Are the Giants Lucky or Good? #SFGiants #2014postseason

Read national media accounts of the Giants win over the Nationals and you will discover a seething frustration with how this (apparently terrible) team continues to win postseason series. I’ve seen everything from luck to dark magic posited as explanations. I would like to address the question of lucky or good.

The facts: The Giants have won 8 straight postseason series (including the 1-game wild card playoff this year). During that time they have won 26 games and lost 10. That is a .722 winning percentage., which is obviously higher than one could expect over the course of a regular season. There is no doubt that in order to win that often you must catch your share of breaks. And the Giants have. Kinsler’s ball that hit the top of the wall and came back. Cody Ross getting hot at the right time. Barry Zito. That Pagan ball that hit the third base bag in the 2012 World Series. Certainly there are numerous other examples.

There are also a number of breaks that went against the Giants that could have spelled doom. When they lost game 2 to the Braves back in 2010, it was a classic Giants postseason meltdown. Blowing a lead, leaving runners on, a rally that died on the vine. They nearly blew a 6-0 lead in game 5 against the Reds in 2012. Bumgarner threw a ball down the left field line on Monday afternoon. Posey got thrown out at the plate (twice) by mere inches in this latest series.

The point here is to say that weirdness happens in the postseason and it affects both teams in any given series. The Giants aren’t any more lucky or unlucky than anyone else.

Some will then point out the unbelievable nature of individual performances. Again, Cody Ross in 2010. Zito and Scutaro in 2012. Pablo’s three home runs in the 2012 World Series. Petit in 2014. Let me address a few of these.

The fact that Cody Ross got hot in 2010 is fortunate, there is no doubt about that. But, Cody Ross is/was a really good player, one talented enough to pull off such a feat. This is one of the main themes of the Giants success. The timing of the performance is what is remarkable, not the performance itself. He’s hit over 20 home runs in three seasons, and often hits them in remarkable bunches. Eli Whiteside hitting several postseason home runs would have been lucky. Cody Ross, though, is a good player going off at the right time.

Same conversation for Marco Scutaro, only this time the player is even more skilled. Scutaro was designed by God to be a good postseason hitter. Everything about his approach: the swing, the patience, the ability to make contact, and his relaxed demeanor are ideally suited for playoff baseball. It just happened to be that he was on the Giants in 2012.

Barry Zito providing two quality starts in 2012 was improbable, but not lucky. This is a guy who won a college world series, who won a CY Young award, and who tended to pitch better later in the season than earlier during his Giants tenure. Did anyone see it coming? No. But lucky is Jeff Weaver and Anthony Reyes pitching well in the 2006 World Series (shots fired Cardinals). Zito rediscovering his old form one last time is unlikely, but not lucky.

Finally, the two that really get me are Pablo and Petit. Were the Giants fortunate to have Pablo hit 3 home run in Game One of a World Series? Absolutely. But, Pablo is a very skilled hitter, with incredible power, who quite honestly should have more games like that. When a hitter like Pablo has a game like that, that’s a reflection of his great skill. Yes, the timing was fortuitous, but luck would have been Brandon Crawford or Scutaro hitting 3 home runs, not Pablo.

And then, Petit. All this guy has done is nearly pitch a perfect game (last September), and then set the record for most consecutively retired batters. And that record isn’t two amazing starts in a week where he was really feeling it. That record came by pitching over several weeks, in a variety of settings, on different mounds, and against all sorts of batters. It is really one of the most remarkable records in baseball if you think of it. Are the Giants lucky to have such a great weapon on their staff. Maybe. But, I think it is more about shrewd roster construction, and a battle tested pitcher coming through in a big moment to help the team win the longest game in postseason history.

To sum it all up, the Giants are a team that is more than its parts. It doesn’t have the names and the numbers of other squads. But, that does not mean it is a team devoid of talent. There are some highly skilled players on this roster. Those skilled players are deployed by a smart manager (one of the best?) in such way that allows them to be successful.

