The (Even) Year of the Giants

The Giants hope Jeff Samardzija can get back to being more aggressive on the mound. (via Keith Allison & Howell Media Solutions)

The Giants hope Jeff Samardzija can get back to being more aggressive on the mound. (via Keith Allison & Howell Media Solutions)

The old saw that the San Francisco Giants will win because it’s an even-number year is only half true. Sportswriters love the nice, neat narrative. It helps us make sense of the random bizarro world that is professional baseball. It helps us bang out stories as games are happening, so we can leave ballparks at reasonable hours and keep our travel plans.

The narrative for those of us covering the San Francisco Giants this year is this. It’s an even year, so the Giants — having won World Series titles in each of the last three even years (2010, 2012 and 2014 for the mathematically challenged) — will win another one in 2016. See here. And here. Aaaaand here.

But just like a ninth-inning rally screws up the game story we’ve polished over the first eight innings, the Giants are messing with our “even-year” narrative, because this team is constructed differently from the team’s three most recent championship teams.

For one thing, general manager Brian Sabean, he of the Midas touch for unearthing value from waiver claims and other players from the Island of Misfit Toys, spent huge sums to bolster the starting rotation this winter. He hasn’t gone on such a spending spree since his ill-fated decision to lure lefty guitarist Barry Zito across the bay in 2006.

For another thing, this team has an offense. Or, more to the point, an offense that’s more than just all-world catcher and OB/GYN wannabe Buster Posey. In fact, the entire Giants infield is capable of laying a beatdown on a pitching staff. And you can include the pitcher on days when ace Madison Bumgarner starts.

So yes, there is subtext to the comfortable “it’s an even year” narrative. That has some of us in the media (Okay, fine, me) and perhaps a few Giants fans feeling like this about 2016. But maybe we should feel better.

It is an even year, after all.

The Rotation

We can all breathe a little sigh of relief knowing the big man at the top of the rotation is still there, scowling from beneath the bill of his cap. Last year was supposed to be the undoing of Bumgarner, the year in which throwing 260 innings combined in the 2014 regular and postseason caught up to him.

It didn’t. He just added to his Bunyanesque mystique by throwing 200-plus innings and making 30-plus starts — yawn, again — and posting the best strikeout rate, walk rate and ERA+ of his career. Oh, and he led the league with four complete games, the sasquatch of pitching stats these days (rumored by rarely spotted).

Of course, none of this means Bumgarner won’t break in 2016. He still has that weird pitching motion he came up with in high school back home in North Carolina. And he enters this season with even more mileage on that left arm of his. But heck, I’m just throwing random facts out there. The truth is, any pitcher can break at any time. Even Bumgarner.

Which is a big reason why Sabean decided to spend big on a couple of free agent starters, both of whom come with question marks. We begin with the latter-day Luis Tiant, Johnny Cueto, who saved himself millions in lost free agency dollars by making a couple of great postseason starts (along with a couple of mediocre ones).

Before that, woof. It actually looked as if Uncle Walt [Jocketty] and the Cincinnati Reds got one over on one of the most lauded GMs in the game. Most-recently lauded, I mean. Remember? Royals followers were calling for Dayton Moore’s head on a platter just a couple of years ago.

Anyway, Cueto’s fastball immediately lost a few ticks of velocity, which made it close enough velocity-wise to his change-up for big league hitters to tee off on him. His FIP went up by nearly a run as a Royal. It was all reminiscent of this boiled-down moment in Johnny Cueto history.

Look, Cueto has excellent stuff. There’s no doubt about that. Even on a bad Reds team, he stood out as a legit ace, with three different fastballs to offset that change. But like that windup of his, Cueto’s career seems to be prone to twists and turns. In addition to his yips under pressure, the whispers about balky elbow persist.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

But if Cueto isn’t hiding an injury and is fine, there are few better places in the big leagues to hide from the spotlight than San Francisco. Because as good as the Giants have been for as long as they’ve been, the team gets relatively little national media exposure. So it’s conceivable — likely, even, by that logic — Cueto will be just fine in San Francisco. Until October, maybe.

As far as the other big free agent signee, Jeff Samardzija, goes, who knows? Sabean lavished a five-year, $90-million deal on a right-hander who really has one good year in the big leagues to stake that on. Because last year was a total loss for Shark.

