For the first time in decades, the San Francisco Giants found themselves in a strange position during the 2011 MLB season as the defending World Series champions. They didn’t handle the pressure very well, finishing 8 games out of first place in the National League West—and four games out of the wild-card playoff spot, as well. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying, of course, in their newly accustomed ways.
The House That Steroids Built was packed to the brim after being pretty empty since Barry Bonds had retired after the 2007. In order to keep the fans in the seats, the team had to be creative, and we use that term loosely, of course. Losing their star attraction to an injury in May didn’t help, either. That the team was scuffling at .500 by the start of May didn’t make anything better, so enter the usual chicanery, disguised in the following ways.
Exhibit A: Nate Schierholtz
The Giants have enjoyed the local-boy-makes-good mythos aplenty (see Brandon Crawford), and Schierholtz was a prime example of this a long time ago. A mediocre talent at best, the outfielder enjoyed his finest season in an S.F. uniform, just when they needed it most. Overall, he would post a mediocre .729 OPS in six seasons with the Giants (2007-2012) before the team dumped him on the Philadelphia Phillies when his trade value was highest (i.e., after the 2011 season).
In 2010, he was an afterthought, getting just 227 ABs to the tune of a .676 OPS. But when the S.F. organization found itself floundering, what would work better than the local boy starting to “find his stroke”? Schierholtz posted a .756 OPS in 335 ABs during this season, 54 points higher than his prior best over a “full” season. His .278 average, 9 HRs, and 41 RBI were all career bests, too, at that point. We know he was 27 years old, so the counterargument could be this was just his prime years starting.
If that was the case, however, the Giants would have kept him beyond the 2012 season (when he actually regressed from his peak strangely fast). It seems somehow that Schierholtz’s 2011 “success” wasn’t sustainable, and the organization flipped him while it could, to acquire Hunter Pence, no less, who was actually pretty bad and in decline before he came to San Francisco. We’re guessing Schierholtz didn’t like the direction he was headed with the Giants, and he chose a different pathway forward.
Exhibit B: Ryan Vogelsong
This is one of the most laughable examples of crookedness we’ve ever seen, as this guy was a joke of a player during his first and second stints in MLB, with two different teams. Then, after missing four full MLB seasons off in oblivion, he suddenly comes to The House That Steroids Built and becomes an All-Star pitcher at age 33 years old. Who wants to buy the movie rights to this one? Yeah, we didn’t think so. The numbers below prove how laughable this proposition is once you look at the facts.
From 2000-2006, Vogelsong scuffled away multiple shots in the majors with both the Giants (2000-2001) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (2001, 2003-2006). His numbers in those seasons combined, which ended when he was 28 years old? Let’s see: a 10-27 record, a 5.95 ERA, and a 1.644 WHIP over 349-plus innings. Vogelsong was clearly not a MLB talent, despite several chances to prove so. But guess what happened when he came back from nowhere to pitch for the San Francisco organization in 2011?
Yep, you guessed it. Hitherto unknown and unseen levels of success, and the reward of Manager Bruce Bochy picking him for the 2011 All-Star team! At age 33, Vogelsong posted a 13-7 record, with a 2.71 ERA and a 1.252 WHIP for the Giants after being out of the majors since 2006. Must have been that amazing coaching staff, right? That was the narrative sold to the schmucks in San Francisco who bought tickets by the bushel to see their “heroes” play ball, but statistics don’t lie, and we know better than this.
Exhibit C: Ramón Ramírez
We know you have no idea who this is, and you shouldn’t, so it’s no big deal. We will tell you, though, nonetheless: He’s no one, really, although he was a moderately effective reliever for several teams in his career (23-21 record, 3.42 ERA, 1.288 WHIP). But like so many players we’ve examined here in this miniseries, he was at his best toward the end of his career with the Giants—fitting the established pattern of random players peaking past their primes in the City by the Bay.
His best full season was 2011—2.62 ERA in 68 2/3 IP—with San Francisco, of course, and it was the last good season of his career that would end very soon thereafter. But here’s the rub: The Giants got him from the Boston Red Sox during the stretch run in 2010, and he posted a 0.67 ERA in 25 appearances, and then continued his hitherto unknown levels of success into 2011. He had been pretty bad in Boston prior to coming to The House That Steroids Built: 4.46 ERA in 42 1/3 IP.
He may or may not have been a Fenway Fraud; we will examine that later, but he clearly liked what the S.F. organization was serving in the clubhouse. Ramírez left the Giants to pitch for the New York Mets in 2012, and he immediately saw his ERA inflate to 4.24 in almost 64 innings. Even though S.F. tried to bring him back in 2013, he only pitched 6 2/3 more innings in his career after flaming out with the Mets. But posting that 2.07 ERA for the Giants in 2010 and 2011 combined is pretty damning.
Conclusion: The need to be competitive or lose the bandwagon fans willing to overlook anything for a winner
This is anecdotal, but telling: We were covering Bay Area MLB teams at the time for a now-defunct website, before our stint with CBS started in 2012. We went to the Giants “Fan Fest” in February 2010, before the team won its first World Series, and we waited in line with a friend for a Tim Lincecum-signed baseball—for a whole 5 minutes. The Freak was coming off two Cy Young seasons in a row, whether deserved or not, and we only had to spend a few moments in line waiting for a prized treasure.
Our friend went back to the 2011 event a year later, after S.F. won the World Series for the first time since 1954, and that same line for the same prize was suddenly 5.5 hours long. The event itself only lasted 6 hours, so think quickly about how that would work. The Giants were suddenly that popular again, and the money was rolling in. How could the Giants even stop pretending they knew they had to cheat in order to sustain financial viability? They learned it with Bonds—and the subsequent attendance/disinterest lull.
Vogelsong personifies this practice for the S.F. organization: No MLB organization would have taken a flier on a guy like that, but the Giants turned him into an All-Star player, even though that is a laughable designation in this case. Remember the ESPN line we highlighted? Play-Doh Extractor of Pitching Excellence. Vogelsong is the poster boy for that nonsense, which anyone can see goes back deep into history at The House That Steroids Built.