24 April 2007

Giants Preview: A Very Long Tail

Since Jeff Kent left the team after the 2002 season, the Giants have won with a two star method of getting great seasons from slugger Barry Bonds, very good seasons from pitcher Jason Schmidt, and collectively average production from everyone else. This method worked very well in 2003 and 2004, when Bonds was still healthy and otherworldly and Schmidt was still an elite pitcher. The Giants collapsed to 75 wins in 2005 when Bonds was hurt. But last year, when Bonds was mostly healthy, the two-star method didn't work, as both Schmidt and Bonds declined from their production of previous years.

Below is a table showing win shares for the Giants' two stars by year and the next closest pitcher and non-pitcher.

2003 -- 100 wins -- Bonds 39 -- ( Grissom 22 ) -- Schmidt 22 -- ( Worrell 13 )
2004 -- 91 wins -- Bonds 53 -- ( Snow 20 ) -- Schmidt 19 -- ( Tomko 9 )
2006 -- 76 wins -- Bonds 27 -- ( Durham 21 ) -- Schmidt 16 -- ( Cain 12 )

Here in 2007 the Giants are 9-8 thanks to a still active five game win streak. Schmidt has moved on to the Dodgers ( and the disabled list ). But Bonds appears rejuvenated, back to his 2004 level, while Matt Cain appears ready to seize the role of star pitcher. These two players are poised to combine for 60-70 win shares. If the Giants can get average production from everyone else, they might be able to grab 90 wins this season.

Now, it's not a given that Cain and Bonds will be able to reproduce what Schmidt and Bonds used to bring to the Giants, but it certainly looks promising, and I'll assume for the sake of argument that they will. The question, then, is with the rest of the players. Can they, collectively, be average?

First, a look at the Giant starting rotation, with ERAs of this year and last.

Pitcher -- 2007 ERA -- 2006 ERA

Cain -- 1.55 -- 4.15
Zito -- 3.70 -- 3.83
Lowry -- 2.70 -- 4.75
Morris -- 2.00 -- 4.98
Ortiz -- 4.35 -- 8.14

Aside from Bonds, pitching has been the story for the Giants this year. During their still active 5 game win streak, the Giants have given up 5, 2, 2, 0 and 1 runs. Every starter is outperforming his 2006 ERA so far.

I'm ready to believe that Cain's progress is for real. Not that he will carry a sub-2 ERA all year, of course, but he showed marked improvement in the second half of last year, and he appears to have leapt to a new level this year. The only concern is that his K rate per 9 innings is "only" 6.5, and he still walks plenty of batters.

I'm not ready to believe that Lowry and Morris have turned into sub-4 ERA pitchers, never mind sub-3 ERA pitchers. Morris's strikeout numbers tumbled after two great years in 2001 and 2002, haven't ever recovered, and there is no reason to think they will. Lowry is only 26, so he could improve, but given his average profile the past two years we should expect more of the same this year.

Zito seems to have recovered from a rough start to the year, and should be slightly above average, as he has been the last few years.

But Ortiz? What is the basis for believing that he's made improvement from his last two wretched years? A change in pitching mechanics? That is fodder for a fluff spring training piece, not a legitimate reason to think that someone who's carried an ERA worse than 6 the past two years can now be even average. Even Leo Mazzone couldn't fix him last year. Was he carrying an injury the last few years, and now he's fully healthy? If so, I haven't heard about it. This is a pitcher who pitched about 180 innings the past two years at an ERA of 7.5. He's abominable on the mound.

Here is what I think the Giants can optimistically expect from their rotation in terms of ERAs:

Cain: 2.5
Zito: 3.5
Lowry: 4
Morris: 4.5
Ortiz: 6.5

Zito, Lowry, and Morris are collectively about average, but throw Ortiz in there and the Giants have a huge problem. They will have to replace him, the sooner the better for them. The Giants do have a potential answer here, though, in uber-prospect Tim Lincecum. So, in spite of currently carrying Ortiz, I think the pitching staff could hold up its end of the bargain.

By reputation, the Giants relievers are bad, but bullpens are volatile, so who knows? They have already blown one brilliant Cain start, though. Still, it's not unreasonable to think they could be average, with a bit of Beimel-style luck. ( That is, getting good years from formerly mediocre relievers. )

The real problem for the Giants will be the lineup. Here's a chart showing the usual batting order, with on-base percentages from this year and last.