Oakland general manager Billy Beane shipped Samardzija to the Chicago White Sox for a bag of not-so-magic beans last winter, and the deal turned out to be a dud for pretty much everyone involved. The key player Oakland got, shortstop Marcus Semien, made a team-record 35 errors. Samardzija led the bigs in hits allowed (228) and earned runs (129). He also led the American League with 29 home runs surrendered.

And still, Sabean started flirting with Samardzija almost immediately. Why? Well, he said this in a Sacramento Bee story about the signing shortly after it happened:

As much as this contract is about performance, it’s about going to the post. And I think the greatest compliment we can pay Jeff is that last year under some duress – the season didn’t go as planned – he pitched 214 innings.”

Samardzija, meanwhile, told the Bee he’d tipped his pitches last year. That’s why he sucked. There’s also the fact that White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper messed with Shark’s approach, turning a pitcher Baseball Prospectus called a “one-trick pony” (a power pitcher who throws it by people) into more of a finesse pitcher.

Clearly, it didn’t work. So now the question is whether Samardzija can recapture the form that earned him a trade to a contender in the heat of a playoff race, the form he had in his one and only decent major league season as a starter.

On the bright side, Giants fans, Shark gets to work with another really good pitching coach in Dave Righetti, who hopefully lets Samardzija return to his aggressive approach. He also has those wintery gusts that blow in off the Bay all summer. And he has a catcher who knows what he’s doing behind the plate. So there’s that.

Behind the Bumgarner-Cueto-Samardzija triumvirate in the rotation stand the wispy husks of Jake Peavy and Matt Cain. And honestly, I just don’t have the energy to write about either of those guys right now.

The Bullpen

I’m not sure devoting a lot of column inches to the Giants bullpen is worthwhile, either, because the biggest relief pitching asset the team has isn’t any of the stiffs gathered down the right field line at AT&T Park. It’s the guy at the top step of the dugout, poised to yank pitcher after pitcher from the game.

No one makes more pitching changes than Bruce Bochy. Check out this excerpt from NBC Sports’ Craig Calcaterra’s report on the Giants’ game last Sept. 23:

[Bochy] used ten pitchers in all, even though he got six innings from starter Jake Peavy. After that Cory Gearrin, Josh Osich, Hunter Strickland, Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez, Michael Broadway, George Kontos, Jeremy Affeldt and Santiago Casilla all made appearances. Only Osich threw as many as 20 pitches. Only Romo and Kontos otherwise threw double-digit pitches. Five of the nine relievers faced just one batter. Affeldt threw two pitches. Lopez came in only to issue an intentional walk.”

That’s really Bochy in a nutshell. As a baseball fan, you can grunt and groan about it all you want, knowing his little habit totally screws with everything MLB is trying to do to speed up the game. But as a Giants fan, you really can’t argue with the results. The team’s relief corps has been among the best in the bigs for the last three years in terms of sheer run prevention, surrendering right around 200 a season.

Yes, Romo has excellent command and a knack for inducing a lot of ground balls. Yes, Strickland has a nice heater. And yes, Lopez is a physical wonder, continuing his mastery of the LOOGY role as he inches ever closer to the ballplayer Armageddon age of 40.

But the main reason these guys and Oakland A’s castoff Casilla (the closer!) have found success is Bochy’s combination of extreme calm (listen to this Dan Patrick interview from 2014 and tell me you don’t feel like taking a nap) and his bent for putting his relievers in the ideal conditions to succeed. He doesn’t wait around for a reliever to figure something out.

Ergo, no matter who the team trots out there in the later innings, the Giants bullpen will probably be a strength again this year.

The Lineup

Easily the most interesting part of this team is its lineup, because it’s actually exciting. No more “Barry Bonds & Co.” or “Buster Posey and Pray for Rain.” The Giants have a legit lineup of hitters who can produce runs even when their leader falters.

Atop the order this year likely will be new acquisition Denard Span. whose 2015 season was undone by injuries that encouraged his former employer, the Washington Nationals, to let him go. If Span had gone to any other team in the league, I’d say the Nats made a good move. Span is past 30, after all, and he plays a physically demanding position, and a major offensive weapon is his speed.

