Thursday, September 29, 2011

End of the Regular Season

Final National League West Standings

Arizona      94-68     …          Face Milwaukee in opening round.
GIANTS     86-76      8 GB   Respectable, if futile, championship defense.
LA              82-79    12 GB    Kershaw a Cy Young candidate.
Colorado    73-89     21 GB   Shedding star players and starting over.
San Diego   71-91     23 GB   A year ago they were one game from title.

We have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: if you want to settle the argument over just how much of baseball is pitching (75%, 90%, 50% have all been bandied about over time) take a look at the San Francisco Giants' winning percentage. Based on this formula, baseball is 53% pitching.

The Giants scored 570 runs in 162 games this year, an average of 3.5 per game, worst in the National League. Yes, even the execrable, .346-winning-percentage Houston Astros scored more runs. More than half the major-league teams scored over 700 runs; all but three scored more than 600. Balanced against that, the Giants were one of only two teams (Philadelphia the other) to allow less than 600 runs; exactly half the ballclubs allowed over 700. If there was a "mirror image" team to the Giants this year, it was probably the Toronto Blue Jays. They scored 743 runs, sixth in all baseball, but also allowed 761, sixth-most as well. Not quite as extreme a split, but close; and Toronto finished at exactly .500, not .469. The Giants, ten games over at the finish line despite being outscored, probably should have wound up at .500 too, so credit those extra five wins to a handful of guys named Bumgarner, Lincecum, Cain, Vogelsong, Romo, Lopez, Ramirez, Casilla, and Wilson.

Add Jeremy Affeldt, Jonathan Sanchez, and (probably) Barry Zito to the above list, and you've got the Giants' 2012 pitching staff. Well, we all know it won't be that simple; a couple of these guys are likely to be siphoned off by other teams promising 'closer' roles (and 'closer' dollars), but you get the idea. The pitching staff is what holds this team up. With Madison Bumgarner now joining the ranks of the league's top starters, the Giants open the off-season with three aces plus two wild cards (Vogelsong: can he do it again? Sanchez: can he bounce back?) fronting a bullpen that will still be solid.

Beyond that, the only people who can count on a starting job next year are Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval. Freddy Sanchez says he'll be ready, but as we've noted many times before, second base is an injury magnet-- and lately Freddy's been wearing cast-iron underwear. To keep his bat in the lineup, the Giants ought to consider moving him to the outfield, especially with Conor Gillaspie looking ready for prime-time over these last few weeks.

If, and it's a big if, the Giants sign Carlos Beltran, he'll be guaranteed a starting job too. This is a tough call. Beltran hit .323 and slugged .551 in 44 games with the team; his K-W was a manageable 2-1 and he still has decent range in the outfield (though it's unlikely he'd do well in center). Without Beltran, the club has one legitimate outfielder, Nate Schierholz, and while we love Nate, he's still never played a full major-league season as an everyday starter. The rest of the Giants outfielders are valuable part-timers at this point in their careers, but nothing more, and it's critical the ballclub realize this.

The Beltran decision may, at least in part, hinge on whether the Giants intend to pursue Albert Pujols. The last time a free agent of his stature approached the open market was 1993, with Barry Bonds, and we all know how that turned out. If Pujols walks, there will be a mob of contenders for big Albert, all of them waving suitcases full of cash, and it's improbable to think the Giants would risk breaking the bank for both Beltran and Pujols. And now, with the Cardinals slipping into the playoffs just under the wire on the last day of the season, there's always the chance they might catch fire, win it all, and completely change the situation. It would be doubly hard to imagine the big guy walking away from St Louis after winning a second championship. Dare the Giants risk waiting on the Beltran situation until after the World Series is over, a month from now?

Looking over the Giants' batting leaders, we see small sample sizes at the top and a great deal of lead weight near the bottom. Brett Pill, Darren Ford, the eternal Mark DeRosa, and the aforementioned Gillaspie dominate the leaderboard, though they had less than 200 at bats-- combined-- on the season. The other heavyweights are Beltran, Sandoval, Posey, Sanchez, and Schierholz, only one of whom had even 340 at-bats in a Giants uniform. (A small shout-out to oft-injured Pat Burrell: 21 walks and seven homers in 200 plate appearances.) How much of this train wreck may be blamed on the ballpark? The Giants scored less than three runs per game at home: 236 in 81 games. Allowing a league-fewest 251, they somehow fashioned a 46- 35 home record. On the road, the balance was almost identical: scoring 334 (4.1 per game, eighteenth in the majors), they allowed 327-- but finished 40-41 in those games.

