2008 Sabermetric Year in Review: San Francisco Giants

The tour bus takes a trip up to NorCal to visit the San Francisco Giants, who began life without Barry Bonds* in 2008.  Oh, I wasn’t supposed to mention him?  Why not.  During his whole will-someone-or-won’t-someone saga in 2008, he was the most interesting Giants story line, despite not making a single plate appearance (or any kind of appearance) for the Giants at all in 2008.  That might not be fair to a guy like Tim Lincecum, but…

Record: 72-90 (4th place, NL West)
Pythagorean Projection: 68.28 wins

Team Statistical Pages:
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus

MVN Blog:
Giants Cove

Other Padres Resources:
Latest News
Contract Status
Trade Rumors

Overview: Well, I’m not entirely sure what to say here.  They went out.  They played baseball.  They couldn’t hit.  They have mad young pitching.  It doesn’t work to produce a winner.

What went right: Well, Tim Lincecum won a very deserved Cy Young Award.  Lincecum did get a little lucky (low HR/FB, a little high on the LOB%, although a good strikeout rate helps a lot in that category), but that 10.51 K per 9 IP doesn’t lie.  Then there’s the fact that his BABIP was not lucky (.316), and his FIP was exactly in line with his actual ERA (2.62).  This guy really is that good.  And he’s 24.  Imagine what happens when this guy is no longer cost-controlled.

Brian Wilson seized the closer’s job at the end of the 2007 season and doesn’t appear ready to give it back.  Wilson notched 41 saves (while the Giants won 72… that’s 60%… that K-Rod guy saved 62% of the Angels’ 100 wins.)  Wilson will have a special spot in my heart, not for his save total, or for the cheap BNL reference that I always make when I talk about him, but because he’s a guy whom few have heard of and many of your fellow fantasy owners will be scared away from.  Despite notching all those saves, he had a WHIP of 1.44 and an ERA of 4.62.  But, he had a BABIP of .336, which is due for a good regression to the mean.  That means that next year, his WHIP will probably be better (although he does walk 4 guys per 9 IP…) and the ERA will likely come down. The Giants will (still) not have the offense to blow people away, so Wilson will have a lot of close leads to protect.  Wilson would probably be a good second reliever to take for your team.  He’ll get you the saves, and he’s better than his stats make him look.

What went wrong:  The Phillies seemed to really miss Aaron Rowand this year.  Rowand is something of a statistical oddity.  He traded fly balls for ground balls, struck out a bit more, and saw a precipitous drop in his contact rate (#2 and #3 are probably related).  Worse, his swing percentage went up, almost all in the category of swinging at pitches outside the strike zone.  Rowand got a little jumpy this year.  Maybe it was the giant (hehe) contract that he signed.  But let’s consider for a moment Rowand’s RC/27 over the last four years.  From 2005-2008, the numbers were 4.55, 4.46, 6.93, 4.53.  Which one looks like the outlier?  Of course, Rowand was one of those gentlemen that happened to profit from the fact that he had his outlier season right as he was gearing up to sign a free agent deal.

Yeah, that about sums it up: The hitters who most often appeared in the 3-4-5 holes (and I use that term precisely in this case) in the Giants lineup were Randy Winn, Bengie Molina, and Aaron Rowand, who between the three of them hit 39 home runs in 2008.

Is there any hope for John Bowker?:  Poor John Bowker.  He has to live with the tag of being the guy who sorta kinda replaces Barry Bonds*.  That’s not fair to Bowker (or anyone really).  Bowker is a hitter built much differently than Bonds, despite being left-handed and a corner player.  First off, Bowker is more of a line drive hitter, which is good if you want good solid base hits.  People might try to point to his season at AA in 2007 in which he hit 22 home runs as proof of his power potential, but take a closer look at those splits.  He hit 15 home runs on flyballs and 7(!) on line drives in 2007.  He had 144 fly balls that year, so he has a real HR/FB rate of around 10%, which is nice, but not the stuff that elite power hitters are made of.  He might pick off a few more hard LD home runs, but maybe you’re looking at a 20 HR guy.  Maybe.  But for what it’s worth, he’ll probably raise that .300 OBP this year and that would be a good start.

