Wednesday, June 25, 2014

June Swoon: What's Behind the Giants' Slump?

Ever since the Washington Nationals came into town on June 9, the San Francisco Giants have been spiraling downward.

The first game against the Nationals came a day after the Giants finished off a sweep of the New York Mets. When San Francisco won the second game of the series in come-from-behind, walk-off fashion, Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow even said, “All they do is win.”

The sweep of the Mets gave the Giants a 42-21 record. They had five fewer losses than any other National League team and their division lead over the second-place Los Angeles Dodgers was a season-high 9.5 games.

But since the Nationals strolled into town, it has seemed that all the Giants do is lose.

Counting the first game against Washington (an ugly 9-2 drubbing at AT&T Park), the Giants have gone 3-11 since sweeping the Mets. Their division lead, as of June 24th, is 3 games. 

What’s behind the slump in which the Giants have managed to win just 21.4% of their last 14 games after winning an MLB-best 66.7% of their previous 64?

The pitching, power, and steals have disappeared. Have a look for yourself:

Last 14
First 64

Last 14
First 64

San Francisco has allowed, on average, 2.1 more runs per game than they did in their previous 64 games. They’ve also scored 0.9 fewer runs.

The pitching, as you can see, is the bigger issue. Strikeouts are down, walks and hits are up. Most of all, it's always going to hurt when you’re allowing 5.4 runs per game.

On offense, the batting averages and on-base percentages have actually gone up in the last 14 days. The noticeable drop has been in slugging percentage.

This is largely due to the lack of home runs. The Giants hit 1.1 home runs per game in their first 64 games, just 0.5 in their last 14. 

Another noteworthy decline has been the stolen bases. With Angel Pagan nursing a nagging back injury, the Giants aren’t stealing as many bases. They stole a base every two games in their first 64 games, but in their last 14 they’re only stealing about one base every ten.

Look for the pitching to improve. It’s next to impossible that the Giants will continue to slump to anywhere near a 5.12 ERA.

Expect the Giants to find their way back to the mean--a 3.43 ERA and 4.2 runs scored per game.

Once that happens, the Giants will go back to playing like one of the best teams in baseball. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

San Francisco Giants 2010 (and '11) Highlights

Dip In Strikeouts Has Hurt Giants

Remember when the Giants’ pitching staff used to be lights out? Those were the days...

It's not that they're bad now, it's just that they're not nearly good as they once were.

I wrote an article yesterday about Matt Cain’s struggles, but Tim Lincecum’s fall from greatness has been even more pronounced--and costly.

Let’s look at Lincecum’s numbers over the last 6½ seasons:

Avg. FB Vel.

*Won N.L. Cy Young Award

You'll notice a sharp drop in production in all five categories. The ERA has ballooned; the strikeouts have fallen steadily; the home runs have ticked up; and he’s stranding fewer runners. Perhaps the most significant trend is the drop in average fastball velocity. This seems to be the key issue that’s caused Lincecum’s demise.

As Lincecum has suffered, so has the staff as a whole. Once elite, Giants starters are no longer arguably the best in baseball. Though Madison Bumgarner and Tim Hudson are pitching great, the Giants’ rotation is formidable, but no longer even close to what it used to be.

Here’s how the Giants pitched in 2010, 2012, and so far in 2014, with the N.L. rank in parentheses:

3.36 (1st)
8.20 (1st)
0.83 (3rd)
8.0% (1st)
77.0% (1st)
3.68 (5th)
7.67 (7th)
0.88 (5th)
9.9% (4th)
73.6% (5th)
3.41 (6th)
7.52 (13th)
0.78 (11th)
9.3% (10th)
73.7% (9th)

Again, there’s a steady decline in some major categories. Even when numbers don't decline, the N.L. rank does--sharply--in four of the five categories.

The steepest declines are in K/9 and LOB%, and they’re closely related. 

Just four short years ago, the Giants struck out more batters per nine innings than any other team in baseball. That helped them get out of jams without having to rely on defense (think infield hits, bloop hits, range issues, errors). This season, their 7.52 K/9 is third worst in the N.L., so teams are putting the ball in play much more often against the Giants.

Giants pitchers used to get big strikeouts in big situations (men on base), and the result was that their LOB% was an MLB-leading 77% in 2010.

Now that they’re not striking out as many hitters, their 73.7 LOB% is only 9th-best in the N.L. this season.

As puts it, “Pitchers that record a high number of strikeouts can pitch their way out of jams more easily than pitchers that rely upon their team’s defense, so they are able to maintain LOB%s higher than league average.”

Indeed, when the Giants went from being an elite strikeout team to a below average strikeout team, their LOB% suffered, leading to more runs scored and a higher team ERA relative to the rest of the N.L.

