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Thursday, November 1, 2012
What we learned from the 2012 postseason

By David Schoenfield

Tim Lincecum
Having a weapon like Tim Lincecum was a huge advantage for the Giants in the postseason.

The offseason is already in full swing, but I wanted to put a bow of sorts on the 2012 season. Let's take one final look at the 2012 postseason and see what we learned ... if anything.

1. Starting rotation depth is vital. The Giants' rotation depth was certainly a huge factor in their World Series run. Tim Lincecum pitched most of the postseason out of the bullpen, but he did make one start in the NLCS; that allowed Bruce Bochy to skip Madison Bumgarner and when Bumgarner made his World Series start on 10 days of rest, he pitched much better after looking fatigued in previous outings. Having five quality starters gives a manager flexibility -- whether using one of those pitchers out of the bullpen or to rest a tired or struggling starter. One of the key games of the postseason was Game 4 of the Division Series, when Barry Zito got knocked out in the third inning. Bochy could afford a quick hook because he had Lincecum, who pitched 4.1 innings of one-run relief.

Of course, every team wants rotation depth. The Nationals had five good ones, but squandered that advantage by electing not to use Stephen Strasburg. The Reds had four good starters, but had to use No. 5 starter Mike Leake once Johnny Cueto was injured. The Cards were able to bounce 18-game winner Lance Lynn from the bullpen back to the rotation after Jaime Garcia was injured (although Lynn pitched poorly). The 2009 Yankees used only three starters in the postseason, but they're the only team to do so since the 1991 Twins. I don't think we'll see that again, and we're more likely to see five-man rotations moving forward, as managers account for the long grind of the regular season and the high-intensity efforts required to get through playoff games.

Matt Cain, Lincecum and Bumgarner were all first-round picks -- Cain the 25th pick in 2002, Lincecum the 10th pick in 2006 and Bumgarner the 10th pick in 2007. Those three -- along with Buster Posey (another first-round pick) and Pablo Sandoval (an amateur signing out of Venezuela) -- are the heart of the Giants. In his excellent wrap of the World Series, Joe Sheehan wrote in his newsletter:
The catch: It's not so easy to draft a rotation of All-Stars.

Here's one way to look at that. In the past three seasons, 71 different starting pitchers have accumulated at least one season with 3.0 WAR (via Baseball-Reference.com). Only 24 of those 71 had at least two 3-WAR seasons. Only 13 of those 24 compiled both (or all three) seasons with the team that originally drafted or signed them -- Justin Verlander (3), Clayton Kershaw (3), Jered Weaver (3), Cole Hamels (3), Felix Hernandez (3), Cain (3), Mark Buehrle (3, two with the White Sox), Cueto (2), C.J. Wilson (2, both with the Rangers), David Price (2), Lincecum (2), Jon Lester (2) and Josh Johnson (2).

You see where I've gone here: It's difficult to draft a homegrown rotation. In Cain and Lincecum, the Giants have two of 13 of a rare breed. Plus they have Bumgarner, who has compiled 3.9 WAR over the past two seasons, but 8.7 WAR via FanGraphs' calculations.

Building a homegrown rotation might be the goal, but the reality is the Giants are the exception. Most teams will have to piece together a rotation via all the means possible -- finding a Ryan Vogelsong off the scrap heap, acquiring an undervalued talent like Doug Fister, trading prospects for a young rotation anchor like Gio Gonzalez, or signing a veteran free agent.

2. Lineup depth matters. As Dave Cameron wrote on FanGraphs:
When Victor Martinez tore up his knee in an offseason workout, the Tigers elected to give $23 million in 2012 to Prince Fielder. His bat went cold in the playoffs, but Fielder pretty much performed as expected during the regular season. The Tigers, however, had glaring holes throughout the lineup, holes that were obvious on paper heading into the season -- second base, designated hitter, corner outfield. The Giants certainly had some wasted payroll ($16 million spent on Aubrey Huff and Freddy Sanchez), but they essentially used their Fielder money on Melky Cabrera ($6 million), Angel Pagan ($4.85 million) and portions of the Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro contracts.

