Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The One-Dimensional San Francisco Giants

The San Francisco Giants are amazing. Last year, they won the most improbable World Series title and this year, they are at it again. You can't help looking at that team on paper and in statistics without wondering what the heck is going on. A writer trying to describe this team ends up like Bugs Bunny trying to figure out how the turtle kept beating him to the finish line in that famous cartoon race. Can't you hear the "What the...how...why...it can't beeee!" Consider that the Giants are four wins above their Pythagorean win/loss total based on their runs scored and runs allowed. They are firmly in first place in the National League despite a run differential of only +3.

Yes, we all know the answer is pitching. But even great pitching has to get some run support, right? Apparently not. The Giants are dead last in the National League in scoring. Here's how the offensive stacks up against the other sixteen National League teams in offensive production:

  • Runs - 16th
  • Homers - 12th
  • Stolen Bases - 11th
  • Walks - 14th
  • Batting average - 11th
  • On base percentage - 14th
  • Slugging - 12th
  • OPS - 12th
  • Total Bases - 13th

That's a pretty ugly offense is it not? They made two huge judgement errors in the off season. One, they opted to go with Miguel Tejada as their shortstop. The guy has a 47 OPS+. The other was signing Aubrey Huff to an overvalued, multi-year contract. They made the same mistake the Twins made by re-signing Carl Pavano. The golden rule for general managers is that it's okay to buy cheap and hope to strike gold. But once you do, never re-sign that cheap buy for good money. Another mistake was to bring back Pat Burrell, although that was a cheap mistake. And yet, there they are...in first place.

Since Pablo Sandoval went down with a broken bone (and he was their best hitter at the time) after 24 games, their best hitter has been Nate Schierholtz. Who would have predicted that before the season started? Buster Posey is coming on a bit, but thus far, his numbers are no where near what they were last year. If Nate Schierholtz is your best hitter, what does that say about your offense?

It might be unfair to call the Giants, "one-dimensional." Their fielding hasn't been a weakness...sort of. They are fourth in the National League in fielding efficiency but thirteenth in the league in fielding percentage. Now that Aubrey Huff is out of right field, the fielding in the outfield is good. But that takes into consideration that Pat Burrell is given positive fielding numbers in left. That can't be right, can it? The infield? Well...Mike Fontenot has been good.

The Giants, of course, live and die with their pitching. They are third in the NL in ERA, first in hits allowed, second in runs allowed, first in homers allowed and fourth in strikeouts. Every starter, including Madison Bumgarner are above league average in ERA+. The bullpen is again fantastic. The Giants win because they rarely, if ever, beat themselves on the pitching mound. Ryan Vogelsong has been one of the best stories of 2011. His three wins and sparkling ERA have been a huge boost since taking over for Barry Zito. Yes, this team wins because of its pitching. Dave Righetti has a proven track record as a pitching coach for having his pitchers keep the ball in the park. He and his charges have been terrific.

As long as the pitching staff gives the team a chance to win every night, the smoke and mirrors routine will continue to work for the Giants. Who could bet against them? The team leaves you scratching your head. In the meantime, they are laughing all the way to the bank.


obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

It is very easy to understand if you take a sabermetric view of the Giants.

They have focused, not just on very good pitchers, but ones that strike out a lot. Baseball Prospectus research showed that teams that went deep into the playoffs have a lot of strikeout pitchers (they also have a great closer and good fielders overall).

And when you have the best defense - pitching and fielding - in the majors (or nearly so), Pythagorean shows you that you can win with a poor scoring team. Take the Giants 2010 RA, feed in the RS for the average NL RS, and you would find that leads to a great winning team (generally). Even when you are a poor (but not poorest) scoring team, you can win as the Giants did in 2009 with their 4.0 RS. And yes they are last now, most teams that lose their best hitter tend to do worse offensively and when you are not that great in the first place, all the badder.

Everyone seems so amazed by what the Giants are doing because all that many people think about is offense. Fans dig the homers, I get it, I love the home run guys too. But nobody seems to pay attention to the pitching.

And the odd thing is that research, by both Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times, show that offense does not matter once you get into the playoffs. It could be good, it could be bad, it could be average, but the offense don't matter, it is your defense - pitching, closer, fielding - that matters, that affects whether your team makes it deep into the playoffs.

Now, the research does not indicate that this is a sure thing for the teams when you have these qualities of defense, but at minimum, if you don't have it, you are pretty much screwed in the playoffs.

Another plus for a defense led team like the Giants is that when you have a better defense, you don't need to score as many runs to win the same number of games.

For every 0.10 runs allowed you can reduce your RA, the RS you need for the same winning percentage goes down 0.11 runs. Thus, a 5.0 RA team needs to score 5.63 RS to win 89 games, but a 4.0 RA team only needs to score 4.50 RS. The Giants were at 3.60 RA in 2010, and thus only needed 4.05 RS to win 89 games. That they had 4.30 RS speaks to how good a team they were in 2010, despite detractors.

William J. Tasker said...

Good comments, obsessive. Thanks.