But Span is a Giant. And the Giants spun gold from the likes of Pat Burrell and Aubrey Huff. The team turned Marco Scutaro into a playoff hero and National League All-Star in his age-37 year. It snatched Ryan Vogelsong from the cusp of oblivion in 2011, and the right-hander became a decent pitcher for them for a couple seasons.

So we should all be looking at Span’s upside here. And the fact is, he’s become a very good table setter. In his most recent healthy season, 2014, he produced an excellent 6.8 baserunning runs, according to Baseball Prospectus. He’s now playing in a park with deeper pockets in the outfield than a well-oiled catcher’s mitt, so headlines like this are perfectly reasonable.

Span also controls the strike zone well. His walks-to-strikeouts ratio for the last two years has practically been even, producing on-base percentages north of .350. When he gets on this year, he’ll have an army of unexcitingly productive guys right behind him. Joe Panik is a contact machine. Brandon Belt had baseball’s highest line drive rate last year. Brandon Crawford, always an excellent glove man, led the G-men with 21 homers last year.

The guy I’m most interested in is third baseman Matt Duffy, a converted shortstop who had zero pop in college. He’s another example of a scrap heaper finding new life in San Francisco — and a particularly poignant one given the Giants’ fallow farm system. (ESPN’s Keith Law ranked it 21st in baseball.)

San Francisco drafted him for nothing in the 18th round four years ago, shepherded him along while moving him over to third base, and voila! They got a guy who slugged .428, finished second in Rookie-of-the-Year voting and is now projected to man the hot corner until he reaches free agency in 2021.

Of course, all could go south for the Giants’ reborn offense. Panik suffered from the same kind of back problems that ruined the team’s previous two second basemen, Scutaro and Freddy Sanchez. We all know at least one person with a balky back. Those problems tend to linger.

Belt has concussion issues, and there’s enough info out there now to tell us that could cause long-term problems, too. Span could have more abdominal issues, and (gasp!) Posey could easily hit the DL given his everyday position.

But, c’mon. We all know that’s not going to happen. The story is already written. It’s an even year, and the Giants will win the title, even if their method this time is different.

Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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Jim S.
8 years ago

Ryan Vogelsong is not a lefthander.

Paul Swydanmember
8 years ago
Reply to  Jim S.

Thanks for the catch, Jim. That’s on me.

8 years ago

pssst- Brian Sabean stopped being the general manager a year ago.

John Autin
8 years ago

“For another thing, this team has an offense.”
What’s new about that? The NL OPS+ ranks of the title-winning Giants were 6th of 16 (2010), 2nd of 16 (2012) and 4th of 15 (2014). In ERA+, they ranked 1st, 11th and 9th (tied), with a below-average ERA+ in the latter two years.

The popular image of these teams hasn’t been true since 2011. Their last two title teams had much better offense than pitching, once you look past the park factor. In road scoring alone, they were 1st in 2012 and 3rd in 2014. (And 2nd last year.)

John Myhill
8 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Some of the Giants’ popular image as a pitching-oriented team came from Bumgarner’s performance in the postseason in 2014–but in the games he started and won, the Giants scored 8, 3, 6, 7, and 5 runs, almost 6 runs a game.

8 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

To double down on this point, here’s where the Giants rank wRC+ in all of MLB from non-pitchers in their 3 World Series seasons:

2014 – 5th
2012 – 5th
2010 – 7th

Now here is pitching WAR for those same seasons:

2014 – 26th
2012 – 19th
2010 – 5th

The overall the pitching hasn’t been good since 2011, but the hitting has been excellent most years.

8 years ago

The commenters above captured a number of good points that I won’t repeat. Here are points I feel need to be made:

First, it has already been reported by a regular beat writer (Baggarly) that Zito’s signing was driven by Magowan, not Sabean, so while Zito was signed under his watch, it was not his doing. Hence why Magowan “retired” to spend time with his grandchildren, while being replaced by Neukom, who was even older than him, while Sabean repeatedly got extensions and then his promotion last year (as noted by a commenter above) since then.