Lincecum’s fall from dominance has hurt the Giants dramatically, and it doesn’t help than Cain has struggled lately too.

The good news for Giants fans is that Bumgarner is a bona fide ace and he will likely continue to improve (he’s only 24 years old), and Cain should re-discover his winning ways.

But for the Giants to re-establish themselves as an elite pitching team, they’ll need to bring back the strikeout and the magical mojo that accompanies it.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Matt Cain Mystery

These past 1½ years have been a nightmare for Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain.

After steadily improving every year since he broke into the big leagues in 2005, last year, out of nowhere, Cain took a huge step backwards and hasn't yet recovered. 

In 882 innings pitched from 2009 through 2012, Cain was 55-35 with a sparkling 2.93 ERA and a 1.096 WHIP. He allowed just 7.3 H/9 and 0.8 HR/9.

Then everything came crashing down.

In the past two seasons, Cain is 9-15 with a 4.14 ERA and a 1.181 WHIP, and he’s allowed 1.2 HR/9.

Sixty-three National League pitchers have logged at least 60 innings pitched this season. Among them, Cain’s -0.4 WAR is fourth worst and his 4.52 ERA ranks 49th. His 1.55 HR/9 is sixth worst, and four of the five players whose ratios are worse play in Colorado, Milwaukee, or Cincinnati, all notorious hitter-friendly parks.

Before 2013, the highest HR/FB% of Cain’s career was 8.4%. Last year it was 10.8% and this year it’s 15.1%. That’s right—a whopping 15.1% of fly balls Cain’s allowed this year have left the ballpark. That means one out of every 6.62 fly balls has been a home run.

The trouble seems to be a lack of command within the strike zone, not out of it. From 2005-2012, spanning more than 1,500 innings, Cain averaged 3.1 BB/9. These past two seasons, it’s actually been lower, at 2.9 BB/9. So Cain’s problem hasn't involved issuing more walks.

After watching most of his starts these past two seasons, Cain seems to be hanging lots of pitches over the middle of the plate and those pitches are getting crushed. Say he’s ahead in the count 0-2 or 1-2 and he tries try to throw a slider low and away against a right handed hitter. Instead of hitting his spot, he hangs it over the middle of the plate. This used to happen next to never, but now it happens seemingly every start. Cain’s past success was built upon great movement and great command, and the command is what's been missing. 

Unless Cain is injured, he should be able to correct the problem simply by working on his mechanics, thus regaining control of his pitches within the strike zone. It seems unlikely that a healthy, 29-year-old Cain just suddenly loses it and never gets it back. The velocity and movement are still there, so it’s not like the case of Tim Lincecum.

Look for Cain to regain his command this season and re-establish himself as one of the game's most consistent and elite starting pitchers. The Giants will need Cain to regain his All-Star form if they're going to make a serious run at a third World Series title in five seasons.

Brandon Crawford Breaking Out

Brandon Crawford really reminds me of a young Yadier Molina. Some of you are probably thinking, “What? Molina’s a consistent .300 hitter and a perennial M.V.P. candidate, and Crawford’s neither of those things!”

Well, you’re not wrong, but you're also not exactly right. Let’s take a closer look at Molina’s first 1,429 plate appearances spanning 405 games in four big league seasons.

Molina hit an unimpressive .248/.304/.349, although he was considered an elite defensive player.

Starting to sound like Crawford now?

In Crawford’s first three seasons in the big leagues, spanning 1,246 plate appearances in 358 games, his .241/.304/.346 slash line was almost identical to Molina’s numbers in his first four years.

Like Molina did, Crawford has taken a big step forward in his fourth year. 

Through 275 plate appearances this season, Crawford is hitting .257/.336/.460. Twenty-seven of his 61 hits (44.3%) have gone for extra bases, including seven homers and seven triples.

Molina hit .275/.340/.368 in his fourth big league season and has hit .299/.354/.427 in 6½ seasons since. He figured something out in his fourth year and never looked back. We could be seeing the same thing from Crawford this season.

So let’s take a closer look at Crawford’s 2014 numbers.

His 10.5% walk rate is 23rd-best in the National League, ahead of notoriously patient hitters like Jayson Werth (10.1%) and Buster Posey (8.1%).

And it’s no fluke. Crawford also walked in 10.5% of his 220 plate appearances in 2011, but he hit just .204 with a .296 slugging %. The difference this year is that Crawford hits his pitch when it comes.

Crawford’s 1.8 WAR ranks fourth among N.L. shortstops, behind only Troy Tulowitzki (4.8), Jhonny Peralta (2.2), and Hanley Ramirez (1.9).