They are constructed to succeed in these settings. They are load with great arms who can strike out batters and keep the ball in the park. They play mistake free (for the most part) defense, and they have some of the best range in the game (meaning over the course of the season they will make errors, but at any moment can get to a lot of balls). They are strong up the middle (Posey, Crawford, Panik, and Blanco). They make a lot of contact, and when you make contact weird/good things can happen. And they have a manager who is active and willing to mix it up and do what it takes to win a particular game.

In other words, they are not designed to win 99 games (like the Angels), but they are designed to be able to win any given game. And that is really important to understand. Take the 2001 Yankees for example. That World Series was full of dramatic moments, and of course everyone remembers the game 7 walk off moments. But, the game before that, which the Yankees could have won to secure the title, the Diamondbacks blew out the Yankees 15-4. The Giants have never had a game like that in these 3 postseason runs. I can only think of one game where they were truly out of it in the last third (the Lincecum, Game 4, start against the Cardinals). In a short series, the ability to stay close in every game dramatically helps your chance of survival.

Finally, three more things. First, timing (or context) is everything: the Giants have constructed the right roster for this era of baseball. It is a much more wide open game than 15 years ago. You don’t need the firepower or star power that was once needed to take down the Yankees. The Giants somewhat flawed teams can succeed in this era of parity.

Second, don’t discount the importance of a presence like Buster Posey. I know the stats people won’t like this, but I do think there are winning players and losing players. No disrespect to Adrian Gonzalez, but I think he is a losing player. Again and again, his teams fade and falter at the end of seasons. Posey’s seem to get better. Pay attention to that.

Third, I don’t believe in Karma as a life philosophy, but I do see some sort of symmetry (or coming back aroundness) in the Giants history. For example, the 2010 team was the perfect counter point to the 2002 team that blew the World Series. The 2002 team had a great lineup, the 2010 squad had great starting pitching. 2002 choked it away, 2010 slammed the door on any weird comebacks.

2012 served as the counterpoint to 2003. Both were incredibly steady teams that did everything fairly well. In 2003 the Giants dropped a fly ball and crumbled. In 2012, with their backs up against the wall they just won.

If this 2014 version goes on to win it all, it will, in a small way, make up for 1993. I would give just about anything for a glimpse at the alternate reality where the 1993 Giants get to play in the postseason, but short of that I’ll take this team winning it all as the baseball gods making things right.

Previews and thoughts on the NLCS forthcoming.

-SB

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3 Thoughts on 88 Wins #sfgiants #2014season

Well, we know now that the Giants will fly to Pittsburg to face the Pirates and Edinson Volquez (really Pirates?), but more on that later. (By the way, the Pirates went all in on Sunday and started Garret Cole who was nasty: 7 IP, 12Ks, and so we won’t get the dream match-up described in the last post).

We’ll break down the big game tomorrow, or Tuesday, but for now a couple of thoughts on the 2014 season.

1. The Giants “only” won 88 games. Some people are disappointed in this. I understand. There was a point where this team was on pace to win 107 games. They had a huge division lead several months ago. But, they have a chance to do something special. If they lose on Wednesday it will hurt and we will complain about the stupidness of a 1-game playoff in baseball. But, they wouldn’t get to play anymore games if not for that 1-game playoff. Also, I once gave my heart and soul to a Giants team that won 103 games that didn’t get to play anymore games because they “finished in the second place.” Justice. (sort of).

2. Overall, this was an enjoyable season. Every successful season carries with it a good deal of surprise. Consider:

  • If you had of told me before the 2010 season that the Giants would win the World Series I would have laughed. Then, after calming down and thinking about it, I could have seen how maybe, just maybe, if the team called up Posey, got some career years from different guys, and kept up the ridiculous pitching from the season before perhaps something magical could happen. Under no circumstances would I have believed you if you told me they will win, BUT Pablo Sandoval will be an afterthought. No way. Never going to happen. And then it did.
  • If you had told me before the 2012 season that the Giants would win the World Series I would have laughed. Then, after calming down and thinking about it, I could have seen how maybe, just maybe, if Buster Posey played like an MVP, a couple of young guys emerged, and the pitching kept going like it had the past 3 seasons perhaps something magical could happen. Under no circumstances would I have believed you if you told me they will win, BUT Tim Lincecum will be so bad that he gets replaced in the post-season rotation by Barry Zito. NO way. Never going to happen. And then it did.
  • Now, if you had told me before the 2014 season that the Giants would win the World Series I would have paused, thought about it, and then said something to the effect, of “ok, but please don’t take Matt Cain this time.” Well, Matt Cain was taken. And a whole lot of other things happened. We loved Tim Hudson and Mike Morse in the first half. We loved Brandon Belt and Angel Pagan while we had them. We loved Brandon Hicks, but we love Joe Panik more. We love Madison Bumgarner. We love Tim Lincecum when he pitches against the Padres. And now we hope we get to keep loving them for a few more weeks.

