MLB 2011: Can San Francisco Giants Repeat or Was 2010 Just a Perfect Season?
When the San Francisco Giants won the 2010 World Series and were crowned kings of Major League Baseball, their fans were too ecstatic to pay much attention to what the outside world was saying. We were too busy enjoying the franchise's first title in over 50 years and The City's first ever of the baseball variety.
Eventually, however, the smiles and confetti subsided—that's when initial reports began trickling through that all was not right outside the Bay Area.
While we were reveling in our band of baseball brothers, drenched in the euphoria produced by a combination of spectacular pitching, solid defense and timely hitting, it seems the rest of the country had settled on a more nefarious explanation.
Much of the baseball-watching populace decided that the Gents had gotten lucky.
The argument seems to have its origins with a certain four-letter network and radiated out from there until "band of castoffs and misfits" seems to have become code for "Cash Warren lucky."
Well, the 2011 MLB season is out of the gates and that means the clock is officially ticking on San Francisco's improbable reign as world champs...according to popular opinion.
But what if those voices that are dismissing SF in '11—many of them echoing eerily similar dismissals from '10—are wrong again? What if this apparently pathological need to overlook the impact of an elite pitching staff is really behind the "they got hot" refrain?
An objective assessment of the club certainly leaves that possibility wide open.
The Obvious—San Francisco DID Get Lucky, but Not Crazy Lucky
Skeptics use a few points in the Giants' postseason run to "prove" how fortune they were. The most common are the errors made by Brooks Conrad in the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves and/or the bomb hit by Ian Kinsler that spun back into the park after hitting the top of the center field wall in Game 2 of the World Series against the Texas Rangers.
That's all rubbish—those are typical breaks of which EVERY championship club gets the benefit.
The real four-leaf clover action was at work on the injury front.
Although San Francisco saw its share of bumps and bruises, the team didn't suffer the absence of any critical pieces for prolonged stretches. The worst blow was probably losing Andres Torres to his emergency appendectomy for a couple weeks in mid-September (or Mark DeRosa for the year).
That stung, but it was a mild bug bite considering the shark-sized holes taken out of most squads in the Show.
And while los Gigantes can't rely on the Oakland Athletics throwing themselves in front of the injury express at every chance like they did in 2010, the G-Men still should be able to weather any typical storm on that front.
They still don't have too many irreplaceable pieces unless one of the arms in the rotation comes up lame.
Buster Posey is quickly becoming such an offensive cornerstone and surviving without someone like Torres, Aubrey Huff or Freddy Sanchez for months would be a grind, but it would still take a serious rash of bugaboos to derail the club (read: more serious than the minor holes created by tweaks to Cody Ross and Brian Wilson).
Additionally, SF will be working with important players like Posey (started '10 in the minors), Sanchez (missed about 40 games in the early going), Torres (started '10 in a platoon) and rookie Brandon Belt from Day 1.
The aforementioned DeRosa looks like a new man as well, so his versatility should help create a nice buffer should the inevitable health issues strike.
Brandon Belt Might Not Be Buster Posey 2.0, but Then Again...
It would be cruelly unfair to expect anyone to reproduce the Rookie of the Year campaign Gereld Demp the Third cobbled together in 2010. The young backstop didn't reach the bigs until June (OK, May 29th), was asked to handle a brutally difficult position without hamstringing the foundation of the team (pitching) and still managed to be the clear choice for the hardware.
All at the age of 23.
So, yeah, the kid is special.
But don't count this new virtuoso out, not given the way Brandon Belt (who doesn't turn 23 until the end of the month) has started.
As Eric Karros revealed during Saturday's telecast on FOX, the first baseman of the present saw 27 pitches in his first major-league game despite (A) starting against San Francisco's bloodrival, the Los Angeles Dodgers; (B) facing southpaw Clayton Kershaw, one of the nastiest pitchers in all of baseball (Belt is also a lefty); (C) dealing with horrendous shadows thanks to the ESPN-friendly start time of 5 p.m. PT; and (D) doing it all under the electron microscope that accompanies every defending champ.
Twenty seven pitches in only four plate appearances—that's a cool 6.76 bullets per trip to the dish.
Through three games, Belt is averaging over five pitches per plate appearance. That number bodes very well.
As does the three-run jimmy jack he launched to deep center off Chad Billingsley on Friday.
In other words, this newbie is special as well. It's way too early to make any extrapolations to ROY or any such accolade. But I think it's already safe to say Belt will be a substantial shot in the offensive arm for the Gents.
The Ongoing Evolution of the Giant Offense
That shot above is something you won't see very often—Freddy Sanchez strolling back to the dugout after striking out.
Although Freddy ain't gonna contribute too much in the power department, he more than makes up for it by rarely being an easy out and usually putting the ball in play. For his 10-year career, he's averaged about 3.56 pitches per plate appearance (the major-league average is 3.77 per Baseball Reference).
So what's the big deal about seeing less pitches per plate appearance than the average big leaguer?
I'll tell you—any Giant fan that watched the club as recently as 2009 has to marvel at the transformation from that crew to this one.
