Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Giants Power Vacuum

Carlos Beltran as a Giant

That sound you hear--SWOOOOOOOOSSSSSSSHH!!--is the sound of air power being sucked back into the San Francisco Giants offensive balloon.

Jeff Keppinger as a Giant

Last season, in the heat of the National League West pennant chase, the Giants acquired the services of Carlos Beltran from the New York Mets (on July 28, 2011), and Jeff Keppinger from the Astros (on July 19th). The completely obvious reason for these mid-season acquisitions was to bolster a chronically weak hitting offense, a condition which has characterized the Giants make-up since the end of the Barry Bonds Era. Both players performed admirably, Beltran hitting .323 with 7 homers with 18 RBI's and 17 Runs Scored in just 44 games, Keppinger hitting .255 with 17 runs and 15 RBI's in 56 games. Beltran, 34, and Keppinger, 31, were (and are) still in their prime, and were measurably better than the alternatives (in Keppinger's case, Freddy Sanchez was down with injury, and Mike Fontenot was no more than a utility "plug-in" journeyman--and Sanchez's career looks to be about over this year; in Beltran's case, Schierholtz, Rowand, Burrell, Cody Ross and even Andres Torres couldn't generate as much offense between the whole lot of them, as Beltran could).

And yet, at season's end in 2011, Brian Sabean refused to bid seriously for either player, Beltran going to the Cardinals, and Keppinger ending up with Tampa Bay. So far this year at the mid-season mark Beltran has 23 homers, 73 RBI's (leading the league), and is batting .282. Keppinger is hitting .316.

The Giants have hit a paltry 62 homers (dead last in the league) with 408 runs so far this year, which is an even 4 runs scored per game. As a team, they trail the leading teams by almost a hundred runs! But this is nothing new, as any loyal Giants fan knows. The Giants success over the last half decade has been built on strong pitching, though the strategy which one might have expected, in acknowledgment of the difficulty of hitting homers at Pac Bell Park (with its yawning empty spaces in right and right-center field)--fielding a scratch and hustle group, or getting right-handed hitters with power to left--seemed not to materialize. Picking up Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan obviously was intended to fill this need. In Cabrera's case, the bet has paid off beautifully, but Pagan has tailed off considerably after an early season tear, and neither one has made much of an impact as a base-stealer. But a team built on weak offense, almost by design, can only work about half the time, since every team plays half its schedule in other parks. Even playing in smaller parks, Posey and Sandoval (and Cabrera) would have much higher power numbers.

The baseball wisdom was that the 2010 World Champs won with the good pitching formula, but people forget that that year we did have measurable power--

Posty 18
Huff 26
Uribe 24
Sandoval 13
Burrell 18
Torres 16

--which are the kind of numbers you expect of a strong offense. Sabean's eccentric insistence on not investing in power-production had, by late last year, begun to seem like an unsupportable fetish which was costing the team wins. And when he let Beltran and Keppinger go, I had that familiar feeling of expecting the worst. That premonition was confirmed this year as the Giants proved unable to hit in the clutch, and, with Brian Wilson on the shelf with Tommy John surgery, unable to hold those slim leads in the late innings. It seemed clear, once more, that the Giants could certainly contend for the division lead, but it would be touch and go.

When the Dodgers went out and acquired Hanley Ramirez (from Miami) and Shane Victorino (from Philadelphia) it was clear that the power balance in the division was shifting. This was made manifest when Los Angeles came in over last weekend and swept the leaders three straight, allowing only 3 runs in 27 innings! The Dodgers have good, but not great, pitching, but to be held to 1 run per game in your own park is an embarrassment. Of course this was payback for the nearly identical shellacking we had given them on their last visit here, and we were still in first place after they left, but Sabean could see the handwriting on the outfield wall. Strong pitching is fine, but if you're being shut out, a low team ERA is small consolation.

New Giant Marco Scutero

All of which is prelude to the news over the last few days of the Giants' recent acquisition of two more mid-season spark-plugs, meant to put more horsepower into the team's offense for the pennant run. Marco Scutero (from Colorado) should provide a bit of punch at third base, where Joaquin Arias's numbers left much to be desired (in Pablo's absence, the victim of yet another minor injury--a groin strain from stretching to take a throw at first base).

Then yesterday afternoon, the baseball world was buzzing about the Giants' trade for Hunter Pence, in exchange for Nate Schierholtz and two minor leaguers (one a good catching prospect). Schierholtz, as our fan base knows, has never lived up to his promise, and would probably have remained a platoon player for the rest of his career in San Francisco--a nice guy, an excellent fielder, with speed, but unable to overcome a couple of obvious weaknesses at the plate, particularly his tendency to misjudge inside pitches. There was also the revelation, in conjunction with the news, that the Giants had actually been trying to get Pence as early as last year, before the Phillies landed him from Houston (his original team). And Nate, it should be noted, had come out publicly in the press with his frustration at not being given full-time playing duties, asking (in effect) to be traded.

The Phillies, meanwhile, like the Astros, have embarked on a housecleaning, believing that their chances to compete this year were inexorably slipping. A team rich in talent, especially offense, they had let Jayson Werth go after 2010, Raul Ibanez after 2011, and now Pence and Victorino. Werth's career has declined, and Ibanez is age 40, but Victorino, and especially Pence, both with power and speed, are stars--not the kind of players any team relinquishes voluntarily. With all these players gone, it's hard to see how Philadelphia remains a contending team in the near future; Philly is still an older team.

With Pence, the Giants finally have a right-handed threat, a hitter whose home-runs should come with some regularity at Pac Bell, and elsewhere. Unlike Sandoval, he doesn't seem injury prone, and we shouldn't lose anything in outfield coverage (in exchange for Schierholtz). Pence is a frightening presence at the plate, taking monster cuts. Last year, he hit .314, and his lifetime average is .290, with over 90 RBI's a season. All Star material, right down the line. The real question, given the Giants' payroll, is whether Sabean can justify keeping him in the future. With Wilson nearing the end of his career (or maybe already done), the team will need to develop or acquire a certified closer--a key component of any serious contending team in this era. Sabean has always come down on the side of pitching, but perhaps now he may decide upon a "relief by committee" if he can increase the team's offensive production by another 50 runs a season. If you can average 2 more runs than the opposition, the importance of a lights-out closer is much less. Winning games the way the Giants have over the last three seasons is always exciting, but you wish that with all these great starters, we could rest a little easier in later innings. With Pence hitting, say, behind Posey or Sandoval, those guys should expect to get better pitches, too. How good could the team be with the following line-up?--


It's always dismaying to see how fast line-ups change over time. Huff, Freddy Sanchez, Cody Ross, Torres, Schierholtz, Rowand, Burrell, Uribe, Molina, Jonathan Sanchez--all fading from memory, all once major pieces in the shifting puzzle of baseball's unified field theory of team viability. So long, Nate, hola Hunter! And the guy even wears his socks high!

New Giant Hunter Pence

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