As Dave wrote, "The Giants simply didn’t ask any bad players to play vital roles in October. What they lacked at the top end of the roster, they made up for at the back-end. Despite the fact that it’s an overused cliche, the Giants really did win through a team effort. And they won because the roster was smartly constructed to avoid pitfalls."

If there's one thing to be learned from the Giants' roster construction, it's that $23 million can be wisely spent on depth as opposed to one star player. Fielder was worth 4.4 WAR to the Tigers; Cabrera, Pagan, Pence and Scutaro provided 10.9 WAR to the Giants.

3. Not striking out is the new on-base percentage. The Giants famously finished last in the NL in home runs -- last in the majors, for that matter. Some of that power outage is attributable to their home park, and to the fact that they play a large percentage of their road games in San Diego and Los Angeles, two more pitcher's parks. But the Giants hit doubles and triples (they led the majors in three-baggers), they run the bases well, were decent at drawing walks, and ranked third in the NL in batting average.

In fact, their home park masked what was actually an excellent offensive team. While the Giants ranked just sixth in the NL in runs scored overall, they scored 46 more runs on the road than any other NL team. Remarkably, only the Angels scored more runs on the road. We saw throughout the postseason how they were able to do this: They battle, put the ball in play and put pressure on the defense to make plays. Only the Phillies had fewer strikeouts among NL teams.

If there's one trend that develops from this postseason, this might be it. Not striking out doesn't necessarily make you a productive a hitter, however. For the Giants, it was a means to their productivity. The three teams that struck out the fewest times in the majors were the Royals, Twins and Indians (which maybe implies the lack of quality pitching in the AL Central more than anything else) and they finished 12th, 10th and 13th in the AL in runs scored.

4. Winning the division is paramount. There's no doubt the second wild card played out as baseball officials intended: Force teams to win the division title. Just ask the Rangers.

5. Bullpen depth. Nothing new here. Of course, more important than bullpen depth is having a hot bullpen. The Cardinals' pen struggled much of 2011, but put it together at the right time. The Giants ranked eighth in the NL in bullpen ERA during the season, but their top five relievers -- Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez plus Lincecum -- allowed four runs (three earned) in 44 innings in the postseason. One major key was having Affeldt, a lefty who isn't strictly a LOOGY. Having a left-hander you're not afraid to use against right-handed batters is a huge weapon, as it allows you to stretch out the back end of the pen a little more without worrying so much about specific matchups.

6. Hope for all teams. The Giants weren't a great team. They ranked sixth in runs scored and sixth in runs allowed in the NL. They had the 10th-best run differential in the majors. They won 94 games despite Lincecum's terrible regular season, injuries to closer Brian Wilson and Sandoval, plus Melky Cabrera's suspension. Other than Cabrera (and possibly Posey), nobody had a career season. Scutaro did hit an otherworldly .362 after joining the team. The point is this: You don't need to build a super team full of high-priced free agents to win the World Series. Don't get me wrong -- the Giants did spend at least $10 million on four players (Zito, Lincecum, Cain and Huff), but those four provided only 1.3 WAR during the regular season (Zito and Lincecum obviously stepped up in the playoffs).

But what the Giants did should provide hope for all teams out there. With good draft picks, smart trades, a lucky signing or two (like Ryan Vogelsong) and the willingness to pick up a little extra payroll during the season, any organization can build a World Series contender, even if you can't afford the high-priced free agents.

7. Luck is maybe the biggest factor of all. In the end, all you have to do is get into the postseason. From there, play well, get hot and hope you catch some breaks. Think of all the breaks the Giants got along the way to their title: Cueto's injury, Brandon Phillips' base-running gaffe, Scott Rolen's error, the Nationals not using Strasburg (which could have turned the Nats-Cardinals series), even facing a mediocre Tigers team (seventh-best record in the AL) in the World Series.

Each of the first four Division Series could have gone the other way but for a single play here and there. Pagan said as much after one World Series game, saying the Giants might not even be here if not for Rolen's error. But it's also true that good teams take advantage of opportunities given to them. The Giants did that and are World Series champs for the second time in three seasons.