The swan song of Omar Vizquel: I’ve been a little heartbroken ever since I took a look through my OPA! numbers and found that while Omar was fun to watch with the glove (or the barehand), when it came down to it, he was little more than an average shortstop in the field.  He was never special with the bat and 2008 was the year that he pretty much became useless with the bat.  There have been a few calls for “Vizquel for the Hall” based on his defense and probably based on the fact that he was beloved by the media.  But, it will mark a brave new day if in five years, when it comes time to write his name on the ballot, a bunch of writers refrain citing some of the studies that have been done over the past few years on fielding.  Then again, in five years, the Vizquel fad might have faded.

Last year, I wrote: Don’t let the record fool you. Cain lost 16 games, but posted an ERA of 3.65.  His weakness is that he walks too many batters (3.56 per 9 innings), but he was also one of the better strikeout starters in the league last year. Take a look at his plot for the amount of break on his pitches. You’ll see that his fastballs are all generally within one blob, suggesting that he has a good idea of where the fastball is going, which is probably why he throws it more than 60% of his pitches. With his off-speed/breaking stuff, on the other hand, there are a few curves and sliders and changes that seem to be little islands unto their own. Cain is 22, and has time to learn to control those pitches. He also gives up a lot of flyballs, but he’s right-armed and lives in a spacious park that is murderous on left-handed power hitters (or at least so the reputation goes). Cain is able.

Well, a year later and his plots for 2008 look a lot like his plots for 2007.  Sure enough, a lot of his peripheral stats look similar from 2007 to 2008, and the end result was the same, including the “don’t let the record fool you” part.  It now looks like Cain is doomed to play second fiddle to Tim Lincecum for the rest of his natural life.  He’s now 23, so there is still room for growth.  If I were a Giants’ fan, I would just have prefered that there would have been more signs of it last year.  Still, Cain posted a VORP of 43.2, which… ain’t bad.  I have to wonder if my perception of him wouldn’t change if he wasn’t living in the shadow of Mr. Lincecum.

Here’s an idea: Last year, my “yeah, that about sums it up” for the Giants was a list of all the hitters under the age of 30 who had received significant playing time.  It consisted of one name.  And that guy, Kevin Frandsen, got one measly at bat in 2008.  The Giants remedied this a little bit by letting guys like Bowker and Fred Lewis have a turn at being regulars and a quick look at the Giants Baseball Reference page will show that they started giving a lot of 20-somethings a good look.  Last year, there was talk of trading a guy like Noah Lowry for a young bat, maybe something like a Delmon Young/Matt Garza trade.  Lowry was hurt and is now a question mark, but maybe someone might be enticed by the siren song of Jonathan Sanchez (he’s young!  he strikes guys out!), who is better than his numbers make him look.  A good pitching-for-hitting trade might be just what the doctor prescribed for medical use only.  (Sorry.)

Outlook: Part of the problem with doing these in reverse order of Pythagorean expectation is that I’m writing a lot of “they’re going to be awful again next year” outlooks.  Well, they are going to be awful again next year.  The thing that would concern me as a Giants fan is that when Tim Lincecum comes up for a real contract, there will be a certain fifth starter still on the books who is eating up $17 million per year in payroll.  That’s going to be the real legacy of Barry Zito.  He’s not going to be a great pitcher again, but if it were just a free agent bust, those things happen.  What happens when his contract causes one of the best young pitchers to come along in a while to become too rich for San Fran’s blood?


7 Responses to 2008 Sabermetric Year in Review: San Francisco Giants

  1. RollingWave says:

    “He’s not going to be a great pitcher again”
    I was hopeing he would just be a decent pitcher, or at least something less than a utter disastor.
    with the way he pitched last year, one wonder if the Giants were better off even with something like Kei Igawa

  2. Shane says:

    What happened to Barry Zito though? I mean I expected him to slid quickly into average/completely not worth the money, but this is above and beyond horrible.

