The San Francisco Giants must have discovered the recipe for the secret sauce. They’ve won three of the last five World Series without being the best team in the regular season for some time. They took advantage of the second wild card last season and came through a number of remarkably close games to win it all by the smallest of margins.
They also haven’t been all that good in the odd years, finishing below .500 in both. What the Giants might have found is the ideal formula for winning in the wild card era: not what many would call a great team in any aspect of the game, but a team that isn’t really bad at anything. BP’s Matt Trueblood might have described it best earlier this week when he wrote about how the Giants have paid more than what players might be considered worth to assemble a team that’s marginally above average almost everywhere. Trueblood’s conclusion was that the Giants haven’t exploited a market inefficiency to be good, they’ve won partly because they’re willing “to be the market inefficiency”. They might be the clearest indication yet that there isn’t much of a secret to the sauce: it’s all about simply building a team that is just enough above average to have a reasonable chance to make the playoffs, then being lucky at the right time, adding a slug of Hunter Pence motivational speeches for good measure. Let’s dive in to the details of the team.
How do they score runs? Are they notably home-run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth, or on huge production from a few stars?
AT&T Park makes it difficult for the Giants to be truly home-run dependent. It significantly limits both left- and right-handed home runs and has an even lower home run park factor than Petco Park in recent years, according to Fangraphs. They have still been essentially a league-average offense by wRC+ in four of the last five years, as their batting average and OBP tends to make up for their below-average slugging percentage.
Buster Posey is the consistent driving force in the team’s offense and has been an elite-level hitter ever since becoming a regular. 2011, when Posey suffered a broken leg in that infamous home plate collision, is the only season of the past five in which San Francisco’s offense has been well below the league average. The now-departed Pablo Sandoval has been another consistently above-average producer. The lineup has become deeper over the last two years, with the addition of Hunter Pence and Angel Pagan, the development of Brandon Belt and somewhat surprising contributions from the likes of Marco Scutaro, Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik allowing the team to consistently pose a threat throughout the lineup. Brandon Crawford offers decent power at shortstop, combining that with improving on-base skills, while Madison Bumgarner has made a name for himself as one of the most dangerous pitchers at the plate, blasting four home runs and posting a .470 SLG in 2014.
Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances?
The Giants have had two switch-hitters, Sandoval and Pagan, in their lineup in recent years and are above-average in plate appearances with the platoon advantage, but not significantly so. This Beyond the Box Score article also highlights the fact that relative to their non-platoon performance, the Giants’ wOBA did not change at all in those plate appearances in 2014. San Francisco ranked 13th in pinch-hit PA in 2014 and 20th in OPS+, at 98, so there is very little difference there to their offense overall. They have consistently been in the upper half of the pinch-hit usage list in recent years but also consistently slightly below-average in OPS+. They have not tended to have a particularly strong bench in that period, perhaps limiting the utility of any pinch-hit appearances, to gain the platoon advantage or otherwise.
What is the team’s collective approach? Do they look to take a large number of pitches? Does the manager put on the 3-0 green light very often? Are players benched or criticized by management for striking out too much? Are they more than usually given to fouling pitches off?
San Francisco was one of the most aggressive teams early in counts in 2014, swinging at 32.9% of first pitches, third-highest in MLB. They were still almost league-average in the percentage of 3-0 counts seen and slightly above in swings taken, swinging in a little under 10% of all 3-0 counts. Once again, they were essentially a league-average team in their ratio of looking strikeouts to swinging strikeouts. You might have started to see a theme developing here; this won’t be the last time the Giants show up as league-average either.
No-one in the lineup really strikes out at an alarming rate, which perhaps says something about the organizational philosophy. 12 plate appearances from Dan Uggla was more than enough. The team does foul off a lot of pitches: 28.7% in 2014, right behind MLB leaders Colorado, and they were top five in this regard the previous year.
Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?
The hit-and-run was put on 268 times in 2014, a total that ranked 23rd in MLB. The team’s sacrifice attempt total of 66 was, yet again, essentially at the league-average mark. Bochy did favour the squeeze play, using it five times last season, two more than any other team, but this hasn’t been a recurring theme. The Giants are pretty average at taking the extra base too, doing so 41% of the time last season, marginally above the league-average 40%. They were, however, in the bottom five at stealing bases in 2014, with just a 67% success rate, following a below-average 2013. Blanco, Pagan and Pence are respectable base-stealers but there isn’t anyone who can be considered elite. You have to go back to 2007, when Dave Roberts swiped 31 bags at the age of 35, to find the last time a Giants player stole 30 or more, and before that it was Bonds in 1997.
Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?
The new players are the most likely question marks. McGehee could prove to be worth very little if he cannot sustain the surprisingly high batting average of 2014, while Aoki got off to a very slow start last year. Panik is also still very inexperienced and is unremarkable in terms of both power and speed, so prolonged struggles could start the second base carousel again.
The major lineup change that should be made is Pagan getting bumped down the lineup with Aoki and his reverse platoon split batting first against left-handed starters, as Pagan’s .312 career OBP against lefties is not the stuff leadoff hitters are made of. There has been some indication that Aoki may lead off, although there’s no chance the team would rotate the two depending on the handedness of the starter. Working on the principles outlined in The Book, Belt (vs RHP) and Pence (vs LHP) should swap in the order given their relatively pronounced splits while Posey, as both the best and most powerful hitter, stays in the cleanup spot.
|vs RHP||vs LHP|
Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness? Will the schedule or overall level of competition they face vary widely from the league average?
As highlighted at the start, AT&T is very tough on power from both sides of the plate. It is slightly tougher for left-handed hitters to hit home runs but there is consequently plenty of room for triples in right-center and left-handed pull hitters can take advantage of the high right field wall if outfielders are unsure how to play it. Wind can sometimes be a significant factor too, as demonstrated during last season’s NLDS, when multiple high fly balls were misjudged by both sides.
While the Dodgers project to be the best team in MLB, and the Padres have made some significant steps to improve, Colorado and Arizona have the potential to be two of the worst teams in baseball again, an outcome backed up by the projections. It looks to be a division with a large split between top and bottom again, but the Padres seem likelier to be on the right side of that line in 2015.
What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned?
Posey is probably the team’s best player defensively. Sam Miller’s beloved Brandon Crawford is a very reliable shortstop, there are a number of solid performers and no glaring weakness, at least now that Michael Morse is no longer on the team, although Pagan, who has never been an elite center fielder, may be showing signs of decline. Much like almost every other aspect of the team, there’s no clear tendency towards either end of the spectrum when it comes to the balance between pitching and fielding.
Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?
Not so long ago, it appeared as though the Giants could have three high-level pitchers in their rotation for the foreseeable future, with Bumgarner developing to join Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Since then, Lincecum has lost his velocity and effectiveness with it, while Cain no longer defies his peripherals as he was once able to and had an injury-plagued 2014. The postseason perhaps exaggerated how reliant the Giants are on Bumgarner in the regular season, but there is no question that he is a clear step above any other starters on the team. He has also emphatically demonstrated that he can be relied on to pitch deep into games, whereas Bochy is likely to turn the ball over to the bullpen earlier for any other starter.
Tim Hudson was a useful addition, although he wore down towards the end of the season, and the half-season of stellar performance from Jake Peavy is unlikely to continue throughout the two years of his new deal (you can bank on his competitive spirit, though). Ryan Vogelsong returns despite an unconvincing year and Yusmeiro Petit provides excellent insurance, having shown his worth both out of the bullpen and as a rotation fill-in over the last two seasons. Lincecum’s days as a starter seem to be numbered but the team has been slow to transition him fully to a relief role and it looks as though he will be the fifth starter initially. The Giants have been similarly reluctant when it comes to handing a starting gig to Petit. The consensus generally appears to be that Petit will ultimately find his way back into the rotation and injury concerns lingering for both Hudson and Cain could open a slot, at least temporarily.
The nature of run prevention very much depends on who’s pitching, as there is no unifying skillset amongst the staff. More recent acquisitions Hudson and Peavy are close to opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their mix of ground balls and fly balls generated. Even the three pitchers who have been with the Giants since they were drafted – Bumgarner, Cain and Lincecum – don’t really have any significant similarities in terms of their arsenal, approach or outcomes.
Tim Lincecum/Ryan Vogelsong/Yusmeiro Petit
When the middle and late innings come, does the manager have a long or a quick hook? Does he often make multiple pitching changes during innings? Is he aggressive and aware of matchups? Is the bullpen strictly hierarchical? Is it dominated by a set-up man and closer, or are there a large number of usable, interchangeable arms?
Bochy might have looked radical compared to some other playoff managers, but he is relatively predictable in which reliever he will go to in certain innings or situations. The Giants have also had one of the most consistent bullpens in terms of personnel over the last few years. Godfather of BttP Ben Lindbergh wrote about how rigid managers are in their reliever usage – in other words, how often they use the same relievers in the same innings – and Bochy was in the middle of the pack, but towards the more rigid end of that group.
