San Francisco Giants: Why We Shouldn't Expect Regressions in 2011

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San Francisco Giants: Why We Shouldn't Expect Regressions in 2011
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Cody Ross and Pat Burrell

All offseason, a profusion of power rankings have dispersed to all corners of the web, making their preseason World Series predictions.

The author typically feels the need to mention the Giants but fails to provide much analysis. Many dismiss the Giants as serious contenders because they “caught lightning in a bottle” in 2010. The pitching staff suffered a huge increase in innings last year, and it seems unreasonable to expect some key offensive players, namely Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross and Pat Burrell, to repeat their 2010 production. Check out a great article Rory Paap wrote for The Hardball Times last month if you still think the Giants 2010 season was a fluke. 

The first argument is hard to prove either way. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci is a strong believer in regression for young arms exposed to a large inning increase the year before. He annually red flags several pitchers he believes are due for a rough year or an injury. You can read more about it here.

Others are of the opinion that coddling young starters by placing inning caps stunts their maturity and never allows them to maximize their endurance. That is to say that the act of yanking starters in the sixth inning makes them more likely to need to be pulled in the sixth inning in future games.

Abiding by that theory, as the Giants appear to do, a manager would be encouraged to keep his starters in as long as reasonably possible and not worry about age.

Either way, it’s hard to predict. We have lots of data for other, similar players, but it is difficult to know how each player might individually respond. Plus, only one Giant—Madison Bumgarner—is on Verducci’s list.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
What can we expect from Bumgarner in 2011?

This argument may contain some truth, but it is too flimsy right now to entirely derail the Giants 2011 championship hopes.

The second argument is as wrong as it is irrelevant. The three Giants I mentioned—Huff, Ross and Burrell—will not regress from last year’s production, and for the second two, whether they do or not has no bearing on the Giants’ playoff chances.

Let’s start with Huff. Last year, he put together a surprising resurgence, occupying the three hole for the majority of the year. His 2010 stats: 569 AB, .290/.385/.506 with 35 doubles, 26 homers and 86 RBI

Using ESPN’s database, I discovered that his average per 162 games is not incredibly different: 603 AB, .283/.345/.476 with 36 doubles, 25 homers and 92 RBI

Looking at these figures, I see eerily similar numbers for doubles, homers and RBI, with a consistent, yet slightly higher average. I would attribute the bump in slugging to the fact that he accomplished those similar statistics in fewer at-bats.

But that didn’t explain why Huff’s OBP inflated 40 points last year. Another stat, the strikeout-to-walk ratio, gives us some insight.

Though not a particularly precise statistic, the strikeout-to-walk ratio can be very useful in a cursory examination of a hitter. Low amounts of both mean a contact hitter, who gets most balls in play. Lots of walks indicate patience, while strikeouts aggressiveness.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Again, not precise. Plenty of hitters don’t fit the model I just described. But it’ll serve our purposes.

In a typical 162 game stretch in his career, Huff would strikeout 88 times and walk 56 times. Decent by most standards. In 2010 he struck out a predictable 91 times, but earned 83 bases on balls, an increase of nearly 50 percent from both his 162-game average and previous career-high. 

The easiest explanation is that because he was having a great year, pitchers began to pitch around him, resulting in more walks. But Huff hit around or above .300 each year from 2002-2004, never registering more than 56 free passes. It appears that Huff himself was doing something to induce more walks.

The likeliest conclusion in this case is that Huff developed a batting eye, very possibly as a result of his teammates. If you remember in 2009, the Giants as a team exercised less patience than a five-year-old on Christmas morning.

Chances are, the Giants’ batting philosophy in 2010 involved a heavy dose of discipline. While not intended for Huff, the ideas seem to have rubbed off on him.

Patience at the plate carries over from season to season. There’s no reason to expect Huff to revert to his old ways now that he has improved discipline at the dish.