Why is the “magic” of Vogelsong mentioned for Span (a non-pitcher at that) without it applying to Cueto and Samardzija? Not that I thought it was magic, but just for consistency in your article. Personally, I think it was a situation where he had it within himself all those years of struggle, but it took returning back to the Giants, whom he apparently never wanted to leave in the first place, for him to perform.

But since you mentioned magic, you could have linked to the articles written on Fangraphs which noted the saber discussion about how Matt Cain did his magic (until he was injured, roughly around the time he threw his perfect no-hitter) and how, somehow, he and the rest of the Giants pitching staff were able to maintain a significantly lower HR/FB ratio than the rest of the majors (credited to Righetti magic in that article).

I find it odd that a sabermetric focused site like THT would write such a negative article about Samardzija, who, while having relatively poor performances per ERA during his career, has been above average per FIP, and since he has had good peripherals, his fWAR has been above average most seasons of his SP career. Even last year, which as you noted, was pretty bad, he had a 2.7 fWAR, which suggests bad luck affected him greatly. And his other two ‘bad’ seasons were also 2.7 fWAR as well. Per Fangraphs/THT stat page, he’s been an above average SP over the past 4 seasons.

I would also add the media speculation that not getting traded led Samardzija to let down mentally. If you examine his game record, one would find that his numbers up to the trade deadline, while not 2014-worthy, was consistent with his career in 2012-13, and the FIP was thereabouts as well. I think that fits into the narrative of him tipping off pitches and Cooper saying publicly that the poor pitching was his fault. He’s upset about not getting traded to contender, which led him to not be as focused, he starts tipping pitches, but the pitching coach didn’t catch that until long afterward, but then they fixed it and he ended the season on an upnote in his last two starts.

But I do agree that the Giants will have to figure out something to bring out the 2014 Samardzija and minimize the 2015 version. Maybe it was the above. Maybe it was having to face a DH instead of pitcher 3 times in a game. Maybe it was all the extra homeruns he gave up in the ChiSox home park. Or all the extra homeruns he gave up against LHH (and perhaps Cominsky played a part in that). At minimum, AT&T will help reduce the boost in homers, especially against LHH last season, who really teed off on him, while for his career, he had kept the lid on LHH as well as he did RHH previously in his career, roughly similar.

I would note that Flowers did pretty well in pitch framing last season, not sure how well compared to Posey, but he was no slouch there, so I would not expect any gains from Posey via framing. Not sure about the other facets of catching though.

For Peavy, the narrative would have been much different had he been DLed like he should have been to start the season, instead of trying for two starts. When he returned to the starting rotation, he had a 3.15 ERA in 17 starts, 3.82 FIP, which I would take from a mid-rotation guy. If he can give us that from the #4 slot (while we have Heston and Blackburn in reserve as depth), I would take that easily.

About Casilla, what few know about him leaving the A’s is that he has the same stuff he had with them, but was working on a new pitch when the A’s let him go, at which point the Giants picked him up. It was that new pitch that enabled him to do so well for the Giants. And I like him as closer, as that left the guy who should have been the closer when Wilson went down, Affeldt, free to be used by Bochy anywhere he needed him. As that is the point often made in sabermetric circles, you want to save your best relief pitcher to use in key leveraged spots, while using a lesser pitcher as the closer (not that Casilla and Romo weren’t good, just that Affeldt was better).

I don’t think anyone knows exactly why the Nats let go of Span. It could have been the injury (but as a twitter video he posted just before he signed could attest, he could jump over a hurdle from a standing position, showing he was pretty healthy, in any case), it could have been the money that he wanted, or it could have been that they didn’t want to spend that much on their CF, saving it for other positions.

In any case, the lineup with Span is pretty much the same lineup the Giants had last year with Aoki at leadoff, and they had the second best offensive performance in the NL on the road, which is a pretty good sign that they were already pretty good last season. And per the commenter above, been good in prior seasons as well.

I love how people like to talk about the Giants fallow farm system (because that is the way they are ranked by the expert rankers), and yet in the past few years, they added Belt, Crawford, Panik and now Duffy as good starting position players in their lineup, both offensively and defensively. Or perhaps that feels fallow when compared to bringing up Lincecum, Posey, and Bumgarner previously. Fangraphs just earlier in this off-season showed analysis showing how the Giants homegrown position players is expected to produce more than most other major league teams (can’t remember if they were first or second). Pretty good for a fallow farm system. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to note that few of the rankers even put Crawford, Panik (viewed by ESPN’s ranker to be, at best, a utility player), or Duffy on any top prospect ranking list.

