Saturday, October 18, 2014

Giant Years, Part I: Winning the National League's Napoleonic Wars

The San Francisco Giants have advanced to their third World Series in five years, with a chance to also win their third in five years. Should they do so, this San Francisco team would have a legitimate claim to call themselves the best in franchise history over any five-year period--and the Giants franchise is the most successful in the National League since 1901 with their 21 pennants, including this year, the most in major league history after the Yankees' 40. Nearly half of those pennants were won in the first quarter of the 20th century. This Insight is the first of two looking chronologically at the Giants' best teams, beginning with New York's Napoleonic Era--when John McGraw was their manager.. 

Giant Years: Winning the National League's Napoleonic Wars

The Giants were a losing franchise at the time John McGraw defected to New York from the upstart American League in July 1902, where he had been manager of the Baltimore Orioles and had endless conflicts with league president Ban Johnson, but they had a priceless asset in the right arm of one Christy Mathewson. McGraw brought his pitching ace Joe McGinnity and the versatile catcher-outfielder Roger Bresnahan with him from Baltimore, wasting little time building the New York Giants into a baseball powerhouse. 

McGraw's first great team was the 1904-08 Giants, who won back-to-back pennants the first two of those years in dominating fashion: 106 wins and a 13-game margin of victory in 1904 and 105 wins, nine games ahead of their closest competitor, and a World Series championship over Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics in 1905. The Giants then had the misfortunes of having to contend against the 1906-10 Chicago Cubs of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame that won four pennants in five years; having one relatively bad season in the mix--1907, when they were a poor man’s fourth, 25½ games back of the Cubs; and enduring the frustration and heartbreak in 1908 of having a critical late-season victory over the Cubs in a tense three-team race for the pennant taken from them on a technicality because rookie Fred Merkle, running from first, failed to touch second (which was not an unusual practice at the time) on what was otherwise a walk-off game-winning single. With the two teams tied at the end of the 1908 season, the Giants lost the make-up game to the Cubs, who went on to capture the last World Series they would ever win. 

Mathewson was at the peak of his career--vying with the Red Sox' Cy Young as the best pitcher in baseball during these years--with three 30-win seasons, including 37 in 1908, and McGinnity won 35 in 1904 and 27 in 1906 before ending his career in 1908. Third baseman Art Devlin and catcher Bresnahan were the offensive stars on this team, both among the ten best National League position players by the WAR metric between 1904 and 1908. 

Mathewson remained central to McGraw's next great team, the 1910-14 Giants that won three consecutive pennants from 1911 to 1913, all by at least 7½ games and twice winning better than 100, sandwiched between second-place endings. This was McGraw's most dominant team relative to their time. Mathewson won at least 23 games all five of those seasons, Rube Marquard had the three best years of his Hall of Fame pitching career--and his only three 20-win seasons--when the Giants won three straight, Jeff Tesreau won 20 in both 1913 and 1914, and Doc Crandall was the first pitcher to be used by his manager almost exclusively in relief over successive seasons. Second baseman Larry Doyle, who said "It's great to be young and a Giant," was the best position player on a team that led the league in scoring in each of the even-number years between 1910 and 1914. 

The legacy of this team, however, is undermined by the Giants losing all three of their consecutive World Series appearances and was irrevocably damaged by what happened one hundred years ago this season--in 1914, when they were overtaken by the Boston "Miracle" Braves, who surged from last place in late July to win the pennant by 10½ games over McGraw's Guys. Mathewson had the last of his twelve consecutive 20-win seasons in 1914, with a 24-13 record, but it was his least impressive performance. His  ERA of 3.00 was Mathewson's highest since breaking into the starting rotation in 1901, and the Giants’ record indicates that age and fatigue may have caught up with him in the stretch drive of 1914. After July 18, when the Braves began their drive from last place, the Giants were only 9-9 in games started by Mathewson and 5-14 in games started by Marquard, whose record that year was a horrible 12-22.

The Giants won their sixth pennant in 1917, but lost their fourth straight World Series to the White Sox (who would be mired in scandal after consorting to throw the Fall Classic two years later). Despite winning the pennant by a convincing 10 games, the 1917 Giants were a team in transition between the 1910-14 Giants and the 1920-24 Giants

After finishing second in 1920, McGraw's Giants became the first major league team in history--including the 19th century--to win four straight pennants. They also won the World Series in 1921 and 1922, and--but for catcher Hank Gowdy tripping over his mask and failing to catch a foul pop and a pebble or divot causing a bad hop over rookie teenage third baseman Freddie Lindstrom's head--the Giants might have won the 1924 World Series as well. Four of the Giants' six core position players during these years are in the Hall of Fame. Frankie Frisch, a versatile infielder who didn’t settle full-time at second base until 1923, is beyond question deserving of his Cooperstown enshrinement, but the selections of first baseman George Kelly, shortstop Dave Bancroft and right fielder Ross Youngs--all eventually voted in by the Veterans Committee--remain controversial.

While indisputably the best team in the National League during these years, the Giants were hardly a dominant team when winning four in a row between 1921 and 1924. Only in 1923 were the Giants relatively comfortably ahead for most of the season, and in 1924 the Giants squandered the 9½-game lead they held on August 8 to spend all of September never more than two games ahead of pennant rivals Brooklyn and Pittsburgh. As was typical of McGraw teams, this Giants team won with a combination of the best overall offense and some of the best pitching in the league. While Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees in the early 1920s were offending McGraw’s "scientific baseball" sensibilities with their power game, the Giants were not averse to playing such a game themselves. The Giants were consistently one of the NL’s top teams in extra-base hits and were first or second in the league in slugging percentage each of the four years they won the pennant. 

These were the last pennants won by John McGraw, baseball's Napoleon, giving the Giants 10 pennants but only three World Series championships in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Next UP: Giant Years since their Napoleonic Era

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