The baseball commentariat didn't like the San Francisco Giants' odds going into this year. Nor did it like them going into the stretch run, as they were behind the similar, but seemingly more talented, San Diego Padres in the NL West. Nor did it like them much going into the Division Series, the Championship Series or the World Series. Which surely makes the wins all the sweeter, and the triumph all the more deserved.
Just how much of a surprise is the Giants' first championship since moving to San Francisco? Putting a number on this isn't actually as hard as one might think. There are three factors that make a team a surprise, or none at all: The actual strength of the team, its star power and its position going into the stretch run. A fundamentally mediocre team with few stars and a low payroll that enters the late season in a tight race will, if it wins the Series, stun everyone. A terrific team with lots of pricey veterans that leads the race all year will not.
To assign an actual value to different teams, we can represent these three basic factors in a quick and dirty model. The first number following each team below is their
The suggestive point here might be this: The teams in the upper part of this list, the most surprising champions of the wild card era, all built on their success in the years following their championships. With their bright young pitching stars, impressive young catcher Buster Posey and the riches of Northern California at their disposal, the Giants have every chance to make this year the start of something, rather than an isolated high point. Baseball's best team in 2010 might be a fluke, but one doubts it.
Their second world championship came in the second winning season the Marlins ever had. Without even accounting for their inglorious history, though, no team has ever offered better evidence that anything can happen if you just make it to October. The cheapest Series winners of the wild card era, they entered the stretch run in third place in the NL East and were just as talented as you would expect a team whose best player was Luis Castillo to be. None of it stopped them from winning a pennant at Wrigley Field and a world title at Yankee Stadium, quite something for a team with teal and fish on their uniforms.
The Cardinals spent much of the aughts winning a tidy 95 games per year and -- why not? -- only managed to win it all the year they won 83 games. No team boasting a core of Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Chris Carpenter could ever be called undeserving champions, but however much better they were than their record in theory, they were a gravely flawed team in practice, and their victory was a shock.
We think of the Phillies as a rich pseudo-dynasty, the National League's answer to the Red Sox, after their run of late. It's easy to forget that just two years ago they were moderate spenders who only won the NL East after prevailing in a tight race with the Mets. Roy Oswalt was their second best starter this year; in 2008 it was a 45-year-old Jamie Moyer.
The 2002 American League West was one of the stiffer divisions in memory; the Seattle Mariners won 93 and finished in third, 10 games out. This is a lot of what made that year's wild-card-winning Angels so impressive -- just escaping the division with no real money and no true stars, let alone winning it all, was enough to stun the world.
The weaknesses of this year's Giants can be, and have been, overstated. They didn't hit much, ranking just seventh in normalized OPS, but they outscored their opponents by more than almost any other team, and that works just as well. That said, they entered the stretch run 3 1/2 games out of first and in a tight three-way race for the wild card; their run through the playoffs may be less surprising than the fact that they made it there at all.
The White Sox brought America's best baseball town its first trophy in nearly 90 years with a team that rolled in the standings all year and crushed in October so badly it could have done without a bullpen. They rate as highly as they do here mainly because the club was a reflection of South Side baseball's traditional thrift.
Calling a dynastic Yankees team anything like a surprise may seem farcical, but it's occasionally forgotten that the 2000 club wasn't really all that good by championship standards. A September funk and miserable seasons from core veterans like Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius had the Yanks looking dead as the postseason started. None of it mattered when it counted.
This collection of esteemed veterans was brought together to win a World Series and did so. In retrospect, the most surprising thing about their season may have been that they ranked so low in payroll, given that they were enjoying the primes of such Hall of Fame-caliber players as Kevin Brown and Gary Sheffield, as well as Hall of the Very Good types like Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou and Al Leiter.
Like their Marlin predecessors, this was a collection of famous veterans assembled to bring a quick World Series win to an expansion team, and it wasn't shocking that they actually did it. An amazing note: Put this year's Roy Halladay on this team, and he would have been the third-best starter in any sense you can name, behind Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.
The last Yankees team to have anything like the aura of the underdog, the 1996 model was in fact a highly paid and largely veteran team that was, and should have been, expected to win. Which did not make the sight of Wade Boggs cavorting on a horse after they had beaten the defending champion Braves any less thrilling to the faithful.
Of course there are things a simple model can't capture, and one could rightly say that these were the very most surprising winners of them all. That they were, in a sense, the crowning achievement of a line of sabermetric thought stretching back to Branch Rickey made their win all the more charming.
The dynastic Braves' first championship came in a strike-shortened year when they were clearly the best team in the National League, and played like it. The only surprise was that they never followed on with another title.
Baseball does not, generally, give us seasons like this one, where the team everyone expects to win does so, with seemingly no effort at all. That they were able to run through the majors like an especially good basketball team running through the NBA is the best testament to just how good Joe Torre's team was.
There is no distinction to be made among these teams, all of which were by consensus the best in baseball going into their championship years, and all of which were paid and played like it. Being able to field teams like these is the goal of every franchise, and for as much grief as the Yankees and Red Sox get from fans of other clubs, all fans should admire the excellence they've been able to sustain.