3. No season can be fully evaluated until it is actually over. But, I would have taken this result back in March. 88 wins, wild card, do-or-die game. Done. This is a flawed team. This is not the best Giants team of the last 5 years.

But, this team still has a chance for magic.

-SB

Thoughts on Game 7, the Post-Season, and 2010 vs. 2012

Wow. Just wow.

First, a couple of thoughts about this series.

A lot of people will talk/write about the breaks the Giants got, and they got a lot. (Note that the Cardinals got their fair share in the first half of the series). But, it is ALWAYS about pitching, and if you only allow 1 run over the course of three games you have a great chance of winning.

Marco Scutaro gets a well deserved MVP award. One of the amazing things about what he did (14 hits) is that he beat Will Clarks record of 13 in 1989. Clark did it in 5 games. Will Clark was pretty good.

Marco overshadows the work of Pablo Sandoval. The Panda had an RBI in each of the last 5 games of the series. That’s huge.

There was some argument between Scutaro and Vogelsong for MVP, but the guy who quietly has impressed me the most this post-season is Jeremy Affeldt. 8 straight scoreless appearances (more on this below).

—–

All post-season long I’ve been mulling over the differences between 2010 and 2012. 2010 will always be special because pre-2010 everything related to the Giants ended in pain and suffering. And in 2010 we stood on the brink of pain and suffering so many times. I spent three weeks simply waiting for the shoe to drop and everything to fall apart. Never happened. It’s been a new baseball reality for me ever since.

So, a couple of thoughts on the two teams/experiences

1) I was way more stressed in 2010 than this time around. Seems weird to say: the 2010 team never faced elimination once. 6 times we’ve gone into a game this year thinking: “this could be it.” And yet, it hasn’t been that stressful. Game 5 against the Reds was the closest thing to “torture” so far.

2) 2010 will always be special because it was the first time I’ve experienced a Giants World Series win. But, this team is special too, mostly for all the things they’ve overcome. So proud of their spirit.

3) Which team is better? It’s too early to say, you can’t really argue until there’s a trophy. But let’s do it anyway. The 2010 had the dominant starting pitching and a strong bullpen. Wilson and Lopez in particular were amazing. 2010 also had home run hitters in the 3-8 spots. It was home runs, close games, starting pitching, and Wilson at the end.

2012 has been opportunistic offense, and just enough good pitching to win the right amount of games in each series. The big difference to me has been the bullpens. No one would argue that the 2010 ‘pen wasn’t good. But the 2012 version is more impressive to me. Having Tim Lincecum in the ‘pen is a huge weapon. And I would argue that the addition of Jose Mijares has allowed Bochy to really use Affeldt to his full potential. In 2010 the Giants faced lineups with really great lefties (Utley, Howard, Hamilton) and Bochy used his two lefties very effectively to neutralize those guys. But Affeldt is an incredible weapon: a left-handed reliever who get right-handers out and pitch multiple innings.

So, in many ways Bochy has had even more options and weapons in the ‘pen this time around which has helped cover for the less dominant starting pitching.

Again, which team is better? Hard to say…I’ll always put my money with strong starting pitching, so 2010 still has an edge, but I’ll get back to you on this after this WS is done.

—–

The Giants outscored the Cardinals 20-1 over the last three games. Send that back to June when Pablo was out, second, short, and first were black holes, and Melky Cabrera was the best hitter on this team.

—–

Should have more to say about the Series tomorrow. I  don’t think Tigers present any more of a challenge than the Reds or Cards, BUT neither of those teams have a Justin Verlander type ace. But then again, we’ve seen the Giants take down some unbeatable pitchers before.

