San Francisco Giants
What They Did: 86-76, 2nd Place NL West.
Actual Runs: Scored 570 runs, Allowed 578.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 80.0 (6.0 below actual)
Restated: Scored 608 runs, Allowed 586.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 83.7 (2.3 below actual)
Over the eight-year period I've lived in San Francisco, I've watched the city truly transform into a baseball town. Despite the fact that the gorgeous AT&T Park, packed every game to capacity, sat waterside a short walk from the downtown nerve center of the city, despite the presence of Barry Bonds, and despite being just two seasons removed from winning the NL pennant, upon arriving here in 2004 I never felt the city was consumed with baseball. Maybe it was the hangover from the 2002 World Series or the fact that Bonds was such a polarizing figure had something to do with it, but to me it felt like the patrons of the capacity-filled stadium had to be driving to the game from all over the Bay Area because I never heard that buzz among city residents like I was accustomed to in New York City and Philadelphia.
That all changed in a massive way during the 2010 season, a season which saw the Giants win its first World Series since relocating from New York 53 seasons earlier. During the NLCS in which the Giants faced off against Philadelphia, the two-time defending pennant winners, I got heckled by kids for wearing a Phillies hat. (I loved that because no one wearing an Omar Moreno Pirates jersey in my hometown of West Chester, PA would have escaped my wrath in 1980.) While attending a school fair on the Saturday afternoon of the 2010 NLCS Game 6, my six-year old daughter got so tired of other parents chiding me for my cap, she looked up at me and said, “Daddy. Take off that hat.” It’s become a running joke since. By the time the 2011 season began, the city suddenly had a generation of Giants-gear-wearing kids following baseball, and not only was there a noticeable patron increase in the Union Street and Marina-area bars during a game, twentysomething women all over the city were overriding their fashion instincts and entering those bars wearing orange.
What gets forgotten is that all of that almost didn’t happen because of a stubborn insistence by the Giants front-office to surround an immensely talented pitching staff with cast-off veterans in the field. The 2010 team didn’t clinch a playoff berth until the last game of the season having chased and finally caught division-leading San Diego on September 16 before winning a head-to-head duel over the last two weeks of the season. Everything is a team effort, but most observers agree the Giants prevailed in that race because of the performance of rookie catcher Buster Posey over the last 100 games of the season. (If you look at offensive Wins Above Replacement for that 2010 team, Aubrey Huff ranks as the best player, but WAR is a counting stat dependent on playing time. When normalized over a full season of games, Posey was the most valuable player on that team.) Despite appearing in just over 100 games, Posey won the Rookie of the Year and provided the marginal benefit on offense which allowed the Giants to cross the finish line ahead by a nose. Even though the Florida State product had torn up the NCAA and bludgeoned pitchers through the minor leagues, including hitting .321/.399/.511 during the 2009 season at AAA Fresno, the Giants decided to send Posey back to the minors when the team broke camp in 2010. Posey was clearly the team’s best hitter and major-league ready but the Giants clung to a stubborn belief they needed the veteran guidance of Bengie Molina (and his .332 slugging percentage) on the field.
You would think that after basking in the joy of a World Championship, after seeing the transforming effect the title had on the city, the front office would sit back and think, “Wow, did we get lucky. Never again will we make that mistake again.” Instead, I believe management took a look at the short-series, post-season contributions of Edgar Renteria and Cody Ross, approved of the benching of 23 year-old Pablo Sandoval, saw a clubhouse with Aaron Rowand, Pat Burrell and Juan Uribe and said, “We need more of this!”
How else to explain the plight of Brandon Belt?
Brandon Belt is exactly what Buster Posey was two years ago. A 23-year old major-league ready player who mashes baseballs at the plate. (His minor league numbers are even better than Posey’s.) Incredibly, on a 2011 team last in the National League in scoring, Belt couldn’t find a regular starting gig. (He’d get sporadic starts against the likes of Clayton Kershaw, go 0-4, and then the Giants “baseball people” would say he had a hole in his swing. Everyone has a hole in his swing against Clayton Kershaw! (He’d then get sent back to Fresno and slug over .500.) Apparently that’s going to be true again in 2011 as the Giants are relegating Belt to the bench. (By the way, Belt, despite his ugly .225 batting average – less ugly when you consider the team hit .242 – was fourth on the team in home runs despite only coming to the plate 209 times. He hit them at a greater rate than anyone else except Pablo Sandoval.)
