SF Giants: 5 Under-the-Radar Explanations for Giants' Fall (Updated)

Barry ShillerContributor IIISeptember 20, 2011

SF Giants: 5 Under-the-Radar Explanations for Giants' Fall (Updated)

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    With its youthful, brilliant pitching staff under contractual control, most analysts rubber-stamped the San Francisco Giants as a legitimate threat to defend their 2010 World Series title.

    Some World Series winners implode; the 1997 and 2003 Florida Marlins rosters were gutted by management to conserve cash.

    Other champions perennially contend; the Phillies are gunning this fall for a third WS appearance in four years.

    Friday's loss in Phoenix eliminated the Giants last-gasp hopes of repeating as NL West champs. Their flickering wild-card hopes will die with one more Atlanta win or SF loss. 

    A host of uncertainties—including the possible effects of organizational leadership turmoil on team operations—will linger into 2012. 

    Beyond the obvious—devastating injuries, a chronic run shortage and gaping holes at several positions (leadoff, shortstop, center field)—several simmering issues plagued this team.

    Here are five (one of which, the Beltran Factor, is updated). 

The Hangover Effect

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    Is there such a thing as organizational "hangover"?

    New York Yankees blogger Mike Axisa speculated in March that pitching staffs taxed by extra postseason innings and stress are vulnerable the year following a deep playoff run.

    That wasn't an issue for San Francisco. The Giants' 2011 staff ERA of 3.08 is markedly under the major-league-best 3.36 posted during last year's title run.

    Gary Armida, Executive Editor of FullCountPitch Media, had a slightly more accurate take on the 2011 Giants; he warned in March that age at certain positions and questionable offseason acquisitions called into question the club's offensive potential.

    Add what at times seemed like endless ceremonies commemorating 2010 and the possible invasive effects of Showtime's The Franchise production crews and you've got a recipe for a season-long hangover.

Brian Wilson

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    For Giants closer Brian Wilson, 2010 was golden. Literally, golden. 

    His brilliant regular season (48 saves, 1.81 ERA, 90.6 percent of save opportunities converted) and postseason catapulted Wilson beyond merely mortal star reliever into weirdly ascendant character.

    Brian Wilson, playing Brian Wilson.

    He entered 2011 on a roll, and the saves—seemingly—piled up. Nothing fazed Wilson or his loyal followers, even after a few truly awful early season appearances made his ERA look like an area code.

    While his character thrived, Wilson's mound work deteriorated sufficiently to have a detrimental effect on the team. 

    His numbers tell the whole truth.

    In 2010 Wilson led all major league closers with 48 saves and ranked among the top five in all significant measures of effectiveness. This year, Wilson's save count (35) prior to his mid-August elbow injury obscured material declines in other performance measures. 

    His ERA (3.13 vs. 1.81) and WHIP (1.46 vs. 1.18) rose significantly, his success rate at converting save opportunities declined a little (87.5 percent vs. 90.6), while his strikeout-to-walk ratio dropped by half (to 1.7 from 3.6).

    Wilson had also accumulated as many blown saves (five) through mid-August as he did in all of 2010, and more decisions (6-4, vs. 3-3). 

    The Giants closer isn't singularly accountable for the Giants' problems in 2011, but he bears his share of the blame.  

Problems at the Top

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    The San Francisco Chronicle's Bruce Jenkins provides an unvarnished glimpse of the power struggle among Giants investors that prompted managing partner Bill Newkom's exit at year's end.

    He'll be replaced by long-time team executive Larry Baer.

    The future is worth worrying about, but it's difficult to assess the direct impact of front-office dysfunction on the Giants' 2011 decline. But before dismissing this as a bunch of infighting among very rich suits, let's not forget two things.

    One: The Giants' investor group owes a sizable debt load on AT&T Park.

    Two: That debt, like all expenses, is paid by the same funds that pay players' salaries, among many other things.      

    With a 2011 payroll approaching $118 million—$22 million higher than 2010—the investor group probably expected more than it was getting.

    Might they have put the brakes on any of Brian Sabean's midseason trade plans? You'd think not, based on Sabean's insistence that Carlos Beltran was his primary and, perhaps, lone target.

    But when that comes from the same organization that insists Newkom's departure is entirely voluntary, how can you know for sure? 

Problems in the Clubhouse (the Beltran Factor)

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    Wow. For an elite pitching prospect and a couple million bucks, the Giants got Carlos Beltran—run-producer, clubhouse-wrecker and personnel adviser. 

    The former Met, for whom Sabean sacrificed prized pitching prospect Zack Wheeler, did little for his new club before going on the shelf in early August with a hand injury.

    By the time he returned, the Giants had lost their NL West lead—as well as the clubhouse harmony integral to their 2010 championship run.

    Beltran has repeatedly signaled that what matters most is what's best for Carlos, not the Giants. 

    Perhaps the fact that Beltran took over his team's best defensive outfielder's position then grabbed a spot on the disabled list within two weeks was more significant than anyone realized at the time. 

    It's probably unfair to lay all of the blame for this at Beltran's feet, but it's impossible to discount the confluence of his arrival with Aaron Rowand's mopey-dopey routine, Miguel Tejada's hissy-fit and the Giants' August unraveling. 

    And, perhaps a club already inhabited by a few unhappy veterans and insecure rookies wasn't capable of absorbing the effects of a $20 million import taking over the clubhouse (and the manager's jersey number).

    Beltran's stats in 39 games as a Giant (.323 BA, 6 HR, 17 RBI) looked great. But like a notorious beer marketing campaign, they were neither filling nor satisfying. 

Defense

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    Unlike front-office politics and clubhouse psyches, it's easier to see the insidious effects of shoddy defense.

    The 2010 world champs committed 73 errors—second-fewest in the National League and third-fewest in the majors. Their catchers allowed just six passed balls, and opponents scored just 37 unearned runs.

    With nine games remaining in 2011, the Giants have already committed 102 errors, ranking them 10th in the NL and 18th in baseball.

    Their catchers have allowed 13 passed balls. Opponents have scored 56 unearned runs—19 more than a year ago—even as Giants pitchers have allowed 50 fewer runs overall.

    Those 19 additional unearned runs have been especially damaging to a club that has scored 156 fewer runs—a full run per game—than it did in 2010.

    The 2011 Giants' defensive shortcomings have been painfully evident at shortstop and catcher, arguably the most essential defensive positions on the diamond.      

    Those positions alone account for 39 errors (25 by shortstops, 14 by catchers) in 2011, compared to 24 (14 by shortstops, 10 by catchers) during the 2010 title season.

    That, unfortunately, has been enough bobbles and errant throws to cost the defending champs a few games—a few too many, perhaps.