Commentary

Giants were smart, not lucky

Updated: October 30, 2012, 4:12 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

The final pitch of the World Series, a fastball down the middle from Sergio Romo that Miguel Cabrera took for strike three, is being held up as the ultimate and complete encapsulation of everything you need to know about the 2012 San Francisco Giants. Gutsy, arrogant, unexpected -- one pitch from a short, skinny dude to the most powerful hitter in baseball epitomized a team that didn't know its place. You could hear it everywhere, from your living room to the tone in Joe Buck's voice: He got away with one there.

[+] EnlargeSergio Romo
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesSergio Romo's final pitch worked because it was a smart call.

That seems to be the overriding message of the world champion Giants: They got away with one there. They got away with one by winning three straight in Cincinnati, and they got away with one by winning three straight against the Cardinals, and they got away with one by catching the Tigers in some sort of mental and physical pre-hibernation sloth, as if all those big bodies sensed a seasonal change and just needed to lie down for a minute.

So nice of Romo to provide such a handy and symbolic means of telling the whole story in one 89 mph fastball. It tells the story of baseball's most unlikely mini-dynasty of the past 50 years (at least), and it tells it in the most extreme way possible: The most physically unimposing player on either roster staring down the biggest and baddest hitter on the planet and freezing him solid with a challenge fastball that practically cackled on its way to the plate.

But the lesson to be learned is not the one people are intent on teaching. Any attempts to paint Romo's pitch -- and, by extension, the Giants' run to the title -- as luck or trickery or some other form of the black arts is to miss the point, which is this: The Giants were better, and they were better because they were smarter.

The prevailing storyline -- the Giants as quirky underdogs whose run to the title made no sense -- was turned on its head in the World Series. Everything about it, down to the last pitch, made perfect sense.

If Romo is a symbol of anything, and if the Giants are a symbol of anything, it's that baseball is as much brains as brawn. Romo didn't get lucky with a gutsy pitch. That pitch, in that situation, was unhittable. Romo set Cabrera up with five sliders -- a pitch that rivals Mariano Rivera's cutter as a singular weapon -- and then threw the one pitch that Cabrera had no chance of hitting.

Romo did what the best pitchers do: execute with surprise. There's a growing concept in baseball called "effective velocity," which is a theory devised by a really smart man named Perry Husband, who has analyzed every pitch thrown in baseball for the past several years. It's extremely involved and somewhat scientific, but it's based on the idea that a pitcher establishes a hitter's "attention" with velocity, pitch selection and location. It takes into account common-sense factors -- a 90 mph fastball on a hitter's hands is effectively faster than a 95 mph fastball away -- and what Romo did was textbook. The sliders lowered Cabrera's "attention" -- the speed Cabrera was expecting -- and then exceeded it with an 89 mph fastball that got past Cabrera before he could react.

Forget the radar gun; the "effective velocity" of that pitch rivaled any pitch Justin Verlander threw all season. Romo can't throw that pitch three times in a row and get away with it, but it's the perfect pitch to follow five sliders, especially against a guy who is fully capable of hitting a slider off the plate over the right-field wall for a game-tying home run.

That's the real story of the Giants: There was a lot happening beneath the obvious. Take Marco Scutaro. He was a huge surprise, right? The most unexpected hero of the postseason? Sure, but only to a degree. He had the best contact rate in baseball this season, and guys who put the ball in play find themselves on streaks in which it looks, in the parlance of the broadcast booth, like "everything's falling in." The fact that he got on one such streak at precisely the right time was fortuitous but statistically reasonable.

Did the Giants get away with one or two along the way? Maybe, but doesn't every championship team? Given their unusual path and the prevailing notion of the Tigers' perceived offensive supremacy, the Giants are probably destined to go down in history as somewhat of a fluke, a team that got hot at the right time and had a manager who made all the right moves and a pitching staff that made all the right pitches. But when history is written, there should be room for one footnote: Like a Romo fastball, there was more to them than meets the eye.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com