We asked our resident Giants and Royals fans to walk us through their respective 2014 seasons, from spring training to the 7-game World Series. In part 4 of the week-long series, Darius Austin and Walter Cook look back at SF’s second half. (Previously: Part 3 – KC’s first half)
Darius Austin: The Giants started well to take an early lead in the NL West and surged to the best record in MLB before a sudden collapse, combined with a run from the Dodgers, saw them drop back to 53-43 at the All-Star break, a half-game out of the division lead and just ahead of several teams in a tight wild card race.
I was very surprised by the fast start from several players, especially from Morse, who absolutely crushed the ball over the first two months and looked like the 2011 version who posted an OPS of over .900. I kept expecting him to stop hitting but like several members of the team, it was not until June that the drop-off came. Belt’s early power surge was similarly surprising, although it seemed to come at the expense of his plate discipline. I was unsure whether it could be sustained and unfortunately we did not get a chance to find out as a broken thumb in early May cost him nearly two months. Hudson was outstanding from the start, barely walking anyone and showing no ill effects from his ankle injury. The Giants would lead the division for almost the entire first half.
Although San Francisco had the best record in baseball for a significant period of time, for a while my excitement was still tempered by the fact that the Dodgers were keeping pace throughout the first two months despite not performing particularly well and missing Kershaw for a month. The Rockies also got off to a hot start but I felt their rotation was too weak to maintain their challenge for an entire season and that quickly proved to be the case, although it should be noted that they also had some terrible injury luck.
Even my concern about LA had started to wane when we swept the Mets in early June to go a full ten games up at 43-21. Unfortunately that would be the peak of the first half and the run to the All-Star break was miserable, as San Francisco coughed up all ten games in just three weeks. The collapse was perhaps best epitomised by Sergio Romo’s woes in the closer role. Romo had already suffered some rough outings in May but he blew three more saves in five appearances from June 13th onwards, surrendering nine earned runs in the process. Santiago Casilla was installed as closer in early July, by which point the Dodgers had regained equal footing.
Romo was in no way the only issue. Like Walter, I did not buy into Brandon Hicks even after the strong start and he very quickly showed he was a replacement level player after a hot start in April. It took a long time to really establish what the way forward was at second base. While Lincecum continued to mix half-decent starts and the occasional no-hitter in with absolute disasters and Vogelsong had overcome a rough start to pitch at least respectably, Cain was the real concern in June with his ERA ballooning well above 4 after three poor outings in June following a DL stint for hamstring trouble. I was starting to wonder if the peripheral-defying Cain was gone forever as he was giving up home runs at a career-high rate.
I believe that during the period when the Giants had the best record, Sam expressed the sentiment on EW that it didn’t seem like they could lose any games, that something would break right at exactly the right moment. While the run differential indicated a winning percentage north of .600 was appropriate during that period, it certainly felt like there was some extreme cluster luck at work. I never thought the team was the best in baseball – like many people, I thought that was the A’s – and it was somewhat inexplicable that the Dodgers didn’t have a better record either. By the break, the regression following that luck had hit hard and all my preseason concerns were back in full: that not only would the Dodgers seize control of the division, but that the team would struggle to hold on to a wild card spot. With Pagan sidelined with injury once again, plenty of doubts over the recently-returned Scutaro and second base in general, and significant rotation question marks, I thought two or three moves were needed to maintain that slender wild card lead.
Walter Cook: The story of the Giants’ first half consisted of a start of 43-21 from the start of the season until June 8th, followed by a stretch of 10-22. That cost them a 10 game lead on June 8th to a half game lead at the All Star break. Aside from the no-hitter by Lincecum over the Padres on June 25th, it was an unbelievably terrible month or so for the Giants.
