Great news:  I was wrong

Last December, in writing my contribution to The Hardball Times Season Preview 2009, here’s how I summed up the San Francisco Giants’ chances:

… the NL West played as by far the worst division in baseball in 2008. If that status holds, any team bubbling up with 80-85 wins emerges as a contender. 80-85 wins would be a leap forward for the Giants, but it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. Well, maybe not too far beyond the realm of possibility.

And here was my specific prediction:

Fourth place again. The Giants are probably better than the Padres, but that’s it.

Then in March, for this year’s “Five Questions” piece for the website, here’s what I had to say:

… the Giants play in the one division in MLB in which if everything falls into place and they play .500-ish ball into the final couple of months, anything can happen. But this sort of “it could be worse” reality doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, either for this year or the long run. The fact that a blind squirrel might find an acorn doesn’t mean he’s likely to so, or deserving of credit if he does; as has been observed elsewhere, “hope is not a strategy.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of GM Brian Sabean’s approach, or the team’s chances.

And despite the Giants’ not-too-bad performance through the early weeks of 2009, I remained highly skeptical. Indeed, as recently as a month or so ago, you could reliably find me scoffing at their modest success, insisting that they were playing over their heads, due for a rude fall.

Well, consider me officially no longer scoffing. With every week that passes, the 2009 Giants are making me more of a believer. It’s obvious that my predictions for a .500-at-best performance were flat-out wrong.

As a baseball dork, I’m chagrined to have been so far off the mark, but as a Giants fan, I’m delighted at my inaccuracy.

How have they done it?

The Giants’ improvement has been a function of general avoidance of misfortune—they’ve been largely injury-free, and have suffered no significant off-years—and several specific positives.

The first of the positives has been Pablo Sandoval. Here’s what I said about him in March:

The first issue is whether he can handle third base on an ongoing basis. His natural position is catcher—at 5-foot-11, 245, that’s pretty obvious—but he’s blocked there by Bengie Molina in the immediate term, and quite possibly by Buster Posey down the road.

The second issue is what sort of hitter Sandoval will turn out to be over the long haul. His batting average is going to be good, but it surely won’t stay in the .340 range he flashed over the final month-and-a-half of 2008. Thus he’ll need to develop enough power to compensate for his utter absence of strike zone discipline.

Two issues, and the Kung Fu Panda has karate-kicked both. He’s proven to be entirely adequate defensively at third base, and as for his hitting, he’s not only kept his average pretty darn close to the .340 range he flashed in late 2008, but he’s also added significant power and tripled his walk rate. In short, at the age of 22 Sandoval has suddenly emerged as a major star, and barring injury he’s on his way to superstardom.

The second of the positives has been the Big Two starters, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Granted, Lincecum was the NL’s Cy Young Award winner in 2008, so his success is hardly a surprise. But in 2009 Lincecum has avoided the injuries and inconsistency that so often bedevil young pitchers, even young star pitchers, and he’s improving upon his tremendous 2008 performance. Reducing his ’08 home run rate by a quarter and his walk rate by a third, the 2009 edition of Lincecum is, if not the best pitcher in baseball, then very, very close to it.

As for Cain, at 24 he’s taken the step forward into full-fledged stardom he’d been on the verge of taking for the past couple of years. Interestingly, Cain’s peripheral rate stats haven’t significantly improved (they were already quite good), but he’s getting these results with an improved economy of pitches, able to go deeper into games more consistently, putting the team (and himself) into position to get the win. On most staffs Cain would be the ace; flying in formation with Lincecum, it’s become nearly impossible for the Giants to suffer a sustained losing streak. The team is 25-11 in their starts.

Other positives

In the March piece I dismissed center fielder Aaron Rowand as an overpaid “over-30 nothing special.” So far he’s proven me wrong, both hitting and covering the outfield ground much more effectively than last year.

The Giants’ bullpen has been exceptionally good, allowing the fewest runs per game of any staff in the major leagues. Closer Brian Wilson remains just so-so, but his supporting cast of journeymen and retreads has been superb. I didn’t see that coming.

Well …

We must consider the Giants’ highest-paid player. On Barry Zito in March I wrote:

As he enters the third season of his mammoth 7-year, $126 million contract, Zito stands at a miserable crossroads. Either he stabilizes, and manages to contribute as a moderately acceptable starter for at least some significant portion of the deal, or he continues his downward spiral, and fully realizes the potential he’s threatening as one of the most colossal free agent busts of all time….

Overall Zito’s trendline is ominous: in his final three seasons before coming to the Giants, he’d surrendered 0.55 walks per strikeout. That figure rose slightly to 0.63 in 2007, and alarmingly jumped to 0.85 in ’08. Unless Zito arrests or reverses that momentum, his capacity to even hang onto a rotation spot will evaporate.

