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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts: Or, Why the Giants Finally Won the World Series

Within complexity theory the term "emergence" refers to the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a series of relatively simple interactions. Complexity scholars generally refer to two types of emergence: weak and strong. Weak emergence describes how new properties arise in systems from interactions at an elemental level such that the resulting system has qualities that can be traced back to its constituent parts. Strong emergence, on the other hand, refers to those systems that have qualities that can't be directly traced back to its parts but rather to how those parts interact. Thus, the system's qualities are seen as "irreducible" to its constituent parts.  Put another way: the whole is sometimes greater than the sum of its parts ("Emergence," Wikipedia).

Much has been made that this year's San Francisco Giants team was able to knock off the Braves (not too surprising but probably the toughest series the Giants played), the Phillies (a surprise to just about everyone except SF fans -- we knew we had better pitching) and the Rangers (22 out of 28 ESPN "experts" picked the Rangers to beat the Giants) with very few stars apart from its pitching staff, especially compared to SF Giants World Series teams of the past. For example, the 1962 Giants team included future Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, while the 2002 team had (probable) future Hall of Famers Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds. The 1989 team wasn't anything to sneeze at either; it included Will "The Thrill" Clark (lifetime .303 hitter), Robby Thompson, Matt Williams and Kevin Mitchell (the 1989 National League MVP).

What is the difference between this year's team and those previous teams? Former Giant player and manager Felipe Alou probably captured it best:
Sometimes in the past, we had great teams. We had many great Giants. But "the team" was not as great as this team, if you know what I mean. A team is not necessarily a bunch of great players together. But this team -- this is a team (Cam Inman, "Past Giants Greats Never Equaled This Team").
Put simply, the Giants, as a whole, were greater than the sum of their parts.  Apart from the pitching staff, which was probably the best in the majors this year (if there were any doubters prior to the playoffs, there probably aren't any now), this team didn't have any stars (although Buster Posey comes pretty close).  Different players contributed at different times. When players who were hot during the regular season cooled off during the playoffs, others picked up the pace.  When a clutch hit was needed, someone almost always came through, and it seemed like it was a different person every time (e.g., Cody Ross, Edgar Renteria, Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres, Juan Uribe, Buster Posey, Freddy Sanchez all had key hits in the World Series).

So, yes, sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That was certainly the case with the San Francisco Giants this year. To borrow a little from complexity theory, what we have here is an example of strong emergence. Very strong emergence indeed. May it always be so.

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