Sunday, July 3, 2011

"That's More Runs Than We Scored All Last Year"

So chortled old Casey Stengel after his New York Mets had pounded the Chicago Cubs, 19-1, one fine afternoon back in 1964. Some Giants fans may be forgiven for drawing any sort of parallel between that game and last night's 15-3 rout of the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park in the Motor City. Clobbering the ball in most un-Giants-like fashion before and after a lengthy rain delay, the "Hitless Wonders" of 2011 rolled up their highest run total since last August 24, though it seems longer.

However, even the most cursory examination shows little in common between the two ballclubs.  First,we doubt any Giants fan felt compelled, upon hearing his team had scored 15 runs, to check the team website or Sports Center to see if the team had actually won the game as well. Second, the Tigers are a first-place ballclub; the '64 Cubs battled the Mets all year for the National League cellar. And finally, of course, the Giants themselves are in first place in the NL West, leading the Arizona Diamondbacks by three games as the All-Star break looms a week from today.

Now, how many Giants fans would have predicted their team would be in first place at this time, given the following situations?
  • Tim Lincecum is 6-6, 14th in the league in ERA, and not leading in strikeouts;     
  • Madison Bumgarner has lost more games already than all but one pitcher in the NL;
  • The Giants' most consistent starter all year barely made the team in spring training;
  • Buster Posey is out for the season and has been since before Memorial Day;
  • Freddy Sanchez hasn't played a game since mid-June and may not return this year;
  • Only one Giants regular has an OPS over .800;
  • Aubrey Huff is slugging .380;
  • The team's fifth starting pitcher has a higher batting average than four starting position players;
  • The Giants are 15th in the league in runs scored, 13th in walks and OBP, and 14th in slugging;
  • They're only fifth in the league in ERA while issuing the third-most walks. 
Bill James posited years ago that the true cost of losing a superstar player is, at most, five or six ganes over the course of a season. Most teams, it turns out, recover reasonably well from such a loss and end up doing almost as well as they would have with the star player in the lineup all along.

The key word here is "almost."  Certainly the Giants have shown they can play winning baseball and contend for the pennant despite losing Posey, and, to a lesser extent, Sanchez. They were 27-21 when Buster went down, and are 21-15 since, which seems to reinforce James' observation. But as we all know, the Giants can play "almost" as well as they did  year ago-- and come up short of the postseason. They won the 2010 pennant by one game. The cost of losing a superstar, while unlikely to lead to collapse, certainly can make the difference in late September between going on and going home.

This morning we remember 1965, when Juan Marichal's bat attack on John Roseboro resulted in a eight-game suspension and a then-hefty $10,000 fine, which was probably about a fifth of his salary. (Memorable quote from Dodgers outfielder and later Giants brodacaster Ron Fairly, who witnessed the attack: "He should've been suspended for 10,000 games and fined $8.")  The point today is, that untimely suspension, in the heat of a pennant race, prevented Marichal from starting two and possibly three games. The 1965 Giants finished two games out of first place.     

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