Monday, December 2, 2013

Team Postmortem: San Francisco Giants

 Record: 76-86, -62 Run Differential

Summary: From 2010 to 2012, the San Francisco Giants won 268 games. They won both their division and the World Series in 2010 and 2012. They were a dynasty in the making. Going into 2013, 35 of 43 experts on ESPN predicted that the Giants would make the postseason. With that in mind, there is no way to look at their losing record and third place finish in the division to be anything to be anything but a bitter disappointment. So what happened to cause the team to go from winning 94 games one year ago to a mere 76 in 2013?

In 2013, the Giants' offense scored 629 runs, good for a mere 21st in baseball. Meanwhile, in 2012 Giants' runners crossed the plate 718 times (12th). So what changed to cost the team nearly 100 runs? Honestly, I'm not entirely sure. They are walking at only a slightly lower rate (BB%: 7.6% in 2013, 7.8% in 2012), striking out a little less (K%: 17.5% vs 17.7%), and hitting with the virtually the same lack of power (ISO: 121 vs 128). Looking at the wRC+ for both editions of the club, they were essentially identical, with the 2012 squad coming in at 100 and this year's vintage scoring a 99. So what we're seeing is a virtually identical club that scored almost 100 runs less and dropped eight spots. Could the difference be sequencing? With runners in scoring position, the 2012 Giants hit for a .306 wOBA (20th in baseball) and a 95 wRC+ (15th). The 2013 club had a .310 wOBA (16th) and a 99 wRC+ (11th).  No, I did not accidentally switch the years, the 2013 club was actually better with runners in scoring position. It is still unclear where the problems with the Giants' overall offense came from. Weird, huh?

Let's move on and look at some of the players. Hunter Pence led the offense with a career year, hitting .283/.339/.483 with 133 wRC+ and a 5.4 fWAR--a huge bounceback after a disappointing 1.6 fWAR in 2012. Brandon Belt finally had the breakout season Giants fans have been waiting for, hitting 17 HRs with a 139 wRC+ and 4.0 fWAR. Those were career bests in all categories; in fact, the only area he didn't post a best in was BB% at 9.1%. Meanwhile, Buster Posey hit .294/.371/.450 with 15 HRs for a 133 wRC+ and 4.8 fWAR. While those numbers are still crazy-good for a catcher, they are a let-down for Posey, who hit for a 163 wRC+ and 7.7 fWAR in 2012. There are certainly concerns that catching may be wearing Posey down--especially after his terrifying injury on a collision at the plate last year--and the Giants will probably move him off the position sooner rather than later. Pablo Sandoval (115 wRC+, 2.3 fWAR) is beginning to look like he'll never again be the monster he was in 2011, when he hit 23 HRs and a 149 wRC+. The biggest disappointment was probably Angel Pagan, who was limited to only 76 games with a hamstring tear. This limited him to a mere 1.6 fWAR after a 4.5 showing last year.

The Giants didn't fair much better on the mound either, particularly compared to 2012. Their pitching and defense allowed 691 Runs, goods for only 19th in Baseball this season. This stands in stark contrast to the Giants' reputation for excellent pitching over the past few years; in 2012, their 641 Runs Allowed was the 9th best mark. So what happened? The Giants posted a 4.00 ERA (22nd) versus a 3.80 FIP (12th). That's a pretty substantial case of under-performing peripherals. As a comparison, the 2012 club  had a 3.68 ERA (7th) and a 3.78 FIP (9th). While the Giants' FIP was a hair worse, the ERA dropped significantly. The poster child for this turn of bad luck was Tim Lincecum. The Freak posted a second consecutive poor season going by ERA (4.37), but his peripherals--8.79 K/9, 3.46 BB/9, and 3.74 FIP--were much more encouraging. He will never be the 7.5 fWAR ace he was a few years ago, but he's better than he looked in 2013. Similarly, after years of outperforming his peripherals (as an example he posted a 3.89 FIP in 2009, but only a 2.89 ERA), the BABIP Gods seemed to desert Matt Cain. The righty posted his career-worst ERA at 4.00 and a nearly identical FIP of 3.93. The best news out of the Giants rotation was Madison Bumgarner, who had a fantastic season with a 8.90 K/9, 2.77 BB/9 and a 3.05 FIP (2.77 ERA, for what it's worth). The second best news? It was, at long last, the final year on the seven-year, $126M contract of Barry Zito, who posted a 5.74 ERA, 4.92 FIP, and -0.6 fWAR this season.

