Monday, September 3, 2012

The Race Is On

Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts. With 28 games left to play in the season, the San Francisco Giants lead the NL West by four and a half games over their great rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Last year's champions, the Arizona Diamondbacks, have faded back, fallen below .500, and trail by ten and a half. If there's gonna be a race, folks, it'll be a two-team sprint to the finish, like 1951 and 1962 and 1965 and 1966 and 1971 and 1997 and 2004. Fear not, O faint of heart: the Giants won four of those races and they can with this one, too, if they keep doing what they're doing right now.

Just about three weeks ago, the Giants' leading hitter and the subject of what looked like one of the all-time-great 'steal' trades, Melky Cabrera, was suspended for violating the league rule against illegal supplementary drugs. In the wake of the wailing and gnashing of teeth and self-righteous finger-waggling which followed, the Giants have won 12, lost 4, and taken and then widened the division lead.  Playing .750 ball without the "cheater", as opposed to .542 with him, leads us to suggest that those who bray about forfeiting team wins as a further penalty for harboring "cheaters" now own up and award the Giants 24 extra wins, since evidently Cabrera's PED-besotted presence in the lineup was a handicap, not an advantage.

OK, enough of that.  The real point here is that the Giants are as resilient and mature a team as there is in baseball, and this reflects not only on the roster but especially on manager Bruce Bochy.  In those 16 games the Giants have scored 80 runs, five per game, where they averaged 4.2 before. Bochy's handling of the lineup, and his day-to-day decisions as to who will start and where, have not only camouflaged a weakness but actually drawn strength from it. No manager can do more.

The Giants' Pythagorean won-lost projection has them dead-even with LA at 72-62, which means they are about four games to the good. They're eighth in the league in runs scored, which is a major improvement over last year, and fifth in runs allowed, which is a slight slip. Their unusually high ratio of unearned runs to overall runs, which we documented back in May, has flattened out to league average, thank goodness. AT&T Park continues to be a huge help to the pitchers: the Giants lead the league in fewest runs allowed at home, while on the road they are thirteenth. On the offensive side, it will come as no surprise to anyone that the Giants have scored fewer runs at home than any team, but get this: on the road, the San Francisco Giants lead the league in runs scored with 357.  Overall, their home record projects to 36-29, their road record to 36-33.

What does all this tell us? The Giants do not have the dominating pitching that carried them to the championship in 2010; instead they are a more balanced ballclub overall. How this affects their chances in the postseason, presuming they get to the postseason, is anyone's guess.

Speaking of trades, the "other" offseason trade, the one that brought Angel Pagan in exchange for Ramon Ramirez and Andres Torres, is looking better and better all the time. We excoriated Bochy early in the season for batting Pagan leadoff, because it seemed apparent the decision was made only because he looked like a leadoff hitter, in the grand manner of Dusty ("My Centerfielder Bats Leadoff") Baker. When his .284 OBP and the Giants' inability to score enough runs became brutally obvious, "Boch" inserted Gregor Blanco into the spot, and for two months it was a genius move. Then Blanco stopped hitting, to the point where his one-walk-per-game habit could no longer prop up his OBP, and back went Pagan into the top spot. Since then he has been a bonafide leadoff man. His OBP has reached .344 overall and is close to .400 since July. He has hit 30 doubles and ten triples and seems likely to be the first Giant to reach double-digit totals in all extra-base-hit categories since--  oh, shoot, we don't know, you look it up. Point is, Pagan has taken the baton and made a real difference for this team over the past month. And then we see our old buddy Ramon, having walked 30 men in 54 innnings for the Mets, and Torres, with a .650 OPS in 105 games. Good trade?

Bochy's judicious use of Ryan Theriot, recently-acquired Marco Scutaro, Brandon Crawford, and Joaquin (.417 in August) Arias throughout the middle infield is reminiscent of 2010, when he artfully juggled third basemen and shortstops all the way to the World Series. Draft-deadline pickup Hunter Pence and the newest Giant, Xavier "I Got Something To Prove" Nady, are candidates for the Cody Ross Lookalike sweepstakes; yes, we'd like to see Pence do more than he has, but we're sure happy with Nady's three-game stint so far.  At first base, Brandon Belt, one of the few who will regularly take a walk, is up to .267/.360/.404, just enough to keep the job. Across the infield, Pablo Sandoval is still able to slug .443, though it's obvious to just about everyone he's still feeling the effects of two injuries that have obliged him to miss 51 games already.

That leaves the team MVP, Buster Posey (.329, .405, .530, all tops on the club) who could be the league MVP, too. He, along with Pagan and Sandoval and, lately, Belt, are the only sure everyday starters. The rest depends on "Boch", and when you consider this crew is, again, leading the league in runs scored on the road, depend we will.

Anyone who's fought their way through this wordy thicket this far probably knows that the reason the Giants are thirteenth in pitching in neutral parks is because of one guy, Tim Lincecum, and his 5.21 ERA. It balloons up to 6.63 on the road, where the league is hitting .283 against him, and frankly his 5-6 away record is a lot better thn it deserves to be. At the 'Bell, he's still a "good" pitcher (4.01, .245) but sports a 3-8 mark. Then again, the overall season home/road split is so severe--  6.6 total runs per game at AT&T, 9.8 on the road, a whopping  48% difference-- one could make the argument that he's actually pitched better away from home. In any case, Lincecum's well-documented struggles are the Giants' biggest challenge as the stretch drive begins. He's simply too talented to consider not starting him, and he has been somewhat better since the All-Star break, but a September surge such as he had two years ago is simply too much to expect right now. We'd settle for a .500 month.

The triumvirate of Matt Cain (13-5, 2.98), Madison Bumgarner (14-9, 3.07) and Ryan Vogelsong (12-7, 3.02) has kept the Giants' starting pitching on track all year. If we win, Cain will get serious Cy Young consideration, for his perfect game and his years of unrequited excellence as well as his stats. Barry Zito, despite a WHIP almost as high as Lincecum's, has fared better in the decision department (10-8), and he's logged 149 innings coming back from last year's injury. As a fourth or fifth starter, he's perfectly adequate.
In the bullpen, the Giants have used fifteen different relievers so far, with familiar names Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, and Sergio Romo getting much of the work. Less-familiar names Clay Hensley and George Kontos have made 87 appearances between them, picking up in part for Javier Lopez, who is not having a particularly good season. Hensley has been the weakest link, and as a result our old friend Brad Penny has joined the group. Meanwhile, Casilla has 24 saves and also six blown saves, while Romo has been the best of the bunch if you go by numbers alone. Lately both he and Lopez have been summoned in "save" situations, to the point where it looks like closer-by-committee for the first time in years.

The remaining 28 games of the season all are against NL West division opponents: nine against Arizona, seven against Colorado, six each against the Dodgers and Padres. 16 are at home, twelve away. It all starts tonight with the Diamondbacks in town for three, followed by three against LA next weekend. It ends with three in Chavez Ravine beginning on October 1. With their recent surge the Giants also remain contenders for either of the two wild-card spots if LA should suddenly get red-hot-- as long as they don't stumble too badly down the stretch. But with a 27-17 mark against their division rivals going into this month, the NL West pennant is there for the Giants' taking. It's time to take it!

No comments:

Post a Comment