In offensive WAR, Crawford ranks fourth among all major league shortstops, ahead of guys with reputations as good offensive players like Xander Bogaerts, Alexi Ramirez, Ian Desmond, Jimmy Rollins, Jose Reyes, Elvis Andrus, J.J. Hardy, and Derek Jeter.

Crawford’s WAR is actually 23rd-best in the N.L., ahead of perennial stars like Justin Upton, Starlin Castro, Posey, Ryan Braun, Justin Morneau, Adrian Gonzalez, and Matt Holliday.

So, if the Molina trend continues, Crawford will continue to improve and is emerging as a superstar before our very eyes. Like the Cardinals with Molina, the Giants have showed an abundance of faith and patience with Crawford, and it’s paying off in a big way.

To make things even sweeter, Crawford is a local kid from Mountain View, Calif., and he’s not eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season. He undoubtedly loves playing for his hometown team, especially given the fact that they're a consistent winner (and he’s a big reason why).

Catcher and shortstop are two of the most important positions in baseball. That's why it’s no big surprise that the Cardinals and the Giants perennial contenders, with stars like Crawford and Molina leading the way.

SF vs. AZ 6/22/14: Bum Deals, Welcome Joe Panik!

Hector Sanchez Getting Overexposed

It brings me no pleasure to criticize a professional baseball player, but something needs to be said about Hector Sanchez. For some reason, Giants fans and even broadcasters seem to think he’s some kind of force in the batter’s box.
It seems to be one of those scenarios in which people make an assumption based on a small sample size then hold onto that assumption despite heaps of evidence to the contrary displayed over time.
Sanchez had moderate success early this season and has had his fair share of playing time since Brandon Belt’s thumb injury. In fact, Sanchez has collected 135 plate appearances in 73 games, or 1.85 a game. He plays less than a regular but far more than the average bench player. This is in part due to the abundance of caution the Giants exercise in dealing with their fragile yet extremely important starting catcher, Buster Posey.
Despite Sanchez’s reputation as a good offensive catcher, his performance at the plate this year has been atrocious.
He’s struck out in a whopping 32.6% of his plate appearances, fourth-worst in the National League (min. 130 PA).   
To make matters worse, Sanchez doesn’t draw walks. His 3.7% walk rate is eighth-worst in the N.L. (min. 130 PA).
When you have a guy who strikes out a ton and walks next to never (Sanchez has drawn just five walks this season, 20 in his career, and never more than seven in a season), you have an abysmal offensive player—unless that player is knocking the cover off the ball when he does manage to put it in play.
But Sanchez’s slugging percentage is just .344, which ranks 29th among 32 MLB catchers (min. 130 PA).
You might argue, “Sanchez has been in a slump. Of course his slugging percentage is low right now. Let’s look at his career slugging percentage instead.” Well, OK, let’s. It’s .364, and that mark would move his SLG% from third-worst to fourth-worst among NL catchers this season (min. 130 PA).
Sanchez has also swung at an MLB-leading 61.5% of all pitches he’s seen this season (min. 130 PA), including an astounding 46% of pitches out of the strike zone. In other words, Sanchez is arguably the least disciplined hitter in all of Major League Baseball.
While it’s true that Sanchez’s 24 RBI are eighth most among NL catchers, he has stepped up to bat with at least one man in scoring position in 31.1% of his plate appearances, 5.5% more than the N.L. average of 25.6%. So Sanchez has had more than his fair share of RBI opportunities. As the saying goes, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
So, now that the “Hector Sanchez is an above average offensive player” myth has been debunked, it’s worth noting the positives that Sanchez brings to the field every day.
He’s arguably an above average defensive catcher. He almost always takes a savage beating when he’s behind the plate and he is, at the very least, adequate at pitch framing and ball blocking.
He also seems like a good guy who’s well-liked by his teammates and the fans, despite his shortcomings. Heart and character matter in baseball, and that’s why it’s hard to rip this guy.
That being said, the Giants would be better off having a backup catcher with better plate discipline.
In 146 plate appearances for Triple-A Fresno, Andrew Susac has an 11.6% walk rate and a 23.3% strikeout rate to go along with a strong .262/.363/.452 slash line.
Perhaps down the road, Susac will take over behind the plate, allowing Posey to permanently move to a new position. It’s imperative that the Giants preserve Posey’s health, as he’s easily their best and most important player.
We’ve seen way too much of Posey getting injured behind the dish, whether he’s being rocked by a foul ball off the mask, drilled in the hand by a foul tip, or blown up by Scott Cousins in a brutal, season-ending injury.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing that we’re seeing less of Posey behind the plate. The trouble is that the man who’s replacing him is not disciplined enough to be an everyday big leaguer.  
If the Giants are going to be ultra cautious with Posey and give lots of PA’s to their backup catcher, they need to lose patience in Sanchez and replace him with someone who is, quite fittingly, more patient.