Baseball can be examined from any number of different angles. I think the most pertinent ones are offense, defense, starting pitching and relief pitching. I wanted to examine what exactly is going wrong and what has been actually been going right but has been masked by temporary deficiencies caused by injuries and illnesses. My point of reference is the 38 game mark, which is basically the end of the second inning in the nine inning marathon that is a major league baseball season. I used ESPN's and Yahoo's numbers for my data below.
Offense is a Major Problem (No Surprise)
The Giants offense is 15th in runs scored but 11th in batting average, 5th in OBP, 12th in slugging percentage and 12th in OPS in the 16-team National League. Their offense is clearly underachieving in terms of just plain hitting, and especially in terms of plating runs. This obviously is a big reason why the team has been struggling.
The shortfall is virtually team-wide. Only Bonds, Grissom, and Feliz have been consistently productive overall for the season (Durham when he wasn't injured). Everyone else has been bad for much of the season, though most are snapping out of their offensive stupor.
One would think that the high learning curve for SBC PBP, as Grissom noted last year for himself, Durham, and Alfonzo, was the culprit this year for Mohr, Pierzynski, and Tucker. And that's partly true as Mohr and Tucker are hitting better on the road. However, the team overall has amazingly been much better at home than on the road. The Giants on the road are hitting .235/.313/.341/.654 with only 9 homers in 519 at bats (1 every 58 AB) vs. the Giants at home are hitting .270/.356/.443/.799 with 27 homers in 770 at bats (1 every 29 AB). Thus PBP the pitcher's park is now SBC Park the hitter's park. Key culprits here for the dichotomy are Neifi Perez, JT Snow, AJ Pierzynski, Jeffrey Hammonds, Yorvit Torrealba, and Brian Dallimore, who all got significant at bats and all had OPS below .600, many much below .600, on the road.
To compound this problem, while the Giants are hitting much worse than opponents on the road while staying close to opponents at home, the Giants have not been able to convert their hitting at home into real runs as effectively as their opponents. Thus while the Giants OPS is close at home, they were still out scored by 37 percent: 6.0 runs vs. only 4.3 runs. This is similar to the road difference as well: 5.1 runs vs. 3.7 runs.
On the issue of right-handed pitchers (RHP) vs. left-handed pitchers (LHP), the Giants moves this off season to improve their hitting vs. RHP by acquiring or keeping left-handed hitters have not paid off. The OPS is actually down against RHP - .723 vs. .732 for 2003 – and at a big cost versus LHP – falling from a robust .865 last year to .767 this year. Snow, Tucker, and Pierzynski are all actually bringing down the Giants OPS vs. RHP, in particular Pierzynski:
Current 2003 Lifetime
A.J. Pierzynski .268/.302/.366/.668 .324/.370/.469/.839 .311/.353/.461/.814
Michael Tucker .263/.348/.358/.704 .274/.342/.474/.816 .265/.345/.438/.783
J.T. Snow .260/.339/.375/.714 .284/.387/.450/.838 .275/.364/.455/.819
Defense Has Gone Down
The Giants are tied for 8th (but with 3 other teams so if they fell .001, they would be in 11th place; .003 would drop them to 12th) in fielding percentage, 5th in range factor, and 13th in zone rating. This means that the Giants vaunted defensive abilities of the past few years have fallen this year, as the team is clearly at or below the midpoint of the league in defense. The only reason the range factor is so much higher than the others is because the Giants pitchers, as a whole, are not a strikeout efficient type of pitchers, they are finesse, make them hit ground balls and fly balls type of pitchers, accounting for more plays in the field, which improves the range factor for Giants position players. The Giants appear to have less defensive abilities than years past and this probably shows up in the pitcher's stats.
Starting Pitching Not as Bad as They Seem
The starting pitching overall is 15th overall in the NL with a 5.37 ERA and 13th overall with a 1.44 WHIP. Clearly, the starting pitching has been lacking on the whole statistically. However, things are not as bleak as they seem.
One thing I like to do is examine starters by their pitching line and whether they pitched well enough to win. Perhaps in different scoring eras this would be different, but right now I think that any starter who can pitch at least 6 innings and give up 3 or less runs (or 5 innings and 2 or less runs) did enough to help his team win the game. This is a modified form of the concept of "quality starts" and reflect the lowered expectations placed upon starters today versus yesteryear's iron-man hurlers. For lack of a better term, call them "winnable" starts.