And while Panik did have a back problem, it has been recently reported that it was not one of those chronic back problems, he suffered from a fracture (which was tied to a runner knocking him over) in one of his back bones.

I would also note that all those negatives you mentioned at the end could be applied to any team and their litany of similar players in similar situations.

Lastly, I’m getting tired of the even year jokes. The Giants are in a great situation. They bring back the offense that they had last season that went 34-17 when most of them (in particular, Hunter Pence) were in the lineup, even with the relatively poor starting pitching that they had. Even with many key offensive players missing significant time, they were still second in the NL on the road, and still pretty good overall, in spite of AT&T. Plus, as you noted, great bullpen that Bochy always seems to manufacture, even back with SD.

Meanwhile, they got Bumgarner back, while adding Cueto and Samardzija, plus Peavy and Cain. If you want to bring up potential problems for Madison, sure, but then be sure to do that to every team in the majors, because none of them are bulletproof healthy for sure. And why not mention that he’s never spent a day on the DL for anything, plus that he’s done all that he’s done and he’s still only 26 YO for 2016 season.

Cueto I get, I wonder too, except that if you mention the bad, you should mention his 2-hit complete game in his last start of the season. Samardzija I also get, but in the #3 slot, he is OK there as a starter, maybe more like a #4 based on performances, but if you go by his FIP, he’s fine as a #3. And the three of them has been pretty steady in pounding out 200+ IP every season (almost in Cueto’s case).

And Peavy and Cain are question marks, but with Heston and Blackburn in reserve, the Giants are just fine in terms of depth, plus have guys like Beede and perhaps Stratton, getting close to being ready for the majors and an opportunity. The Giants are set up pretty nicely overall to battle for the NL West and in the playoffs, except for their bench, which could use one or two more hitters, especially someone with power (perhaps Parker when the Giants go back to a 12-man pitching staff)

8 years ago

This is a nice article discussing what the Royals and Cueto said was his problem while with the Royals: Perez was a large target, higher than where Cueto liked to throw. It also discusses his pitching style, for those who are interested in learning more about Cueto.

Looking at his time with the Royals, it was really that five game start that was really bad. In the other 12 games before (and that seems to put a lie to the “Perez is too big” storyline) and after that bad stretch (including playoffs), he had a 3.38 ERA, with 60 K/18 BB (great 3.33 ratio) in 80.0 IP (and 3.20 FIP). His peripherals were not as strong after, but during that bad 5 game stretch, he still struck out 21 batters and only walked 4, in 26.1 IP, which is great. It was the 48 hits, 8 of which for homers, that was really bad (for a .407 BABIP). But both are suppose to regress to the mean, which is much less, so do we blame him for the bad luck or the bad luck of the baseball (or BABIP bad luck)?

If you look at the four good games at the start of his KC career, his best game was with Avila, the backup catcher. However, he had three good starts with Perez before things got bad, so the tall catcher story seems off unless Perez, for some reason, just started holding his glove higher. Weirder things have happened, but still, this story is holding up looking at the numbers, albeit, SSS.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago

“Lastly, I’m getting tired of the even year jokes.”


8 years ago

To a certain extent the even-year phenomenon is the result of a general reluctance to take decisive action when you just won the World Series. Obviously the starting pitchers other than Bumgarner were struggling in the 2014 postseason but hey, the pitching staff was good enough to win the World Series, it didn’t really seem like it required a call to action, but after 2015…

The big saber-related question about the offseason pitching acquisitions is–if the Giants acquired Samardzija because of his FIP and such stats, what do we make of the fact that they also acquired Cueto who is more or less the reverse? If we look at the 119 pitchers in the last 5 years, Samardzija is #23 in terms of ERA-FIP while Cueto is #117. If the Giants really care about FIP so much, why didn’t they make any effort to get Zimmermann or Kazmir, who have basically the same xFIP- as Cueto but worse ERAs? Zimmermann signed for about the same as Cueto but without an opt-out and for one less year, while Kazmir signed for much less.

