Today on the The House That Steroids Built miniseries, we’re looking at the last season before the San Francisco Giants finally managed to cheat their way to the elusive World Series title that had escaped them for 55 seasons. Barry Bonds was two years into retirement, and the organization needed money still to pay off huge loans. What could they do? You guessed it.
The San Francisco Giants learned with Bonds that they could cheat, profit from it, and not be punished by MLB for their sins. So, why would they ever have stopped? It paid off in 2010 with the organization’s first Wold Series title in 1954. Reality was the Giants had been an utter failure in the City by the Bay, making the postseason just 4 times (1962, 1971, 1987, 1989) between the move west and the next 40 seasons. Go figure.
How does this season fit into the scheme? Read on to find out …
Exhibit A: Pablo Sandoval
In 2007, Sandoval was scuffling in the lower minors, to the tune of a .788 OPS in High-A ball. Miraculously, though, he discovered how to hit in 2008, posting a .972 OPS in High-A and Double-A ball. That was enough to earn him a promotion to the big club in San Francisco, in the midst of its fourth-straight losing season—and the first since 1992 without Barroid in the lineup. Sandoval was a revelation for the Giants at the tender young age of 21 with his .847 OPS in 41 games.
In 2009, his first full season in the majors, Sandoval had the best season of his career which he was never able to match again, somehow. He literally set career highs in every offensive category! Forget his peak years of age 27 to age 31: This was it for Pabloato. It was all downhill from here. How can we explain his sudden ability to hit in 2008 and 2009 after not being able to beforehand? And then his gradual decline from a peak age of just 22? This sounds a lot like Buster Posey, in truth.
Sandoval had weight problems, of course, but the fact is he had a .783 OPS in over 500 minor-league games, and then suddenly he was a productive major leaguer somehow. This gets back to what Baseball Prospectus called “Giants devil magic” years ago: “There’s a drug of sorts—Giants devil magic, it’s come to be called—that turns underappreciated college infielders into first-division regulars for the team that shares its name.” Except Sandoval never went to college.
We suspect Manager Bruce Bochy had something to do with this, after he left the San Diego Padres—where he enabled Ken Caminiti and PED use in the mid-1990s to reach a World Series—and brought his “talents” to San Francisco. This was Year 3 of the Bochy Era, and some things just continued from the Bonds era that ended after the 2007 season. Business as usual by the Bay, and it got this squad to 88 wins out of nowhere with a cast of nobodies and rejects. Sound familiar?
Exhibit B: Juan Uribe
The Colorado Rockies gave up on this guy after the 2003 season, because he posted just a .706 OPS in 314 games for them over three MLB seasons. You know what they say, too? If you can’t hit in Colorado … well, ask Marco Scutaro how that works when you end up with the Giants. But we digress: Uribe then spent five seasons with the Chicago White Sox in a hitter’s park, but he still managed just a .724 OPS there over 672 games. He clearly was not a very good hitter.
Even his glove was merely above average: 4.4 dWAR with the White Sox over those 672 games. So why would the S.F. organization sign an age-30 player with no bat and a merely sold glove to a two-year contract worth over $4M? Good question. Bochy must have known he could “work” with Uribe, who was desperate to extend a mediocre career, despite winning the 2005 World Series with Chicago.
You know what happened, right? Uribe posted a full-season, career-best .824 OPS with the Giants in a pitcher’s park, meeting that same Giants devil magic threshold defined above right about the time he should have been close to starting his decline from an already-low perch. Overall, his .781 OPS with the Giants in 2009-2010 outdoes his career OPS (.719) by quite a lot, and he did it in a pitcher’s park in his early 30s. Yes, we’re sure this was all natural. Ahem.
Exhibit C: Brandon Medders
Seriously, we had no idea who this guy was when we started perusing the Giants’ 2009 roster. You probably don’t know him, either. Medders was a solid reliever for the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2005-2008, notching a 3.52 ERA over 135 games and 151 innings. But the S.F. organization signed him for his age-29 season even though he only had pitched 49 innings the prior two seasons to the tune of a 4.41 ERA. He seemed like damaged goods, really, for whatever reason(s).
However, Medders miraculously rebounded with the Giants to post a 3.01 ERA in 68 2/3 IP. He was not able to sustain this success past this one season, however, and he was out of the majors for good by the end of 2010, when he tossed just 15 IP for San Francisco, with a 7.20 ERA. This is not a case of a guy with chronic injuries, either. This is just a weird anomaly in his record. Medders was best when he broke into MLB at age 25 with the D’backs, and then he was very inconsistent afterward.
So, how did he put together the season of his life in 2009 with the Giants organization? We don’t know. It could be a fluke season; they happen. But when conextualized with all the other data we have, it seems awfully fishy. Again, not every player wants to cheat … sometimes they try it and just realize it’s not for them, whether mentally or physically.
Exhibit D: Bob Howry
At age 35, he was coming off the worst season (5.35 ERA) of his career in 2008, with the Chicago Cubs. But S.F. gave him almost $3M any way to come to The House That Steroids Built, and Howry ended up recovering nicely (3.39 ERA). But the Giants didn’t want to keep him at that price, and he was out of the majors forever after a 2010 season split between the D’backs (10.67 ERA) and Cubs (5.66 ERA). What do we make of this, in contextual layers we can peel back like the proverbial onion?
We realize Howry was at the end of his career, and he probably realized it, too. Players in this position try to squeeze one more contract out at the end, as a quick cash grab, if they can. And Howry did that with San Francisco. He also was moving from a hitter’s park in Wrigley Field to a pitcher’s stadium with the Giants. But there is something more than that here: Again, organizational philosophies are clearly on display to the public—and definitely whispered about among the players themselves.
This may be supposition, but maybe Howry thought he could try the stuff out and see if it worked for him. Or maybe his 2009 was just a fluke, too, like Medders’ season might have been. But to get fluke seasons from both players in completely different career spots in the same season is just a little too coincidental for us, under the long-term circumstances and realities.
Conclusion: Examining Bochy’s role in all this
Remember, the Giants had four straight losing seasons from 2005-2008. Bochy signed on in 2007 in the final year of Bonds’ career to manage the circus, but he already had a reputation as an enabler from his time with Caminiti in San Diego: “Bruce Bochy, Caminiti’s manager with the Padres, chooses to remember the moment that defined Caminiti’s strength and determination, rather than his weaknesses, a game in his MVP season played in Monterrey, Mexico, against the New York Mets.”
Of course, he did. Notice the deflection there in his comments after Caminiti’s death? Sounds a lot like Dusty Baker, doesn’t it? The Giants hired Bochy because he was down with PED use, period. Bochy took the job, because he felt he could win in San Francisco whereas his resources were limited in San Diego. Ironically, Bochy had the worst intra-division record of any manager in MLB history when he took the S.F. job. So why else would the Giants go after him?
Let’s remember who the Giants manager was between Dusty and Bochy: the old-school Felipe Alou. In four seasons (2003-2006), Alou posted an overall 342-304 record, including the 2003 NL West Division title. He was actually a better manager than Bochy was while in San Francisco, based on winning percentage. But again, “old school” means something that didn’t jibe with Bonds and The House That Steroids Built. The Giants have to have a manager on board with all this stuff, or else it doesn’t work, does it?