Gone are guys like Bengie Molina and Juan Uribe, free-swingers who saw about as many pitches per plate appearance as Sanchez, despite demanding considerably more respect inside the strike zone; i.e. a mistake might be deposited it over the fence as opposed to over the shortstop's head, so hurlers would inherently spend more time on the edges of the plate.
Instead of those shoelace to shirt-collar approaches at the plate, these Gigantes feature a plethora of Freddy Sanchez-types.
Pat Burrell has averaged 4.18 pitches per plate appearance over the course of 12 seasons. Andres Torres saw 4.07 pitches per in 2010, Cody Ross saw 3.94, Buster Posey saw 3.86, Aubrey Huff saw 3.82 and we've already covered Brandon Belt. Even the new guy, Miguel Tejada, has averaged 3.63 pitches per plate appearance which is a minor miracle for a Dominican-born hitter (those dudes don't even know take signs exist until hitting the Show).
The last bastion of the grip-it-and-rip-it-strike-zone-be-damned mentality is Pablo Sandoval and even he is trying to make strides toward a more disciplined approach.
All those pitches add up and the patience can squeeze hittable pitches from even the best arms.
Unless you think all that timely postseason hitting was mere coincidence...
More Help for the Offense—The New Additions
A couple of the key acquisitions (or promotions) have been mentioned already.
Brandon Belt represents a potentially large upgrade over Pat Burrell, who will presumably move to the bench when Cody Ross returns to the lineup (if Belt keeps performing, of course). Pat the Bat still has his moments and gives you a professional AB almost every time, but he's past his prime as an everyday contributor.
Likewise, Miguel Tejada joins the Orange and Black as an upgrade at shortstop—most definitely if you compare him to Edgar Rentaria and probably even if you choose Juan Uribe as the relevant juxtaposition (Miggy's at least more consistent than Boo-ribe).
And you can include Ross in that group, too.
Ross was a revelation during the 2010 jaunt through the postseason, but he probably won't be juicing balls out of the stadium with the same frequency. However, the 30-year-old dynamo does figure to be a bigger contributor than the patchwork of Travis Ishikawa, Nate Schierholtz and spare change used to plug his hole in the lineup during the bulk of last season.
Of course, the most important "new" asset might just end up being utility man, Mark DeRosa.
The 36-year-old was an utter washout during '10—a wrist injury reduced him to a hollow shell of his former self before finally shutting him down for the remainder in early May. As previously mentioned, it looks like the second surgery DeRosa had to clean up his wrist was a total success where the first was a total failure. He had a stellar spring and banged out two hits (including a double) in his first start of the season on Saturday.
Toss in a (hopefully) resurgent Kung Fu Panda and you've got an offense that WILL be better.
The only question is one of magnitude.
The Pitching Staff Can Be Even Better
There's a reason Brian Wilson, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are sharing the spotlight with the Commissioner's Trophy—without those three, the fourth and inanimate member of the quartet doesn't make its first trip to The City.
More importantly, they are emblematic of the unit that did the heavy lifting during the regular season and throughout the playoffs: the pitching staff.
Many outside the Bay Area will scoff at the notion of the staff being even better than it was in 2010, but that's only because they haven't been paying close attention until very recently. Those of us who've seen these studs develop over the last several years know that, not only could they improve upon a superlative campaign, but also that precedent is in their favor.
Sounds crazy, right?
Except that Matt Cain has gotten filthier by basically every metric in every season since making his debut in 2005, and at 26 is still in a window that sees growth. It's also worth noting that he dominated the Bums (who were coming off back-to-back wins over SF) on Saturday, a team with which he has historically struggled.
The same can be said about Jonathan Sanchez to a lesser degree although his improvement started in 2008 and he's slightly older at 28.
Madison Bumgarner only has one season in the bigs, but does anyone sincerely believe the 21-year-old has already peaked? Yeah, me neither.
Then there's Tim Lincecum—the Freak had a down year in '10 after back-to-back Cy Young Awards, but still finished 10th in the voting. Big Time Timmy Jim doesn't turn 27 until June so he's also in that window of ongoing maturation.
I'm guessing Lincecum will be back at the fore of the Cy Young discussion in 2011.
Barry Zito will likely continue to be Barry Zito, but that still means 80 percent of the starting rotation is a fair bet to get stronger.
And the bullpen?
Well, I won't pretend there's much rhyme or reason to any fireman from season to season, but at least there's no ostensible reason to believe the crackerjack bunch from last year will be a problem.
I'm not dumb enough to predict a repeat for the San Francisco Giants.
Wining consecutive championships is extremely difficult in any sport; it's damn near impossible in Major League Baseball. Especially if you're not one of the two real-life Monty Brewsters on the East Coast, spending money like it's on fire.
It's not hyperbole or over-dramatic to say teams key it up a gear or five when the defending champs come to town, especially if said champs are daring to contend again. So only time will tell as to whether the Gents can take another trip down Market Street in 2011.
But anyone who watched them closely in 2010 knows the stupidity of those who are ignoring the fellas, as if '10 happened by some kind of unrepeatable baseball magic. All those same pieces are back in place and they've brought friends. Furthermore, a successful experience in the Fall Classic rarely works to a ballplayer's detriment.
So can the San Francisco Giants defend their World Series Championship?
Three down, 159 to go.