The Changing Gigantics of SF

May 19, 2013
 
Baseball teams change at a glacial pace. I’m not talking about how a team does in a given season…that can change quite dramatically…I’m talking about what a team is: the broad scope of a team’s talents, their strengths and weaknesses. A team that’s good at converting a double play generally stays good at turning the double-play, just as a team with a terrible bullpen can’t make that bullpen a strength, at least not quickly. A team that gets lots of production at second base and no production at DH one year will likely have the same results next year.
 
You could, if you were motivated and/or properly intoxicated, come up with a hundred reasons for why this is so. I’ll hazard just two: talent disparity and the reserve clause. Talent is unevenly distributed: for every one Joey Votto, there are a hundred Joey Gathrights or Joey Divines. If your team happens to have one of the lesser Joey’s, it’s hard to replace your Joey with Votto Joey.
 
The reserve clause limits a team’s capacity to change, because it allows teams to hold on to younger talents. This locks teams in: the Red Sox and Yankees have had a strength at second base for many years, because they were savvy enough to draft Dustin Pedroia and Robbie Cano. Other teams haven’t been able to acquire these players because the reserve clause gave their teams control over these players. 
 
That’s a small attempt at a large point: which is that teams don’t change very quickly. It’s up to you if you believe that thesis, or if you think I’m a raving lunatic.
 
I’ll make one more attempt at convincing you: dynasty teams.
 
Dynasty teams are the teams that have a pattern of repeated success. The early 1900 Cubs were a dynasty, as were the Braves of the 1990’s. The Big Red Machine. On occasion, the Yankees have put together brief dynasties.
 
A slightly knowledgeable baseball fan can tell you the strengths of these teams. The early Cubs had Tinkers, Evers, and Chance and excellent pitching. The Big Red Machine had hitters: I don’t know what pitcher on the Reds pops into your mind first, but he probably comes after Bench, Rose, Morgan, Foster, and Sparky. The Braves had that rotation. The most recent Yankee dynasty had a core of Jeter, Rivera, and Posada.
 
These teams didn’t really change. They changed slightly: the Braves soldiered on after Glavine and then Maddux left, reaching the playoffs in 2004 and 2005, with Smoltz hanging around as a closer. The Braves run lasted fifteen years; there was bound to be some turnover. It happened slowly.
 
This brings me to the real subject of this article, which I’ve managed to hold off for a beat longer than I should. The San Francisco Giants, currently trying to lay claim as a ‘dynasty’ team, have attempted that claim while completely changing who they are as a team.  
 
This is an astonishing feat for any team, much less a team that has won two championships, and is in strong contention for the playoffs again in 2013. As this is potentially unique in baseball history, I thought I’d chronicle this change, and ask what chance it has on working.
 
*          *          *
 
Here are the Giants as they were constructed in 2010, when they won the World Series. First, the pitching staff:
 
Pos.
Name
ERA+
Pos.
Name
ERA+
SP1
Cain
124
CL
Wilson
217
SP2
Lincecum
114
RP1
Romo
180
SP3
Bumgarner
131
RP2
Casilla
201
SP4
Zito
94
RP3
Mota
91
SP5
J. Sanchez
127
RP4
Affeldt
95
 
This is some good pitching. The weak link in the rotation was Barry Zito, while Jonathan Sanchez and twenty-year old Madison Bumgarner turned in surprisingly strong performances at the back end of the rotation. Lincecum had his first slightly ‘off’ season, posting a 3.43 ERA while leading the league in strikeouts for the third straight year. The bullpen was strong: closer Brian Wilson was backed up by the equally effective Romo and Casilla.
 
The lineup was decidedly less impressive:
 
Pos.
Name
OPS+
C
Posey
133
1B
Huff
142
2B
Sanchez
102
SS
Uribe
102
3B
Sandoval
99
LF
Burrell
136
CF
Rowand
78
RF
Schierholtz
85
 
The bright spots were Buster Posey and two thirty-three year old veterans (Huff, Burrell) having surprisingly strong years. Aside from Posey, the Giants lineup didn’t look like the lineup of a perennial contender.
 
