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August 18, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Giant Steps... Backward

by Jay Jaffe

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The defending world champions are leaking oil. On Tuesday night, making just his second big-league start, Braves rookie Randall Delgado no-hit the Giants for six innings before yielding a game-tying homer to Cody Ross to lead off the seventh. The Giants would go on to lose in 11 innings, their 13th loss in their past 18 games. Through Tuesday, the skid had cost them seven-and-a-half games in the NL West standings, knocking them from four ahead of the Diamondbacks to three-and-a-half games behind in less than three weeks (they cut that by one on Wednesday night). Our PECOTA-based Playoff Odds report estimated their chances of winning the division at 97.3 percent just before that streak started. That figure fell to 62.8 percent after Tuesday's loss, but only because PECOTA has far more faith in their rest-of-season performance than Arizona's; judged by records, run differentials, and remaining schedules, it's the Snakes who should be the heavy favorites.

The Giants topped the pre-season Hit List, primarily on the strength of their pitching; their rotation on the shoulders of Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, while their bullpen ranked third thanks not only to Brian Wilson but also his setup crew, including Sergio Romo and Jeremy Affeldt (for some reason the system was not a Santiago Casilla fan, but it had never seen him handle a bat). The offense rated as a potential problem, forecast for 10th in the league in scoring, but given their dwelling in a pitcher’s park, it looked to be middle-of-the-pack caliber.

But noooo. Through Tuesday, the Giants were last in the NL in scoring by nearly a quarter of a run, averaging just 3.42 runs per game. They're second-to-last in the majors with a .243 True Average, last in the NL in both batting average (.239) and on-base percentage (.301), and third-to-last in slugging percentage (.359). Their unintentional walk rate (6.6 percent, 14th) is unintentionally hilarious. Their isolated power (.120, 12th) should be isolated in Death Valley. They're on pace to score just 554 runs, fewer than any Giants team has in 162 games.

To be fair, the Giants have been forced to contend with a slew of injuries that's downright Biblical in proportion. Cody Ross missed the first three weeks of the season due to a calf strain. Andres Torres missed most of April and part of May with an Achilles strain. Pablo Sandoval lost a month and a half due to a broken wrist that required surgery. Buster Posey went down for the season via a grisly home-plate collision that fractured his leg and tore ligaments. Brandon Belt suffered a fractured wrist that cost him all of June. Freddy Sanchez was lost for the season in early June due to a torn labrum. Mark DeRosa has served two DL stints due to wrist inflammation, limiting him to 22 games thus far. Miguel Tejada missed four weeks due to an abdominal strain, returning to the lineup on Tuesday night. Pat Burrell has missed virtually all of the second half due to a bone spur in his right foot; he just went for a second opinion. Newly-acquired Carlos Beltran was placed on the disabled list on Monday due to a wrist strain.

Even then, so many of the team's problems are self-inflicted that you'll half expect Ron Popeil to pop out of the middle of this paragraph and exclaim, "But wait, there's more!" Start with manager Bruce Bochy's blind loyalty to first baseman/outfielder Aubrey Huff; the 34-year-old has hit just .245/.298/.374—numbers worthy of Dishonorable Mention in the Replacement-Level Killers evaluation—while making 477 plate appearances, 124 more than any other Giant. Belt, their top hitting prospect coming into the season, has hit .216/.324/.386—better than Huff in the two crucial categories—but has just 102 plate appearances in the majors to go along with 230 in the minors. Aaron Rowand (.241/.284/.362) is fourth on the team in plate appearances with 335. Tejada, the 37-year-old who is perhaps the most Sabeanesque free agent Brian Sabean ever signed, has cratered, hitting just .242/.274/.333 as part of a Vortex of Suck at shortstop; the team further Bococked the situation by forcing the underqualified Brandon Crawford (.190/.275/.261) to make the jump from High-A. Rather than trade for a catcher after Posey went down, the team handed the reins to Eli Whiteside, a career .229/.281/.363 hitter to that point. He's hit .225/.300/.352 while getting the bulk of the starts behind the plate, with backup Chris Stewart (.216/.286/.294) even worse.

The wave of midsummer reinforcements hasn't helped much, either. Beltran hit just .244/.261/.356 in 11 games, then sat for a week before hitting the DL. Second baseman Jeff Keppinger's .286/.313/.363 is so superficial he's actually below replacement level since arriving. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera (.217/.222/.267) has been every bit as bad as those he replaced. Thanks in part to their struggles, the team is hitting just .229/.277/.350 since the All-Star break—.219/.267/.329 aside from Sandoval—while averaging a bare 2.87 runs per game; even Vernon Wells would be embarrassed. In all, the Giants have just four active regulars producing at a better than league-average clip: Sandoval (.301 TAv), Nate Schierholtz (.278), Belt (.274), and Ross (.262), with the latter in such a second-half slide (.157/.238/.315) that he may slip under the bar soon.

