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"The postseason comes down to that: the starting pitching for both ball clubs," says Righetti. "Our guys are used to that. Baseball really does come down to that."
Starting pitching is studied like baseball's Talmud, and its ancient lessons were revalued and rediscovered this year. The game has changed drastically since this century began. There were 3,663 fewer runs and 1,080 fewer home runs this year than in 2000, making for a 15% reduction in scoring and a 19% plunge in balls leaving the yard. Most offensive numbers, in fact, dropped to levels not seen since 1992. Testing for performance-enhancing drugs, which began with penalties in 2004, and a generation of talented young arms have returned the game to a less volatile run-scoring environment.
With their core of young starters, the Giants were the right team at the right time, a team that ranked 17th in the majors in scoring runs but second in preventing them. Their offense mainly is a collection of opportunistic castoffs, none of whom hit 30 homers or drove in 90 runs. Indeed, their number 4 and 5 hitters when they opened the World Series, outfielders Pat Burrell and Cody Ross, had been released by other teams this year. Their number 3 hitter, first baseman Aubrey Huff, signed as a free agent last January after getting no other offers.
"Sometimes the time picks you," Sabean explains. "But also sometimes you pick the time. I noticed in spring training there was a feeling among this team that this was their time. Even in March they seemed to know they were good. And I think that's because they knew we had the starting pitching."
A world championship was the payoff for years of organizational emphasis on pitching—on drafting pitchers; on developing them with proprietary, counterculture ideas; and on keeping them. "Of all the moves we made," Sabean says, "the best was holding on to our pitching."
From 1999 through 2010, Sabean used 10 of his 13 top 30 draft choices on pitchers. In one key window from 2002 though '07, he selected his entire 2010 postseason rotation and closer Brian Wilson—all without ever holding a pick higher than 10th. Wilson (24th round, 2003) and Sanchez (27th round, '04) were late-round steals, but San Francisco also benefited from other teams' misjudgments near the top of the draft. First-round picks Cain (No. 25, 2002), Lincecum (10, '06) and Bumgarner (10, '07), for instance, all were on the board when the Pirates drafted in those years. Pittsburgh chose pitchers Bryan Bullington, Brad Lincoln and Daniel Moskos, whose combined big league record is 2--13.
Cain, the first building block of this championship team, arrived during the last gasps of the steroid era, as the Giants rode on the alarmingly broad back of Barry Bonds to the 2002 World Series, which they lost to the Angels. No one knew it at the time, but the first step toward ending the franchise's drought came several months before that heartbreaking Series loss. Tidrow and scout Lee Elder took a trip to watch Cain, a righthander at Houston High in Germantown, Tenn. One trip was enough for Tidrow. "I said to Lee, 'This guy is perfect for where we're picking,' "Tidrow said." 'He fits right there.' I didn't want to go back because I didn't want people to know we were on him."
Says Cain, "That's the way the Giants operate. They like to be very private and mysterious. I thought I was going to the Cubs or the Braves. I didn't know the Giants would take me. The one thing I do remember is Lee Elder had a [world championship] ring from the Yankees. Big, old honkin' ring. Biggest ring I ever saw. Yeah, I remembered that."
Cain zoomed through San Francisco's system. At the time the rest of the industry was responding to the breakdowns of the Cubs' hard-ridden phenoms Kerry Wood and Mark Prior by instituting all kinds of governors on young pitchers—pitch limits, annual innings caps, strictly laddered increases in annual workloads. But Sabean and Tidrow have long preferred to develop pitchers with a far looser hand. San Francisco has only one blanket rule for its minor leaguers: no more than 100 pitches in a game. The organization also puts a heavy emphasis on throwing fastballs, believing that young hurlers should add or refine secondary pitches later as they are needed to get major league hitters out. In 2006, for instance, a 21-year-old Cain threw 1902/3 innings in the big leagues. Since 1995 only two other pitchers have thrown as many innings at such a young age: the Mariners' Felix Hernandez and the Yankees' Sabathia, who was with the Indians at the time. "One thing the Giants are great at is pretty much leaving you alone and working with what you have," Cain says. "A lot of organizations might try to change guys right away. Not the Giants."
Adds Tidrow, "It's common-sense based. We tell our coaches, 'If a guy is throwing well, let him go to a hundred [pitches]. If not, take him out.' Look, if a guy can throw 200 innings each year, those are the ones who still have something in the tank this time of year. Look at Matt. He's the perfect example."