Final thought: Buster Posey looked exhausted at the end of game 5 against the Reds and he has continued to look tired during the NLCS. But, the finish line is now firmly in sight and I have a feeling we will see an energized Buster in the World Series. Look for him to have some big moments on the grandest stage.

—–

Some Links:

Tom Verducci with some interesting thoughts especially about Bochy (see point #5)

What a Game 1 WS start would mean to Barry Zito

The Giants Win the Pennant by Grant Bisbee

Jeff Passan on the Cardinals collapse

A bunch of great tidbits from the Merc’s Alex Pavlovic

(-SB)

Game 7

First: this and this. Two articles, one about Barry Zito, written a year too soon, and the other about Matt Cain. Fun for me to re-read, hopefully it is for you too.

It all makes sense now. Of course the Giants would sign Matt Cain to a big contract (the biggest to a right-handed pitcher ever. Chew on that for a minute. Then chew on this: how many dominant left-handers are still in the postseason? Not many. Interesting).

Of course Matt Cain would throw the first perfect game in Giants’ history.

Now maybe he can win the first Game 7.

Probably the craziest thing I’ve learned this post-season, and there have been many crazy things to learn, is this: the Giants have never won a Game 7. Not in New York, not in San Francisco. Not in 128 years of baseball. 0 and 5.

Two of those game sevens have come in my lifetime. The first baseball season I really remember was 1987, although I don’t have much memory of the post-season. I definitely remember the ’88 post-season. The A’s, the Dodgers. That stupid Gibson home run that I’ve had to watch highlights of all my life. But I don’t remember Game 7, 1987, against the Cardinals, at all. Probably for the best because it was tragic.

I do remember, more vividly than I would like, Game 7 against the Angels. The gut-punch of Game 6 was still fresh and you just knew, as much you hoped it wasn’t true, that there was no way they were going to win Game 7. And they never really came close.

2002 was a rough year, and that loss didn’t help. Not one bit. Total depression.

It’s 2012 and I live in a different baseball world. If the Giants lose tonight I will be bummed. This team has been so much fun to watch and I would love to see them take on the Tigers. But, I won’t be crushed if they lose.

So, here’s to Matt Cain. Back in 2006, when things had taken a turn for the worst, Matt Cain was a Giants’ fan great hope. One day, we dreamed, maybe we’d get to see Cain take the mound in a big playoff game. Our big ace. In our beautiful ballpark. It seemed too good to be true.

But now it is happening.

Game 7. The greatest show in sports.

Go Giants.

(-SB)

ZITO!

Of course. Zito. Of course.

I’ve included links to several Zito articles because I don’t have much to add to what’s been written.

I will say this, though: I have never been more proud of a professional athlete. Everything about that pitching performance is why I love baseball.

One other thought: throughout this series, even the Game 2 win, my overall impression has been that the Giants look tired and worn out, while the Cardinals seem alive and inspired. No shame in that, it’s a long season and sometimes you just run out of gas.

But last night the team looked fresh. They looked alive. They were having fun playing baseball. And that, more than anything else, give me hope for the rest of the series.

The Links:

Jeff Passan (Yahoo!) on the redemption story

Grant Bisbee (McCovey Chronicles) on what this means moving forward

Albert Chen (SI) on the unpredictability of this postseason

Andrew Baggarly (CSN) with some other great tidbits

Oh Glory! (or the Immortality of Buster Posey)

I’ll be honest: after the Giants were bamboozled by Bronson Arroyo in Game 2 I figured it was over. Nice season Giants, thanks for the ride, loved it, but not every year is like 2010.

