Saturday, August 13, 2011

Why the Giants are Fading in the West

Last year, the San Francisco Giants surprised the major league baseball world by winning the World Series over the Texas Rangers, 4 games to 1.

In many ways that success was a vindication of the managerial philosophy of Brian Sabean, the Giants general manager, who has believed, for some time apparently, that the ideal model for a winning major league team--the formula, if you will--begins with a core of a reliable, talented starting pitching staff, particularly one built out of the home farm minor league system. Sabean's preference was to protect his best pitching prospects. Instead of trading away young starters in their twenties for established veteran position players, to bolster the team in a particular year, or even for part of a year, he's stood by his guns, patiently allowing each man to develop and mature, in the expectation that a good young arm will always yield greater dividends over the long haul, than any expedient trade or transaction.

Position players come and go, and few journeymen players have consistently great years. Second level players may have a couple very good years, and offer encouraging aspects--great speed, good fielding, a healthy body not subject to frequent injury, an ability to play multiple positions, etc. But the best one can usually hope for the non-stars of any team, is that their best years coincide with the better performances of their confederates at the right time. This is exactly what happened to the Giants in 2010.

The Giants, following the 2009 season, had no position All Star players. Pablo Sandoval, in his first full season, had had a great year, hitting 25 homes, with 90 RBI's, and a .330 average. Though a wild, undisciplined hitter, he was clearly a productive batter with a great future ahead of him. But otherwise, the team's main strength was its young pitching staff, including a core of Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez and Wilson. By 2010, these young pitchers--along with the even younger Madison Bumgarner--were on the verge of stardom. Juan Uribe had been acquired prior to the 2009 season; Aaron Rowand in 2008. Before the 2010 season, the team acquired Aubrey Huff, and Edgar Renteria. Meanwhile, Buster Posey had made "arrived" and was living up to his big billing. Freddy Sanchez, Cody Ross and Pat Burrell were acquired during the season. With the possible exception of Rowand, each of these acquisitions turned into gold for the Giants. In 2010, Uribe hit 24 homers with 85 RBI's; Huff his 26 homers, 35 doubles, and .290 average; Sanchez hit .292 with 47 RBI's; Burrell hit 18 homers; Cody Ross hit .288 (finishing his year with 14 homers, 71 runs scored); and Torres hit 16 homers, scored 84 runs, and stole 26 bases. The combined performance of Huff, Uribe, and Torres--each of whom had a career year, matched by the offensive production of Rowand, Burrell, Schierholtz, Ross and Guillen--platooning and trading starts--managed, at least on paper, to produce one of the most efficient batting orders in the majors. Posey, of course, was the most pleasant surprise of all, winning the Rookie-of-the-Year honor in his first full season. Aside from Zito, and Todd Wellemeyer, the pitching squad was among the top two or three in either league, and performed best under pressure.

This year, 2011, the team made only one significant pre-season acquisition, signing Miguel Tejada, to replace the departed Juan Uribe, who cashed in his chips by signing with the Dodgers (where he's returned to mediocre form, and isn't even starting lately). The big developments in 2011, have been the loss of Posey and Sanchez to injury--both season-ending. Posey was on course, when he went down, for a season of numbers similar to 2010. Sanchez--whose career has been somewhat injury-prone--was too. Rather than trade prospects for immediate help, Sabean brought up Brandon Crawford, Chris Steward, Eli Whiteside, and Brandon Belt. None of these players was expected to hit much--they were good-fielding placeholders, at best. Tejada was a wash-out at short, and even Pablo went down for a month and a half with a broken bone in his hand.

But the real disappointment--which one might have predicted, given my earlier surmise about journeymen in general--has been the fall-off of Huff, Torres and Ross, each of whom was expected to hit with greater average and power. Within the last few weeks, perhaps sensing desperation, Sabean went out and obtained Carlos Beltran, Miguel Cabrera and Jeff Keppinger, three talented journeymen who typically hit better than almost anyone on the Giants team--certainly in their respective positions. Beltran is a big-time slugger nearing the end of his career, while Keppinger (at age 31) should have several good years left. But Beltran has gone cold, while Keppinger's actual effect on the team's offense hasn't been great, despite his average (which hovers around .300).

As a team, the Giants' offense is among the weakest of any contending team over the last half century, living on great pitching, "small ball"--the "ground attack"--great relief pitching, and prayers. The team gets very few homers (unlike last year), and almost none with anyone on base. Their team clutch hitting--hitting with "men in scoring position"--is on course to be one of the worst on record. Huff, Rowand, Torres, Ross, Tejada, Burrell, and Belt have all experienced long slumps this year. There is almost no team speed, especially with Torres not getting on base.

No power, no speed, no clutch hitting. It's a recipe for disaster. Beginning two weeks ago, after the Giants took 2 of 3 from the Phillies in their own park, they've performed miserably. Bumgarner, Vogelsong, Zito and Sanchez have all been bombed. The only players on the team, aside from Pablo, who have performed at or above expectations, have been Wilson and Romo.

At catcher, putting together the stats of Posey, Whiteside and Stewart, yields respectable numbers, but Posey's ability to hit in the clutch, and the lengths other teams would go to to avoid him during games--pitching around him--have made his loss a back-breaker.

Posey .284 4 homers 21 RBI's
Whiteside .221 4 homers 14 RBI's
Stewart .221 1 homer 6 RBI's

Total .245 (combined) 9 homers 41 RBI's

These numbers, though "respectable," at the catching position, do not begin to tell the story of Posey's loss. Aside from his handling of the pitchers, an unexpected gift to the team, one might have expected an additional 10 or so homers from him, and perhaps half a dozen game-winning hits, not to speak of the many instances in which he'd have picked up a key RBI or two in important games. He'd almost certainly have been able to generate an additional 20 runs, and 20 RBI's by this point in the season. Those things add up to important wins over the course of a season.

Sanchez's loss has been no less crucial. Comparing his numbers to Brandon Crawford and Mike Fontenot (an early season replacement pick-up from the Cubs) is apples and oranges. Sanchez is a career .300+ hitter, and a potential All Star in any given year. Like Posey, he can hit in the clutch, and is never an automatic out the way Crawford, Stewart, Tejada (and frequently Rowand) have been.

It's been painful, over the last two months, to see the team--over and over again--get two men on base with fewer than two outs, and watch Rowand, Schierholtz, Torres, Huff or Ross repeatedly strike out, or hit into easy double plays. Their combined failure--and Beltran's too--has meant many wasted great pitching performances by Cain, Bumgarner and even Lincecum on occasion.

Sabean's formula depended on all cylinders firing in unison, with journeymen carrying their weight, through good times and bad. Unfortunately, this hasn't occurred. Huff, Rowand, Ross, Tejada, Burrell, Torres--they're all having sub-par years at the same time; none has managed to step up a show leadership. Unless Beltran returns to form, and at least two of these other "regulars" start coming through, the team's chances of repeating seem remote at best. When you lose two of your stars to season-ending injuries, and your once-named "franchise" player (Zito) tanks, you need a little pixie dust. Or a miracle. There's always next year, when we'll have Posey and Sanchez back from injury.

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