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December 23, 2009

Leave Your Bats at the Bridge

Keeping Run Totals Low by the Bay

by Tommy Bennett

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Seeking run austerity can play as a strong portfolio move. The minimization of the sum of runs scored and runs prevented, when taken as a team-wide mandate, will lead to a strange, if well-diversified, balance sheet. On the run-prevention side, such a team would be risk-seeking and willing to dole out cash. On the run-creation side, an austere team would aggressively cut costs and hunt for stable, low-production bargains. Of course, such a team would play in park that was run-neutral or favored pitchers.

If you are looking for anecdotes to prove me right, stop by the Bay and speak with Brian Sabean. In 2009, the Giants scored 657 runs, which was "good" for 13th in the senior circuit. They allowed just 611 runs-best in the NL. It was this single-minded focus on the production of outs that led the Giants to an 88-74 record, which belies their third-place finish. For a few weeks in September, it appeared as though the Giants would chase their tail up and down the dugout steps so quickly that they might just end up with the Wild Card.

Although the Giants have rolled the dice and gotten lucky with run prevention (Randy Winn with +17 UZR and +15 FRAA in his age-35 season is pretty odd), the beta on their offense remains minimal. All of which is to say, their risks are run exclusively on the run prevention side of the ledger. Even the ones that don't work out, like Barry Zito, had an element of the artist-poet-intellectual that goes beyond the everyday. Oh, but the offense is a different story. It's an endless string of Travis Ishikawa and Emmanuel Burriss types, who are remarkable not so much because the club is taking a chance on them, but because the club is playing it safe with them. Their additions via free agency (Bengie Molina, Aaron Rowand, Winn) have been consistent with their bats only in the sense that they have been consistently below league average.

Austerity is a tough gig to keep up (just ask a third-world technocrat), and even the slightest deviations from the plan can herald devastating results in the future. Like the climax of an action movie, a close-up on the crack in the dam can imply the ensuing flood. What then, do we make of the Giants recent tremors? The first fissure in the fašade was Pablo Sandoval, who has plenty of upside as a hitter. Despite Sandoval's adequate -2 FRAA at the hot corner in 2009, his panda-like reflexes may not carry him there for long. His trip around the diamond in reverse may play out before the 2011 season is up.

Next came the portentous news that Brian Sabean was in talks to acquire Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla, a 29-year-old slugger whose walk rate has steadily increased each year in the majors, but whose defense at the keystone tends toward the adventuresome. A 14 percent walk rate would be a rare upside play by the bay, but diversification is only a good thing when it reflects reasonable tradeoffs. From an aesthetic standpoint, it would be tragic to see the Giants climb their way up the best-fit line on the Pythagorean x-y plot. But would it be a good baseball move? With Freddy Sanchez locked in at second, Uggla would move to third and push Sandoval across the diamond. Uggla's transition to third might be choppy. The tricky question is how an infield defense in flux would affect the young pitching staff.

The Giants rotation is stacked, led by the first hurler to collect back-to-back Cy Youngs since Randy Johnson. But 611 is an awfully hard number to repeat. Matt Cain had a 2.89 ERA in 2009, but just a 4.33 QERA. Cain is like a robot sent from a future in which there is a terrible war being waged between those who look only at statistical outcomes and those who look at processes and inputs. His only purpose here is to help provide retroactive proof for the outcome-proponents. In the last three years, he hasn't had a K/9 higher than 8.0 or a BB/9 below 3.0, but he hasn't had an ERA above 4.00 either. Cain's PRAR has climbed ever higher each year, from 13 in 2005 to 49 in 2009. He dominates despite the worrying walk totals, a fact that supervened on the performances of nearly every Giants pitcher this side of Tim Lincecum. Theirs is a staff of Icaruses, tempting regression with waxen walk totals.

Their defense has thus far protected them from falling back to earth. Their 2.98 PADE was the best in the majors in 2009, but no team has had a victory lap atop that category since the '94-'95 Orioles. Though they'll retain most of the slick fielders, their internal options at the corners (Fred Lewis, John Bowker, Nate Schierholtz) are question marks, and both Edgar Renteria and Rowand are likely to decline with age.

Given the Giants' present roster, I don't doubt at all their ability to score 657 runs a second time. Their only chance of outscoring their opponents lies in a full-scale shift in the opposite direction. Some of the Giants' top offseason targets so far are good starts, particularly Uggla and Johnny Damon. They have also inquired about Adrian Beltre, who would push Sandoval down the defensive spectrum-and the team further down the Pythagorean best-fit line-with his exceptional defense.

It's unlikely the Giants will make a big splash by acquiring either Jason Bay or Matt Holliday, meaning they are unlikely to increase the size of their total run-differential pie. Their options are either to make a trade (which would likely include Jonathan Sanchez) for a player like Uggla, or to add an aging free agent who might remind Giants fans a bit too much of the mid-2000s teams. Either would represent a trade-off between runs prevented and runs scored, which is the kind of rearranging of the deck chairs that works best on an indulgent Caribbean cruise, not on a trans-oceanic voyage through the unflinching Arctic. These are treacherous waters, and the Giants may have found the point of diminishing marginal returns when it comes to run prevention. Whether they allocate the money they have to pushing back against regression there or to increasing run scoring, they may not be able to do much to increase the distance between the two.

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