Giants not built for October.
The San Francisco Giants will finish the regular season ranked in the top 10 of the ESPN Power Rankings for the eighth straight week, and in 16 of the final 17. The Giants finished with three straight fifth-place rankings, the highest they have been ranked this season. And still, the Giants have no chance of winning the World Series.
The Giants have played well this season, and they have been red hot in September, but they are a thin team that has feasted on inferior competition. Buster Posey is one of the best players in baseball, and Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner are top-30 pitchers. But outside of that, the quality dips quickly.
Pablo Sandoval is someone the team needs to be a star, but according to both wOBA and wRC+ he has not been a top-10 third baseman this season. Angel Pagan has been good but streaky -- in two months, he has compiled an OPS of .884 or higher, but in the other four months he has compiled an OPS of .760 or lower. Hunter Pence has turned back into the average outfielder that he was prior to last year. In September, Marco Scutaro and Brandon Belt have been the team's second- and third-best hitters, and both are rocking BABIP's well above their previously established norms.
Despite this lack of depth, which has forced the team to play retreads Gregor Blanco and Xavier Nady down the stretch, the team has chosen to sit atop Mount Pious and banish Melky Cabrera from even having a shot to contribute in the postseason. This shortsighted decision will leave them either playing the Blanco/Nady combo in left, or pushing Belt and Posey to suboptimal defensive positions -- Belt in left and Posey at first -- so that Hector Sanchez and his 2.3 walk rate (lowest in the NL among those with at least 200 plate appearances) can catch. Neither option is palatable, and even if Cabrera wasn't 100 percent when he came back, he would have been a better contributor than Blanco, Nady or Sanchez. This lack of depth offensively would also be felt in a major way if San Francisco were to ultimately reach the World Series, as they do not have an obvious candidate for designated hitter.
Reaching the World Series seems a bit far-fetched at this point, however. Pitching becomes paramount in the postseason, and at this point the Giants rotation essentially amounts to "Bumgarner, Cain and pray for rain." Both starters have pitched consistently well throughout the season, but after that, things get shaky. On Sunday, Tim Lincecum became just the 11th pitcher in Petco Park history to allow three or more home runs in a single outing, and after the game he had to confirm that he would actually be part of the postseason starting rotation. That this was even a question shows how far the two-time Cy Young Award winner has fallen. His 4.19 FIP is more than a half-run worse than his rookie season and is by far the worst mark of his career. The picture isn't much rosier for Ryan Vogelsong. While the right-hander has better numbers for the season, he has been cuffed around lately. After compiling a 2.36 first-half ERA, he has struggled to a 5.11 ERA since the All-Star break.
A look at how each contender has fared in terms of shutdowns verus meltdowns.
Team SD/MD MLB Rank
Orioles 2.75 1
Braves 2.72 2
Athletics 2.57 3
Rangers 2.50 4
Rays 2.42 5
Dodgers 2.23 6
Nationals 2.15 7
Reds 2.08 8
Yankees 1.98 12
Tigers 1.81 15
White Sox 1.67 18
Giants 1.48 22
Angels 1.37 25
Cardinals 1.36 26
In most seasons, this might not be as big of an issue, as the Giants generally have a rock-solid bullpen. That has not been the case this season. Looking at shutdowns and meltdowns, which is a more evolved measuring stick than saves and blown saves, the Giants have one of the worst bullpens in the game, a sharp contrast to the past two seasons. Their SD/MD ratio is 22nd overall and ranks 12th among the 14 teams who have either clinched postseason berths or are still in the running (see table). Looking at context neutral wins, or WPA/LI, which is also a great way to look at reliever performance, we can see the Giants have slid here as well. In 2010 and 2011, they produced top-10 units, but this season they have slipped all the way to 28th in baseball -- only the Cubs and Astros have been worse.
It's not hard to see why. The team's best reliever, Sergio Romo, has to be treated with kid gloves. The fragile righty has averaged well under an inning per appearance in his career, and has never thrown more than 62 innings in the regular season. This season, he has logged appearances on three straight days only twice -- once in mid-May, and then again right after the All-Star break, when he had a few extra days of rest. Romo is terrific when he pitches, but on days that he is unavailable, the Giants bullpen is woefully thin. Jeremy Affeldt has 16 shutdowns against 15 meltdowns this season, and he may be the next-best option. Rookie George Kontos is the only other pitcher in the zip code, and he has more meltdowns than shutdowns for the season himself.
Despite the lack of depth, the Giants have been at their best this month -- their .704 September winning percentage (19-
is their best of the season. But that is a bit misleading, as they have played cream puffs or familiar division rivals the entire month. The only time this month that their opponent was playing for something was during a three-game set with the Dodgers. Good teams have to throttle the bad competition, and the Giants have done that, going 43-40 (while being outscored) against teams that are .500 or better, and 50-26 against everyone else.
Technically, every team that reaches October has a chance to win the World Series, simply because they have a ticket to the dance. But while the Giants have punched their dance card, it may be quickly discarded. Posey, Matt and Bumgarner are three of baseball's best players, but outside of them, the Giants have very few sure things. The Giants have scored plenty of runs in the second half, but many of their hitters are playing over their heads, and the overall depth is still thin. The same is true of the team's pitching, and on nights when Lincecum and Vogelsong pitch, San Francisco will likely need to ladle on the runs in order to win. Every team has a shot to win, but even though they will avoid the play-in game, the Giants will face longer odds than their National League counterparts this October.