Beating the Phillies in the 2010 NLCS
Though the magic of the San Francisco Giants' amazing 2010 championship season still lingers in Giants fans' fading memories, the disappointing 2011 campaign has already been entirely forgotten. For Giants fans and fans of all but one major league club, the old Brooklyn Dodger rallying cry—"Wait til next year!"—helps to ward off the defeated chill of a bitter winter, promising hope for better days.
For the San Francisco Giants, there is reason for optimism. The nucleus of the 2010 championship team—its incomparable pitching staff—remains largely intact.
Nevertheless, as the 2011 season demonstrated, even superb pitching cannot prevail without at least modest run production. The Giants' anemic 2010 run total—only 570 runs, less than every team in baseball except the Seattle Mariners—leaves all too much to be modest about.
The challenge for the Giants in 2012 will be to improve run production, if not to the level of the Cardinals, Mets or Brewers, then at least enough to exceed the team's 3.20 2011 ERA. In the slides that follow, we identify five keys for reaching that goal and making the play-offs in 2012.
After the 2009 season, many Giant fans shook their heads as Giant GM Brian Sabean signed Aubrey Huff, whom both the Orioles and the Tigers gave up on after inconsistent performances throughout the 2007-2009 seasons.
Sabean's faith was rewarded by a remarkable 2010 season in which Huff hit .290 with 26 home runs, 86 RBI and a .506 slugging percentage, at times carrying the Giants offensively.
Unfortunately—and it was certainly not for lack of effort—2011 saw Huff's numbers fall precipitously. He hit only .246, with 12 home runs, 59 RBI and a pathetic slugging percentage of .370.
If the Giants are to make the playoffs in 2012, they need Huff to hit near his career-average level, which would translate to 21.5 home runs, 80 RBI and a slugging percentage of .466. Failing that, Huff needs to be replaced by Brandon Belt, who will hopefully achieve more consistent success in 2012.
How can Huff return to form? In an excellent piece on baseballanalytics.org, David Pinto noted that in 2011 Huff swung—and missed—at many more low sliders than he did during his successful 2010 season. Huff is still an excellent hitter of balls that are up in the strike zone. Unlike Pablo Sandoval, who can hit a baseball almost anywhere it is pitched, he needs to lay off the low stuff in 2012. If he can, the Giants' chances of reaching the play-offs will be greatly enhanced.
Although the season-ending injury to Buster Posey was clearly the Giants' most devastating loss in 2011, the season-ending shoulder injury suffered by second-baseman Freddy Sanchez two weeks later likely applied the coup de grace to the Giants' hopes of repeating as division champions.
Sanchez, who was batting .289 at the time of his injury, was one of the team's few offensive threats, as well as its best situational hitter.
Defensively, Sanchez was the Giants' most consistent fielder. His importance was magnified by the presence of a rookie shortstop in Brandon Crawford, with whom Sanchez had already begun to establish the timing and trust required to consistently cash in DP chances at the big-league level.
Sanchez is now 34, and has spent far too much of the last three seasons on injured reserve. If he can stay healthy in 2012 and re-establish the consistent offensive production and superb defense that have long been his trademarks, the Giants will be on their way to the play-offs.
Lincecum, Sandoval, Wilson, Wilson's beard and Beltran got most of the press in 2011, but Nate Schierholtz quietly put together a pretty good season. Over the first half of the year, the athletic fifth year outfielder hit .293/.343/.464. Although he cooled down in the second half before he was hurt, Schierholtz was the team's best clutch hitter, hitting .295 with runners in scoring position.
Schierholtz also continued to develop his defensive reputation in right field, and his 8 assists in 115 games demonstrated both the strength and the accuracy of his arm.
Combining his abilities to hit for average and to the opposite field with home run and gap power, excellent speed, and strong defense, Schierholtz may be on the verge of a break-out year. However, he may revert to his tendencies, all too evident in past years, of being unable either to lay off or to hit the back-foot slider. On this question turns not only Nate's prospects, but those of the Giants to return to the playoffs in 2012.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that only the big deals get much press. If it isn't Pujols, Reyes or Fielder, or doesn't involve a contract so huge it makes even the most hard-care baseball fans fear for the values of what must obviously be a pre-apocalyptic nation, no one much cares.
Because he now prefers (see Zito, Barry) smaller, lower-risk deals involving players whose talents are misunderstood—and perhaps more fundamentally, because the Giants can't afford mega-stars—Brian Sabean and the Giants have made no serious plays for any big stars this off-season.
They did, however, acquire Melky Cabrera from the Royals and Angel Pagan from the Mets. Both are solid big-leaguers, and Cabrera, at 29, should be entering the most productive segment of his career. Cabrera had a breakout year in KC,hitting .305 with 18 HR, 87 RBI and 20 stolen bases. Pagan is a solid lead-off hitter, including lifetime .279 and .331 batting and on-base percentages, respectively. Pagan also stole more than 30 bases in each of 2010 and 2011.
If the Giants' pitching continues at its present level, the offensive improvements that Cabrera and Pagan represent should more than offset Pagan's defensive weakness. Of course, if the two new outfielders struggle at the plate, the Giants will have a tough time making the post-season, and Giant fans will soon resume their demand that the team bring in a big free-agent bat.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy
In the 2008 Hard Times Baseball Annual, Chris Jaffe used sabermetrics to examine the tendency of baseball managers since 1894 to manage for individual runs—"small ball"—or to reject bunts and sacrifices in favor of the big inning.
To no surprise of Padres and Giants fans over the last decade, Giants Manager Bruce Bochy is 8th on the all-time list of "big inning" managers, and ranks first on the list of managers who are least likely to give away an out via the bunt.
This strategy worked well for the Giants in their championship season of 2010. Despite the team's overall offensive shortcomings, the Giants hit 162 home runs in 2010, sixth best in the National League. In the National League play-offs, the Giants hit 13 home runs, more than three times as many as the next National League contender.
Cody Ross—or whoever that guy was who inhabited Ross' body during the 2010 play-offs—is gone, and the Giants are unlikely to compete for team lead in home runs or slugging percentage in 2012.
On the other hand, Angel Pagan is a real lead-off hitter with good speed and the ability to steal bases, and Melky Cabrera has decent speed and can drive in runs. With set-up guys in Pagan and Sanchez and run-producers in Sandoval, Posey, Schierholtz, Cabrera and (hopefully) Huff, the Giants should be able to score more runs.
How many will depend in part on whether Bochy manages to his team's strengths by bunting and running, or whether he holds to form and plays for the long-ball and the big-inning. If reports from Scottsdale in March suggest that the Giants are working on these critical skills, the Giants can look forward to a return to play-off contention in 2012.