Pressing Questions: The San Francisco Giants

Dalton Del Don
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After winning the World Series in two of the previous three seasons, the Giants finished 10 games under .500 and 16.0 games out of the N.L. West in 2013. A team built on pitching, San Francisco finished with the 21st worst ERA (4.00) despite AT&T Park once again playing as an extreme pitcher’s park (only PETCO suppressed runs more) with a defense that posted the sixth-best UZR in all of baseball. The Giants’ hitting wasn’t any better, as only the Marlins hit fewer home runs. San Francisco suffered some injuries but hardly enough to blame for its disappointing 2013, and the team brings back mostly the same roster in 2014.

[Baseball 2014 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]

The Giants re-signed Hunter Pence, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong while also bringing in Tim Hudson and Mike Morse through free agency. Mercifully, Barry Zito’s contract also finally came to an end. It’s clear they are banking on bounce back campaigns from Matt Cain, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Lincecum to go along with a full season from Angel Pagan and further growth from Brandon Belt. Again, this is a team that has won two World Series over the past four years, so it’s not a stretch they return to contending in 2014, but playing in a division that’s led by arguably the World Series favorite as well as improving squads in San Diego and Arizona, a wild card berth looks like a best-case scenario.

Onto the pressing questions:

Q: How should Buster Posey be valued?

A: Over his first three seasons in the league, Posey won Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, MVP and two World Series rings. As a result, he was drafted high in fantasy leagues last year, when he turned in a relatively disappointing campaign (.294-15-61-72) in which he finished outside the top-150 fantasy players. Posey’s K% (11.8) and BABIP (.312) were both the lowest of his career, so it appears his “down” year featured some bad luck (he also didn’t hit a single home run with RISP, slugging .352 over 125 at bats). Since he sometimes plays first base, he’s also accumulated 1,205 plate appearances over the past two seasons despite being a catcher in the National League. Posey is still just 26 years old and is one season removed from hitting .336/.408/.549 (ZiPS projects only Mike Trout as having a higher WAR in 2014). I’m personally waiting on drafting catchers, but there remains a pretty strong argument Posey should still be the first off the board at the position.

Q: How should Matt Cain be valued?

A: Cain finished with a 4.00 ERA last season for the first time in his career since his rookie year back in 2006. He had five truly terrible starts (when he allowed 37 earned runs over 24.1 innings) that all came in the first half, but he posted a 2.36 ERA and 1.12 WHIP after the All-Star break. Yes, those five starts count the same, but when you consider Cain’s average fastball velocity (91.2 mph) was exactly the same as it was the previous two seasons and his slider (86.5 mph) was actually the highest since his rookie campaign, it’s probably safe to call Cain a nice rebound candidate (a quick aside: this may mean nothing, but Cain’s fastball usage from 2010-2013 looks like this: 63.2%, 54.7%, 50.6% and 48.8%, respectively. Over this same span, his slider usage has been 9.5%, 15.8%, 19.9% and 28.2%).

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Cain picked up a loss or no-decision during a whopping 15 quality starts last season, but it’s funny to talk about him and bad luck, since he’s been a major outlier in HR/FB% throughout his career, a category mostly regarded out of the pitchers’ control. In fact, before last year, Cain’s career 6.8 HR/FB% was the lowest in all of baseball from 2005-2012 (minimum 80 starts), but that mark bumped up to 10.8% in 2013. Put differently, Cain’s ERAs over the past three seasons have been 2.88, 2.79 and 4.00. His corresponding xFIPs have been 3.78, 3.82 and 3.88. Coming off an extremely large workload over the previous three seasons (he averaged 238.2 innings when you include the postseason), Cain served up nine home runs in April last year, which is the same amount he allowed in all of 2011 (over 221.2 innings). It’s possible last year’s HR/FB% regression is a sign of it finally catching up to him, but the safer bet is putting more stock in 8.5 years versus three months (last year his HR/FB% was 12.7% in the first half compared to 8.1% in the second). Cain should be drafted as a top-15 fantasy starter in 2014.

Q: How should Pablo Sandoval be valued?

A: Sandoval has never hit more than 25 homers or recorded more than 90 RBI or reached 80 runs scored during his career. He’s also been injury prone, as he’s missed an average of 40.0 games over the past three seasons. And while staying relatively durable last year, he finished with a modest 14 homers (he hit 21.4 percent of that amount in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series) and 52 runs scored. Still, this is a career .298 hitter who’s just 27 years old and likely won’t cost a high draft pick. Sandoval is without question a free swinger (he swung at the third highest percentage of pitches among all batters last season), but this doesn’t totally tell the story, as only three players swung at a higher percentage of strikes (one of them is teammate Brandon Belt, more on him below). Moreover, Panda is also very good at making contact outside the K zone, as his 81.1% mark last year ranked 13th best in all of baseball. In other words, he may swing a lot, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in this case.

