Spring training is here and on social media and in the press fans of the San Francisco Giants are already projecting their team to be holding up the Commissioner's Trophy at the end of the 2016 season. Why? Not necessarily because the team added Johnny Cueto, Denard Span and Jeff Samardzija, but because Bruce Bochy's club has taken the title each of the past three even-numbered years.
Of course, one would presume it to be an overwhelming quirky coincidence that San Francisco has raised the flag for the 2010, 2012 and 2014 teams while missing the playoffs entirely in 2011, 2013 and 2015. But just how much of an even-year juggernaut are Buster Posey and friends?
To figure this out from a strictly standings-oriented view, I compiled each team's win-loss record for all even years since 2010 and compared it to the record in odd years.
The Reds actually outpace the Giants in terms of improvement from odd to even years, but Cincinnati starts from a lower base. The White Sox match San Francisco's even-year bump, but also start out below .500 in odd years. Not only have the Giants played above .500 over the past three odd years, but they also have compiled a .564 win percentage in even years, tying the Yankees for best record in such games over that span.
As you can see from the bottom of that list, its equally possible to compile sterling records in odd years while flubbing the even ones. Maybe the Diamondbacks, Pirates and Red Sox should build for 2017?
The Giants' even-year prominence isn't really a recent phenomenon. If you go back to 1998 (the last expansion year), San Francisco has actually played .026 better ball in even years, equivalent to about four wins more per season.
As every stat geek knows, the further back in history you go, the closer all teams tend to regress to and cluster around .500, regardless of even or odd year. The even-year Giants dynamo of 2010-14 dissipates to a franchise that historically has played just slightly worse in even years (by .005, roughly .8 of a win per season). Looking at these long-term records, maybe fans in San Diego ought to be more optimistic this year.
So, if we discount "it's just an even year" for the Giants' trophies in 2010, 2012 and 2014 and playoff misses in odd years, what did contribute to the pattern?
2010: Posey and free agent scrap-heap gems: Aubrey Huff, coming off a down 2009, signs a cheap free agent deal for one year at $3 million, and proceeds to lead team in homers (26), RBIs (86), OBP (.385) and WAR (5.7). Posey, who got a cup of coffee in 2009, gets called up for good on May 29 and compiles a .305/.357/.505 line good for 3.9 WAR in 108 games. That same day, they sign the recently released 33-year-old Pat Burrell, and he turns his .625 OPS season around, generating a .872 OPS for San Francisco.
2011: The injury bug chomps the champs: Based on data compiled by Jeff Zimmermann at The Hardball Times, only once in the six-year span did the Giants surpass the league average in days lost to the disabled list. That year happened to be an odd one, when the Giants lost 971 days to the DL, 13 percent higher than the MLB average. Posey appeared in only 45 games after suffering ankle ligament tears and a fractured leg in a home plate collision. Pablo Sandoval (hamate bone), Barry Zito (shoulder) and Freddy Sanchez (dislocated shoulder) all miss significant time. The now 34-year-old Huff, re-signed to a two-year deal, turns back into a pumpkin (.676 OPS, down 215 points from 2010).
2012: Veteran pitching contributions and two big playoff comebacks: San Francisco gets a 15-win season out of 34-year-old Zito (in spite of a 4.49 FIP) and 14 more wins from 34-year-old Ryan Vogelsong. Brandon Belt becomes the regular first baseman and contributes a 123 OPS+. The team beats the Reds in five games in the Division Series, coming back from a 2–0 deficit by sweeping three games in Cincinnati. They then defeat the Cardinals in seven games after overcoming a 3-1 deficit, before sweeping the Tigers to win the World Series.
2013: Veteran pitching failures and sporadic offense: Zito and Vogelsong go from a combined 29 wins to nine. Matt Cain, having logged 882 innings of 2.93 ERA ball with 55 wins over the prior four years, turns in an 8-10, 4.00 campaign. Angel Pagan, 31, in the first year of a four-year deal, plays in only 71 games after tearing a hamstring. Despite finishing fourth in the league in batting average, the offense manages zero or one run in 37 games, third-most in the majors.
2014: League-average pop for a change, cracking the Morse code and a MadBum rush: The Giants rank seventh in the league in homers, finishing in the top half of the league for first time since 2010. Mike Morse, who compiled a .651 OPS as a 31-year-old in 2013, signs a free agent deal, takes over in left field and runs up a .811 OPS. Joe Panik makes his big league debut and tallies a .305 average in 73 games. Madison Bumgarner sets career highs in wins (18), innings pitched (217 1/3), strikeouts (219) and WAR (5.3). He then blazes through the postseason with a 1.03 ERA in 52 2/3 innings, including the famous five-inning relief appearance on two days of rest in Game 7 of the World Series.
2015: Past-prime talent, injured pitchers doom Giants: 32-year-old Casey McGehee, with 1.5 career WAR in six seasons, is acquired and replaces Sandoval as the Opening Day third baseman. He limps along with a .595 OPS and lasts three months before being released. Jake Peavy (age 34), having been acquired the prior year, is re-signed to a two-year deal and logs only 19 starts. Nori Aoki (age 33) is signed as a free agent and contributes an underwhelming 104 OPS+ in 93 games. Cain, Peavy, Tim Lincecum and 39-year-old Tim Hudson all spend time on the disabled list.
So what will 2016 hold? Over the past six seasons, the club has managed to inject prospects onto its major league roster (Panik, Brandon Crawford, Belt, Bumgarner, Matt Duffy). However, the Giants have often gone a year too long with free agent signings, and none of their big three acquisitions for 2016 is under 30. The National League West appears up for grabs, and one would expect that even with the money shelled out this past offseason, general manager Bobby Evans won't hesitate to wheel and deal if the Giants are in contention come late July. Let's hope he displays some caution on the transaction wire.