Not that many would have predicted the Giants could come back on the Reds, BUT this team has been overcoming adversity all year:

  • Their best player was coming off a career threatening injury. No one knew what exactly to expect from Buster this season.
  • They get swept in the first series of the season by the team everyone picked to win the division.
  • They lose their closer two weeks into the season, leaving huge bullpen questions to be answered.
  • Their ace has an awful first half and the worst season of his career.
  • They lose their All-Star left fielder (and first half MVP) to a season ending drug suspension.
  • They had offensive black holes at second base, shortstop, and first base for most of the season.
  • There were questions about Bumgarner and Vogelsong and the closer-by-committee approach and shouldn’t Hunter Pence be better and can they really win with a Blanco/Nady platoon in left field and on and on I could go.
  • The were the Dodgers making huge moves that were supposed to bury the Giants.
  • And then those first two games of this series…

Of course, they come back and win this thing. I agree with Joe Lemire…through it all Posey and Bochy stood tall and calmly led this team. I know the Hunter Pence pre-game speeches are getting a lot of press, but it is the calm hand of those two dudes that define the character of this team.

So, we move on…and they move on with confidence.

Some other thoughts:

  • It isn’t often that a player of Posey’s caliber gets a moment to do the kind of damage he did in game five. There are too many ways to mitigate a stars influence in baseball (see Bonds, Barry) and even if the moment presents itself this is still a game where a 30% success rate is awesome. But Buster came through. Someone, a while back, said the guy Buster is most like is Joe Montana. I only believe that more.
  • Remember when I wrote that the demise of this team would be the shortstop position. Well, Arias and Crawford are huge reasons the Giants live on. Crawford’s game 5 was particularly impressive given the pressure on Bochy to play Arias. Huge defensive plays, an RBI triple, and that at-bat against Chapman. That’s big-boy stuff.
  • Angel Pagan, I’m a believer.
  • Who would have thought the Giants could win a five game series in which Lincecum made no starts and no starter last through six innings. Both of those things need to change in the next round.
  • The key to the NLCS, in my opinion, is Madison Bumgarner. He needs to step up and dominate.

(-SB)

Why Repeating is So Difficult, Pt. 3

Alright, this is the end of it…some of us have real jobs that we need to get back too =)

We ended the last post with the 2009 Yankees, so lets move on to the Giants!

2010 San Francisco Giants

  • 2009 88-74 (3rd in NL West): 8.1 K/9, 3.55 ERA, 121 ERA+, 1.28 WHIP
  • 2010 92-70 (1st): 8.2, 3.36, 121 (no change!), 1.27 WHIP

First off, how nasty has the Giants’ pitching been the last two years?! Lets review: the only team we looked at to post even one K/9 rate over 8 was the Diamondbacks. The Giants did it two years in a row! Those same Diamondbacks, who had two Hall of Famers on their staff, matched the 121 ERA+ but only did it once. The Giants did it two years in a row! The 2005 White Sox had the best ERA+ at 125, but nowhere near that in ’04 or ’06. The 2007 Red Sox had an ERA+ of 123, but couldn’t quite match it the next year. The Giants broke 120 two years in a row! And, the best ERA of any other team, regardless of year belongs to the 2005 Cardinals (3.49) which was matched essentially matched by the Giants’ in 2009 and bested this last season.

By my simplistic methods, no Championship team in the last 10 years pitched as well as the 2010 Giants. (fun fact: in 2009, when the Yankees won, CC Sabathia posted an ERA+ of 137 and won 20 games…that same season Tim Lincecum crushed Sabathia with a 173 ERA+ and Matt Cain bested CC at 148…how many games did they win? 15 for Tim and 14 for Matt.)

The Giants are a true outlier in my model for a couple of reasons. 1) They didn’t make any significant additions to their staff in 2010…yes they added Javier Lopez, Santiago Casilla, but it was mostly bullpen tweaks. Their big addition: Todd Wellemeyer (we all know how that ended up).

2) They did have a major contributor emerge over the course of the season in Madison Bumgarner (his 136 ERA+ was actually the best of any of the starters in ’10). That said, MadBum didn’t explode on to the scene they way Pavano did in 2003, or Lackey in 2002, or Garland in 2005 (this is actually a good thing, as I will explain later, but essentially he wasn’t extremely overworked as the 4th starter).

3) Like the Yankees the year before, the Giants break the mold a bit in that their ability to get to the postseason had more to do with their offense than pitching. It is in the regular that a good offense really shows up as significant predictor of success. The real important additions were Huff, Burrell, Posey, Torres, and Ross who allowed the Giants to scrape together enough runs to get four more wins. Once in the playoffs the Giants ridiculous pitching took over (which fits the BP model for playoff success to a T).

