Despite their loss on Tuesday night, the San Francisco Giants are sitting pretty atop the National League West with a 21-12 record, good for third best in the majors.
In the early going, the Giants have seen success from unlikely candidates, struggles from players who were supposed to anchor the team and unprecedented dominance from a bullpen that was projected to struggle.
What exactly has helped San Francisco jump out to such a hot start, and where does the club need to improve? Let's take a look.
Tim Hudson Is an Ageless Wonder
A question mark heading into the season, Hudson, 38, was coming off ankle surgery and entering his 16th season in the majors. Despite the overall consistency Hudson displayed throughout his career, one could be forgiven for being a bit skeptical about the veteran right-hander.
Hudson has quieted those doubts through seven starts this season, posting a 4-2 record with a staff-leading 1.99 ERA. He’s also gone at least seven innings in all of his starts, allowing more than two earned runs just once, and he’s only walked three batters total, leading to an outrageous 0.74 WHIP—second in the majors.
Hudson’s consistency has proven to be especially important given the struggles of Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong and even Matt Cain. Hudson and Cain have essentially switched the roles that were expected of them this season, with Hudson pitching like an ace and Cain reverting to his first-half self of 2013. As long as Hudson continues to dominate, Cain gets let off the hook a bit.
"One thing is I like [Hudson] on our team so we don't have to face him," said outfielder Michael Morse, via the San Francisco Chronicle's Steve Kroner. "He's so good, man."
Hunter Pence Is Still His Usual Streaky Self
Pence started the season with 13 hits in his first 72 at-bats, then closed out the month of April with 15 hits in 35 ABs.
That’s Pence in a nutshell for you. He’s as streaky as they come, but when the Giants right fielder is on, opposing pitchers generally don’t have good days.
Currently sitting at .262/.338/.392, Pence has played a huge role in the Giants’ recent success. It’s no accident that the Giants’ stretch of 10 wins in 11 games coincided with Pence’s hot streak, as he hit .370 during that stretch.
Perhaps most telling of his value to the team, Pence has scored 23 runs, six more than anyone else on the team and nine more than leadoff hitter Angel Pagan. He simply finds ways to get the job done, even when he isn't at his best.
Any concerns about Pence after he signed a five-year, $90 million contract this offseason have been effectively thrown out the window given the Giants right fielder's recent hot spell.
Michael Morse Does One Thing Much Better Than Everything Else
Giants left fielder Michael Morse might not be the greatest fielder, and he’s not exactly known for his baserunning either. But even with a career UZR of -37.3, according to FanGraphs, and six career stolen bases, Morse is making up for his weaknesses by smashing baseballs all over the ballpark.
"He's got special strength," Matt Cain said, via Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News. "When he hits balls well, they're going to go really far, but we're probably going to see him miss some balls and those will go out easily, too."
Indeed, Morse's hits have often left the field of play, to the tune of eight home runs thus far. He also leads the Giants in total bases (63), RBI (24) and doubles, putting him on pace for a 39-homer, 118-RBI season. As Giants fans scan attest, it’s also pretty darn fun to see Morse hit his tape-measure home runs. When he gets into one, even AT&T Park can’t hold Morse’s tremendous power.
The Giants Bullpen Is Lights Out
While much of the credit for the Giants’ ability to overcome a lackluster rotation goes to the offense, the bullpen certainly deserves equal consideration.
It’s difficult to decide where to begin. Santiago Casilla has been even better than his usual self in the setup role, posting a 0.92 ERA in 19.2 innings across 16 appearances, and closer Sergio Romo has converted all 10 of his save opportunities along with a 1.88 ERA.
One of the biggest surprises has been right-hander Jean Machi, who is on pace to go 25-0 (stats are fun after the first month aren’t they?), thanks to his minuscule 0.53 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. He even contributed on the offensive end with a go-ahead bunt in the Giants' 13-inning win over the Pirates on Monday.
"They're not afraid," Bochy said about his bullpen, according to the San Jose Mercury News' Alex Pavolovic. "They're used to being out there with the game on the line, which helps because we play a lot of close games."
The Giants Have More Power Than We Thought
Can we attribute the Giants’ power surge this season to Barry Bonds’ instruction in spring training? Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to bring the all-time home run king back again next season. One player who seems to have benefited the most from Bonds' instruction is Michael Morse, according to MLB.com's Chris Haft:
Morse took full advantage of Bonds' week-long Spring Training stint as a guest instructor, and he continues to pepper the former slugger with questions during the all-time home run leader's occasional visits to San Francisco's clubhouse.
"I pick his brain a lot," Morse said, noting that he seeks Bonds' advice about playing left field at AT&T Park as much as hitting tips.
Thus far, the Giants are second in the majors in home runs, with 41 through 32 games. The majority of the power supply has come from a trio of sluggers in the middle of the lineup: Brandon Belt, Morse and Buster Posey, who have combined for 23 homers. Bonds' simple approach at the plate seems to have paid off for the entire team, though again, Morse has especially benefited from the instruction.
"The one thing Barry told me in spring training was just try to go up there and get your hits," Morse said, via the San Francisco Chronicle's Steve Kroner. "Home runs are a product of a good swing."
The team’s 11-game home run streak ended on Monday, which was a bit mystifying because the Giants had 13 innings to leave the yard, and none of their 11 runs came via the long ball. Nevertheless, we’ve seen an impressive power surge from a team that’s not supposed to hit a lot of home runs.
Pablo Sandoval Is Pressing...Big Time
If Pablo Sandoval wants upwards of $100 million from the Giants, he’ll have to start playing like it.
Through 31 games across 114 at-bats, the Giants third baseman is barely hitting half his weight, sitting at .167 with a dismal .518 OPS. It seems that Sandoval has gone from pressing due to the pressure of playing in a walk year to just pressing because of his poor performance. The optimism surrounding Sandoval when he entered camp looking slimmed down has long since passed, and now it will be up to the Giants third baseman to carry his weight (pun intended) in the lineup.
Unfortunately for the Giants, Sandoval has simply looked lost at the plate at times, which doesn't bode well for his future contract earnings or the Giants' offensive prowess throughout the rest of the season. Winning a World Series MVP is nice, but it doesn't do much a year and a half after it happened, and right now, Sandoval is running out of excuses...and time.
If the Giants Can Win 21 of 33 with Over Half Their Rotation Struggling...
…just imagine how many games they could win if Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong were to put up even respectable numbers.
With ERAs of 4.35, 5.12 and 4.60, respectively, along with Madison Bumgarner’s lack of his customary dominance (3.18 ERA, which improved significantly during his last start, 1.56 WHIP), only Hudson is keeping the rotation afloat.
And yet, the Giants continue to win games, despite the rotation’s struggles.
But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine 3/5 of the Giants rotation continuing to struggle to such a degree. Maybe Lincecum’s best days are behind him, but last season, he showed that he’s not a five-plus ERA pitcher. Perhaps his recent start against the Atlanta Braves (6 innings, one run) is a sign of what’s to come.
Then there’s Cain, who’s done an about-face after posting a 2.36 second-half ERA in 2013 by going 0-3 with a 4.35 ERA in five starts to begin the season. Like Lincecum, Cain has nowhere to go but up (theoretically, at least), and given his history of success, it’s hard to imagine a repeat of 2013.