San Francisco Giants: 5 Biggest Keys to Winning in the NL Playoffs

Dan MoriCorrespondent ISeptember 20, 2012

San Francisco Giants: 5 Biggest Keys to Winning in the NL Playoffs

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    The San Francisco Giants have the look of a playoff team. With a magic number of five and 13 games remaining on their schedule, the NL West crown is within sight.

    The Giants have played great ball down the stretch. Since the Melky Cabrera suspension and the Giants' subsequent loss at home to Washington on August 15, the team has gone 22-9. The suspension of Cabrera seemed to pull the team closer, and several players have stepped up.

    As we look forward to the playoffs, there will be several keys to the Giants' success in the postseason. For the purposes of this article, I will stay away from the completely obvious and look a bit deeper.

    We all know that the Giants' starting pitching needs to be stellar and that the closer-by-committee approach that manager Bruce Bochy has employed needs to work. In addition, we also know that Buster Posey needs to stay hot and produce for the Giants to have a chance to make a deep run in the playoffs.

    So, if we acknowledge those obvious keys, let's take a deeper look at what else needs to happen for the Giants to make another run at a World Series title. 

5. Offensive Production from the Bottom Half of the Lineup

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    The sixth, seventh and eighth spots of the Giants' batting order need to produce for the Giants to be successful. The hitters in these positions will be Brandon Belt, a platoon in left field of Gregor Blanco and Xavier Nady, and the shortstop position—which will usually be Brandon Crawford.

    Joaquin Arias will also see some time at shortstop, especially against tough left-handed pitchers.

    Belt is a big key, because the No. 6 spot in the order is an RBI position. Furthermore, as a first baseman, he is expected to drive in runs.

    Belt has displayed very sporadic power this season, so that's not something the Giants will be counting on. His six home runs do not scare anyone. The Giants will, however, expect Belt to get some key hits with men on base.

    With a batting average of .268, Belt has 54 RBI in 377 at-bats. That is a relatively low figure for a player who bats in his spot in the order, but Belt has come on lately. He will need to produce in the playoffs for the Giants to score consistently.

    The left field position is an area the Giants will attempt to upgrade in the winter. For now, the Giants seem to have two players who if combined into one, would be very good. However, you cannot take the best of each individual and make that into one player, unfortunately.

    Gregor Blanco is an excellent fielder and gives the Giants speed on the bases. The problem with Blanco is after a hot early season, he has tailed off dramatically. Blanco's batting average is down to .245, and he has only 33 RBI in 372 at-bats. Blanco has shown some life lately, as his September average is .323.

    Xavier Nady is a much better offensive player and can drive in runs. As a Giant, Nady has only 18 official at-bats but is hitting .333 with five RBI and an OBP of .455 and OPS of .899. Nady is not a good defensive outfielder, however, as his range is very limited and he has a poor throwing arm.

    When Blanco is in there, the Giants hope he can deliver some offense. With Nady, they hope his offensive contribution will outweigh his defensive deficiencies.

    Brandon Crawford will usually hit in the eighth spot in the order and has done more than I expected offensively this year. He is hitting .246 with four home runs and 43 RBI in 410 at-bats. Crawford is prone to slumps, however, so the Giants must hope he can be productive in the playoffs.

    Crawford is an excellent defensive shortstop, so any offense he provides is always a plus. After some early-season struggles, Crawford has played stellar defense in the past three months. I project Crawford will someday be a Gold Glove winner, and it could even be this year.

    Joaquin Arias will also be an important player for the Giants. He will see action at shortstop against tough left-handed pitchers. Arias is hitting .277 with four home runs and 33 RBI in 292 at-bats. However, against southpaws, Arias is hitting .319.

    Arias is a good defensive player and will also be inserted into the game as a late-inning defensive replacement for Pablo Sandoval. Arias will also have some important chances as a pinch-hitter. He is one of the most important reserves on this Giants roster.

4. The Giants Must Play Good Defense

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    The San Francisco Giants led the league in most errors committed for much of the season. However, since the All-Star break, they have settled down and are playing much better defense, for the most part.

