The 2011 regular season has held quite the story for the San Francisco Giants as they look to repeat as world champions.
While half of the team’s offense has hit the disabled list and the other half is still suffering from a “postseason hangover,” the Giants have managed to scratch and claw their way into first place in the NL West behind superb pitching and close-game heroics.
Some may call the Giants’ three-game lead in the West lucky, while some may simply call it good baseball, but the Giants still have work to do as the season nears its halfway point.
Here’s a look at how the Giants can maintain their NL West lead and return to the postseason for a shot at October glory.
Just like last season, the focal point of the Giants’ success has been their exceptional pitching staff. Paced by co-aces Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain in the rotation and All-Star Brian Wilson in the bullpen, Giants pitchers have been keeping games within reach all season, as nearly 60 percent (49 out of 84) have been decided by just two runs or fewer.
For the Giants to continue their winning ways in the second half, the staff will need to continue leading this light-hitting squad. The starters have been terrific, posting the second highest Quality Start Percentage (number of starts with at least six innings pitched and no more than three earned runs allowed) in the majors at 64 percent.
Meanwhile, the bullpen has been just as impressive, as the team's five go-to relievers all have sub-3.20 ERAs, and all but one have strikeout rates above 7.5.
While the Giants offense has been inconsistent all season, they happen to have one of the highest clutch factors in the game, as demonstrated by their flair for late-game drama.
So long as the pitching staff keeps the game in reach, the offense has come around. From the Giants' perspective, a well-pitched game is a winnable game.
In an MLB season laden with injuries, the Giants have certainly had their fair share. In addition to losing Buster Posey for the duration of the season, the Giants have seen five members of their Opening Day lineup hit the DL at one point or another along with multiple key veteran backups.
While San Francisco’s depth has filled the void and surpassed expectations, the real story will be what happens when the starters return.
Pablo Sandoval, who suffered a wrist injury that sent him to the DL just a month into the 2011 season, has since returned strong, hitting safely in 17 of his last 18 games, providing some consistency out of the three spot in the lineup.
Highly regarded rookie Brandon Belt should be the next to return and could make an even bigger difference as the Giants look to maintain their NL West lead.
Belt, who rode his bat to the majors, will be looked to regain his role as the team’s everyday first baseman and a middle-of-the-lineup force. He’s shown flashes of being able to produce at the MLB level but has yet to prove that he truly belongs. He will have the chance to when he returns.
Other Giants expected to return in the next couple months are Mike Fontenot, who could spell the end for Miguel Tejada, and Jonathan Sanchez, who arguably has the best pure stuff in the Giants rotation when he’s on. Meanwhile, infielders Freddy Sanchez and Mark DeRosa are still fighting to return before the season ends.
While the Giants have continued to find ways to win, the same can’t be said about the rest of the NL West. Coming into the season, it looked to be a tight race between the Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies.
Instead, the Dodgers have sunk out of contention alongside the San Diego Padres, the Rockies have underperformed to the middle of the pack and the Arizona Diamondbacks have put together one of the most surprising seasons in the majors, sitting just three games out of first. The NL West has certainly not been what we expected.
While the Giants have been hit by a run of bad luck this season, none of the NL West contenders have taken advantage of the situation.
The Diamondbacks will almost certainly regress, as they have over-performed their roster’s talent level, but unless the Rockies jump a hot streak (they have the firepower to), the Giants could very well continue on their way and take the division with 90 wins.
As the Giants continue to run out lineups featuring borderline major leaguers Manny Burriss, Brandon Crawford and Chris Stewart, the pressure to orchestrate runs has fallen heavily on manager Bruce Bochy.
While at times some may argue that he over-manages the game, Bochy has done a fantastic job getting the Giants to 48 wins despite the lack of offensive star power.
As KNBR announcer Duane Kuiper calls it, the Giants’ “scratch and claw” offense is a direct result of Bochy’s 2011 philosophy.
He effectively utilizes the hit and run, subs and double switches at any moment in the game and successfully rides his hot hitters and pitchers until he sees signs of cooling.
He has made some questionable moves that have not paid off, but for the most part his risk-taking has bettered the Giants' chances of winning.
The Giants are not the youngest team, nor do they have the best minor league system (for the record, FanGraphs had their future talent ranked as 20th in the bigs).
I hate to say this, but this might be as good as it gets, especially with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain’s contract clocks ticking. The Giants need to really consider going for another World Series now.
At 20 years old, Zack Wheeler is one of the top pitching prospects in the low minors. As seen in multiple examples over the past couple years, the Giants are capable of developing talented starters.
The San Francisco rotation is stacked right now, and while Wheeler could be a great addition five years down the line, the Giants could very well draft another talented college pitcher in that time period.
Wheeler is dominating high-A ball right now and could very well finish the year in Double-A Richmond. As we’ve seen with other prospects, his trade value will only decrease if he gets stuck at a level either due to poor performance or a logjam ahead of him.
While he is regarded as a top prospect, Wheeler makes for a significant trading chip that could land the Giants an important piece for the stretch run. While he wouldn’t be the only piece, Wheeler could be a negotiating chip in a deal for Mets star Jose Reyes.
Minor leaguers Charlie Culberson (2B), Conor Gillaspie (3B), Thomas Neal (OF) and Brett Pill (1B) all have proven track records and could be the spark the Giants need down the stretch as well.