16 July 2009

How the Giants Can Win the West

I could sit here and tell you how the Giants will likely hold onto the National League Wild Card slot, winning at Petco Park for the first time this season in Game 162, a 1-0 squeaker with Jonathan Sanchez tossing his third complete game and Pablo Sandoval stroking an opposite field homer off Heath Bell in the ninth.

I could break down the first half stats and second half projections for the six teams within five games in the “Wild Card Division.” I could break down the nine teams within 6½. I could tell you about the strengths of their schedules and their bullpen ERAs. I could compare rotations and home records. I could spew a mess of numbers and charts that would make Bill James blush.

But this is baseball we’re talking about. No matter how many detailed statistics the game gives us to obsess upon, there is no statistic for the rocks on the infield or divets in the outfield, for muscle pulls or minor league call-ups, for the will to win or the resignation to failure.

Numbers will tell you a player’s worth can be determined in the abstract. Numbers will tell you that Major League pitching has improved because HR averages are down. Numbers will tell you a team can still prevail in Game 7 after blowing a 5-0 lead in what would have been a series-clinching Game 6.

The numbers of baseball often lie.

Of course, I’m not being completely honest either. I’d love to break down the race for the N.L. Wild Card in a nine-part series over the next day or so before we go back on our medication. But I just don’t have that kinda time. Who does, really?

I do, however, have the time to say a few things about another race in which the Giants are still a serious player. And to analyze this race, I only need to dissect two teams: Us and Them.


It’s the 300-pound gorilla in the room, so why don’t we talk about it in depth right off the top?

The Giants are scoring 4.2 runs per game, which for most teams wouldn’t stop the presses. But given the lackluster hitting performances turned in by this team over the past few years, it’s a watershed. And they’re only getting better as the season progresses. Their RPG has risen every month, with a low-point of 3.85 in April and the current peak of 4.75 for the first half of July.

Yes, they lack that big-name threat in the middle of the lineup, they’ve drawn 64 fewer walks than any other team in the N.L., and some nights they still manage to make another team’s shell-shocked rookie look like vintage Greg Maddux.

The Hated Ones, by contrast, have the best team batting average in baseball (.275) and a run differential (+105) a full 20 better than their nearest competitor (Boston). Russell Martin and Orlando Hudson have been struggling, but this team gets contributions up and down the lineup and can beat you in a variety of ways.

And then there’s Manny.

But day after day, a new hero emerges to lead the Giants’ much-maligned offense, and very quietly they’ve amassed a run differential of +44. Of course, a lot of that is due to the pitching staff’s league-leading 3.51 ERA. But it also tells you this team is learning how to do just enough to win as opposed to doing just enough to lose.

You can pinpoint the moment when this worm turned. It was a brisk Saturday night in Seattle. The Giants were three games under .500, losers of eight of their last nine. They’d fallen 2-1 to the M’s the previous night in 12 innings, their only run coming on an Aaron Rowand homer leading off the game. They’d only managed seven runs in their past five games.

It was the top of the eighth. There were two outs. The Giants were trailing 1-0. The team scoreless streak was at 18 innings. A pair of two-out hits from Molina and Winn and a walk to Burriss loaded the bases against Mark Lowe (one of the aforementioned shell-shocked rookies). That’s when it happened.

Juan Uribe, nephew of former Giants fan favorite Jose, stroked a double into the right-centerfield gap. It rolled to the wall. Three runs scored. After a Fred Lewis dinger, the Giants led 5-1. Matt Cain finished off a complete game, and in 46 games since the Giants are 29-17.

Over than span, evidence of a rebirth can be found in the elevated game of a cadre of young talent. Travis Ishikawa picked himself off the schnide and has six homers and a .300-plus average since the Turning Point. Nate Schierholtz has been a five-tool revelation in right field, replacing problem child Fred Lewis, whose days in the orange and black may be numbered. Eli Whiteside, called up the day after the Turning Point, has provided a viable option backing up Molina and was the mastermind behind the plate for Sanchez’s no-no.

And you cannot deny the impact of Pablo Sandoval. I’m not even talking about the time he spends in the batters box — which have to be the most exciting moments loyal Giants fans have seen since Barry’s home run chase in years of lore. If you follow this team, you’ve seen a little Panda taking root. It’s in Timmy’s smile, Wilson’s mohawk, Rowand’s grit. It’s infectious like a rare disease, and it’s spread through the Giants clubhouse a year or two earlier than expected.

There are a lot of folks calling for a trade to bolster the lineup with the addition of a big bat (or two). And it’s not just the Lunatic Fringe. Columnists, beat reporters, bloggers, and pundits all agree something must be done.

I, however, do not fall into that category.

I agree that, with growing parity throughout the league, a team must embrace every chance it has to reach the postseason because — as was oft-repeated during the Bonds era — anything is possible in October. However, I don’t agree that the Giants must sacrifice young talent or the fragile chemistry they’ve developed over the past few months (and years).

I am a firm believer in the intangibles of sports success (see later in this post), and I believe this team must have its chance to sail or fail as constituted. Any honest appraisal of what’s out there to be had yields a long list of Shea Hillenbrands and Sidney Ponsons, all of whom come with hefty contracts and histories of injury.

If the Giants are honest about building for the future, this season must be seen as what it is: a pleasant advance on an investment. We’re playing with house money, and I’m ready to go all in down the home stretch with the girl that brought me to the table. Just sayin’.

Starting pitching

I’ll say the least about this subject, because it’s the one bright spot about this team that the national and local news media have already beaten to death, brought back to life, and beaten to death again.