The average baseball fan had a good picture of what the Giants were: they were a team with really good pitching, a good catcher, and a mediocre lineup. The Giants finished 1st in the NL in ERA+, posting a team mark of 117, which had them five points ahead of the Rockies. They finished in a respectable tie for 5th in Adjusted OPS, with a 98 mark.
 
 
*          *          *
Now we’ll compare the 2010 Giants with the 2012 Giants. We have two World Champs, separated by a lost year. First, the belly-itchers:
 
Pos.
Name
ERA+
 
Name
ERA+
SP1
Cain
124
Cain
126
SP2
Lincecum
114
Lincecum
68
SP3
Bumgarner
131
Bumgarner
105
SP4
Zito
94
Zito
85
SP5
J. Sanchez
127
Vogelsong
105
 
 
 
CL
Wilson
217
Casilla
125
RP1
Romo
180
Romo
198
RP2
Casilla
201
Affeldt
131
RP3
Mota
91
Hensley
77
RP4
Affeldt
95
Lopez
142
 
There’s little turnover in personnel. Aside from Sanchez being replaced by Vogelsong, the rotation is exactly the same. The Giants lost their closer/transgressive interviewee Brian Wilson, but they found a worthy replacement in Casilla, with Romo serving as the team’s beard stand-in.
 
On the other hand, the team’s lineup changed dramatically from 2010 to 2012:
 
Pos.
Name
OPS+
Name
OPS+
C
Posey
133
Posey
171
1B
Huff
142
Belt
123
2B
Sanchez
102
Theriot
83
SS
Uribe
102
Crawford
86
3B
Sandoval
99
Sandoval
123
LF
Burrell
136
Melky
157
CF
Rowand
78
Pagan
120
RF
Schierholtz
85
Pence
90
 
The most improved positions in the lineup are centerfield (Pagan replacing Rowand), and catcher and third, where Belt and Sandoval improved as hitters.
 
The result was a team that was, quietly, one of the elite offensive teams in the National League last year, a fact that almost no one seemed to notice. The Giants, a team that posted a 98 OPS+ just two years earlier, posted a 106 team OPS_, good for second in the NL, behind the Cardinals.
 
Year
OPS+
NL Rank
2010
98
5th (t)
2012
106
2nd
 
This masked a dramatic drop in the quality of their pitching, which went from being the best in the NL in 2010 to ranking just 10th in 2012:
 
Year
ERA+
NL Rank
2010
117
1st
2012
96
10th (t)
 
Which brings us to 2013: currently, the Giants have the best offense in the NL, by a wide margin:
 
Year
Rank
Team
OPS+
2013
1st
Giants
112
2013
2nd (t)
Brewers
100
2013
2nd (t)
Pirates
100
 
Their pitching, however, has been terrible in 2013:
 
Rank
Team
ERA+
12th
Brewers
90
13th
Giants
89
14th
Padres
87
 
There are fifteen teams in the NL: the Giants pitchers have been better than just two of those fifteen teams.
 
So the Giants seem an anomaly in the long history of baseball: they’ve managed to win championships while changing dramatically just what kind of team they are.
 
*          *          *
 
As you’re probably aware, most of baseball is just starting to realize this: that the Giants have a really good offense, and some big holes in their pitching. The question, in light of this, is whether or not the Giants will make the necessary adjustments that will help them get in front in the NL West in 2013.
 
There’ll be tell-tale signs, worth looking out for if you’re a Giants fan. The best prospects in the Giants system are in Single-A, so help is likely to come from outside the organization. When some of the losing teams start looking to shed burdensome contracts, the Giants should be active in trying to acquire a starter or two. If they are, there’s a good chance that they’ll hold off the Rockies and D’Backs.
 
But….my sense is that the Giants will choose to stay the course with their current crop of pitchers. That’s not because the Giants management is inept, but because it’s really hard to figure out what to do to improve the rotation. The weakness hasn’t been constant; it’s not easy to tell where the patch should go.
 