It was a disappointing season for San Fransisco, not matter how you look at it. The upside is they've still got a lot of talent on their roster. Bumgarner is a legitimate ace at the front of the rotation. Buster Posey, despite a down year by his standards, is still a superstar. Brandon Belt is still only 25, and seems to be breaking out. Angel Pagan should be healthy in 2014. Take all those factors, mix them together with some better luck--particularly in the starting rotation--and a few smart signings and they could find themselves in the running for a Wild Card slot next September. This was definitely one of those seasons that wasn't as bad as it looked.

Team MVP: Hunter Pence, 5.4 fWAR

Team LVP: Barry Zito, -0.6 fWAR

Down On The Farm: The Giants farm system is, as a whole, ranked as mediocre to poor. Bleacher Reports' most recent rankings placed it at 26th, and Baseball America placed it 20th in terms of Near-Term Value. This isn't to say they've done a poor job of developing talent; the Giants have used many of their prospects to acquire key cogs in their World Series runs (such as Hunter Pence and Carlos Beltran). The remaining depth on the farm is rather thin. The Giants do possess a number of exciting pitching prospects in the lower levels, but have an almost complete dearth of positional players.

Kyle Crick, a 21-year-old right-handed pitcher, is probably the top prospect in the Giants system. He possess an excellent heavy fastball with easy 93-96mph velocity. He can also hit 97-98 at times. The rest of his repetoire consists of a potential plus changeup and a very promising slider. Crick spent most of the season at High-A where he showed both his promise and also how raw he still is. He showed amazing strikeout potential with a K/9 of 12.45, but struggled with command--particularly of his secondary pitches--with a 5.11 BB/9. He was limited to only 84.1 IP due to suffering from an oblique injury that cost him the first part of the season. The Giants will take their time with the talented youngster and let him develop his command. I wouldn't expect to see him in the Majors before 20-15 at the earliest. Given his injury and command issues, I would guess that the Giants will start him back at A+, but promote him quickly to AA.

Clayton Blackburn, 21, is a right-handed starting pitcher and is, in some ways, the yin to rotation-mate Crick's yang. Where Crick possesses a power fastball, Blackburn's offering sits at 91-93 mph. He has a deeper and more refined arsenal, including a two-seamer, curveball, and changeup, as well as a slider that is a bit behind his other pitches. While he doesn't have the raw strikeouts of Crick (9.34 K/9 in A+), he makes up for it with command of his pitches, pounding the strike zone and limiting walks (2.37 BB/9). His fastball possesses excellent movement and induces a lot of groundballs. The Giants seem to feel that he and Crick, with their differing styles, are good for each other. As a result, I wouldn't be surprised to see them continue to be promoted together until one or the other makes that untenable.

Offseason Outlook: The Giants have already been busy this offseason, at least in addressing their starting rotation. They resigned Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $35M  deal. While looking at his ERA the past two seasons makes this seem like an insane overpay, the Giants are betting big that advanced metrics like xFIP are more predictive for The Freak. They also grabbed Tim Hudson on a 2/$23M contract. Hudson is coming off injury, but if he's healthy this could end up being a very solid deal. They are still in need of an upgrade in left field, allowing Gregor Blanco to move in the the fourth outfielder role. The Giants are probably out on the big ticket FAs like Sin-Soo Choo, but with guys like Chris Young already coming off the market, their options are running thin.

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