The San Francisco Giants won 94 games in 2012, defeated the Reds and Cardinals in the National League playoffs, and swept the Tigers to capture their second World Series in three years.
Then the Giants kept the team almost completely intact, with 21 of the 25 active members of the 2012 World Series roster suiting up for the 2013 Giants. The four who didn't, Xavier Nady, Guillermo Mota, Ryan Theriot and Aubrey Huff, didn't play for anyone.
And why not? The Giants were younger, on average, than the teams they vanquished in the playoffs. But while the Reds, Cardinals and Tigers all look like they're headed back to October baseball, the 2013 Giants are just 71-82, 16.5 games behind the Dodgers and well out of the running.
To find out what happened, I turned to Jon Miller, broadcaster for the Giants since 1997, and one of my all-time favorite voices. To interview Miller, as I did in Bruce Bochy's office Tuesday afternoon, is less about asking him questions, and more about allowing one of the great baseball minds to provide answers in the stream of stories, stats and asides that make his broadcasts so entertaining.
Miller invited me to sit while he dissected the season. A few minutes later, Bochy entered, and Miller asked him if he wanted us to move. Bochy declined, preferring to sit and hear a man describe in detail what went wrong with his team's season, because that man was Jon Miller.
Like any good announcer, Miller set the scene for the team's difficult summer.
"That's the question: how has, with the same cast of characters, the result been so different?" Miller asked, rhetorically. "As a baseball fan, I find that really intriguing.
"May the 25th was one of the great days of the season, one of the great moments of the season," Miller continued, talking about a 6-5 win over the Rockies at AT&T Park. "Bottom of the tenth inning, down by a run with a runner on board, Angel Pagan hits a two-run, inside-the-park home run. Game over! Or, it will be over if he could beat that throw to home!"
Pagan did, and all was well in Giants land, except: Pagan hurt himself on the play.
"Now, he did not play again for three months after that. Not even an inning. And the team at the end of that day, May the 25th, was in a three-way tie for first place with Colorado and Arizona. The Dodgers were dead last. And the Giants had not been playing that well going into that game, they'd been stumbling, but things looked good.
"So in the three-month period when he was out, they went 32-52, which is not like a bad stretch. That's a little more than half a season, being 20 games under .500," Miller said, laughing ruefully as he said it. "That's a 100-loss pace! So I think that was--I'm not saying he should be the MVP of the league. But now they've come into New York, they've won eight of their last eleven... but I think there's one area. They lost their leadoff man, their igniter. And they didn't get anybody else who could fill that role."
But if the Pagan injury served as the biggest contributor to 2013's demise, it was far from the only reason. There's been a falloff in Buster Posey's production this season following his 2012, when he actually did win the MVP of the National League. He's been merely excellent this year, with a 144 OPS+, down from last season's 171. And Miller has a theory about why that makes a lot of sense: Hector Sanchez's shoulder injury.
"Buster finished the season stronger last year," Miller said. "And that's a point that can be overlooked -- they came out of spring training last year, with the switch-hitting catcher, Sanchez, who was a surprise in the spring, very little experience. And he was a switch-hitter. And they really wanted Buster to have regular days off, but also, regular days at first base. He was just coming back from the shattered ankle, surgically-repaired, and all this kind of stuff. And when they saw this guy looked like he could hit big league pitching, they made a big decision."
Keeping Sanchez over Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart, Miller explained, meant Posey's days off were really days off.
"The days when Buster's not catching, and one of those guys is the catcher, now it's the seventh, eighth inning, and you'd pinch-hit [Posey] for them, because neither one was a great hitter. Well now, Buster's the only other catcher. So on his days off, especially when you're trailing, he's gonna end up playing. That's not really the idea, on his days off. Or he's playing first base, when one of the other guys is catching, and Buster's got to move back behind the plate, when he's supposed to be taking it a little more easily at first base."
Sanchez, however, missed much of the 2013 season with a shoulder injury Miller said he sustained in winter ball, and which acted up in spring training. Posey has started an almost identical number of games at catcher this season, but half as many at first. And the difference between Posey's 2012 and 2013 numbers is largely tied up in his 1.102 second half OPS last year, and his .672 second-half OPS this year.
"And maybe that would have happened anyway," Miller allowed. "That's usually the way it is with catchers. As you hit August and September, it's hot. And the legs are going. So maybe that was gonna happen anyway. You couldn't say that it would not happen. But we know it did not happen last year."
Miller also cited the shorter outings by Giants starting pitching leading to an increased workload, and reduced effectiveness, from the bullpen, along with a finger injury that significantly compromised Marco Scutaro's power this season.
But really, wasn't this all academic anyway, in a season where the Dodgers ran off a 52-13 streak and took complete control of the NL West?
"The thing about the Dodgers, earlier on, they were shut down, they were stopped, they were about to fire the manager," Miller said. "And then they had an all-time run. I think that's a story, all by itself: how can something like that happen? The Giants had one similar to that -- in 1912! I told Vin Scully, 'Actually, the Giants had one like this, so how we're looking at it is, it took the Dodgers over a century to equal the Giants' best hot streak. Congratulations, Vin.'"
Miller continued, more seriously, "I don't think I look at it that way. I look at -- how many wins do they have --ten days ago, it looked like they'd end up with 98 wins, and there was no stopping them. But they've lost, what, last four in a row, nine out of 12 or whatever it is-now they may not win 95. So that was always the question: if you're going to beat someone for first place, you're going to have to win more games than they will. I don't think it's about whether the Dodgers came back to earth or not. You just needed to win 90-something games. Maybe you couldn't have beaten the Dodgers with 90 wins. But maybe you could have beaten the Reds or Cardinals, or Pirates for one of those wild card spots."
As Miller sees it, with the Dodgers spending unlimited amounts of money, the task has changed for the Giants, though he noted that they not only spent more than $140 million on player salaries this season, but also paid more than $20 million on the stadium they financed themselves.
"The cost of a superstar bat, or a superstar pitcher, has to go to the mortgage every year," Miller said. "And they still have to put money into revenue sharing -- one of the haves. Or maybe the way they look at it, maybe, they have to write a check to Oakland, write a welfare check to Oakland, which is a different story."
Still, Miller believes the Giants will try and retain both their major free agents, pitcher Tim Lincecum, and outfielder Hunter Pence, who is in the midst of an incredible stretch drive right now. But between fixing things like Posey's backups, and adding offense, Miller doesn't expect the Giants to simply keep the status quo again heading into 2014.
"They need a big bat," Miller said. "They need to figure out Buster. They have some inside guys who need to figure out power. And I think that's it for me. I don't know what the plans are." He looked over at the manager, still listening attentively. "I don't know what Bochy's telling them."