The philosophy of using cast-off veterans in the field extends to non-power hitting positions as well. Take a look at the shortstop carousel the last two years. After getting disastrous results from the decision to sign 37 year-old Miguel Tejada last year to replace journeymen Uribe and Renteria, the Giants signed 32 year-old three-team cast-off Ryan Theriot this winter. I’m assuming this was done because Chris Speier and Johnny LeMaster weren’t willing to come out of retirement. Honestly, the only California organization more friendly to aging, cast-off millionaire men than the Giants is the Real Women of Orange County.
To be fair, while the handling of Belt is maddening, management did recognize that last year’s wretched offensive production had to be addressed. To that end they shipped a surplus pitching part, Jonathan Sanchez, to the Kansas City Royals for outfielder Melky Cabrera and swapped center fielders with the Mets picking up Angel Pagan, an upgrade offensively from the older, defensive-minded Andres Torres. Posey returns (hopefully) fully healed from a gruesome leg injury with orders not to block the plate anymore but to employ a sweep tag, and will team with Sandoval to provide what Giants fans hope will be enough offense to support the stellar pitching staff.
On paper it seems a shame the Giants don’t dominate this division. My projection is unkind for two reasons: First, the Giants had the best bullpen in baseball last year in terms of run prevention and as I’ve stated in numerous previews, I project all bullpens to be league average. (For a look at the next-year performance of league-leading bullpens, see the Atlanta Braves’ preview here: http://tradingbases.squarespace.com/blog/2012/3/21/2012-preview-atlanta-braves.html )
Second, my model-based projection for Tim Lincecum isn’t nearly as positive as everyone else’s. (I feel the need to duck as my fellow San Franciscans read that.) Lincecum, the former back-to-back Cy Young Award winner has seen his strikeout rate drop from elite (an MLB-best 28.8% of batters in 2009) to merely great in 2010 (4th in NL at 24.4% just .1% higher than Miami’s Anibal Sanchez as an example of the company he’s now keeping) while at the same time his walk rate has spiked to a well-below average 9.6% in 2011 (shockingly that’s 83rd our of the 90 MLB starters who pitched 160 innings last year). I sure hope Lincecum dominates hitters as he has for his entire career, but he needs to arrest that alarming trend.
In trading Jonathan Sanchez, the Giants more or less announced that they believe Ryan Vogelsong’s spectacular 2011 performance – after not having played in the majors since 2006 and frankly, having never played well when there – was not a fluke. That could be the case, as measures of his peripheral skills are encouraging, but "not a fluke" is not the same as “repeatable performance”. Vogelsong may be able to effectively replace Sanchez as the number four starter in the rotation but no one should expect a repeat of his 2.71 ERA in 2011. His effectiveness is important because the Giants project to get 20+ starts out of Barry Zito and they don’t need two pitchers with the ability to sport a 5.00+ ERA fronting the offensively-challenged line up.
The combination of bullpen regression, a below-consensus projection for the starting pitchers, and an uptick in offense means I expect a lot more runs scored this year than the last-in-baseball 1,148 runs that were scored during Giants games in 2011. (The suppressive run-scoring effect of AT&T Park unquestionably distorts that ranking, but it’s also unquestionably still a bottom-quartile/decile ranking.) As mentioned in the Padres’ preview yesterday, the NL West is a collection of flawed teams; San Francisco’s challenge is to score more runs this year. To my eye, a full year of Brandon Belt’s bat could be the only thing that’s needed to outlast the other division foes. The Giants’ front office and the team’s fans have seen this movie before and if they need a reminder of how it ends, all they have to do is pop a copy of the 2010 World Series Collector’s Edition DVD into a Blue-Ray machine.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: The Giants have clearly been installed as the favorite to win the division, essentially sporting even odds, or slightly higher to reclaim the NL West crown. I think it’s a bit more of a toss-up than that. As mentioned in the Padres’ preview, I think the entire division will struggle to place a team above .500. Since the Padres are my favorite “over” in the total wins market, it figures therefore that I’m going to find every other NL West team’s market expectations overstated. As such the Giants’ market of 87 ½ wins seems quite high to me. I hope the Giants win the division; I love walking into my favorite sandwich shop at 11:00 in the morning on a Thursday, seeing the Giants’ East Coast day game on TV, and listening to people argue about whether Nate Schierholtz should be starting, but the division looks weak enough comparatively to me that I think there is value in fading the expectations of 87 ½ wins.
80-82 – Second in NL West
673 Runs Scored 683 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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