An interesting tidbit: Huff’s walk total in 2010 is 27 greater than his seasonal average. Adding 27 to his 2010 at-bats total, 569, yields 596, only seven at-bats less than his 162-game average of 603.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
I don't know why he'd put that thing in his mouth

In fact, Huff registered 668 plate appearances, the second-highest total in his career and only one less than the arbitrary 162-game average.

It should only reaffirm our confidence in Huff that he maintained such high percentages while coming to the plate the second most in his career and most since 2003. 

Now to nitpick some stats. Due to the extra walks, Huff logged about 30 fewer at-bats than his 162-game average would suggest. Since he did not hit for a much greater average, my theory is that the 30 at-bats that Huff converted into walks were grounders earlier in his career—a ground ball still has a chance of sneaking through for a hit, so Huff’s batting average would not have spiked by hitting fewer of them. 

In fact, Huff’s GB/FB ratio was 0.79, below his average of 0.84, and second lowest in his career. That his HR/FB percentage was 11.5 percent, way above the MLB average of 7.9 percent, suggests that these extra fly balls were not lazy flies, but powerful drives.

More importantly, that 11.5 percent is nicely nestled below his career high of 13 percent and only the fifth-highest in his career suggests 2010 was not a fluke. 

Huff simply laid off balls he couldn’t drive. His strikeout total remained high, since he was still taking aggressive hacks, swinging for the fences. He succeeded in driving the same amount of pitches over the course of the year.

Harry How/Getty Images

He had the same amount of plate appearances as the 162-game average and did not change his swing. He just took more pitches and walked more, so the fewer official at-bats made his slugging percentage increase, while his actual production was right on par with his career numbers.

This season could be disastrous for the Giants if Huff does not produce. But a poor year from Huff would not be a regression—it would simply be a flop of a year, which could happen to anyone. Huff should not be singled out as a regression candidate.

The Huff in 2010 succeeded because he exercised a combination of patience and aggressiveness. There’s no reason he cannot repeat the .290/.380/.500 line again in 2011.

On to Cody Ross. Using similar metrics as I did with Huff, I found Ross’ career average for a 162 game span: 517 AB, .265/.323/.466 with 32 Doubles, 22 HR and 81 RBI.

While he only had a handful of at-bats, I’ll include Ross’ 2010 numbers while he was with the Giants: 73 AB, .288/.354/.466 with 3 doubles, 4 HR and 7 RBI.

If you consider the 73 at-bats as a roughly seventh of a 517 at-bat season, then Ross actually gave the Giants a realistic view of his ability. His doubles and homeruns would translate to 28 and 21 respectively, and his SLG is right on the money.

The sample size is too small to have any worthwhile information on why his batting average is up 30 points—I would assume the 30-point increase in OBP comes almost exclusively from the average bump. But even if the average drops to .265 again, I am not worried.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Last year, the Giants made the playoffs with this from their right fielders (Note that Ross had only 17 regular season at-bats in RF for the Giants in 2010, and so does not factor much into these figures): 615 AB, .246/.314/.393 with 38 doubles, 15 HR and 68 RBI

Ross, from his career numbers, appears capable of adding at least 20 points in batting, 40 in OBP and 70 in SLG to the abysmal production the Giants endured last season from the hapless platoon in right. Those are significant improvements and turn right field from a glaring weakness to a rock of stability. 

When people think Cody Ross, they think of the playoff heroics that propelled the Giants to their World Series title. Most fail to realize he had little to do with actually getting them to the postseason.

The Giants were playing mostly Jose Guillen in right and only named Ross their starting right fielder for the playoffs at the very end of the season.

So talk of regression is improperly placed—he only had 73 at-bats. He didn’t have enough of an impact for a regression to even enter the conversation.

It’s also absurd to say that he is not good enough to start every day in right, since he’s clearly a vast improvement over the players that got the Giants 92 wins and a playoff berth in 2010.

