The San Francisco Giants 2009 season ended in a bittersweet way. Short-term Giants fans may look at the year in the negative, citing another absence from the playoffs and a fizzling offense that lost key games down the stretch.
However, long-term fans would see the progress this team made in comparison to last year. No, Tim Lincecum didn’t win back-to-back Cy Young awards, and we didn’t have two All-Star representatives. But this team, the same team that finished 20 games under .500 in 2007 and 18 under in 2008, won 88 games this year, finishing 14 games OVER .500.
If you look at the season as being a direct comparison to 2008, San Francisco in 2009 was a much better team. They raised their runs per game (3.95 to 4.06) and lowered their ERA (4.38 to 3.55). Their pitching dominated the rest of the league, throwing 11 complete games and an impressive league-best 18 shutouts.
After the 2008 season, the Giants had a short, but loaded off-season checklist for 2009. Their needs were few, but the implications of each were exponential, and were in no way easy to attain.
First off, San Francisco needed to stay in games. With a young pitching staff, Lincecum and Cain could not pitch a complete game every time, and 2008 bullpen arms like Jack Taschner and Tyler Walker were not holding it down like they could have.
Brian Sabean went out and made one of the most underrated transactions of the off-season, signing Jeremy Affeldt for two years in the first days of free agency. He dumped Taschner and Walker, took a chance on some veterans in Justin Miller and Brandon Medders, and also signed Bobby Howry.
The Giants relievers ERA was second-lowest in the majors behind the Dodgers (3.49 to 3.14), but had the third least innings pitched compared to the third most for Los Angeles. They had a over-.500 win-loss record, going 25-21 as opposed to their 25-28 mark last year.
Affeldt had an ERA of 1.73 this year, including a streak of 27 scoreless innings. Closer Brian Wilson lowered his ERA almost two whole points, from 4.62 to 2.73, which is more than a slight improvement.
More importantly, San Francisco had stability in the back of the bullpen. There was no question about the bridge from the stellar starting rotation to the All-Star closer. Miller and Medders were a pair of non-roster invitees that ended up with ERA's under 3.20.
The second order of business was to improve the offense.
Sabean and Neukom stressed the fact that the way to build was from the inside. Pablo Sandoval provided a spark at the end of 2008, but they acknowledged that Bengie Molina was not their ideal cleanup hitter, and the rest of the lineup needed to improve around those two offensive threats.
There were many offensive highlights throughout the season, including Aaron Rowand’s stint in the leadoff spot, Molina’s first 20 home-run season, and the offensive force that was Juan Uribe in the last three months of the season.
But the obvious bright spot was Pablo Sandoval, who led the team in almost every offensive category. The list has him leading the Giants in runs, hits, doubles, HRs, RBIs, total bases, walks, average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.
He was among the top five in the league in average for a good portion of the season, and in his first full year, emerged as the offensive force of the future for San Francisco.
Lastly, the Giants needed to prove that they could compile a pitching rotation that had no holes. Last year’s combination of Kevin Correia, Brad Hennessey, Pat Misch, and Matt Palmer combined for a 4-15 record, with only three wins as a starter between them, all belonging to Correia.
This year, San Francisco was confident in Jonathan Sanchez, who stepped it up mightily after he threw his no-hitter in early July. When Randy Johnson went down with the injury, the combination of Joe Martinez and Ryan Sadowski wasn’t terrible, going 5-6 and showing promise for both of their futures.
The late-season addition of Brad Penny was also a boon, and Penny made an immediate impact going 4-1 with a 2.59 ERA after a sub-par half-season in Boston. The fact that the rotation was solid up and down was paramount to putting together a winning team, one that closed up as many gaps as possible.
In the process of rebuilding a team, one must first take care of tangible needs before the team can be expected to launch itself back into contention. These goals, though outlined in vague, big-picture terms, were either fully or at least partially realized for the Giants this year.
The pitching has now established itself as one of the strongest rotations in baseball from top to bottom. The offense showed promise throughout the year before fading down the stretch. San Francisco showed itself to be a team that was gritty, that fought hard, and a team that didn’t give up many games as they had before.
Remember, Bill Nuekom and the rest of the baseball world expected this team to be a .500 team, which was marginally better than last year. They came out swinging, jumping out to borderline playoff contention and finishing the season 14 games above .500.
These Giants are not last year’s Giants, and they won’t need much to become the expected 2010 Giants either. There are still pieces missing, but 2009 proved that they are definitely not as big as we all thought.
Fans: no, San Francisco didn’t make the playoffs. But yes, the Giants should be better than this year. And the only thing better than this year is a playoff team.
2010 is coming. We’re in this.