Pressing Questions: The San Francisco Giants

Roto Arcade

The Giants improbably won their second World Series over the past three years in 2012, once again riding strong pitching and terrific defense in the postseason. They did so despite being down 2-0 against the Reds while heading to play the next three games in Cincinnati and then down 3-1 against the Cardinals in the NLCS, only to outscore their opponents 36-7 over the next seven games – all wins. San Francisco became champs while hitting by far the fewest home runs in major league baseball, although that had plenty to do with AT&T Park, which had the lowest HR Park Factor (0.522) of any stadium since 2002.

The Giants somehow won the World Series despite Tim Lincecum finishing with a 5.18 ERA, losing their closer (Brian Wilson) for the year, once again getting nothing out of Freddy Sanchez, Aubrey Huff posting a .192/.326/.282 line, Pablo Sandoval missing 50+ games and also disappointing while playing, Brandon Belt not even coming close to breaking out like hoped (he didn’t hit his fifth homer of the year until September 4 - his first of the year against a right-hander), Hunter Pence batting .219/.287/.384 over 219 at-bats after SF traded for him and losing Melky Cabrera, who was leading the league in batting at the time, to a season-ending PED suspension. Moreover, the Giants spent $38.1 million on Aaron Rowand, Wilson, Sanchez and Huff last year. The entire A’s payroll was $52,873,000.

[Also: Ryan Braun again in middle of PED storm]

Of course, plenty of other things went right, and most teams need some luck to win a championship, which the Giants undoubtedly had during their October run. Barry Zito saved possibly his two best starts since joining SF for the most important times, shutting out the Cardinals over 7.2 innings in St. Louis during an elimination game and beating Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series in a matchup that Vegas pegged the Tigers as nearly 3-1 favorites (about as big as any single baseball game ever gets). Yes, the same Zito who threw this pitch last season. Marco Scutaro hit .500 in the NLCS, and after having 12 homers over 396 regular season at-bats, Sandoval hit six in 66 postseason ABs, including three over his first three at-bats in the World Series. And then there was this.

While the Giants stood pat during the offseason, with their only major moves re-signing their own players, the Dodgers sure look formidable. Arizona could be sneaky good too. This division should be hard fought, and despite SF being the defending champs, Los Angeles may enter 2013 as the favorites in the National League West.

Q: Can Tim Lincecum bounce back?

A: Lincecum won a Cy Young in each of his first two full seasons in the league, and he wasn’t too bad his following two campaigns either. The wheels suddenly fell off last year, when he posted the fourth worst ERA (5.18) in all of baseball among those who qualified. His K rate (9.19) remained strong but his BB rate (4.35), HR/FB% (14.6), BABIP (.309), LOB% (67.8) and LD% (23.8) were all career-worsts. Of course, when a previously elite pitcher puts up some of the worst numbers in baseball, poor peripherals are expected.

So what do we make of a former top pitcher who had an ERA of 4.63 or worse in five of six months last year while seemingly healthy and in the prime of his career? Digging deeper doesn’t exactly reveal any definitive answers. His average fastball velocity (90.4 mph) was easily a career low, yet it still remained plenty effective. However, his changeup, which was previously one of the best pitches in baseball, was an utter disaster. It’s hard to argue the difference in velocity was to blame when the heater remained effective, and as someone who watches a lot of Giants games, I mostly blame location problems. But what that means moving forward is anyone's guess.

Lincecum’s SwStr% (11.3) ranked 10th best in major league baseball, so even with continued decreased velocity, it’s tough to blame last year’s performance on diminished stuff, especially after watching him pitch out of the bullpen in the playoffs. He got a haircut, gained eight pounds during the offseason and will become a free agent for the first time after 2013, so he has plenty of motivation to rebound after arguably being fantasy baseball’s biggest bust last year. Lincecum has a favorable home park, bullpen and defense on his side, so he’s a “last year’s bum” target. It might all come down to whether he can regain command.

[Also: Jays' Melky Cabrera will get his ring, dodge hard justice for cheating]

Q: How high should Buster Posey be drafted?

A: Posey became the first catcher in 70 years to win the NL batting title last year, when he also won MVP. He’s been in the league three years and has already taken home these awards: Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year and MVP. Oh, and he’s also won two World Series during the only two seasons in which he’s played fully. That’s not a bad start to a career. His MVP season was especially impressive considering he was coming off a gruesome injury that at the time made many skeptical if he could ever catch again, not to mention he plays in an extreme pitcher’s park. Posey’s numbers versus left-handers last year were silly - .433/.470/.793 with 13 homers over 164 at-bats. He also batted .385 after the All-Star break, which makes your mouth water when you consider he was recovering from a terrible injury, as he continued to improve the further removed he was from it.

Posey’s .368 BABIP last season can reasonably be expected to regress, especially since he’s such a slow runner, but it’s worth noting his career hit rate is .339, so the drop may not be drastic. Moreover, his wRC+ (162) led the National League (tied with Ryan Braun). Still, even as someone who’s never hidden the fact I’m an unabashed Giants fan, I wouldn’t take Posey in the first few rounds of fantasy drafts. Scott Pianowski did a terrific job detailing the problems of relying on a catcher, so I won’t rehash the concerns of banking on someone who plays such a taxing position (although it obviously helps he’ll see time at first base). I love Posey like family, but he’s a risk playing catcher, won’t help in runs scored or stolen bases and has a career 1.58 GB/FB ratio while playing in one of the toughest parks to hit a homer in all of baseball. His current ADP of 13.17 seems too high.