Conclusion:

I said in yesterday’s post, the pattern for World Series Championships tends to be this: an average staff makes a couple of key additions, sees a few young arms emerge, and experiences a significant bump in production. This bump caries the team to the title, but it also has proven to be unsustainable. Many championship teams have seen a major drop off in pitching production in their title-defending season torpedoing their ability to repeat.

Most of this drop off has to do with injuries and fatigue and a lack of the same type of talent infusion the team experienced the season before. For example, the 2004 Red Sox saw a huge bump in production (13 pts of ERA+) with the additions of Curt Schilling, Bronson Arroyo, and Keith Foulke. They added more arms the next year in Matt Clement and David Wells, but neither provided the same bump. On top of that, the Sox lost Schilling for most of the year due to the injury (bloody sock) he suffered in the 2004 playoffs, Pedro Martinez to free agency, and saw the beginning of the end of Keith Foulke (who pulled a Robb Nen in sacrificing his shoulder for the sake of the WS).

For teams hoping to make the jump to the WS it would behoove them to add pitching. If they are lucky enough to pull it off, they then need to add even MORE pitching and hope their guys stay healthy and strong for another long season.

Concerns

Based on these findings, I see a ton of red flags for the 2011 Giants. They have made no significant additions to their staff. Furthermore, Lincecum and Sanchez profile as the type of pitchers who might not rebound as well from their extended seasons. Tim Kawakami wrote a great article back in August about Lincecum’s astronomical pitch numbers, and it was clear to anyone watching (and confirmed here) that Sanchez ran out of gas at the end of THIS season, which doesn’t bode well for the next. The Giants’ staff seems poised for a classic post-World Series hangover drop in production.

Reasons for Hope

1) The Giants are clearly unique in their pitching superiority. No other team trying to repeat in the last 10 years has (a) been able to bring all the key players back and (b) had such a nasty staff. One of the things that made the Giants so good is their lack of a weak link (Zito is the obvious objection, but as a 5th starter he is unparalleled, both in quality and salary). Even if the Giants regress a bit as a staff they will still be better than a lot of the staffs that won WS in the last 10 years.

2) The Giants’ offense could potentially be a lot better over the course of the whole season this year. A full season of Posey/Ross/Sanchez, repeat performances by Burrell/Huff/Torres, a bounce back season from Sandoval, and the emergence of Brandon Belt could produce a better than league average offense for the first time since Bonds left. Improved offense and a regression on the mound could balance out to the same regular season results. Then the G-men will just have to hope for the magic in the postseason.

3) I have legitimate concerns about Sanchez, but I continue to marvel at Lincecum. Everything about him and how he’s been used to this point screams tommy john surgery in the near future. However, maybe he really is a freak. He is in great shape and has never had an arm injury, ever! Perhaps he’s just blessed in bizarre ways and 2011 will be business as usual.

Predictions

We will have full prediction posts in March when the season is a lot closer, but here’s where I am at currently. I do think the Giants pitching will regress overall but not significantly (think an ERA+ of 112 and a K/9 of 7.5). As good as they were last year they did give 15 or so starts to Todd Wellemeyer and had some bullpen issues early (Romo and Affeldt struggled early and Affeldt never came close to his 2009 form…if he comes back healthy and strong that will provide another significant internal addition).

I also think the Giants will score a lot more runs this year with a nice season for Pablo, depth in place at the start of the season (not just at the end), and the jolt Belt will provide when he does his Posey imitation this summer.

That said, I see them running out of gas in the postseason. Several NL teams have followed “my plan” well this offseason. The Phillies are the obvious offenders, but watch out for the Brewers (big additions), the Reds (big emergence potential), and even the Cubs (especially if this is true), Marlins (addition and emergence), and Dodgers (addition and emergence). Also, don’t forget about the Rockies/Braves/Nationals who all improved in various ways over the offseason, plus they have some young players who should continue to mature. Also, the Cardinals still have a few good players.

All that to say, the NL is going to be TOUGH this year, which means the Giants probably need to improve on both sides of the ball. The problem: that just hasn’t happened with returning Champions in a long time.

(-SB)