So far in 2009 Zito has been … well … he’s been good, and he’s been bad. He’s also been unlucky; his peripherals are stronger than his dismal 5-9 won-lost record and 5.01 ERA.

A significant point is that Zito has distinctly reversed that negative BB/K momentum, sharply reducing his walk rate while posting his highest strikeout rate since he was a young pitcher. The 2009 version of Zito has been generally getting his signature 12-to-6 curveball over for strike one, a skill that had largely eluded him for the past couple of years. That’s something, anyway.

Bad news: I was right about some stuff

To be sure, plenty of things that looked as though they would be problems for the Giants have proven to be problems. Overall the team demonstrates precious little capacity for run production: At the All-Star break, despite hitting better lately, they’re still tied for last in the major leagues in team OPS+ (quite a feat for a team with a record of 49-39), as the attack pretty much begins and ends with Sandoval.

Second base has been an offensive black hole, and there’s little reason to believe that utilityman Juan Uribe, the latest attempt at plugging it, will sustain his current hot hitting. The bats of catcher Molina, shortstop Edgar Renteria, right fielder-left fielder Randy Winn and first baseman Travis Ishikawa have all been predictably mediocre-at-best.

Jonathan Sanchez’s recent no-hitter provides reason to think he might finally be turning the corner. Then again, the enigmatic young southpaw has teased plenty of times before, and it should be noted that his no-no outing was a fill-in for recently injured veteran Randy Johnson, as the erratic Sanchez had been banished to the bullpen by manager Bruce Bochy.

So, it might be that my fears of just a few weeks ago will finally prove justified, and this ball club’s weaknesses will stifle its strengths. They’ve enjoyed half a season of far more success than anticipated, but it is just half a season: there’s still plenty of time for things to go sour.

But the kicker is that this ball club’s strengths are proving to be quite substantial. To put it simply, a stud in the middle of the order and two studs at the top of the rotation fuel an engine of competitiveness that’s difficult to stifle.

So

Though I’m far from certain that these 2009 Giants will keep it up, two salient facts should be borne in mind:
{exp:list_maker}My preseason prediction was way off the mark, so what the hell do I know?
If the season were to end today, the Giants would be the NL’s wild card team. Not only that, their record would have them in first place in the NL Central, and in a virtual tie for first in the NL East. {/exp:list_maker}And while we’re at it, how about a few more facts:
{exp:list_maker}The Giants’ record isn’t an illusion created by beating up on a weak NL West, because the 2009 NL West has picked itself off the floor and performed as the best division in the National League.
If the Giants do wind up as the wild card team, their NLDS opponent should take note that the Giants are 22-16 (.579) against NL East/Central opponents.
With two elite starters, the Giants present exactly the sort of profile, according to conventional wisdom, that should make playoff opponents particularly uneasy. {/exp:list_maker}I’m just sayin’.

Damn, it feels good to be wrong.

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Comments

  1. Mark C. O'Connor said...

    There are one hell of a lot of us with the same column in our heads—but not so many of us that can put it down so well. Nice piece! Go Giants!!

  2. Steve Treder said...

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Here’s hoping the Giants continue to defy all sensible expectation right through to November.

  3. Ottomatic said...

    I think another important point to make is going forward the Giants should have as much payroll flexiblilty as anyone in baseball.  Let’s hope that help is on the way for the offense.

  4. Steve Treder said...

    I don’t think there’s any question that the Giants have been pretty darn lucky so far this year, not just in terms of their RS/RA expectancy, but also in terms of injury avoidance.  Obviously they shouldn’t count on that over the second half.

    But what’s finally become apparent to me is that they’ve haven’t *just* been lucky.  They’ve been genuinely pretty good as well, and they’ve been pretty good without relying on many guys playing over their heads.

  5. Todd said...

    A stud in the middle of the order and two studs at the top of the rotation? Wait, I thought you were talking about the Giants, not the Cardinals.

  6. SJ said...

    The Giants have the most disparate stats of any team. Way at the top in pitching, way at the bottom in offense. That suggests any injury to one of the pitchers – such as Cain getting hit with a comebacker – might have rather dire consequences for that wild card spot. Nonetheless an interesting team to follow.

  7. Hugh Jorgan said...

    Lincecum and Cain and pray for rain.  Sure its a play on the Spahn and Sain routine, but this team simply does not have enough sticks to get it done at the dish.  I’m sure a smarter gm will manage to fleece Sabean of Lincecum for some “proven veteran presence” and a handful of beans in the near future.

  8. Leo Walter said...

    After watching the Giants score a total of one(!) unearned run in the first 23 innings of the Pirates series,they had better figure out something about 2 hitters.One leadoff and one RBI guy.They wasted good efforts by both Lincecum and then Zito.

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