The BP Bullpen (Mis)management tool shows a similarly predictable pattern of usage. Romo started the season as closer but his early struggles in 2014 saw him demoted to lower-leverage roles, hence the dip in the graph. Casilla took over and held the role for the rest of the year, with Romo soon working his way back up to the setup role and essentially pitching in the same eighth-inning situations that Casilla had been.
Romo, Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez have all held a trusted mid-to-high leverage role in the pen for the last few seasons, with the latter two being called upon any time there is a left-hander to retire, although Affeldt is also very useful in multi-inning situations. Jean Machi joined this quartet in late 2013 and established himself as the main right-handed option before the eighth, frequently being called upon to get one righty out or induce a groundball to bridge to Romo and Casilla, as well as occasionally pitching more than one inning when starters don’t go deep, or the game heads to extra innings. He struggled in the second half after a stellar first half so he could be one of the first to lose his spot if Petit will be the long man when he isn’t part of the rotation. Lincecum has shown the ability to be extremely effective as a reliever but for whatever reason, that move has never been made permanent and it’s doubtful that the Giants will rush to do it now.
There are a few options at the back end. Hunter Strickland demonstrated late last year that he possesses excellent fastball velocity and was almost immediately anointed ‘closer of the future’, although a worrying propensity to give up the long ball marred his postseason performance. Juan Gutierrez appeared in over 60 MLB games after signing on a minor league deal and will get another shot to make the team this spring. George Kontos has been solid if unspectacular over the last three years and no longer has any options left, so that could push the Giants into keeping him on the 25-man roster. There are other backup options with major league experience, such as Cory Gearrin and Curtis Partch, while prospect Kyle Crick has excellent stuff, but his inconsistent delivery and associated command problems have led many analysts to project a future in relief.
Hunter Strickland/Juan Gutierrez/George Kontos
Does the team deploy a large number of infield, or even outfield, shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Does the outfield control runners on hits into the gaps and on flyouts? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?
San Francisco moved up into the top five in the NL on the defensive shift leaderboard in 2014, with 361. That still ranks behind all but two AL teams but was well over double their 2013 total. Crawford and Panik look comfortable and effective at turning the double play, despite being a relatively new combination, and the BIS ratings suggest that they were a couple of runs above average.
Much like the rest of his game, Pence plays the outfield rather well despite doing just about everything you wouldn’t want to teach your kids, while Aoki also has good ratings without appearing to be particularly competent. When it comes to holding runners, Pence was around league-average last season, while Pagan was well below. Blanco not only threw out more runners from center, he also prevented more from taking the extra base, despite only two-thirds of Pagan’s playing time at the position. Aoki rates particularly highly when it comes to holding runners, with almost 50% of runners held while playing right field, compared to the league average of 46.5% over that time, and he has also thrown out 14 over the past three seasons. Whether anything will change in left remains to be seen, as he has started only 8 games there since coming to the major leagues.
Blanco frequently enters the game as a late-inning defensive replacement, in both left and center field, making up a little for Pagan’s below-par defensive rating. With Morse gone, none of the regulars could really be described as glaring defensive liabilities.
Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
Posey is an excellent framer and is not easy to run on either, with a strong 30% caught stealing rate for his career. Hector Sanchez is also good at controlling the running game but it’s near-impossible for him to do anything much better than Posey, and any more concussion problems could permanently stop him from catching. Andrew Susac very capably stepped in as the second catcher last year and while the sample size is limited, early signs are positive.
Does the team’s home park impact their ability to prevent runs in any unique way? Is the park factor drastic? Is the square footage of the outfield significantly off the MLB norm?
Just as AT&T can be a drain on raw hitting numbers, it is a real boon for pitchers with fly ball tendencies. Peavy found that benefit last season after spending the first half of the year watching his offerings sent out of Fenway and Cain has been enjoying it for years. As discussed previously, the park factor for home runs has been more extreme than Petco at times, while there is a particularly deep alley into right-center field which is ideal for triples.
Is the farm system well-stocked? Have any recent performances or additions changed the perceived standing of that system? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?
