Monday, August 4, 2014

Giants Great Again

With a 2.71 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 4.05 K/BB ratio, Hudson has thrived (ESPN) 
Has any baseball team been more up and down than San Francisco recently?

Consider that they lost 90 games in 2008, on the heels of a 91-loss season and two losing seasons before that. They promptly rebounded to win 88 games in 2009, coming within four wins of a playoff berth. Their rise continued in 2010 to 92 regular season wins, a division title and their first World Series championship since 1954.

In 2011, with a lineup crippled by injuries and underperformance, they were essentially a .500 team, allowing seven more runs than they scored. The Giants' depleted offense was the worst in the National League, but on the strength of their great pitching managed to scratch out 86 wins.

In 2012 they found enough hitting to score 148 more runs, enough to win 94 games and the division again. A second World Series title in three years followed shortly thereafter.

Despite returning mostly the same team in 2013, San Francisco was terrible, slipping 10 games below .500 and finishing 16 games behind the division-winning Dodgers The offense regressed and the rotation collapsed, as Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong, and Barry Zito all turned in subpar seasons (basically every starting pitcher not named Madison Bumgarner).

So here's a team that lost 90 games in 2008, then won a pair of World Series sandwiched around a mediocre season, then flat-out stunk. When they're good, they're great and when they're bad, they're awful.

This year, the Giants have been great again. After last night's 9-0 rout of the Mets they improved to 60-51 on the year, 2.5 games out of first and good enough for the top wild card spot.

What's changed from last year? Better hitting, for starters. The Giants rank in the middle of the pack offensively, a step up from last year, especially in the power department. The lineup is deep, with every regular posting an above average OPS+ except for second baseman Brandon Hicks, who's been a terrible fill-in for the injured Marco Scutaro, and center fielder Gregor Blanco, who's been a terrible replacement for the injured Angel Pagan. This in spite of a disappointing first half from Buster Posey and aforementioned injuries to Scutaro, Pagan, and Brandon Belt. The addition of Mike Morse has proven to be huge, as he's tied for the team-lead in home runs and leads outright in doubles.

The timeless Tim Hudson has had an equally large impact, emerging as the team's top pitcher. An enormous upgrade over Zito, he's helped slash the rotation's ERA by two-thirds of a run. Bumgarner's been predictably excellent, Vogelsong's been much better than he was last year, and Lincecum's had moments of greatness, such as his second career no-hitter. With Cain done for the season, GM Brian Sabean fortified the rotation by adding Jake Peavy before the no-waiver trading deadline. Peavy's had a rough year, but for a fifth starter you could do worse.

A weakness last year, the bullpen has been a strength this year. Five of San Francisco's six-most used relievers have ERAs under 2.75. Santiago Casilla (1.13 ERA, 0.85 WHIP) has been lights out after replacing Sergio Romo as the team's closer. The 'pen's 2.59 ERA to date is just ridiculous and a near three-quarters of a run improvement upon last year's 3.30 ERA.

So while the offense has improved incrementally, from 3.84 runs per game last year to 3.9 in 2014, the real difference has been made on the mound, where an improved rotation and dominant bullpen have combined to produce the league's third-lowest ERA. Last year, San Francisco had the fourth-worst ERA in the Senior Circuit. You can get away with a mediocre lineup when you have great pitching, and vice versa (see: last year's Red Sox), but if you don't, you can't. Because if you can't hit, you better damn well be able to keep runs off the board.

The Giants have done that, proving, as they always do, it's possible to field a great team with a pedestrian lineup. As long as you have great pitching.

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