Looking past the in depth stats, Sandoval enters 2014 apparently in the proverbial “best shape of his life.” This is usually just noise and typically should be ignored but Sandoval’s weight and offseason conditioning have been a major issue throughout his career, and coming into a contract year (another anecdote that needs to be taken with a grain of salt, admittedly), it makes sense he changed his diet and workouts during the offseason. Sometimes these reports do matter, especially when accompanied by photographic evidence. Don’t be shocked if Sandoval finishes as a top-five fantasy third baseman in 2014.

Q: How should Brandon Belt be valued?

A: Given a (mostly) full shot at regular playing time for the first time, Belt proved he wasn’t a “Quad-A” player, as his impressive minor league track record finally translated in San Francisco. He hit .326/.390/.525 after the All-Star break; that .915 OPS would have ranked 10th best in all of baseball in 2013, including ahead of MVP winner Andrew McCutchen. This despite Belt having to play in arguably baseball’s toughest park to hit for left-handed batters (especially after PETCO moved its fences in last season), as AT&T Park decreased HRs for LHB by 35 percent last season (only Marlins Park and Coliseum were worse in 2013). This is clear when looking at Belt’s splits, as he hit .305/.376/.524 on the road last season, and players typically perform on average around 10% better at home. Put differently, Belt’s 139 wRC+ (this means he created 39% more runs than league average, with it park and league-adjusted) ranked 19th in all of baseball. He’s also a plus defender at first base. All that said, unfortunately, real life value here isn’t close to fantasy value, as it’s not like Belt won’t have to deal with AT&T Park once again in 2014. Still, that doesn’t mean Belt doesn’t make for a nice target, especially since his buzz has died down. I’ll make a prediction here: Belt will have more fantasy value than Anthony Rizzo in 2014, and the former is currently going 45 picks later in Yahoo leagues.

Q: How should Tim Lincecum be valued?

A: Lincecum has had an interesting career to date, winning the Cy Young during his second and third years in the league, only to post a 5.18 ERA at age 28. Timmy followed that up with a 4.37 ERA and 1.32 WHIP last year, despite a favorable home park and defense. Over those last two years, he’s allowed 44 homers. Over his first five years in the league, he allowed 66 dingers. Lincecum is difficult to dissect, as his fastball graded as a plus pitch in 2012 despite continued decrease in velocity, while his changeup was a huge problem. Last season, the opposite was true, as his fastball graded as one of the worst pitches in baseball while his changeup was one of the best. During Lincecum’s huge decline over the past two years, he’s also posted an 11.2 SwStr%, which ranked fourth best in major league baseball (only Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish and Max Scherzer have been better).

SwStr% is typically a pretty telling stat too (look at the rest of the leaders over the past two years, which almost entirely consists of the game’s best of the best), so it’s pretty crazy only Edinson Volquez has a worse ERA than Lincecum among 74 qualified starters over that span. Command is almost certainly the cause of this, as when Lincecum has missed it’s often badly over the middle of the plate. For what it’s worth, he threw (a lot) during the offseason for the first time in his career, but your guess is as good as mine when it comes to predicting how he’ll perform in 2014.

Quick Hits: Despite not reaching 30 homers, 25 steals, 95 runs scored or 100 RBI and finishing with an .822 OPS, Hunter Pence was the 10th most valuable fantasy player last year. I’ve been mostly bullish about the Giants listed above, but I wouldn’t count on Pence hitting .321/.394/.619 with two outs and RISP again, and while being durable deserves credit, realize he’s achieved his fantasy value over the past while basically never missing any games (Pence has averaged a ridiculous 158.0 games over his six seasons since entering the league), so we’ve only seen his upside and not downside…Considering defense, the signing of Mike Morse was highly questionable, but the Giants’ front office was desperate for power, and the team’s left fielders combined for five home runs last season, while Morse hit nine by May 1 before he injured his wrist.

Kyle Crick is San Francisco’s best long-term prospect, but Edwin Escobar is the better bet to make an impact in 2014. If Vogelsong fails to bounce back or injuries strike, Escobar will be the first to take over. The 21-year-old southpaw had a 24.8 K% and 6.0 BB% last year in Double-A and looks like a nice reserve pick in NL-Only leagues…I have Madison Bumgarner ranked as a top-10 fantasy starter, but it might be worth noting only Ervin Santana had a higher slider percentage last year. MadBum had a 38.0 SL%, while the third highest was Yu Darvish at 31.6%...Tim Hudson is 38 years old and coming off a serious ankle injury in which he’s not fully recovered yet. However, his 1.17 WHIP ranks 21st among starters over the past four years, and while his extreme groundball tendencies might not take advantage of AT&T Park, the Giants’ strong infield defense should. Hudson needs to be downgraded in innings caps leagues where K rate matters, but otherwise, he looks like a huge bargain with a current ADP of 321.79.