1st-Quarter Grades for San Francisco Giants
For a team returning with essentially the same core that helped it win the 2012 World Series, the San Francisco Giants didn't have high expectations heading into the 2014 season—or really any expectations, for that matter.
Though the skepticism was warranted given the team's struggles last season, it's not particularly surprising that the Giants have managed to jump out to such a hot start because they've been able to avoid their Achilles' heel—injuries—which led them to a 76-86 finish last season.
The lack of severe injuries (Brandon Belt's recent thumb fracture notwithstanding) combined with breakout performances from players who weren't supposed to be more than average, lower-middle-of-the-lineup hitters (e.g., Michael Morse)—let alone even make the big league roster (e.g., Brandon Hicks)—have contributed to a 25-14 start that's put the Giants atop the NL West.
Let's take a look at who has been responsible for the team's hot start and where the Giants can improve.
Statistics accurate for games through May 12.
Posey has quieted whatever concerns his poor second half created last season, turning in another Buster-esque season with seven home runs and an .895 OPS.
Though the power has been nice, one of the more impressive aspects of Posey's game this season has been his plate discipline. In 144 plate appearances across 36 games, Posey has walked 19 times, versus just 15 strikeouts. While good discipline is nothing new for the Giants' catcher, he's on pace for 79 walks and 62 strikeouts, which would easily be a career-best.
The Giants won't necessarily need Posey to return to his MVP level of performance if they want to contend, given the breakout performances of Michael Morse and Brandon Hicks (assuming they continue their hitting), but they'll certainly need their catcher to avoid falling off again like he did in 2013. So far, so good.
Purely examining Sanchez's stats (.254/.277/.407) doesn't tell the whole tale. Though the plate discipline issues remain (two walks, 23 strikeouts), Sanchez has proved to be one of the better clutch hitters on the Giants' roster this season, Madison Bumgarner included.
In 21 at-bats with runners in scoring position, Sanchez has seven hits while knocking in 14 runs. But when it comes to bases-loaded situations, the Giants' backup catcher is at his best. In those situations, Sanchez is 3-for-3 with eight RBI and a grand slam on the season—it doesn't get much more reliable than that.
Just as importantly, though Sanchez hasn't exactly been Troy Tulowitzki this season, his competence at the plate has allowed Buster Posey to take a few days off behind the plate. He also started his first career game at first base on Monday night.
Though Sanchez's lack of discipline will likely prevent him from ever becoming more than a good backup, he's filling in admirably this season by coming up big when the Giants have needed him most.
When the season began, Belt appeared to be on track to finally produce the breakout season that everyone expected of him. By April 8, he'd already hit five home runs to go along with a 1.114 OPS.
Since that fast start, however, nothing seems to have gone right for Belt. The power has remained to a certain extent, but he's pressing at the plate, leading to an unusually terrible strikeout-to-walk rate of 38-to-8. Additionally, his batting average has slipped all the way to .264, and now he'll miss the next six weeks after undergoing surgery on his fractured thumb.
It's been a mix of a lot of good and a lot of bad for Belt, but he's shown more reason for promise than doubt.
Hicks' numbers don't appear great on paper, but anyone who's followed the Giants this season knows Hicks has been an indispensable member of the lineup.
It's almost as if Hicks' season was designed specifically for someone who wanted to argue the merits of advanced statistics. Though the Giants' second baseman is hitting just .204 on the season, his .781 OPS is well beyond what anyone could have expected from him and his OPS+ of 125 ranks a respectable sixth on the team, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Hicks also has an ISO (a measure of a hitter's raw power) of .255, according to FanGraphs, which is absolutely phenomenal. (For reference, Marco Scutaro's career OPS with the Giants is .770 and his ISO last year was .072, per FanGraphs.)
That doesn't even factor in Hicks' defensive ability, which has been top-notch so far. According to FanGraphs, only seven other second basemen have been better defensively this season than Hicks, who uses the strong arm he gained from his traditional position (shortstop) to turn a double play as well as anyone else in the league.
Though Hicks hasn't necessarily played at a "B+ level," whatever that means, he's far exceeding what was expected of him, which entailed filling a spot on the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies roster. To even be average is far beyond what was expected of Hicks heading into the season, and he's filled a role that badly needed filling.
Even though Crawford has slid back into some of his usual hitting habits, including a diminished batting average that's regressed more in line with his career average, he's still far exceeding the offensive output we've come to expect from him in the past.
