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The Giants at The Break
by Richard Van Zandt, BaseballEvolution.com
July 16, 2009


With the San Francisco Giants a very surprising 10 games over .500 and leading the Wild Card chase by 2 games and only 7 games back of the Dodgers at the All-Star break, I am forced to ask myself, is this for real?  I mean seriously, who are these guys and what the heck are they doing with the second most wins in the National League?  Are these guys really serious contenders or have they just been pretending all along?

My heart wants to answer that with a resounding yes!  They most certainly are the real deal, sir!  Not only will you see them vie for the Wild Card, but you can expect them to give the Dodgers a good run for their money down the stretch as well! 

My brain, however, has stubbornly clung to its preconceived notion that the Giants’ pitching is overrated and their offense far too insufficient to sustain this amazing first half run.  Come the dog days of August and the stretch run of September, their fortunes will turn and they’ll likely end up closer to the 75-80 wins that I opined they might get, than they’ll get to reaching the post-season. 

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer for you.  As a prognosticator, well, I kinda suck.  Your guess is probably at least as good as mine (though if I were smart, I’d pull an Asher and say definitively that they’ll fade away after the break, thus assuring they’ll reach the post-season just to spite me).  I can, however, give you a little insight on how the Giants have gotten to where they are with a quick rundown position by position. 

Catcher

To look at Bengie Molina’s offensive numbers as a whole at the break would be to do him a disservice, as his batting line of .264/.269/.439 belies his value to the Giants.  He is the heart and soul of the Giants; without him, they would simply fold.  We’re talking intangibles here, not raw stats.  Not that his otherwise pathetic offensive line can’t be somewhat explained by a two-week dry spell in which he collected just six hits in 55 at bats (three walks for the season, though, is totally on him), but he has been the Giants’ rock behind the dish (even if some defensive measures suggest he’s been a liability).  The Giants’ staff leads the majors with a 3.51 team ERA and 13 shutouts, and some of the credit for that deservedly belongs to Molina. 

First Base

I never thought the Giants would give Travis Ishikawa a chance to play, but to their credit, they have been exceedingly patient with him.  Since May 11, that patience has really begun to pay off.  After beginning the season by batting just .188/.250/.246 with zero long balls in his first 23 games, he has hit .315/.366/.532 with seven homers in his last 40.  And he’s been golden with the glove all along, with his .857 RZR ranking second in the NL (to Ryan Howard?!?), his scoring a +11 with Dewan’s +/- system (despite almost 300 fewer innings on the field than most starting first basemen), and his 8.6 UZR rating the best in the bigs at his position (were he to have enough innings to qualify). 

Second Base

Emmanuel Burriss won the battle for the job in Spring Training over Kevin Frandsen, but Burriss’ bat never really got going and he was sent out to Fresno, where he suffered a potentially season-ending foot injury.  Matt Downs was recalled and given a shot, but after batting just .194 in 12 games, he was farmed back out and replaced in the everyday lineup by former White Sox shortstop Juan Uribe.  Uribe has been a pleasant surprise (utter shock) in a utility role this year, batting .301/.328/.464 in 61 games, and he has been solid defensively at second base (+4, tied for 3rd in the NL despite playing just 119.1 innings there).  Nevertheless, expect Freddy Sanchez trade talks to heat up later this month should the Giants get out of the gate well in the second half.

Third Base

Part Vlad Guerrero, part David Ortiz, Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval may have been overlooked for the mid-summer classic, but come October, if the Giants are still in the hunt, his name could well be bandied about in MVP talks.  Heading into the break, the 22-year old is fifth in the majors in batting average (.333), sixth in slugging (.578), ninth in extra-base hits (42), and 11th in OPS (.964).  His 15 home runs and 55 RBI lead the Giants.  A natural catcher, there was concern about his defense entering the year, but he has been very respectable in the field (0 fielding errors), if lacking a bit in range. 

Shortstop

Edgar Renteria has been an epic waste of $9 million for the Giants, sporting a mediocre batting line (.260/.317/.326) and playing below average defense (he may well be the worst shortstop in all of baseball when it comes to fielding balls in the hole).  Still, vastly overpaid as he might be, there is something to be said for his steadying veteran presence on the field and in the clubhouse. 

Outfield

Aaron Rowand, leadoff hitter extraordinaire.  Who’d have thunk it?  Yet since manager Bruce Bochy began penciling Rowand into the top of the order on May 20, the 60 Million Dollar Man has been one of the most effective leadoff men in baseball, batting .314/.361/.500 in 47 games.  He has also been playing much improved defense from last season.  He has been, for all intents and purposes, the player the Giants expected they were getting when they signed him to a five-year deal prior to the ’08 season. 

Fred Lewis, on the other hand, has regressed both offensively and defensively, and as a result has become the 25th man on the Giants roster, losing his starting spot to Nate Schierholtz and even falling behind journeyman Andres Torres on the depth chart.  Meanwhile, the 25-year old Schierholtz has showed good potential at the plate (.375/.406/.578 in the month of June) while playing very strong defense in one of the toughest right fields in all of baseball.  He even leads the team with 10 pinch-hits.

Moving seamlessly from right to left to make room for Schierholtz, Randy Winn, like Molina, has been better than his overall line (.275/.321/.391) would appear.  A switch-hitter, Winn is batting just .115/.127/.148 from the right side of the plate in only 61 at-bats, but a much more productive .313/.364/.448 in 259 left-handed ABs.  