There were a number of reasons for the June collapse. First, injuries to position players took their toll over the course of the first half. Perhaps most devastating was the loss of Angel Pagan, who had an outstanding first two months of the season (.323/.364/.446 in 210 PA). But then Angel Pagan had a rough start to June before going on the DL with a back injury that would keep him out of the lineup until the first week of August (the Giants shut him down for the season in late September after re-aggravating the bulging disk). Manager Bruce Bochy made the unconventional decision to replace him in the lead-off spot with Hunter Pence, who up until then had been the Giants’ #2 hitter for most of the season. The results for Pence in the lead-off spot were mixed, as he only supplied a .309 OBP alongside a .496 SLG; his BABIP was only .294, which suggests that the issue was partly poor luck. But regardless, the Giants went from having Pagan’s .355 OBP at lead-off to Pence’s .309 as well as downgrading the #2 spot.
As Darius noted, Brandon Belt’s hand was fractured by a HBP in mid-May, just as he seemed to be regaining his superior plate discipline to go along with a strong demonstration of power. The primary beneficiary of Belt’s hand injury was non-roster invitee Tyler Colvin, who became the Giants’ primary LF in May and June with Michael Morse moving over to 1B. Colvin was able to adequately replace Belt’s production in the lineup for the remainder of May (.265/.321/.531 in 53 PA), before a disastrous June (.216/.241/.333 in 54 PA), which cost him the starting LF job (an even worse July would ultimately cost him his roster spot).
Further frustrating the Giants’ offense was the collapse by Michael Morse. Morse, a free agent signing for $6M/1yr, got off to a fantastic start (.295/.351/.574 in 202 PA) through May before a June where he hit .233/.275/.337 in 91 PA). The wheels fell off sooner for Brandon Hicks who after a unexpectedly torrid start in April (.213/.342/.508 in 75 PA) became sub-replacement level until he lost his starting job in mid-June and was played sparingly until his release shortly before the All Star break. The only bright spot to the Giants’ offense in June was MVP-caliber production by Buster Posey and solid, albeit streaky, hitting by Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Crawford.
In addition to the Giants’ offensive troubles, bullpen issues contributed to the Giants first half collapse. Closer Sergio Romo was demoted after a terrible stretch in June: 9 ER in only 8.1 IP. While most of that damage came in just two games against the Rockies (7 ER in 1.1 IP over June 13-14), he had struggled with left-handed batters all season even when he was converting saves. Early in his career, Romo had a reputation as a ROOGY due to a devastating slider that right-handed batters struggle against that was not as effective against lefties; however, during his time as closer he had held his own against lefties after developing a serviceable changeup. At least until the summer of 2014. Romo 3 blown saves in two weeks precipitated the promotion to closer of Santiago Casilla, who was effective in that role for the remainder of 2014.
Finally, overall the Giants rotation was solid for most of the first half. After a relatively pedestrian April, Madison Bumgarner was strong in the first half after a relatively rough April. New addition Tim Hudson and was solid while Ryan Vogelsong was serviceable as a fifth starter. But the two highest paid, longest-tenured members of the rotation–Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum–provided wildly inconsistent starts in the first half, essentially providing feast or famine. It was revealed mid-season that Cain had been battling bone chips in his elbow for years, for which he finally underwent season-ending surgery at the All Star break. As for Lincecum, due to a few stretches of quality performance in May and the beginning of July, overall he was solid middle-of-the-rotation starter in the first half; however, the overall first half stat line masks stretches where he was completely ineffective.
In summary, the Giants’ first half was a story itself of two halves. In the first two months, nearly everything went right for the Giants. There were a few hiccups—Bumgarner was a little off his game, Sandoval had a poor April, and Posey was mediocre in May—but the outstanding hitting of Morse and Pagan alongside a competent lineup and capable pitching made the Giants the best team in baseball through the first week of June. But for the balance of the first half they were horrid, when everyone aside from Buster Posey stopped hitting and the bullpen collapsed. Blowing a 10 game lead in the span of a month is pretty incredible—their only salvation was that there was still another half a season to play.Next post: Rangers Stand Pat and Jon Daniels Is Grumpy for Good Reason
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