  3. Pizza Cutter says:

    Eric and I actually have an article on the subject in the upcoming Graphical Player. I wrote the section on Zito. The short version is that I don’t think he was ever really that good to begin with. He just got lucky at some very fortunate times so that people’s perception of him always outstripped what he was really capable of.

  4. RollingWave says:

    really? I thought that while he was never truely awsome (undeserving cy young non-withstanding) he was still truely good at the early stages of his career.
    the main problem seems to be that his FIP went from 3.52 in 01 to a fairly steady upward trend of 4.72 this year (which actually went back down some, it was 4.89 in 06! though that might be helped by his low HR/FB this year)
    If one really need any obvious reason, since they started tracking FBs in fangraph…
    05: 87.3
    06: 85.8
    07: 84.5
    to illustrate how bad that is, here’s some 40 year olds’ numbers this year
    Mussina: 86.4
    The problem with Zito was the he never had a amazing strikeout rate to begin with, he also walked more than a true control pitch, and he also gives up more flyballs, that’s a pretty bad combo, but being a lefty with a solid FB and a very good curve with a great idea of how to pitch, he got away with all that. he’s sort of the pitcher’s Ben Grieves I guess, a guy with “old pitcher’s skills” before he was a old pitcher. but when he really start to become a old pitcher… yikes

  5. obsessivegiantscompulsive says:

    Zito’s forte was that he was one of those crafty lefties that Tom Tippett wrote about in his examination of the DIPS theory: Zito could reduce his BABIP significantly below that of the average pitcher, which allowed him to post higher walk rates than is normally feasible.
    His thing was that there was a great separation between his fastball and his curve. Unfortunately, as his MPH went down, so did the separation, and he wasn’t able to strike out as many.
    However, he apparently was able to find a way to jack his MPH back up to 87 MPH late in the 2008 season. And he was able to strikeout a significantly greater number of batters once that happened, returning his effectiveness to that of early in his career, late in the 2008 season.
    If he’s able to continue throwing for that velocity in 2009, he should have a season as good as any of his average years in Oakland, which would be more than good enough to justify his salary for the season. I personally think that the money got into his head and it took him almost two seasons to get over it.
    Luckily, he wasn’t paid that much relatively to average pitchers, so while he was bad, he wasn’t horribly overpaid, he got $10M in 2007, $14.5M in 2008, it was worse in 2008 but at least he seemed to have things figured out at the end of the season, in terms of being able to strike out guys a lot like when he was first in the league.

  6. obsessivegiantscompulsive says:

