Sunday, May 4, 2014

What's Going On With: The San Francisco Giants

This is Part 4 of a six-part series looking at the three worst and three best teams in baseball to date, and figuring out why they've done what they've done and whether they'll keep on doing it. Having wrapped up the teams with the worst records (here are the links to the Chicago CubsHouston Astros, and Arizona Diamondbacks), we'll move on the winners. Here's the team with the third-best record, the San Francisco Giants.

How Good Have They Been? The Giants are 20-11, a .633 winning percentage. Over a 162-game season, that's equivalent to going 105-57. There's been a lot of movement among the top teams in baseball, with teams slipping in and out of the top spots. The Giants make it on the strength of a five-game winning streak and nine wins in their last ten games.

How Much of a Surprise is This? Playing in the same division as the high-payroll, star-studded Dodgers, there weren't a lot of people picking the Giants for first. Most had them improving from last year's 76-86, which tied them with the Padres for third in the NL West. Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and ESPN projected 85-88 wins. This is a team that was supposed to have been decent, playing great so far.

What's Been Right? The offense is scoring 4.16 runs per game, sixth in the National League, with a lot of power. Isolated Slugging is slugging average minus batting average--it measures how many extra bases a batter gets per base hit. San Francisco's isolated slugging is .173, second in the National League, as the team's hit the second-most homers in the league. Brandon Belt, Mike Morse, and Buster Posey are among league leaders. All told, considering their tough home park, the Giants have probably been the second- or third-best offense in the league, after Colorado.

The Giants' 2.99 ERA is second in the league, but adjusted for AT&T Park, it's been just a bit above average. The bullpen's been the strength, as the starters' 3.58 ERA is about average. Giants relievers have a ridiculous 1.86 ERA and 0.94 WHIP, enabling the Giants to come from behind to win 5 of the 14 games they've trailed after four innings.

Has Luck Been Involved? Please refer here for a discussion of the terms used below, and why I chose them.

Several factors--record in one-run games, batting average on balls in play, percentage of fly balls leaving the park--suggest that San Francisco hasn't been particularly lucky. But here's a warning sign: Giants pitchers have allowed a .194 batting average with runners in scoring position, lowest in the NL, and way below the league average of .237. That's not likely to be sustained. The Giants seem pretty likely to give up more runs going forward, all things being equal.

What's The Outlook? The Giants are having a nice comeback season from a disappointing 2013. There's nothing in the numbers to suggest they can't continue to be a decent team, in contention for the postseason (Baseball Prospectus gives them a 77% chance of getting there), though the reliever ERA and batting average against with runners in scoring position indicates that some of their pitchers have been playing over their heads so far.

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