For one, Crawford's OPS of .781 continues his trend of improving that statistic in every season of his career, and he's in the midst of the biggest leap yet with a total 107 points higher than last season's .674 OPS.
Crawford has also hit three home runs in May, including a two-homer game against the Braves on May 4, all while playing his usual Crawford-like defense at shortstop, which has included just two errors and plays like this.
Just about everything that could go wrong for Sandoval has gone wrong.
It's hard to decide where to begin. There's the .191/.262/.294 slash line, the 30-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the team-leading seven GIDPs and the eight RBI.
That puts Sandoval on track to drive in a paltry 33 runs this season. In any universe, that won't earn him the $100 million-plus contract he's demanding. The Panda has shown signs of life lately, with five hits and a pair of RBI in his last three games, though he'll need to string together several nice games before gaining the trust of Giants fans.
This season, Pagan has done all that's expected of a leadoff hitter, showing exactly what the Giants were missing when he went down for most of last season.
Pagan is on pace for 190 hits this season, and he's put together a .322 batting average to go along with eight steals. He might not hit in the .400s like he was doing at the beginning of the season, but as long as Pagan stays healthy, the Giants' outfielder will be in good shape.
Pence has relapsed a bit after a hot stretch a few weeks ago, and he hasn't homered since April 22. It's hard to imagine that Pence will continue to struggle, due to the consistency he's shown throughout his career, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been disappointing in the early going.
Morse is stuck in a 2-for-28 slump since his red-hot start to the season, and he's still struck out quite a bit more (33 Ks) than he's walked (eight times).
But for all those concerns and the poor fielding that's universally attributed to Morse, the man certainly makes up for it a bit with his penchant for hitting home runs, especially of the tape measure variety.
We haven't seen many of Morse's long home runs recently, but there's no doubting he's been worth the $5 million Brian Sabean dropped on him this offseason.
Unit Grade: B-
The Giants rotation has included the good (Tim Hudson), the not-so-good (Tim Lincecum) and everywhere in between. Madison Bumgarner has rebounded nicely after a slow start, settling in with a 2.83 ERA after eight starts.
The really interesting case is Matt Cain, who hasn't been good (0-3, 4.25) but also hasn't been so disastrous that he should cause too much worry. Home runs have once again plagued Cain (five HRs allowed in six starts), and if he can rectify that issue, he'll be back to normal.
The savior of the staff has been free-agent signee Tim Hudson, who has allowed more than two runs just once in his eight starts while lasting at least seven innings a total of seven times.
Hudson's secret is control, and he's walked just four batters this season. He'll need to remain spot-on if he wants to help the Giants make a playoff run.
Unit Grade: A+ (2.15 ERA, 15 saves, .210 batting average against, 12-3 record, 0.99 WHIP)
What more is there to say?
The Giants bullpen trails only the Padres in ERA, with a 2.15 mark on the season. The team's 15 saves also ranks second in the majors, trailing only the Brewers, which goes to show just how important the pen's success is given the abundance of tight games the team plays.
Of course, closer Sergio Romo has held down the fort at the end of games, saving all but one of his 14 opportunities. But who else has been responsible for the team's overall bullpen success?
Santiago Casilla has done his usual excellent work in the setup role, except he's been better than ever this season. In 22.1 innings spanning 18 games, Casilla has posted a 0.81 ERA with a 0.99 WHIP—allowing just two earned runs, both of which came in Giants victories.
But perhaps the real hero of the bullpen has been Jean Machi, who has picked up right where he left off from his breakout 2013 campaign by putting together a simply phenomenal start. Machi's statistics are a bit ludicrous—5-0 record, 0.49 ERA in 18.1 innings, 94.7 LOB% according to FanGraphs. Quite literally, it doesn't get much better than that.
Team statistics via ESPN.
Unit Grade: C
Gregor Blanco, Joaquin Arias and Ehire Adrianza have grabbed the bulk of the plate appearances of players on the Giants bench, along with Hector Sanchez (see "Catchers"). The first three are all hitting well below the Mendoza line, which brings up the issue of the Giants' lack of depth yet again.
It's hard to imagine the Giants sustaining their success this season if the backups can't get it done. Recently called-up outfielder Tyler Colvin is off to a hot start, including a splash hit on Monday, but he hasn't seen enough plate appearances to be judged just yet.
For now, the Giants have to seriously consider the possibility of bringing some prospects up to the big league club sooner rather than later. Arias and Adrianza are out of options, which means they would have to pass through waivers to be demoted to Triple-A, though it might be worth it if their lack of production doesn't improve any time soon.