kent (through 2002), this San Fran team was never better than second in the league in runs scored (and then, only once).

The Giants are now poised to win their third World Series in five years with a team that finished first in the NL West and won 90 games only twice since 2010, had only the sixth-best record in the National League and the eighth-best in the odd-number years between their pennants, and which won the pennant this season as a wild card team tied with the other NL wild card team--the Pirates--for the fourth-best record in the league. Catcher Buster Posey and third baseman Pablo Sandoval are the only position players who were regulars in manager Bruce Bochy's line-up back in 2010; first baseman Brandon Belt, shortstop Brandon Crawford and right fielder Hunter Pence were there for the Giants' 2012 championship. The Giants have had more continuity on their pitching staff with starting pitchers Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain (who missed most of this season because of injury), Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincicum (who was demoted to the bullpen late season) and relievers Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo (closer in 2012) and Santiago Casilla (closer since mid-season 2014). 

All that now stands in their way is Kansas City, although even with a third Series triumph in five years it would be difficult to call the 2010-14 Giants "dynastic"--at least not yet, what with their disappointing odd-number seasons.


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