History may ultimately obscure the fact that the Giants and Dodgers in 2021 were as good and as closely matched as any teams may ever be over a season. The final line: 12 head-to-head wins apiece, a 1 run differential in 19 regular season games for LA, and 1 run deciding the NLDS elimination game. The Giants and Dodgers are the same team. The Giants and Dodgers are nothing alike.
The industry consensus around these teams has been one of a battle of brains against brawn, an LA team brimming with undisputed talent seeking to outmuscle a savvy Giants team assembling a railroad track made out of LEGO™ as they careened towards triple digit wins. To be sure, in large part, this is true. The Dodgers went out and got Betts, Pujols, Scherzer, Bauer, Knebel, Trea Turner, and Price, AFTER they won the World Series (counting Betts' 2021 as his first full season). Just because they could. They're dripping with so many future Hall of Famers and MVPs, it's hard to imagine how they could lose at all. And on the other side, the Giants coaxed 107 wins out of bit players and aging vets on the wrong side of 2020, then dangled a fishing lure into a junkyard and pulled up six names you've never heard of to become the most efficient middle/back bullpen in baseball. Plus, half the 2016 Reds rotation will receive Cy Young votes for the Giants this season. It's truly a tale of two teams.
Except it's not. Because as differently as these teams were constructed, they came from the same philosophy that's changing baseball. Hit the ball hard, and throw pitches that the other team doesn't hit hard. Find players who can perform at the margins, and use players with the skills to do enough at just the right time. The Giants just leaned so hard on major league development because they had to, without any stars of their own in their primes. But the Dodgers did the same, building up names like Bellinger, Urias, and Muncy, and continuing that process today with Gonsolin, Treinen, and the like. Their Death Star just looks different because it's already been built. Stick around their org and you'll notice the reflooring projects still ongoing, just like everywhere else.
So what makes these two teams different? Why did Scherzer and Betts and Jansen beat out the likes of Webb and Bryant and Doval? The answer, of course, is that the Dodgers are a team of selfish players, and the Giants are fundamentally selfless. And in a long series at the top of their game, that makes all the difference.
Full disclaimer; I don't have any beef with most of the Dodgers on an individual level, and the few I do aren't reflective of an intrinsically malicious organizational philosophy. I hate that Mookie Betts dinked his way to 4-for-4 in Game 5, the same way LA fans hate Kris Bryant for scratching out a terrific batting average over the series. They both come off as fantastic humans, and I wish them as much happiness as anyone else. So why call the Dodgers selfish? Because the culmination of all that talent, all that relentless development and churning, gives you players that want to be the one. They want to be up in the most clutch situations and be the hero, because they know and can prove that they'll come through. And in the end, they did.
For the Giants to do what they did, which was roughly to outperform their projections by 413 wins and become the first ones to wins 50, 60, 70...100, and 109, they could not play the way the Dodgers play. They couldn't play the way baseball is dictated by conventional dogma. McGee giving way to Rogers giving way to Doval as the closer at the drop of the hat would not work in LA. If Pujols got sent down after electrifying the fanbase like Estrada and Wade Jr., his time in LA would've been done then and there. If the Giants refused to budge Dickerson from his lineup spot like the Dodgers refused to move Bellinger, the Giants might not break 100 wins. Every bullpen swap and mid-inning pinch hit appearance was the result of an organization that pleaded for trust from their players and earned it. You might not start for a week, but you will come in to hit one specific pitch in the bottom of the sixth, and together we'll make sure it'll all be worth it.
But in the end, the rigors of an 162-game season aren't the same as the crucible of the playoffs. Donnie Barrels stepping up for a game-winning PH HR doesn't work out quite so easily against Brusdar Graterol. A selfless, fluid team can find a tremendous percentage of the cracks and holes that open up against a team with months of baseball left to play. It's harder to tee off against a team willing to do everything in their power to ensure that those cracks don't form in the first place, because if they do, the season's over.
If the Giants were able to sneak by the Dodgers, or more optimistically, dash them against the rocks with a walk-off home run, they'd be able to put up a similar performance against every other team in the playoffs. As it is, the Dodgers find themselves in a situation where the strain of this performance will either injure all their best guys, or they'll find time to rest up and then absolutely clobber everyone in their way who offers ostensibly weaker competition. Neither approach is necessarily wrong. The Giants still have their brightest days ahead of them, and going for broke now would be devastating for the next decade. But at the present moment, LA's strategy worked a little bit better, lasted a little bit longer.
The funny thing is, despite finding the next big inefficiency in baseball roster construction, the Giants are going to try to do exactly what the Dodgers did. Once their own young superstars get established in the major leagues, they'll turn to hiring the biggest guns they can to put them over the top with a combination of stability and performance. If they manage to do that while still churning and developing and uncovering new hidden gems, 107 wins might end up looking like a pittance. Then again, 107 wins might look like a barrier uncrackable without the zaniest of particular-year magic, no matter how good they get. It's hard to say. It's why the definitely-going-to-win-74-this-year Giants played the games. There's no shame in getting stopped short this close to a historic breakthrough.
It's just a shame the magic couldn't shine a little bit longer. Greatness always tastes a little bit sweeter when it's unexpected. But no championship winner ever bemoans the fact that they weren't just a little more underrated.