Not much went right for the San Francisco Giants in 2013, as they saw their win total drop by 18 from the previous season thanks to a barrage of injuries and an underperforming pitching rotation.
Yet, despite the disappointing season, 2014 holds several promising signs for the Giants. Perhaps most importantly, they'll have a few new faces on the field, with the return of Angel Pagan and Ryan Vogelsong in addition to the newly acquired Michael Morse.
But there are even positive signs when looking at how the Giants players who were on the field performed in 2013. Certain individual performances and second-half improvements in particular give the Giants reason for optimism when looking ahead to the upcoming season. Let's take a look.
Madison Bumgarner's Emergence as the Staff Ace
Anyone who followed the Giants in 2013 knows that Matt Cain had a down year, with his highest ERA since 2006 and the lowest WAR of any full season in his career.
But Cain's underperformance gave Bumgarner the opportunity to show his value as a legitimate top pitcher in the majors while proving he is capable of serving as the ace of the staff.
Looking beyond his standard statistics, few pitchers were as consistent as Mad Bum in 2013. He didn't allow more than three earned runs in a start until June 1, his 20th start of the year, and it happened only four times all year. Opponents also batted just .203 against Bumgarner, fifth lowest in the majors.
Better yet, Cain has an excellent chance of rebounding in 2014. He had a minuscule 2.36 ERA during the second half of the season, a gargantuan improvement from his 5.06 ERA in the first half.
Assuming Cain returns to form, the Giants will have two aces next year, in addition to reliable veteran Tim Hudson. The former ace (but still effective starter) hasn't had an ERA over four since 2006, and he'll be pitching in one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks, per ESPN, in the majors.
Remember the last time Hudson pitched in a ballpark like AT&T Park? That was with the Oakland A's at the Coliseum, when he won 92 games with a .702 winning percentage, 3.30 ERA and three top-six Cy Young Award finishes in six years. The bottom line: Putting Hudson in a pitcher-friendly ballpark yields exceptional results.
Improved Overall Plate Discipline in the Second Half
The consensus is that the Giants are a bunch of free-swingers who only know how to get on base by hitting the ball. That's not entirely untrue, but the team as a whole took a giant leap in the right direction regarding plate discipline following the All-Star break.
In the season's second half, the Giants walked at a rate of 8.3 percent, good for 12th in the majors during that span. That's a dramatic improvement from their walk percentage of 7.1 during the first half, 22nd in the majors.
Hunter Pence, generally viewed as the biggest free-swinger on the team not named Pablo Sandoval, was perhaps the biggest contributor to that positive trend. He nearly doubled his walk rate, from 5.8 percent to 10.1 percent, drawing six more walks in well over 100 fewer plate appearances.
Sandoval also drastically increased his walk rate between the season's halves, from 6.2 percent to 10.4 percent. Buster Posey and Marco Scutaro increased their respective walk rates in the second half as well.
The inherent value of this statistic can be proved in part by looking at past top-performing teams. In the seven MLB seasons since 2006, only two World Series winners, the 2010 and 2012 Giants, finished outside of the top 10 in walk rate.
During each of those seasons, the Giants had incredible pitching staffs and award-winning play from Posey. Now that they don't feature teams of quite the same caliber, they'll have to start improving in a category in which they've gotten away with lackluster performances in the past: walking.
The second half of 2013 was a promising start.
Brandon Belt's Second-Half Surge
One of the most talked-about aspects of the Giants' season (at least on the positive side) was Brandon Belt's huge improvement after the All-Star break.
Belt's retooled swing helped him produce a 66-point increase in his batting average and a 131-point increase in his OPS. That came thanks to a decreased fly-ball percentage (43.9 to 38.2), a must with half of his games taking place at AT&T Park, and an explosion in line-drive percentage (21.5 to 27.7).
Whether Belt can continue his success at the plate will play a huge role in determining the Giants' fate in 2013. Manager Bruce Bochy will rely on him as the team's No. 3 hitter in the lineup, meaning it'll be up to him to produce runs and get on base for the big bats behind him (Posey, Pence).
The Giants lineup hasn't featured a reliable power bat since Barry Bonds' departure; could Belt change that dry spell? 2014 will provide a good indication.
All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.
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