8 years ago

Hard to take decisive action after 2014 when you have five SP signed to big contracts already, all healthy (relatively) and expected to make opening day 2015. And after 2010, decisive action would not have prevented Posey from getting injured and lost for the season, while after 2012, decisive action would not have prevented the litany of injuries that plagued the team throughout that season. And really, after 2014, the problem was not the SP, it was that the only real times the Giants had the vast majority of their lineup (as defined by having their best hitters around) were the 51 games that Hunter Pence were able to start, and in spite of that SP rotation, the Giants went 34-17 in those games. Really, the Giants were greatly affected by injuries in the follow-up years.

There is a big difference between Cueto and Samardzija in terms of what their contracts are paying them and for how long. They got Cueto because he has truly performed like a top of rotation guy, which gives them the luxury of having Samardzija be the #3 starter behind Bumgarner and Cueto, where they are not relying on him so much, and two years to figure out how to fix the Shark so that he’s closer to his FIP than so far away from it, like he was in 2014.

Zimmerman has already had one TJS, he could have had the best xFIP- ever and many teams would not give him such a large contract because, while most pitchers survive their first TJS (and some get better), the vast majority of pitchers do not recover from their second TJS, it is basically a death sentence to their career as a pitcher. That’s a pretty good reason to sign Cueto over Zimmerman.

Regarding Kazmir, ultimately, a team (unlike sabermetricians apparently) requires the pitcher to perform. FIP don’t really matter as much to team as actual performance. Because theory and “what should be” don’t matter on the field of play. This reminds me of my economic classes 40 years ago, building models that “suppose this” and “suppose that”, but didn’t pass the smell test of reality.

Sabers suffer from the same hubris that scouts have been accused of, by relying so much on tools that are still a work in progress. FIP and DIPS are great theories but the realization slowly (like molasses, or really, like pitch tar) moving through the saber community is that there ARE pitchers who can control BIP, and none of our tools do a very good job of identifying them, at least definitively. Right now, it takes around 7 years worth of SP to be able to say that a pitcher can keep his BABIP significantly below the .300 mean of the league. And forget it about RP.

But the skill does exist. Tom Tippett analyzed and wrote about the pitchers in history who were good but did not fit the DIPS mode – over a dozen years ago! – and yet few sabers are aware of this. And sabermetrician Mike Fast in an interview a few years ago noted, after he got to go behind the curtain with the Astros, that in the minors, controlling BIP is a skill.

He gets it now, it seems to me. BABIP control is a skill. However, most pitchers in the majors are so close in skill that it is impossible, based on the sample data we can collect, to discern who is part of the masses and who is actually good at preventing hits, until after 7 years of SP.

Scouts and coaches appear to have the ability to see that skill, it seems to me. The Giants have paid only three pitchers with 9 figure paychecks: Zito, Cain, and Cueto. All have shown the ability to maintain a below average BABIP in their careers. Unfortunately, Zito was not zen enough to come to the Giants and not change what he was doing before, else he might have paid off on his career a lot better. But instead he performed poorly for a year plus before settling down some. Cain’s career went downward after his Perfect Game. That appeared to affect his elbow, which eventually needed to be operated on, but it was clear that he was not as good as before after that great game. We will see about Cueto, if he can rise to the occasion (and paycheck) or if he falters under the pressure, like Zito did.

Kazmir is a lot older, and a lot less accomplished, that is why he got so much less. He would make a great #3 starter, but not a great #2 starter, and that was what the Giants needed to make the Samardzija deal make more sense.

8 years ago

Forgot to add this additional thought about the reliance on FIP by the vast majority of sabers: FIP is a tool that ignores some of the best pitchers in the majors, pitchers of real skill. I cannot think of any business that would tolerate relying mostly on a tool like that. FIP should be part of the conversation, but it should not be the end all and be all that many like to use it for. And, hopefully, eventually, there will be better tools and it will get retired.

8 years ago

Giant Fans are so funny ….

8 years ago

The other side of this, though, is that if you think that FIP is overrated, doesn’t it look like the Giants made a mistake in going after Samardzija? That was the point of my earlier post.