The San Francisco Giants have a below average offense. Nevertheless, they will enter 2012 as one of a handful of teams with a legitimate shot at winning the World Series. If this was algebra, you would be asked to solve for x.
Answer: The San Francisco Giants have the best pitching staff in the National League. And it's really not that close.
This article could easily be entitled: 5 reasons the Giants' pitching staff is better than the Phillies'. Those two teams are head and shoulders above the rest. The Padres' staff has been gritty in their spacious ballpark and the Braves bullpen was fun to watch last season. Neither can compare with the firepower coming out of San Francisco and Philly however.
In 2010, the Giants shocked the Phillies in the NLCS by not only shutting down the Phillies offense, but scratching out a few runs against what Sports Illustrated continues to insist on calling the "Legion of Arms."
Last season the Giants offense sank to befuddling lows, leading to some of my favorite stat lines of the year. Compare these starting rotations:
|New York Yankees||71-45||4.03|
|San Francisco Giants||60-58||3.28|
It's dark humor I know. Nevertheless, 2012 holds promise, because once again the Giants have the best pitching staff in the National League. Here are five reasons why.
The Giants' Big Three starting pitchers are a combined 20 years younger than the Phillies' comparative trio. The team is committed to locking down Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain long term and Madison Bumgarner is under team control for four more years.
In short, no other team possesses a starting rotation with as much long-term potential. Roy Halladay remains arguably the best pitcher in the group, but in the post-steroid era, his elite days are severely numbered.
Not only are they young, but the combined injury history of Lincecum, Cain and Bumgarner could be contained on a sticky note. All three arms are durable as all three have hit 200 innings in every one of their full big league seasons.
The Giants' front office is salivating at the thought of three aces at the top of the rotation for five to eight more seasons. Comparisons to the 90's Braves are warranted.
Over the last three seasons, the Giant bullpen has remained tops in the Major Leagues. From 2009-2011, the Giants ranked second in the majors in bullpen ERA every season. Recently, they traded right-hander Ramon Ramirez to the Mets for Angel Pagan. Ramirez was their fifth best option out of the bullpen.
Brian Wilson will anchor the pen for at least one more year. Sergio Romo was unhittable last season. Lefty Javier Lopez has developed into one of the most reliable left-handed specialists in baseball. Guillermo Mota, Santiago Casilla and Jeremy Affeldt round out a bullpen that pitches in nail biters every night and more often than not, escapes the "torture" that Giants fans have endeared themselves to.
There are no long relievers on this team. Only long starters and a deadly lineup of bullpen shutdown artists that make one-run games feel like three-run games.
Madison Bumgarner could very well be the ace of the Giants staff next season. He quietly had a shutdown year in 2011, posting a 3.21 ERA and leading the staff (by far) with a 4.21 K/BB ratio.
At the All-Star break, Bumgarner effectively finished his first full major league season dating back to July 2010. He then ripped off an unbelievable second half that included a 2.52 ERA and a Cliff Lee-esque 5.21 K/BB ratio. Bumgarner is 10 years younger than Cliff Lee.
The point isn't that Bumgarner gives the Giants any secret weapon. It's that, according to general consensus, Madison Bumgarner is still the third best pitcher on the team. With Cain and Lincecum the known commodities, Bumgarner's continued improvement in 2012 will make the starting rotation that much scarier.
If it wasn't for Triples Alley out in right center field, we may be discussing the Hall of Fame credentials of Armando Rios. John Bowker might have locked down the starting left field position by now. Barry Bonds would have pushed 1,000 home runs.
OK, not quite. But the deep abyss that is the right center field gap at AT&T Park serves as the scapegoat for all those who believe it's hard to put up solid offensive numbers in the park. Right fielders take advantage of the short porch down the line in order to cover the gap. Four-hundred and nineteen-foot fly balls are often swallowed up as routine F-9s.
Bottom Line: The Giants play 81 games per year in this park. Granted, most of those games are 1-0 in seventh inning, but the park's hostility towards hitters plays perfectly into their hands. The Giants offense specializes in bloop singles, which will drop in any stadium. Meanwhile, the pitchers pad their stats. Even Barry Zito looks like a major league pitcher during long home stands.
Yes, the majority of the Giants' staff has experience pitching deep into October. However, the argument is somewhat faulty. The fact that a Giants team with zero playoff experience turned the Braves, Phillies and Rangers into Jell-O works against the importance of playoff experience to title chances.
Lots of people care however. Experience seems to matter. So I'll give it a try:
1. Matt Cain has pitched 21 1/3 postseason innings without allowing a single run
2. Tim Lincecum struck out 14 Braves in his first ever playoff start
3. Madison Bumgarner, in his 15th career major league outing, pitched eight shutout innings on the road in Game 4 of the World Series against the top hitting team in the AL.
4. Opponents hit .200 in 37 innings against the bullpen.
Before 2010, many Giants fans said: "If we could only get to a short series in October..." After 2010, you don't want to see these guys in the playoffs.