    About Wilson, it should also be noted that he was lights out when coming in a save situation, but it was non-saves that killed his ERA and WHIP.
    About Rowand, it should be noted that he batted over 900 OPS for the first two months then in the 600’s after that. A hitter don’t suddenly get that bad, so I believe it was either an unreported injury or lingering problems with the severe sholder injury he suffered early in April that finally affected his hitting, giving me hope that he’ll be a big contributor in 2009 offensively.
    Really, Lewis is the guy replacing Bonds in 2008, he was the Giants main LF in 2008.
    About Omar, according to PMR on Baseball Musing, Vizquel was among the top SS in the majors defensively in 2008.
    About Cain, a key change in 2008 that you didn’t note was that previously his good numbers were all a creation of his home numbers, as he was horrible on the road. However, in 2008, it was his first season where he pitched as well on the road as he did at home. I take that as a sign of development and maturity that will show up in 2009 in his performance.
    About Frandsen, it should be noted that the Giants had big plans for him, he probably would have been the opening day starter at 3B if he didn’t blow out his Achilles tendon just before spring training ended. He still might end up playing significant time at 2B and 3B in 2009 for the Giants.
    And the Giants in 2008 had something like over 20 players make their major league debut with them, 11 of them position players, so they gave a lot more opportunity to young players than you gave the impression of initially and didn’t touch on the full scope. In particular, they gave significant time to Emmanuel Burriss, Pablo Sandoval, Travis Ishikawa, and Nate Schierholtz late in the season, plus gave a lot of time to Brian Bocock (though that was out of necessity) and Eugenio Velez early in the season, in addition to Lewis and Bowker, who you did mention. I would also note that Bowker came up after the Giants gave Dan Ortmeier a chance to be the starting 1B and he just blew his chance big time, and the Giants at that point gave Bowker his chance.
    In addition, people always forget to mention that the Giants have been giving 20-something pitchers like Lowry, Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, Wilson, Romo, Hinshaw, Valdez, and others a chance to pitch for a number of years now. The reason the position players didn’t get much of a chance before was, basically, because they weren’t that good at all. Lewis was good but Bonds had a pretty good grip on LF for a good number of years.
    Also, you give the impression that Zito will prevent the Giants from signing Lincecum long-term. What you don’t realize or are aware of, is that our new managing owner, Bill Neukom has basically declared to Sabean that he should not worry much about the finances, tell me how best to spend money, and if he agrees, he’ll look into how to get more money to make it happen. Given Lincecum’s significance to the future of the team, I doubt that Neukom would allow Lincecum to get away just because of Zito’s contract.
    In addition, I just realized, but by that time, there is currently no large contract on the books for 2014, which is Lincecum’s first free agent year. Zito’s contract ends in 2013 and the Giants control Lincecum to 2013 (he did not put in a full season in 2007, so the Giants control him that long).
    The thing is that the Giants will not be awful in 2009, they will be competitively around .500. They played .500 for the months of August and September in 2008, with basically the players they have today, so as long as players continue to play together at the same rate, they should be around .500. In fact, they were around .500 much of the season, only suffering early with Roberts stupidly played injured and couldn’t hit, resulting in the Giants 0-6 record with him starting and leading off, once Durham was traded, after Valdez was gone for the season, going 7-10 in May after he went down injured, and after Vizquel returned to the lineup and couldn’t hit at all.
    In addition, they suffered a lot of blown wins in 2008, Lincecum had 5 himself and Cain probably lost at least that many wins because of bullpen bungling. That should be greatly reduced in 2009 because of the addition of Affeldt and having Romo and Hinshaw pitch an entire season instead of about a half. The bullpen cost a lot of wins and improvement in that area alone would help the team reach near .500.
    Furthermore, the Giants are targeting improvement, so they have been actively searching for another good bat to add to the lineup, particularly up the middle, with strong interest in Furcal, Renteria, and Hudson.
    As scary as it may sound, the Giants rotation could get a lot better. Sanchez was in his first season as a starter in the majors and had a sub-4 ERA around the mid-way point before he got either gassed or injured (he eventually did go on the DL). If he properly prepares in this off-season, there is the possibility of him having a sub-4 ERA in 2009.
    Similarly for Zito, as I noted separately, he somehow had upped his velocity back to the speed of his youth, and it has shown up in his results in terms of how often he strikes out batters, reaching levels he has not seen since his early Cy Young winning days.
    All those are factors why the Giants should do better than they did in 2008, Sandoval is a huge upgrade offensively over Castillo at 3B, 1B and SS were so horrible that it couldn’t get worse (could get lot better with free agent plus Burriss), same for Rowand in CF, Winn is Mr. Steady, and Lewis has been pretty steady while in the majors so far, and Molina has been good as well. And Burriss is poised for a breakout year in 2009, his strikeout rate was super, as well as his walk/strikeout ratio, plus our hitting coach is going to work with him on swinging for power.

  7. Steve says:

    So, Vizquel was +9 by the Dewan +/- system, 2nd overall in Pinto’s PMR, and near the top in THT’s RZR…but he was “little better than average”?
    I swear, the anti-Vizquel bias in the sabermetric, FJM-clone community is growing to nearly Eckstein level. The guy was well above average in the field when he actually played, even if he was horrible with a bat in his hands.

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