2008 Sabermetric Year in Review: San Francisco Giants
November 17, 2008 7 Comments
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
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?