Q: Can Sergio Romo last as a full-time closer?

A: Romo posted a 0.84 ERA and 0.47 WHIP over 10.2 innings in the postseason, including striking out the side in the 10th inning of the World Series clinching Game 4 in Detroit, highlighted by this gutsy pitch to Miguel Cabrera. Why was it so gutsy? Because Romo averaged just 87.7 mph with his fastball last season, and the only reason it’s not always deposited into the seats is because of the deception of Romo’s slider, which is among the best pitches in all of baseball. He’s probably the toughest hurler against right-handers in the game – they posted a .150/.177/.214 line with a 61:4 K:BB ratio in 2011 and a .192/.229/.294 line with a 57:6 K:BB ratio last year. And despite Romo’s high reliance on sliders, he’s surprisingly effective against lefties as well (their line last year of .167/.250/.210 was actually worse than RHB, albeit with nowhere near the same dominant peripherals (6:4 K:BB rate)).

[Also: Marlins owners told Jose Reyes to buy house days before trade]

It’s easy to forget now, but the team turned to Santiago Casilla to close after Brian Wilson was lost for the year. Casilla was actually quite effective in the role (his 2.22 ERA ranks fifth among all relievers over the past three years) until a blister led to a rough stretch that ultimately had him give way to Romo. But the reason Bruce Bochy originally went with Casilla wasn’t about who was the better pitcher, as it had everything to do with Romo’s usage, as the team has been extra cautious with a reliever who threw a slider on 61.8% of his pitches last season – to put this in perspective, the SP who had the highest SL% was Madison Bumgarner with 39.0. Among relievers, only Luke Gregerson tossed more Frisbees (68.6%).

Other than Craig Kimbrel, Romo might be the best reliever in baseball (over the last two years, he’s recorded a 1.65 ERA and 0.78 WHIP with an 8.9:1 K:BB ratio), but he’s dealt with a tender arm while throwing so many sliders, and there’s a reason the team has limited his workload, so it remains to be seen if he can stay healthy as a full-time closer (although to be fair, it’s actually a role that can be treated with kid gloves. Mariano Rivera averaged a modest 62.2 innings over the previous three years before he went down last season). Romo has the upside to finish as one of the top fantasy closers in 2013, but it’s going to come down to health.

Q: Will Matt Cain continue to defy DIPS?

A: For a workhorse with a career 3.27 ERA, it’s pretty crazy Cain had never won 15 games in a season until last year (when he won 16). His career xFIP is 4.19 – nearly a full run higher than his ERA. This obviously has to do with unusually low numbers in factors typically associated outside a pitcher’s control. Cain’s career BABIP is .264, and his career HR/FB% is 6.8 – both well below the league average. But he’s now up to 1,536.2 career innings and has been consistent (he’s never had a BABIP of even .300 or a HR/FB% of 8.5 in any season), so it’s clear he’s an outlier. Last year’s K rate (7.92) was his best since his rookie season, and his BB rate (2.09) was the lowest of his career, as Cain continues to get better. I’m far more worried about his heavy workloads eventually catching up to him than his underlying peripherals regressing to league norms.

[Baseball 2013 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]

Ryan Vogelsong has produced similar disparate numbers since joining San Francisco – his xFIP vs. ERA in each of the past two years has been 3.85 vs. 2.71 and 4.15 vs. 3.37. However, it’s come in a much smaller sample and to complicate matters further, he posted a 2.36 ERA and 1.12 WHIP with a 77:35 K:BB ratio over 110.2 innings before the All-Star break last season and a 4.78 ERA and 1.38 WHIP with a far superior 81:27 K:BB ratio over 79.0 innings after the ASB, so your guess is as good as mine as to how his underlying stats will relate to his run prevention from here on out.

Quick Hits: Here’s an interesting read regarding Brandon Belt. I’m on board taking him as my CI in the later rounds…During his six years in San Francisco, Barry Zito has never finished with an ERA better than 4.00 or a WHIP better than 1.34. Despite spending just one stint on the DL in his career, he’s yet to reach 200.0 innings in a Giants uniform, and his best K:BB ratio since signing the gigantic contract has been 1.9 back in 2009. So here’s the question: does his last two starts in the postseason make his abhorrent contract actually worth it? Considering the revenue the Giants will make from winning the WS (and more importantly, my happiness), I really think it’s a legitimate question (although admittedly the answer is still probably “no”)…After trading Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez for Angel Pagan before last season, all three are on the Giants roster entering 2013. Pagan’s new $40 million contract is risky with his limited track record, but it’s worth noting his numbers have been essentially the same versus the league’s elite pitchers compared to the scrubs, which makes him more valuable for teams expecting to make playoff runs. Essentially the opposite of Josh Hamilton….Before shutting out the Tigers over seven innings in Game 2 of the World Series, Madison Bumgarner had a 6.85 ERA over his previous nine starts, as he was clearly wearing down. Mad Bum claims he’s healthy now and has fixed a mechanical problem, but for a young pitcher who threw more sliders than any starter in baseball last year, he’s certainly not without risk.

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