The Giants have not hesitated to trade away prospects for proven major league talent in recent years, a fact that was evident again when Heath Hembree and Edwin Escobar were sent to the Red Sox for Peavy in the middle of 2014. It’s a strategy that seems to have worked relatively well for them, so it won’t bother the front office that they don’t rank all that highly when it comes to strength of system. 21-year-old lefty Adalberto Mejia is currently rated as the system’s top prospect by BP, only good enough for 86th in the Top 101, where he is joined by Crick and Susac. Other sites disagree, placing Crick or Susac first depending on the amount of emphasis on proximity or upside, with prominence also given to 2014 first-rounder Tyler Beede, and plenty of other intriguing arms, such as Keury Mella and Clayton Blackburn, sit inside the top 10. There is a decent amount of depth to compensate for the lack of a standout prospect. Overall, it’s yet another facet in which the Giants can be considered middle-of-the-pack, but the team keeps finding ways to develop pitching in particular and will no doubt continue to trade away anyone who can bring them a regular major league contributor.
Speaking of injury, who is particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?
Pence’s league-leading streak of 373 consecutive games played will come to an end on Opening Day after he suffered a broken arm early in spring training. The right fielder will likely miss at least a couple of weeks but the team ought to have him back by the start of May. Blanco seems likeliest to benefit from extra plate appearances, with Juan Perez, Gary Brown and Justin Maxwell all under consideration for a roster spot. Pagan’s trips to the DL have become a near-certainty (and even now he is in the process of recovering from surgery), so it’s reassuring that Blanco is backing him up in center field, providing both strong defense and capable offense whenever those absences crop up. Belt seemed to have finally overcome his lingering concussion symptoms by the postseason, but it is concerning that he struggled with them for so long. Posey will play a number of games at first either way, and Travis Ishikawa is available to fill in (and is a much less scary prospect at first than he is in left field).
Cain is the biggest question mark on the pitching staff and the Giants do have depth there too, although it remains unclear who would shoulder the load in the first instance, as mentioned above. Hudson is also behind schedule in his recovery from surgery and the dip in performance he experienced late in 2014 could make Bochy more inclined to go easy on the 39-year-old’s workload.
Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign?
The Giants have followed each of their previous two World Series wins up with mediocre seasons, although there’s no indication that was part of any clear strategy to rebuild. The strength of the Dodgers means that the Wild Card route is again the more likely option, which could be a contributing factor to their lack of significant moves. There has been no real shift towards a longer-term strategy in terms of an attempt to trade for prospects or shed any large contracts and the effort to re-sign Sandoval is an indication that ideally, the front office would have liked to do what they’ve done a lot in recent offseasons, especially following World Series wins: generate minimal roster turnover and keep the majority of the previous year’s team. It’s also another data point that lends weight to Trueblood’s argument; the Giants didn’t seem to have any issue with giving the third baseman even more money than Boston despite the apparent lack of value in such a deal. There is clearly no issue with payroll flexibility – the $20 million or so per year that they were happy to give Sandoval didn’t exactly get spent – but the team doesn’t seem to feel any urgency to make a splash with big-name signings or trades either.
What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)? Make a recommendation.
There are no clear spots that the team would like to upgrade, although Pence’s absence will probably make the team wish they had someone who could hit a little more on the bench. Panik and McGehee are probably the biggest unknowns, with Panik’s limited experience in the majors and McGehee seemingly a very different player following his stint in Japan. Despite the quantity of potential starters, the rotation could go bad behind Bumgarner, with a combination of injury, age and simply a dip in ability offering the potential for a lot of volatility, although PECOTA sees very little potential variance. Taking the organisation as a whole, arguably the biggest area of weakness is the lack of high-end prospects, which is unlikely to be addressed while the team is still lined up to contend and may not be something the front office is particularly concerned about in any case. If the season goes bad, I’d recommend an effort to find a longer-term solution at third, perhaps by moving one or two of the older starters. If things are going well, there still could be a need for a better number three or four starter come playoff time, at which point another prospect for proven major league regular trade looks logical.
What’s likely to happen? Will the composition of the team change? Will they compete? Will they win anything? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.
The Giants will go 86-76, staying in contention for the wild card spot but coming up a little short. Fundamentally the composition of the team seems unlikely to change a great deal: given the emphasis on stability over value, the team tends towards retaining those players who have been useful contributors, almost regardless of cost. The stars – Posey, Bumgarner, Pence – will not go anywhere even if the season doesn’t go as planned. Lincecum will be permitted to start for much longer than his performance warrants, McGehee will make people wish Panda was back (even if he never wanted to stay), and Belt will make my bold prediction look even more ridiculous than it sounds.Next post: Making the Case Against Baseball in Montreal
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