The notion that the San Francisco Giants are the best team in baseball has long since passed, and now Bruce Bochy’s team, the one that once had a firm grasp on the NL West just weeks ago, is losing steam quickly.
The Giants’ 2-8 homestand, capped off by a 7-2 defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals in the series finale on Thursday, has given them a stretch of 17 losses in 22 games, with Bochy’s squad seemingly finding new ways to lose as the slump drags on.
Whether it’s blowing late-inning leads (as the Giants did in three straight games against the Rockies in mid-June) or simply getting blown out, as they did this homestand (42-19 aggregate score), it’s time for the Giants to make some changes.
Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle's Henry Schulman following the Giants' loss on Thursday, Bochy said:
There's a time to say, 'Enough is enough.' That's where we're at. ... Part of it is getting mad at what's happened here and doing something about it. We've just to got do that. You've got to do it yourself, including myself, everybody. That's the best approach.
We’ve learned several important details during the Giants' recent slide, most importantly that the team's recent call-ups, infielders Joe Panik and Adam Duvall, aren’t ready for the majors, as general manager Brian Sabean acknowledged. Though they each put up flashy numbers at Triple-A, Panik and Duvall have posted OPS totals of .523 and .556, respectively, with poor defense to boot.
We’ve also learned that the Giants bullpen isn’t quite as invincible as it was pre-slump and before closer Sergio Romo imploded, though the pen has still been one of the best in baseball by just about any measure, ranking fourth in ERA and tied for seventh in saves.
Still, there’s no doubt the Giants relievers are feeling the strain of a struggling rotation, with much of the problems coming from Romo (5.01 ERA, five blown saves).
But what do the Giants need? It’s one thing to diagnose all the issues, but it’s a whole other thing to actually correct those problems.
First on the list of essentials is a reliable leadoff hitter, something the lineup has lacked since Angel Pagan went down with an injury. Bochy is finally attempting to rectify that issue by inserting Hunter Pence into the leadoff spot on Thursday to replace the struggling Gregor Blanco, and it’s a move that makes plenty of sense.
In addition to leading the team with a .356 OBP, Pence currently sits fourth in the majors in runs scored (two runs behind second-place Paul Goldschmidt) and is likely the best bet to light a spark at the top of the lineup.
That’s certainly a move in the right direction, and it might pay off in more ways than one. Aside from putting the Giants’ best on-base man at the top of the order, the switch also relieves a bit of the pressure on Blanco. He showed as much on Thursday against the Cardinals, registering a pair of hits (including a double) and a run scored, the first time he scored or drove in a run since June 24.
Receiving production from Blanco is crucial, regardless of where he hits, because the production from the bottom of the lineup has been just as lacking as that from the top. Tyler Colvin, though occasionally productive, is carrying a .281 OBP. Brandon Hicks is coming off a .446 OPS in June, which is five points higher than Troy Tulowitzki’s on-base percentage this season.
But the main culprit has been Hector Sanchez. The Giants' backup catcher is capable defensively, as evidenced by his ability to call Tim Lincecum’s no-hitter, but even that shouldn’t make up for his hitting performance this season.
A potential solution could be giving prospect Andrew Susac a shot in the majors, though that’s an unlikely move given the recent struggles of Panik and Duvall. But Susac is an extremely developed defensive catcher (he’s made one error this season), with some scouts citing his ability to handle big league pitching.
Promoting Susac clearly isn’t ideal, but Sanchez’s struggles are becoming too extreme to justify giving him so many at-bats. With the catcher's .237 OBP, Bochy would be better off trying his luck with pitcher Madison Bumgarner and his .275 OBP. At the very least, it’s hard to imagine Susac posting less productive numbers than Sanchez, especially with his .261/.369/.436 totals at Triple-A.
But we’ve already found that prematurely promoting prospects isn’t the solution for the Giants. Rather, the best way to solve an issue like lack of production at the bottom of the lineup is to play to the situation. That means taking advantage of favorable matchups (and avoiding unfavorable ones) by using platoons when possible.
For example, Hicks has just a .247 OBP against right-handed pitching, but that number climbs to .357 against lefties. And yet, he has 134 at-bats against right-handers and just 65 against left-handers.
By giving Hicks chances against righties, Bochy is almost conceding an out at this point, and he’d be much better off playing Hicks almost exclusively against lefties until the second baseman can break out of his slump. (Hitting against left-handers might be the perfect remedy, actually.)
Similarly, Colvin is a .274 hitter at AT&T Park, but he hits just .167 on the road. Bochy clearly recognizes this, as he’s given Colvin more than twice as many plate appearances at home, but there’s simply no excuse for giving Colvin plate appearances on the road at all if he can’t put up numbers.
But with all the offensive struggles, blame also falls somewhat on the ailing pitching rotation, which isn’t quite living up to the standards it set at the beginning of the season.
On paper, the Giants' starters have been excellent. Tim Hudson is a potential All-Star at age 38, Bumgarner ranks in the top 20 in WAR among all big league starters, Lincecum is in the midst of a 17-inning scoreless streak and Ryan Vogelsong has shaved nearly two runs off his ERA from last season.
But in terms of recent performance, the rotation falls short. Vogelsong is coming off a 5.08 ERA in June, and Bumgarner has allowed nine runs in his last 11 innings, with one quality start since June 10.
Then there’s Matt Cain. Once a model of consistency, Cain has been consistently bad this season, and he has struggled the most in the rotation despite owning a $127 million contract that demands him to be the best in the rotation.
How can the Giants solve this problem? Well, maybe they don’t need to. Or rather, maybe the best solution is to simply let their pitchers work through it.
Already the effects are starting to become apparent. Cain tossed seven shutout innings in his last start. Vogelsong has allowed three runs in his last 13 innings, a span of two quality starts. Hudson, though disappointing in the latter half of June, pitched eight dominant innings in his most recent outing.
The rotation as a whole is trending positively right now, and it’s the least of the Giants’ worries currently.
Let’s also not forget that San Francisco is missing two key hitters: Pagan and Brandon Belt. The team’s lack of depth might be rearing its ugly head in their absence, but with Belt returning Friday and Pagan unlikely to miss a serious amount of time, the offensive woes could be coming to an end in time.
Even with all the lineup and roster tinkering that is a necessary by-product of an extended losing streak, Bochy has remained calm, according to the San Jose Mercury News' Alex Pavlovic.
"We have a lot of baseball left, we have time to get this right," Bochy said on Thursday, rejecting any possibility of significant roster changes. "But now it's up to all of us to try and get out of this thing and just believe it's going to turn. This is our group."