Ryan Vogelsong has been terrible this year. But Vogelsong wasn’t terrible in 2011 or 2012, when he posted a 3.05 ERA (and 114 ERA+). He’s had two years of not being terrible that argue for patience. Tim Lincecum was terrible last year, but he’s won two Cy Young Awards, and it’s tough to give up on a pitcher with his pedigree. I wouldn’t give up on Lincecum: if I was a GM I’d be throwing offers to the Giants right now.
 
Matt Cain will be fine. He’s had one of the strangest careers of any good pitcher in recent memory, but I have every confidence that he’ll be an efficient pitcher going forward. Madison Bumgarner will win a Cy Young Award someday.
 
Barry Zito has been terrible; up until last year, he was the guy to replace. But Zito’s been solid this year. He’s had two bad outings, and six outings where he’s allowed either 0 or 1 earned runs. Even if you call his April 27th start a dude (6 unearned runs), Zito has been a net positive for the team.
 
So there’s not an easy fix; short of trading a blue-chip prospect for an elite starter approaching free agency on a losing team (hello, Matt Garza!), the Giants are stuck: there are no solutions who are objectively better than the guys they currently have. The team has to wait it out, and hope that the other teams in the NL are still afraid of a rotation that is something of a circus tiger: they have the stripes and the teeth, but they don’t have the claws anymore.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com
 
 

COMMENTS (2 Comments, most recent shown first)

craigjolley
Regular season wins 2010-2013
Phillies 301
Braves 299
Giants 296
Reds 293
Cards 292

With the Phillies on their way down Braves, Giants, Reds, Cards look about equally poised to establish predominance for the decade discounting the Giants' playoff success. Considering the law of competitive balance here are some players likely to level off the remainder of the season.

Over-performing in 2013:
Braves: J. Upton, Gattis, C. Johnson, Minor.
Giants: Scutaro, Crawford, Sandoval, Blanco.
Reds: none.
Cards: Molina, Miller, Westbrook.
Nats: Harper, Zimmermann, Detwiler
Pirates: Jones, Marte, Locke.
Dbacks: Goldschmidt, Chavez, Parra, Gregorius, Corbin.
Rockies: Cuddyer, Nicasio.

Under-performing in 2013:
Braves: McCann, B. Upton, Uggla, Heyward, Hudson, Beachy (DL).
Giants: Vogelsong, Lincecum, Cain.
Reds: Heisey.
Cards: Freese.
Nats: LaRoche, Espinoza, Werth, Conzalez.
Pirates: Walker, Alvarez, McDonald.
Dbacks: Montero, Prado, Kennedy.
Rockies: none.

Comments
Braves: Many players off the charts in both directions. Bench is strong, capable of replacing slumping players if necessary. Streak team.
Giants: Pitching likely to improve, hitting likely to fall off. Linsecum's future may be as a reliever where he excelled in the 2013 playoffs.
Reds: What you see is what you get, a playoff team.
Cards: Pitching likely to decline.
Nats: Jury is still out on whether they can remain elite. Gonzalez may be the key.
Pirates: Looks like they are in the race to stay this year.
Dbacks: Ready to drop back. Weak bullpen and several players way over their heads so far.
Rockies: Look like a steady team. Okay bullpen. Probably will stay in the race.
1:59 PM May 20th
 
mskarpelos
The Giants fully expected the core of their 2010 staff to be around for a long time (Zito being the only albatross). They gave long term contracts to Cain and Bumgarner, and they would have given a long term contract to Lincecum, but he was looking to test the free agent waters and wasn't very receptive to the kind of long term contract that they gave Cain (Five years at $20 Million per year plus a team option in the sixth year). They gave up on Sanchez, and Vogelsong was a nice surprise, so that turned into push short term, but the core staff was expected to be in place for a long time to come. I don't think the Giants ever envisioned in their wildest nightmares that Cain and Lincucum would blow up as badly as Lincecum did last year and Cain has so far this year. It's true the Giants don't have anyone at Fresno who can step into the rotation this year, but the most likely reason they'll stay pat is that they truly believe Dave Righetti and Mark Gardner can eventually figure out what's gone wrong and bring Cain and Lincecum back to their former success. In the case of Cain, they really have no choice. It will be interesting to see what Lincecum does this year and what the Giants will offer him when he becomes a free agent.
11:31 AM May 20th
 
 
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