Position -- 2007 OBP -- 2006 OBP -- Player

CF -- 0.279 -- 0.360 -- Roberts -- Outs?
SS -- 0.250 -- 0.361 -- Vizquel -- Outs?
1B -- 0.357 -- 0.349 -- Aurilia
LF -- 0.466 -- 0.454 -- Bonds
2B -- 0.377 -- 0.360 -- Durham
C -- 0.305 -- 0.319 -- Molina -- OUTS
3B -- 0.255 -- 0.281 -- Feliz -- OUTS
RF -- 0.241 -- 0.324 -- Winn -- OUTS

Last year, when I attended a Dodgers-Giants tilt at Dodger Stadium, I noticed that the on-base percentages they flashed on the scoreboard for the bottom of the Giant batting order was awful. Back then it was Hillenbrand, Eliezer Alfonzo, and Feliz. On the plus side all of them had a bit of power, good for 15-20 homers each, but on the bad side they were out-machines, with on-base percentages hovering around or below 0.300.

Two of these players have moved on, Hillenbrand to Anaheim, Alfonzo to a backup role ( where he is hitless in 11 at-bats ), but nothing has changed with on-base challenged Winn and Molina taking their places in the order. In the parlance used to describe a bad tail-end of a batting order in cricket, the Giants have a long, long, long tail.

The other problem with this lineup is it's so old. Roberts and Vizquel are currently performing far worse than we'd expect, but what if age is finally hitting one or both of these guys? Vizquel especially should improve, but maybe not to 0.360, where the Giants desperately need him. All the Giants have right now to surround Bonds are Aurilia and Durham, and that just won't cut it. One last complication is that while Aurlia left as a shortstop, he returns as a first baseman, meaning that the Giants can't improve their lineup by way of the easiest position to fill on the field. The Giants do have Klesko lurking in a back-up role, with OBP of 0.345 this year and 0.358 last, but his natural position at this point in his career is ... first base.

Essentially, Feliz is the anti-Bonds, with Molina and Winn surrounding him being the anti-Durham and anti-Aurlia. The Giants don't appear to be capable of surrounding Bonds with a lineup of collectively average players. Right now there are too many out-producers. There don't appear to be any solutions on the farm, either. Even if the pitching comes through, including Lincecum and the pen, even if Bonds is great, the offense will let them down.

As far as this upcoming series goes, the Giants are sending out their three worst starters, while the Dodgers send out their three injury-free best. It's always foolish to expect a sweep in baseball, but ... the Dodgers should sweep. They really should. The Giants are getting a little frisky, above .500 again when after a week and a half it seemed they might be buried. I'm sure Giants fans are dreaming of a sweep for the orange and black, which would put the two teams into a virtual tie, but more likely, more right and proper, too, is a Dodger sweep to send the Giants reeling to 6 back.

So ... I expect the Dodgers to hammer Ortiz, and push his ERA back above 6 where it belongs. 6 runs in 2.1 innings against him would do it. ( Though it's probably better to keep his ERA presentable for as long as possible to keep Lincecum from the big club. ) I expect Dodger pitching to hold the bottom four spots in the lineup to less than 10 times on base in the entire series. I expect Barry to be stuck on 6 home runs when he leaves LA. I expect the Dodgers to sweep the Giants.

Penultimate insult to the Giants: as good as the Giant pitching has been, the Dodgers have been better. Here are the team staff comparisons in the big-three fielding-independent pitching stats:

Team -- HR/IP -- BB/IP -- SO/IP
Dodgers -- 0.53 -- 3.30 -- 6.98
Giants -- 0.65 -- 3.82 -- 5.47

And the ultimate insult for the Giants ... the power starved Dodgers have out-homered the Giants 11 to 10 so far this year, even with the 6 put up by Barry. To be fair, the Dodgers have played two games more, but still ... all's fair in love and war and hating the Giants.


Griffon64 said...

After a good analysis of the Giants making it appear as if their winning ways may be a more truthful representation of them than their awful start, you state that the Dodgers should sweep!

I'd love them to sweep, of course. And I hope they will! But we'll have to see. We're putting the current heart of our starting staff up there, so I hope we can make the runs we score stand up.

I'll be shocked and sad if the Giants win 90 this season, by the way ;-)

How about a similar analysis of the Dodger roster? :-)

Scott said...

This is a good analysis, although there are a couple of points I'd like to add. Apparently, Mazzone did find something wrong with his mechanics and Ortiz worked on it during winter ball, so his velocity and control are going to be better than last year. I'm not saying he's going to be great (or even good) this year, but he probably won't be as bad as the past couple of years.

Also, as happened tonight, Aurilia plays a decent third base and can move over there to get Klesko into the lineup. This helps the lineup a great deal, as Feliz is by far the biggest black hole they have.

Interesting post though, keep up the good work.

Faramond said...

Yes, and Aurilia played third base last night, and the Giants were glad they shifted him over and got Klesko into the lineup. There were a couple of balls that went past Aurilia that I wondered if a better third baseman could have reached, but he looked okay there and the Giants should really go with him at third a lot more often, maybe.

I should have looked into Ortiz a bit more, true. But in the end I'm going to have to be convinced by at least three months of decent starts, I guess.

Obviously my "expectations" were crap ... the products of a delusional fan. Sigh.

One last thing ... the Giants bottom three should be better this year than last.