    The biggest turnaround has been Brandon Crawford. He struggled defensively in the first couple months of the season, but has come on strong in the past three months. The improvement in defense for Crawford began when veteran Ryan Theriot was inserted into the second base position in May.

    Theriot helped to settle Crawford down, and his veteran presence enabled Crawford to relax. From there, Crawford's natural ability came through and his confidence improved. Now, playing alongside Marco Scutaro for the most part, Crawford has been excellent.

    Angel Pagan had some defensive lapses early in the year, but he has improved. In addition, there were many questions about how Hunter Pence would handle the tricky nuances of right field at AT&T Park. Although not the greatest defensive player, Pence has been more than adequate out there.

    The biggest worry defensively is with Pablo Sandoval. He can be spectacular at times, but can also boot simple grounders or make the errant throw. This has a lot to do with Sandoval's focus and also his excess weight.

    There's nothing the Giants can do about Sandoval's weight until they can get him into a conditioning and nutrition program this winter. However, his focus is something that must improve.

    There was a play earlier this week where Sandoval misplayed a ground ball to his backhand side. It should have been an out, but as the ball arrived, Sandoval was blowing a bubble with his gum. He did not field the ball cleanly and the runner reached base on the error. This kind of thing cannot happen in the playoffs.

    The Giants have a very good pitching staff, but they cannot always pitch through defensive mistakes. In the postseason, the Giants must play well defensively, as the offenses they could be facing, such as the Reds, Nationals, Braves and Cardinals, are strong.

    You cannot give potent offensive teams extra outs—just ask the Braves and Brooks Conrad what happened back in 2010. Giving a good team extra outs or allowing runners to advance a free 90 feet on the bases is a recipe for disaster. For the Giants to be successful, good defense is a must.

3. Pablo Sandoval's Bat Comes Alive

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    Pablo Sandoval has had a roller-coaster season. There have been some good moments, but also two lengthy absences—one due to hand surgery and the other a hamstring injury.

    Sandoval is currently hitting .283 with nine home runs and 53 RBI in 357 at-bats. He is a very undisciplined hitter and tends to swing at bad pitches and get himself out, especially with runners on base. In one game about a week ago, Sandoval came to the plate four times, went 0-4 and saw only four pitches.

    The low RBI total underscores Sandoval's lack of plate discipline with men on base. As the third-place hitter in the Giants' batting order, Sandoval must produce. His OBP of .331 and OPS of .754 are simply too low for your No. 3 hitter. 

    Sandoval has a world of talent, but his lack of plate discipline, and I mean home plate and dinner plate, is cause for concern. Whenever your weight approaches your batting average, it's never a good thing.

    The Giants and their fans have been exceedingly patient with the Kung Fu Panda, but their patience may be wearing thin. The childish lack of discipline Sandoval displays on a regular basis is not so funny if you're not producing.

    Defensively, Sandoval has been, at times, spectacular—but in other instances, he makes errors on routine ground balls or poor throws. His weight and a lack of focus contribute to his defensive problems.

    Since returning from hand surgery in early July, Sandoval had not hit a home run, until yesterday's game. I'm sure the hand had something to do with it, but I also believe the excess weight Sandoval carries has slowed his bat speed.

    The Panda is over-swinging, trying to hit home runs. When a player does that, the home runs do not happen. Sandoval must get back to being a bit more selective and concentrate on driving the ball instead of trying to force things. Hopefully, his home run yesterday will ease his mind and he can relax, which will help him hit more.

    If Sandoval can get hot in the postseason, he has the type of bat and infectious personality that can carry a team. This is a big "if", however, as history tells us that Sandoval is vulnerable to good pitching, trying to do too much in clutch situations.

2. Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro Stay Hot at the Top of the Batting Order

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    The top two spots in the Giants' batting order have been extremely productive. Angel Pagan has excelled as a lead-off hitter and is a huge key to the Giants offense.

    Pagan is hitting .291 with eight home runs, 56 RBI and 27 steals. His OBP of .339 could be a bit higher, but his OPS of .782 is decent. Pagan's 87 runs scored lead the team.

