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After 60 games last season, the San Francisco Giants were 34-26 and in the
midst of a surprising season that saw the team win the NL West despite allowing
more runs than they scored. Many of us attributed their success to nothing more
than luck, and we assumed the team would collapse towards the center in 1998.
Yet after 60 games this year, they have a better record than in ’97, 36-24,
although they are in second place thanks to a good start by the Padres. Last
year was something of a fluke, but this season, while surprising in its own
way, is no fluke at all. The Giants are scoring an average of one run per game
more than their opponents this season; their record reflects their true level
this time around. What have they done that makes this year’s model so much
better than last year’s?


It’s not difficult to identify the primary difference between the two clubs,
but first lets look at the similarities. The offense is performing at close to
the same level this season (4.98 runs per game, 4.84 last year). They’re
getting on base a little more often, but hitting for a little less power.
Different players are contributing, however, beyond the inevitable Barry Bonds.
J.T. Snow is having a worse season than even his biggest detractors could have
imagined, while Stan Javier is playing more like the fourth outfielder he is.
On the other hand, Bill Mueller continues to improve, and Rich Aurilia is
showing why some felt he should have had the job over Jose Vizcaino last year.
Brent Mayne and Brian Johnson, while nothing special, are an improvement over
Rick Wilkins and Marcus Jensen, who got plenty of playing time last year before
Johnson’s arrival. All in all, the offense is a wash.


So is the starting pitching. Last year, the team’s starters posted an ERA of
4.25; this year they are right there again. Shawn Estes has struggled, but Orel
Hershiser
has been startling, and was named NL Pitcher of the Month for May. So
how is it that this year’s team is looking so good?


In 1997, the Giants’ bullpen had an ERA of 4.64, with an opposing OBP of .350
and SLG of .419. Through June 2 of ’98, that bullpen is at 2.17/.292/.314.


Robb Nen is pitching better than Rod Beck did last year. Jim Poole has taken
more than four runs off of his ERA. Most importantly, Steve Reed and John
Johnstone
have been excellent, far better than the Doug Henrys and Joe Roas of
last season. In fact, Reed and Johnstone are the key players to the Giants’
improvement.


This is important for fans of all teams, because these pitchers, while
relatively unknown, have good track records. They aren’t flukes. Reed,
foolishly exposed by the Giants in the ’93 expansion draft, posted a sub-4.00
ERA pitching five seasons on Planet Coors, allowing fewer than a hit per inning
with a K/BB ratio better than 2:1. Johnstone, who has bounced around for a few
years (including last year’s bizarre travels, where he started off pitching
well at Triple-A, pitched okay when called up, then was released to make room
for all those White Sox, then picked up by Oakland, who didn’t see anything
special, then re-acquired by the Giants for their September run), and he’s
always had decent K/IP numbers. These pitchers (especially Reed) are much
better risks than the recycled Mulhollands of the past. The Giants have
improved this year because they made some intelligent decisions in the
off-season, decisions that other teams could emulate, especially because they
don’t require the biggest payroll to implement.


The team still has glaring holes, and yes, I do mean at first base. Right field
isn’t looking too hot, either. There isn’t as much in the farm system for
Sabean to trade away, as there was when he pulled off the Chicago blockbuster
last season. Plus the Padres are playing awfully well. But the same kind of
intelligent decision-making that led to Steve Reed and John Johnstone can be
used to patch up these holes. Unfortunately, Brian Sabean continues to be a
maddeningly inconsistent general manager. For every Steve Reed, there’s a
handful of Alex Diazes. (Rey Sanchez is likely to fall into this latter
category before season’s end; his .330 BA is horribly empty, given that 33 of
his 35 hits have been singles.) There is no telling with Sabean if he’s going
to pick up a Roberto Petagine or a Joe Carter. That is, there is no clear
evidence that Sabean knows which of those two kinds of players he should be
after. He does have a track record of his own that suggests he won’t be shy
about pulling the trigger on a deal if it should present itself.


I’ve made it this far without mentioning Dusty Baker. Dusty has a reputation
for wearing out his bullpens over the course of a six-month season. Giants fans
can only hope he exercises some restraint in this area, because the bullpen is
the reason the Giants are ten games over .500. If they fall apart, the team
will fall apart with them.