Fortunately for the Giants, they still have their pitching. They're second in the league in run prevention at 3.50 runs per game, with the circuit's best homer and strikeout rates (0.6 and 8.2 per nine, respectively) helping to overcome the second-highest unintentional walk rate (3.1 per nine). The rotation is second only to the Phillies in ERA (3.28) and quality start rate (65 percent). Lincecum has given up more than one run in just two of his last 10 starts (!); if not exactly an obvious Cy Young contender, he still ranks third in the league in ERA (2.58) and strikeout rate (9.6 per nine), and sixth in home-run rate (0.49 per nine). Cain is ninth in the league in ERA (3.00) thanks to the league's second-lowest homer rate (0.38 per nine), a 3.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a typically low .274 BABIP. Madison Bumgarner has been particularly stingy with both homers (0.47 per nine, fourth) and walks (2.0 per nine, 10th), with a 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio (sixth); he's carrying a 3.49 ERA despite being scorched for a .338 BABIP. All three rank among the league's top 10 in Quality Start percentage.

As for the back end of the staff, while Jonathan Sanchez has been wild (5.9 BB/9) and lousy (4.26 ERA), and Zito hurt, the real surprise is 33-year-old Ryan Vogelsong, who has done nothing less than to deliver a league-leading 2.47 ERA thanks to an effective five-pitch arsenal. While he's more than a run ahead of his 3.54 FIP, his peripherals (0.7 HR/9, 3.1 BB/9, 7.2 K/9 and a .286 BABIP) certainly bespeak a pitcher who's lightyears beyond the 5.86 ERA he compiled in the majors from 2000-2006 before disappearing to beat the bushes.

Though he still has his (in)famous beard, closer Brian Wilson hasn't been able to duplicate last season's magic. A sharp rise in walks and a coinciding drop in Ks—his 1.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio is less than half of last year's mark—probably owes something to injuries. Wilson began the year on the disabled list with an oblique strain and is now battling elbow inflammation, which may explain why he's walked nine hitters in 10 2/3 second-half innings. Still, the good work of Romo, Casilla, Javier Lopez, Jeremy Affeldt and Ramon Ramirez has offset Wilson's decline, helping the bullpen to the league's best ERA (2.93) and lowest rate of allowing inherited runners to score (21.6 percent).

The Giants are now 46-6 (.885) when leading through six innings, about 1.5 wins above average. Even so, the team lost to the Braves on walk-off hits on both Monday and Tuesday night, with Wilson unable to hold a two-run lead during the former, and Lopez running out of steam in the 11th inning on Tuesday, ending the bullpen's run of 7 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of Sanchez, who left the game in the third due to a sprained ankle. If Sanchez winds up on the DL, he'll join Romo, who was shelved at the same time as Beltran, depriving the Giants of his otherworldly 53/3 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio.

Given the Deadball-era run environment in which the team plays—3.19 per team per game since the break—the latter's loss could loom large. As Joe Sheehan observed in his most recent newsletter, "So much of the Giants' success last year was an otherworldly run by this pen, and their early-season success in one-run games was a mix of bullpen performance and good fortune. Neither seems to be in play at the moment." Indeed, while the Jints are still a more-than-respectable 28-18 in one-run games, they've lost all five that they've played during their recent bellyflop.

The team's chances would be helped if Bochy could get his best team on the field, but given the plague of injuries and uninspiring pickups, it's increasingly hard to identify those players. Last year's Giants made a run in part because Sabean was relentless in his efforts to upgrade the team, particularly during the waiver period; he plucked a very done-looking Burrell off the scrap heap in late May, picked up Lopez and Ramirez at the July 31 deadline, and added Mike Fontenot, Jose Guillen, and Ross last August. Whatever their flaws over the course of a 162-game season, they were improvements given the alternatives at the time. This squad appears to need similar magic, but it may be too late to find other passable options, particularly at catcher and shortstop.

 If there's hope for the Giants, it's in their remaining schedule. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the average record of their remaining opponents is 55-67, compared to 59-63 for the Diamondbacks. The Giants are 28-17 within the division, and beyond games against the Braves on Wednesday and Thursday, their interdivisional slate consists of seven against the Astros and three against the Cubs. By comparison, the Diamondbacks are 23-21 inside the division, and have 10 games against the Pirates, Nationals, and Braves outside the division. Amid more or less comparable intradivision schedules, the two teamsac square off in a pair of three-game series, first in San Francisco from September 2-4, then in Arizona from September 24-26, the penultimate series of the season. In a year where the number of races for playoff spots is rapidly dwindling, the Giants need to play a whole lot better to keep this one alive.   

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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