    When Melky Cabrera was suspended, I believe it affected Pagan the most of any Giants player. Pagan and Cabrera were very close, and the suspension seemed to raise Pagan's focus and his game. He has played a good defensive center field and been a catalyst at the top of the Giants' batting order. 

    Marco Scutaro came to the Giants right before the trade deadline. When Giants GM Brian Sabean made the deal, I was pleased and thought Scutaro could help the team as a utility man. Little did I know that Scutaro would not only help the team, but emerge as one of the Giants' most important players.

    With all the hype in the NL West about the Dodgers acquiring Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Shane Victorino, the deal that brought Marco Scutaro to the Giants has had the most impact.

    As a Giant, Scutaro is hitting .355 with an OPS of .827. His 32 RBI in only 204 at-bats, mostly in the No. 2 spot in the order, has given the Giants a huge lift. Scutaro has been a great addition to the Giants both on the field and in the clubhouse. 

    For the Giants to be able to score runs consistently and make a deep run in the playoffs, Pagan and Scutaro must continue to produce. If the positive roll that these two are on continues through the postseason, the Giants have the potential to win it all.

1. Hunter Pence Gets Hot and Continues to Drive in Runs

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    In a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies, Hunter Pence came to the Giants with a great deal of fanfare. Many expected him to come to San Francisco, tear the cover off the ball and lead the Giants offense. This has not happened.

    As a Giant, Pence is hitting just .230. He has four home runs and 36 RBI in only 174 at-bats. It's the RBI total that is impressive. Pence has found a way to make the most of his hits and drive in runs.

    Opposing teams will try to pitch around Buster Posey as much as possible, so Pence will be a key man for the Giants. Offensively, no player on this Giants team will have more on his shoulders than Pence.

    Prior to joining the Giants, I had no idea that Pence was such an awkward-looking player. He has a funny swing, an even weirder warm-up swing, throws from a funny side-arm angle with his head tilted to the left and runs with an emu-like gait.

    With all of these quirks, what has impressed me is how good an athlete Pence is. He is big, has a strong arm, is very fast and hustles on every play. He has quickly fit in with his Giants teammates. 

    If Pence can get hot and continues to drive in runs, the Giants will be a force to be reckoned with.

The San Francisco Giants Hope to Host Another Victory Parade in 2012

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    San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy has done perhaps his best job ever in leading the Giants to what looks to be an NL West crown. I believe Bochy gives the Giants a tremendous edge in the postseason.

    The Giants began the season not knowing how much they could count on Buster Posey behind the plate. Bochy has successfully managed Posey's catching, first base duties and his rest. This has enabled Posey to be in the lineup almost every day and produce much more than was expected at the start of the year.

    In addition, the Giants have been without All-Star closer Brian Wilson and second baseman Freddy Sanchez for the year. Wilson pitched in two games in April, then was forced to undergo his second Tommy John surgery. Sanchez has not played a single game, and his career may be over.

    Bochy has also had to deal with two DL stints to Pablo Sandoval, as well as a subpar season from Tim Lincecum. Lincecum appears to be getting himself back in good form, but at the same time, Ryan Vogelsong and Madison Bumgarner have had recent struggles.

    Santiago Casilla did a great job early in the year as the closer, but then went into the tank. This necessitated a bullpen-by-committee approach that Bochy has managed extremely well.

    Then, to top things off, the Melky Cabrera suspension came to the forefront. Cabrera was a fan favorite and also the Giants' leading hitter. He is likely to win the NL batting title with a .346 batting average. Losing a player with Cabrera's production could derail a team, but Bochy guided the Giants with a firm hand.

    Bochy has a very even-keel demeanor and has earned the trust and confidence of his players. He is a master at putting players into positions where they have the best chance of being successful. The confidence Bochy instills in his players is a reason they perform for him.

    Although Davey Johnson (Washington Nationals) is likely to win the NL Manager of the Year award, nobody has done a more masterful job than Bochy. I'm sure he would rather win another World Series championship than an individual award, anyway.