Starting Pitchers

The Giants in the first half boasted one of the game's top pitching tandems in reigning Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum (10-2, 2.33) and his fellow All-Star Matt Cain (10-2, 2.38). That duo was a chief reason why San Francisco’s starters lead the majors in ERA (3.62), complete games (8), and shutouts (tied with 3), plus sported the second-best opponents batting against (.238) and OPS (.696). 

Three through five starters Randy Johnson, Barry Zito, and Jonathan Sanchez have, on the other hand, been rather inconsistent to say the least.  Johnson is 8-6 but with a hefty 4.81 ERA.  In contrast, he has pitched into the 6th inning or later while allowing two or fewer runs seven times.  Zito is only 5-9 with a 5.01 ERA, but he has also been victimized by poor run support (he ranks 72nd in MLB with 3.3 RS/G).  Six times, he has taken a shutout into the 6th inning or later.  And while Sanchez showed that he clearly has the stuff it takes to dominate in the big leagues by tossing the only no-hitter of the first half (and nearly a perfect game), he also goes into the second half with a 3-8 record and a 4.69 ERA (his 3.2 RS/G of support, though, ranks 73rd, just behind Zito).  Indeed, when Sanchez tossed his no-no, he was starting in place of the injured Johnson after having lost his spot in the rotation to Ryan “The Big” Sadowski, who has allowed only two earned runs in his first 18 big league innings. 

Relief Pitchers

The Giants' bullpen, led by closer Brian Wilson, has surprisingly been among the very best in the game, leading the majors at the break with a composite 3.29 ERA.  Wilson is tied for the ML lead with 23 saves and has allowed only two of 20 inherited runners to score while striking out 10.3 batters per nine innings pitched.  Setup man Jeremy Affeldt has been nothing short of outstanding, posting a 1.32 ERA in 38 appearances and leading all ML relievers with 19 holds.  In fact, Affeldt has not allowed a single run - earned or otherwise - in his last 23 outings, while holding opposing batters to a .188 slugging percentage during that span.

But the bullpen, which posted a composite ERA of 4.16 in April and 3.73 through May, really began to gel after the versatile Sergio Romo (2.77 ERA, 11.1 K/9 in 15 games) returned from an arm injury, recording a 2.63 ERA collectively since June 1.  Non-roster invites Brandon Medders (2.72 ERA in 34 games) and Justin Miller (1.98 ERA in 29 games) have been great additions.  Even Bobby Howry (3.38 ERA in 34 games) has pitched well, save for a few hiccups.  Rookie Merkin Valdez has also pitched better than his overall numbers would indicate, allowing seven runs over his last three appearances, which ballooned his ERA from 3.24 to 4.97. 

Going Forward

How the Giants fare in the second half could depend greatly on how well they get out of the gate.  They face a stiff challenge right off the bat, with a ten games in ten days through Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Colorado, the later two always tough places for the Giants to garner wins.  With only two weeks until the non-waiver trade deadline, the front office will need to decide quickly whether this team has a special kind of chemistry, or whether they simply overachieved in the season’s first half.  If they decide they are for real, will they attempt to add another bat or two to the lineup?  Will they go after more pitching?  Both perhaps? 

For my money, this is a team that has overachieved, putting them in position to make a run for October in spite of their lackluster offense.  They possess one of the top farm systems in baseball (ranked 5th this year by Baseball America) and have the talent necessary to step up and acquire an impact player.  But should they? 

Given the lackluster offensive options reportedly available, I believe it would be a mistake to sacrifice potentially valuable future resources in order to acquire what would likely be a stop-gap player who may or may not make a difference right now.  Lincecum even questioned whether it would be wise to mess with the chemistry that got them where they are, telling reporters prior to his All-Star game start: “Right now, I think we’re really meshing well with the team we have.  To make significant movement like that, it might mess up the chemistry of the team." 

"We’re playing better ball than everybody expected,” he concluded.  “We’re playing ball the right way.”

If they do go after an impact player, top prospects Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey should be strictly off-limits regardless of who is available, and second-tier players like Tim Alderson and Angel Villalona should be made available only if the player(s) involved would remain in San Francisco beyond this season. 

To that end, I do believe there is one, and only one, player the Giants ought to seek to add to their roster: Toronto Blue Jays starter Roy Halladay, although it’s unlikely that such a deal could be swung without including Bumgarner or Posey (or both).  An offer of Alderson and Villalona along with two other pitching prospects (Scott Barnes, Jose Casilla, Joe Martinez, Kevin Pucetas, Henry Sosa, and Clayton Tanner are among those who could possibly interest the Jays) might be enough to tempt Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi, or at least comprise the basis of a nifty blockbuster deal.  Jonathan Sanchez could certainly be offered as part of any deal as well. 

Adding Halladay, who is signed at a cost of $15.75 M for 2010, would give the Giants a nasty 1-2-3 that could likely carry them far into October, even without an offensive upgrade.  Sticking with youngsters Ishikawa and Schierholtz, along with allocating more at-bats to John Bowker, would benefit the already bright future of the club and could well be enough to turn the trick.    

Outlook

Optimism abounds as the Giants move forward into the second half of the season.  Even if they play no better than .500 ball from here on out, they’ll still manage 86 wins, far better than I think anyone could have expected.  If they replicate their first half outcome of 10 games over, they’ll get themselves into the 90-win range, which could well be enough to get them into October.  A top-two like the Giants have in Lincecum and Cain that might just be enough to push them over the top once they're there.  Even if they fade after the break, they’ve still made tremendous strides this year.  With the talent they have stored away in the minors, the future has not looked this bright in quite a long time. 





Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Richard resides in San Francisco, California and can be reached at richard@baseballevolution.com.

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