By this reckoning, the Giants starters overall should have been 20-18, a good five games over their current 15-23, leaving the Giants only 3 games behind the (ugh!) leading Dodgers. Basically, the Giants starters are like the old nursery rhyme, when they are good, they are very good, but when they are bad, they are very bad, resulting in the high ERA and WHIP overall, but an OK record overall by looking at each performance on its own. Removing all the spot starters, the five main starters in the rotation should have been 19-16, a winning percentage of .542, good enough for an 89 win season over 162 games. So while the starting pitching has been up and down, for the most part they have been up but has been let down by the offense, the defense, and the bullpen. However, they still appear to be struggling to find a way to consistently pitch well, so this will be something to watch out for.
Bullpen is Now Good
There's good news and bad news. The bad news is that the team's bullpen has been horrible overall, with a 4.83 ERA and a WHIP of 1.57. That is bad enough for 15th in the NL and 16th (last), respectively. The good news is that this is just a by-product of the Giants having to improvise to account for injuries in both starters and relievers by bringing in people who got lit up. The core group of relievers that the Giants have settled down on now has done pretty well with a 3.86 ERA and 1.33 WHIP overall.
Whereas the other relievers brought up only to help, not necessarily because they deserved to be here, have not done well at all: Aardsma 4.91 ERA; Cooper 10.38; Lowry 12.00; Walker 16.20; and Leo Estrella 27.00. But we had to use them because Nen and Eyre was out at the start of the season plus Schmidt was out, which put more pressure on the bullpen in terms of innings pitched. And the Giants had to bring in all these different players because none of them were doing the job well enough to stay up. These players overall had a 7.48 ERA and a WHIP of 2.15.
Plus the core group is even better if you subtract Herge's numbers: 2.83 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. Herges, unfortunately, has been terrible statistically and especially with men on base. He appears to be the consummate set-up guy and not closer material as he has just stunk with his high ERA, high WHIP, and high batting stats with runners on. Then again, he has given up no runs in 14 of his 22 outings and 1 run or less (with at least 1 inning pitched) in 16 of his 22 outings, so he has been useful 70-75 percent of the time. If he can get out of his funk and pitch like he's been able to over his career - and especially like he was last year - and stay away from crooked numbers in runs given up in an outing, this group of relievers will be lights out.
And Franklin has just been terrible with the bases empty while he has shut the other team down totally when runners are on or in scoring position (.666 and .492 OPS respectively, .294 and .189 OBP respectively). That is the reason why he has stayed up given his horrible numbers. One would hope he can improve on .571/.625/.714/1.339 with the bases empty (16 PAs) or perhaps the Giants can just use him only when there are runners on base. Thus, overall, the bullpen looks to be in pretty good shape right now, barring any injuries to this group, and should be great the rest of the year.
The Giants problems are team-wide, covering the offense, defense, starting pitching and bullpen. Each has been affected greatly by injuries and slow starts. And once one area started looking good, another area would fail or another injury crop up. Looking at how the Giants have played thus far in 2004, only the heartiest of fans can keep their interest and hopes up. The rest of 2004 looks pretty bleak based on what has happened so far in the season.
However, as I noted in my recent article, it is still way too early to be giving up on the team. Sure their performance stinks thus far, but teams have stunk before and come back from it. One needs to look at the roots of the problems thus far to see if they are unsolvable or ephemeral. To this Giants fan, it looks to be ephemeral.
The pitching, both starting and relief, look to be shaking out well, especially relief. The Giants have their top 5 starters going and, as noted above, they have pitched well enough to be keeping the Giants about 5-10 games above .500 in a 162 game season. The starters are still having up and down performances, but if they can just keep up what they have been doing, the Giants starting pitching should be OK. As I had expected, Hermanson has been doing well and Williams has pitched better than his 4.50 ERA as he has a WHIP of only 1.13 and batting average against of .256. If he can keep those up, his ERA should go down, given that the bullpen is strong now and the offense is perking up.
The bullpen, as noted, was greatly affected by injuries, but it now has a core group of F-Rod, Herges, Eyre, Christianson, Brower, Franklin, and Walker, which has done well overall and extremely well other than Herges' penchant for the big inning this year and Franklin's inability to pitch with the bases empty this year. They look to be good for the rest of the year barring any injury. And that will perk up the starters as they can give up the lead to the bullpen and be confident that they can keep the lead.