The Giants played 56 one-run games, winning 35, and of those, 25 were won at home, against just 8 losses. Six of those home wins were in extra innings, and 21 of those games drew a quality start from the Giants pitcher du jour. The more we look at these game stats, the more amazed we are that the team was even in the race at all in September. Truly, Toronto's fate should have been ours as well.

Giants starters delivered 111 quality starts this year; Bumgarner and Lincecum both had Game Scores of 87, best on the club (Lincecum, a three-hitter in May against the Oakland A's (!) and "Bum" against the Cubs on the last day of August. Both day games, interestingly). The Giants' top five starts were all at AT&T Park, which comes as no surprise. The worst start of the year was also Bumgarner's, a nightmare outing at the 'Bell against Minnesota in June (Game Score: 2). All told, "Bum" had three of the team's best starts, and also five of their worst.

Quality starts: Cain 25, Lincecum 23, Bumgarner 23, Vogelsong 21, Sanchez 13, Zito 4, Surkamp 2. "Cheap" wins: Vogelsong 3, Cain 2, Surkamp 2, Sanchez. "Tough" losses: Lincecum 7, Bumgarner 6, Cain 5, Vogelsong 5, Sanchez 3. Says a lot, don't it?

Bright moments: Madison Bumgarner opening the season 0-6 (15 runs scored in 8 starts) and going 13-7 the rest of the way.... Sandoval bouncing back to lead the Giants in every meaningful batting category (.997 OPS on the road, .817 at home) despite missing 45 games... The five-headed monster in the bullpen-- Romo, Casilla, Ramirez, Affeldt, and Lopez-- averaging 63 appearances, 57 innings, a 2.29 ERA, and making us forget about Brian Wilson's injury 99% of the time... Brandon Belt, despite his rookie struggles, drawing 20 walks in 200 plate appearances and outslugging all but three regulars... Ryan Vogelsong's entire season, capped by winning the 'Willie Mac Award'.

Roll the statistical parade: Beltran is twelfth in the league in batting and slugging, seventh in OBP, ninth in OPS, second in doubles, and his Giants numbers across the board are proportionately superior to his New York totals... Sandoval, at .315, would be fourth in the league if he had enough ABs to qualify... Cody Ross drew 49 walks in 454 appearances, which is 46th in the league but great for the Giants, who were 14th in the league in bases on balls... Given the current lineup, the team ought to have abandoned the stolen base altogether back around May. 85 steals (13th) against 51 caught (3rd) is significantly worse then just staying put... The ol' "get deep in the count" mantra again had little effect on the Giants. They were 29th among the 30 big-league teams in most pitches seen. Only the Milwaukee Brewers are a more free-swinging bunch (and we gotta admit, they did OK with it)... Conversely, the hard- workin' SF pitchers are third in the league in walks and second in strikeouts, though "only" 4th in total pitch count.... Looking around the league, we see Drew Stubbs of the Cincinnati Reds struck out an appalling 205 times in 604 at-bats while drawing 63 walks. He hit only .243 with little power for a .686 OPS and made 467 outs. Naturally, because he is a center fielder, Dusty Baker batted him leadoff two-thirds of the time. Any other questions as to why the Reds finished 17 games out?.... For those of you thinking along with us, no, we're not aware of his contract status and no, we've not heard one peep about the Giants trying to get him. Mind you, Stubbs can play. He's a fine center fielder with decent range and a very good arm (third in the NL in assists), and 63 walks isn't bad. He just needs to bat about seventh or eighth... Tim Lincecum was the second-hardest-working pitcher in the NL, throwing 3606 pitches in his 33 starts. He was fourth in the league in strikeouts, behind Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay. Pretty fast company.... We're not seeing too many eye-popping individual stats this year (well, other than those 205 Ks). AJ Burnett of the Yankees uncorked 25 wild pitches in 32 starts, which is kind of interesting.... The AL hit .306 against former Giant Brad Penny, but hey, he's in the playoffs with Detroit, alongside the remarkable Justin Verlander (24-5, 250 Ks, 0.92 WHIP).

The Playoff Picture

Both the Cardinals and the AL Tampa Bay Rays overtook the wild-card leaders (Atlanta and Boston) and snatched the postseason away from them last night; therefore, there will be no do- or-die one-game playoffs today.

St Louis opens at Philadelphia Saturday; Roy Halladay starts for the Phillies, who won 102 games this year, best in the business. Arizona and Milwaukee also start Saturday, at Miller Park. Game times have not been set.

The American League kicks off tomorrow night, with Verlander and the Tigers facing the Yankees and CC Sabathia at the 'Stadium. A must-see. Tampa opens the playoffs against the defending AL champion Rangers tomorrow afternoon.

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