I think a lot of the fire behind the Vote for Pablo campaign stemmed from the relief that someone other than Lincecum or Cain was getting attention. Kind of like when the DJs start to play that quirky song off that popular band’s album that you always liked even though nobody’s heard it because all they do is listen to the single. Then that quirky song becomes a single and you have to find a new song to dig. (I don’t think this will happen anytime soon with Pablo. Just finishing my analogy.)

I will go so far as to point out that the Giants’ rotation led the majors with a 3.62 ERA while the Hated Ones’ starting pitchers have thrown quality starts only 42.3 percent of the time, second-worst in the National League.


Matching the starters in a game of tit-for-tat, the Giants bullpen leads the majors with an ERA of 3.29. To a man, they are a well-rested bunch thanks to the deep outings and durability of the starting staff. Jeremy Affeldt has been a revelation in the set-up role, and Sergio Romo has the stuff to be a closer in his own right.

Yes, Brian Wilson has had his share of blown saves, and even a couple three-run-lead-blowing disasters. But every time, he’s rebounded to go on blistering runs of dominance. He seems to be on one of those runs now, so let’s hope it lasts. But if the Giants miss a playoff spot by a game or two, the blame cannot fall squarely on Wilson’s head. Even the best closers aren’t perfect, and a stronger offense would save more games than he blows.

Down at Chavez Ravine, closer Jonathan Broxton recently got a cortisone shot in his right big toe, and set-up man Ronald Belisario is on the disabled list with irritation in his right elbow. The Hated Ones’ bullpen has already logged 302 innings — second most in the majors. Added to that, L.A. is 18-9 in one-run games and 9-2 in extra innings — so a lot of their guys are probably running on fumes. The Giants pen has logged only 245 innings to date.


This is one of the most impossible aspects of the game to quantify because range (read: Edgar Rentería) and mental errors (read: Fred Lewis) don’t show up in a box score. That said, the Giants are more than holding their own with a converted catcher at third, an aging shortstop, and liabilities at various positions. They’ve committed the fifth-fewest errors (47) in the league. The Hated Ones have made 40 errors, third best in the N.L. And with Schierholtz replacing Lewis, the outfield defense has already shown marked improvement. This is key with flyball pitchers like Matt Cain anchoring the staff.


Depending how you break it down, this could be a strength, a weakness, or an area where the two teams simply break even.

The Giants open the second half tomorrow with a 10-game roadie to Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Colorado, so we should know pretty quickly whether they’ll be able to improve upon their 18-24 road record, which they’ll have to do to make a serious run at the Hated Ones or the Wild Card.

If this trip doesn’t do them in, they’ll have a second chance to fold on an 11-game, three-city jaunt that will take them to New York, Cincinnati and Colorado (again, sheesh) right smack in the middle of the dog days of August.

While Giants are off on that brutal trip, the Hated Ones will be on the road to Arizona and home to the Cards and Cubs — not a horribly rough stretch, but it’s never a cakewalk playing in the N.L. Central.

I’m willing to predict right now that if they’re still standing after that monster trip, the Giants will make the playoffs.

By the way, the Giants finish with 16 of 25 games in the friendly confines of 24 Willie Mays Plaza, where they enjoy a 31-15 record, among the best in the majors. One of the exceptions, however, is that three-gamer at Petco to close out the season. Don’t think for a second that anybody involved with this team isn’t staring at that series like a loaded gun.

The Hated Ones close with three at home against the Rockies, but before that, they’re on the road to Washington, Pittsburgh, and San Diego. While those teams are all pushovers, a trip to the East Coast that late in the season could really take a toll.

Now, number junkies will tell you in order for the Giants to simply catch — not pass — the Hated Ones, they’ll need to make up seven games in the standings. This means if the Hated Ones went .500 the rest of the way — not likely — the Giants would need to post a record of at least 44-30. In reality, they’ll have to do better than that to take the division, but with nine head-to-head contests remaining between the arch rivals, anything’s possible.

(Returning to the Wild Card race for just a sec, a 44-30 record in the final months would all but seal a Giants postseason berth, no matter what happens in the West.)


Despite my aversion to using stats as a predictive factor, I’m a sucker for the law of averages.

With that in mind, I’ll have you know the Hated Ones haven't lost three consecutive games all season. Their record is far and away the best in the league, and they rarely lose a series — though they did drop rubber games at the White Sox and home to the Mariners in late June. But while they’ve got talent and swagger, the ’27 Yankees they’re not, and something’s got to give.

The Hated Ones were 29-21 without Manny Ramirez, and any Giants fan who lived through the Bonds era will tell you that steroid-using, press-infuriating, egomaniacal prima donnas don’t go over well in the clubhouse. While his teammates talk about welcoming him back with open arms and adding a huge piece to a successful machine, our experiences help us read between the lines.

It may not happen today or tomorrow or even by the end of July, but you can set your clock on this thing blowing up in their faces down in La-La Land. And the Giants are in position to capitalize on their misfortune and mismanagement.

The Giants, on the other hand, have nothing to lose, and I expect them to play that way in the second half. It’s difficult to admit, but I see a lot of the 2003 Marlins in this team: dominant young pitching, a nucleus of rising stars, and veteran leadership from Manager Bruce Bochy and players like Randy Johnson.

The simple fact is, nobody expected this team to do much. Most prognosticators had them treading water around the .500 mark pretty much all season. They’ve exceeded expectations, but I don’t think they’re getting cocky and I don’t think a team this loose could ever tighten up with nerves — Timmy’s All-Star performance aside, the kid smiles and talks to the press before the games he starts!

We should have a lot of fun at the Cove in the second half, and if we’re a little bit lucky, we’ll be able to enjoy baseball by the Bay well into October...

If we’re a little bit lucky.

Until then, Go Giants!

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