The offense also looks to be getting better as long as key players stay uninjured, especially Bonds. There is no way to expect the Giants to compete effectively when Bonds is not in the lineup, mainly because the Giants eschewed getting The Player To Succeed Bonds TM (I suggested Vlad and he was financially attainable given current constraints but the Giants chose otherwise). Hopefully he can stay relatively healthy the rest of the season, a severe sinus infection and now a sore back have already affected him.
Silver Lining for Giants Fans Still Holding On To Their Hope
The silver lining for the Giants right now is that the team is slowly turning the ship around in May. The difficulties in pitching and hitting encountered in April appear to be passing. In April, the Giants hit .258/.345/.394/.739 but their opponents hit .299/.355/.464/.819. However, so far in May, the Giants have hit .253/.327/.415/.742 while their opponents hit .270/.326/.459/.785, meaning the pitching has improved a bit.
However, the magnitude of the offensive improvement has been masked by Bonds' sinus and back problems. Bonds has missed a third of the games in May and the games he has been playing, he has not been hitting: his average for May is .091 with a SLG of .136. Only his continual walking has made him effective: his OBP is still .459 despite the low average. But that's only an OPS of .596, about a third of the OPS he put up in April. With him healthy again, the Giants OPS would be much higher than the .253/.327/.415/.742 exhibited in May: it would be approximately .274/.353/.471/.824 right now had he just continued his performance of April in only the games he played in May.
That's because many players have broken out of their funk of April. Pierzynski has improved from an April of .236/.267/.250/.517 to .281/.303/.500/.803; Dustin Mohr from .042/.179/.042/.220 to .333/.458/.556/1.014; Alfonzo from .219/.296/.288/.584 to .386/.426/.500/.926; Hammonds from .175/.327/.300/.627 to .281/.324/.563/.886; Feliz from .290/.296/.406/.702 to .302/.302/.674/.977; and Torrealba from .167/.348/.222/.570 to .190/.320/.429/.749. And Grissom has stayed hot, though Neifi, Tucker, and Snow has regressed in May, but not so much to counteract the hot hitting from the players above. Besides, no team is going to have every player playing well all the time.
So the Giants have put together a nice win streak that looks like it can build to a nice roll towards first place. The offense has been turned around and been doing very well in May so far. Bonds appears to be back from his health problems and got his batting stroke back. Unfortunately, Snow and Durham is out with injuries, but the Giants appear to be managing well without them again, like last year. If Damon Minor can continue his hot hitting at Fresno here at the MLB level - which he credits totally to a recent laser eye surgery - he could give the Giants a tough decision to make when Snow is due to come off the DL.
The bullpen has settled down to a core group of pitchers and look to be outstanding for the rest of the season, particularly if Herges can revert to his form from last year for the rest of the year. The trio of Tyler Walker, Scott Eyre, and Felix Rodriguez have been outstanding so far and Jim Brower and Jason Christiansen have been pretty good too. If Herges does not improve, perhaps the Giants should try someone else in the closer position or, as Alou has suggested before, have F-Rod assist in saving games as well.
Only the starting rotation has not shown much consistency all season and as recently as the road trip starting in Chicago were a question mark, though all had good starts this past week. Schmidt has been going great and Rueter appears to be finally figuring out how umpires are squeezing the plate on him and how to pitch to the tightened strike zone - reportedly he is working on pitching inside more in order to free up the outside corner for himself. Williams just need to stay away from the big inning as he is pitching fine otherwise. Tomko needs to settle down a bit and stay away from the walks. Hermanson just needs to stay away from the crooked number of runs given up as he has pitched pretty well overall otherwise.
If the starters can settle down and pitch the way they are capable, and the Giants hitters continue to hit as they have recently - which is about what they have been capable of - the Giants should be able to continue to win a bunch of games going forward and close the rest of the ground that they had lost to the divisional leaders at the start of the season. They have already cut their games behind to only 3.5 games as of the start of the last game of the Arizona series - less than half what it was at its peak - and are looking to catch up with the two usurpers for the National League Western Division crown, Los Angeles and San Diego.
Martin Lee writes 'A Biased Giant's Fanatic's View' for SFDugout.com when the mood and muse strikes him. He wants to teach and share his love of baseball and, in particular, his love for the San Francisco Giants. He will believe to his dying days that Bobby Bonds was robbed of being the first 40-40 player and should be in Cooperstown. Please feel free to e-mail him at BiasedGiantsFanatic@nospam.yahoo.com (remove the "nospam." if you wish to e-mail me) if you have a question or comment.
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