Giants' success with pitching and defense spawns copycats

John Perrotto, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- There has been a sea change in the major leagues during the early part of this millennium.
In 2000, teams averaged 5.14 runs and 1.17 home runs a game. Collectively, the batting average was .270, the on-base percentage was .345 and the slugging percentage was .437.
In 2012, teams scored 4.32 runs and hit 1.02 homers a game while batting .255 with a .319 on-base percentage and a .405 slugging percentage.
Whether it's a lack of juiced players or juiced balls or a multitude of other factors, scoring runs in bunches is no longer what the cool teams do.
"The game has definitely changed," San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy said Tuesday during the Winter Meetings at The Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Resort. "Philosophies have changed. Nobody tries to outslug each other anymore."
The Giants are the perfect example of that.
Barry Bonds played left field for San Francisco for 15 seasons from 1973-87 and hit 586 of his all-time record 762 home runs in that span. However, the Giants won only one National League pennant and no World Series titles during his tenure.
Conversely, the Giants won their second World Series in three seasons this year when they swept the Detroit Tigers.
The Giants ranked just 17th among the 30 major league teams in runs scored with an average of 4.30 a game in 2010, and they came in 12th this year with a 4.43 average. On the other hand, the Giants were second in the majors in runs allowed in 2010 at 3.60 a game and eighth this season with a 4.01 mark.
If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattering, then the Giants should pretty feel good. Plenty of teams are trying to copy their blueprint, including the team across the bay in Oakland.
The Athletics were the surprise champions of the American League West last season, and they took the Tigers to a full five games in an American League Division Series before losing. The A's were 15th in the majors in runs scored at 4.40 a game but sixth in runs allowed with a 3.79 mark.
"That's the way we envision doing things, and we felt like last year if we were going to have success, it would be based on that dynamic," said the Athletics' Bob Melvin, who was voted AL Manager of the Year. "We felt like we were better defensively. We felt like we had pitching depth. How far along these guys were was probably the question in spring training. Now, we started to get some offensive performance in the second half, and things all started to click."
There is no feeling that the Athletics were a one-year wonder, either. They should be serious contenders again in 2013 despite playing in the same division with two powers, the Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Angels.
Four of the five pitchers in Oakland's projected starting rotation were rookies in 2012: left-hander Tom Milone and right-handers Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily.
"It's always going to come down to pitching and defense, and it always does in the postseason on top of that," Melvin said. "That's how you win games. Good pitching usually will keep the hitting down. We feel like as far as that goes, we're ahead of the game, and that's where our strength is, our pitching."
The Tampa Bay Rays led the major leagues in fewest runs allowed this year, giving up 3.56 a game. Though the Rays missed the playoffs, their 90-72 record gave them three more wins than the AL champion Tigers and offset an offense that scored just 4.30 runs a game, standing 18th in the majors.
The Rays have such an excess of pitching that they have been the subject of many trade rumors concerning their starters this week. Many teams reportedly are trying to trade for right-handers James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson and even attempting to pry away lefty David Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner.
Rays manager Joe Maddon admits to getting a little skittish when he hears talk that he might lose one of his starters.
"I've come to grips that it may happen," Maddon said. "Do I want it to happen? Not necessarily. You saw what happened last year. The only reason we won 90 games last season is because our pitching was so dominant and good. For us to be at 90-plus (wins) on an annual basis, we have to pitch that way.
"You're not going to be able to outhit mistakes. You're not going to be able to outhit the other team nightly. We're just not. We're not going to spend that dough to be that group anyway. Furthermore, I think offense has come back (to the pack), and it's going to continue to come back. Defenses and pitching are going to continue to dominate offense, I think, in the future, and not just the near future."
Bochy certainly hopes Maddon is right.
The Giants changed their organizational philosophy after Bonds' final season in 2007. They decided to go away from power -- which doesn't play well at spacious AT&T Park, where the Giants hit just 39 regular-season home runs in 81 games last season -- and emphasize pitching and defense.
Two World Series trophies, the franchise's first since 1954, are proof that the change in thinking was correct.
"I think clubs are really trying to build up their bullpens in particular to improve their pitching staff, but also their defense. There's more attention paid to that, too," Bochy said. "The last thing you want to do is give up more than three outs in an inning, and so I think that's true.
"Instead of trying to slug it out with the other team, play the game, and hopefully you've got a pitching staff that's going to keep you in the game, give you a chance to win. The more often you do that, chances are the more games you're going to win."

What to Read Next