As Orel Hershiser, the former Dodgers pitcher, once said, “No matter how noble and special people want to make the playoffs out to be... it's a crapshoot.”

Harry How/Getty Images

As a result, you plan to make the playoffs, and hope for the best.

Maybe if the Giants make the postseason, Ross can't repeat his 2010 performance. Maybe somebody else steps up instead, or maybe no one steps up at all. But that doesn’t matter right now. The goal is just to make it to October. With Cody Ross, the Giants have a better chance than they did last year.

And finally, Pat “The Bat” Burrell. Pat the Bat, unlike Ross, did have a large impact on getting the Giants to the postseason. His line of .266/.364/.509 with 16 doubles and 18 HR in 289 at-bats supplied the Giants with a much-needed power source to place in the middle of the lineup.

He is the one player who somewhat outperformed his career numbers, which are: .254/.362/.475 in 557 at-bats, 30 doubles, 30 HR

While the jump may not appear significant—12 points in batting and 34 points in slugging—it is an improvement that does not appear to have any sustainable cause. His HR/FB rate and HR percentage however were 15.7 percent and 5.3 percent respectively, both the second-highest in his career and highest since 2002. Those are numbers that I doubt he will be able to repeat.

That said, other key statistics all appear to just be back to top form. BABIP and GB/FB ratio were right at his career norms, while Isolated Power was reminiscent of the 2002-2007 Burrell in Philadelphia.

Which Giant do you think will experience a drop in production in 2011?

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I suspect that all we will see from Burrell in terms of regression is several fewer HRs and a slight drop in average. But then consider who Burrell is really replacing. Even though Huff was the regular left fielder when Burrell arrived, by a chain reaction, Burrell was replacing either Travis Ishikawa at first base or Bengie Molina at catcher (Huff at first puts Buster Posey behind the plate).

Molina hit .257/.312/.332, with three HR and six doubles in 202 at-bats in his tenure in San Francisco. 

Ishikawa hit .266/.320/.392 with three HR and 11 doubles in 158 at-bats over the full year.

There’s a reason neither of them are on the team anymore.

If you still have doubts, then realize that between the Burrell, Huff and Ross, Burrell will likely have the fewest at-bats this season. With Belt now officially in the majors, we’ll see a lot of Huff in the outfield. Once Ross returns, Huff could easily find his permanent home in left if Burrell struggles.

Mark DeRosa will be wanting some at-bats off the bench every now and then, and Nate Schierholtz also figures into the equation.

There are plenty of contingency plans for left field if Burrell is unable to produce, but there is also little reason to expect Pat the Bat to drop the ball.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Sandoval is definitely in better shape. Will that be enough for a resurgence in 2011?

We’ve now looked at Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross and Pat Burrell in extensive detail, and found no serious causes for concern. The questions for the three should not be how far they may regress, but how improved the Giants are by a full season of their production.

The only legitimate question mark in my opinion is Andres Torres. I do not have enough information to feel comfortable judge him—in fact, I don’t think anyone could confidently predict his output given that last year was the only year he started more than 33 games in his career. The sample size is just too small. 

He could be a late bloomer (remember that he was a track star in high school and didn’t start playing baseball until he was 17), or a one-year wonder. There’s no way to tell, so any opinion is really just speculation and should be treated accordingly.

Critics could pull up other questions. For example: can you really expect Pablo Sandoval to bounce back? Will Posey have a sophomore slump?

Those questions answer each other. It seems irresponsible to expect Posey to regress in his second season while not considering Sandoval’s second year struggles the very same “sophomore slump” phenomenon.

You can’t play both sides of the argument. Either it exists, and Sandoval will grow out of his adjustment period while Posey enters it, or it doesn’t exist, and the two will have similar numbers as last year.

Either way, no serious problem for the Giants.

There should be no more talk of regression. This year, the Giants have one of the strongest all around teams that they’ve ever had and should be considered serious contenders for a repeat performance.

Here’s to a great 2011.

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