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.

The All Scott Boras Contract Team
Spoiler: MIke Trout isn’t on it, but perhaps two Alex Rodriguezes make up for it.

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.
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Jim S.

Ryan Vogelsong is not a lefthander.

Paul Swydan
Member

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

Jeff
Guest
Jeff

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

John Autin
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John Autin

“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
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John Myhill

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.

Soladoras
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Soladoras

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.

obsessivegiantscompulsive
Guest

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”… Read more »

obsessivegiantscompulsive
Guest

http://www.mercurynews.com/giants/ci_29694530/twisted-when-giants-johnny-cueto-uncoils-some-see?source=pkg 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… Read more »

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

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

Why?

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

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… Read more »

obsessivegiantscompulsive
Guest

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… Read more »

obsessivegiantscompulsive
Guest

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.

YaBettsBelieve
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YaBettsBelieve

Giant Fans are so funny ….

johnforthegiants
Guest
johnforthegiants

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.