Despite Tim Lincecum's no-hitter, Giants still struggling
Tim Lincecum summoned his old brilliance in spinning his second no-hitter inside of a year on Wednesday, and it was a sight to behold. But the reality is that the Giants will need him to pitch a whole lot better if they're going to preserve their shrinking lead in the NL West and return to the postseason.
The no-hitter lowered Lincecum's season ERA from 4.90 to 4.42, and raised his Wins Above Replacement total from −0.5 to −0.1 — which is to say that even while including that stellar outing in his body of work, he's been below replacement level for the third straight year, far removed from his Cy Young-winning dominance of 2008-09 or his still-frontline 2010-11. On a per-nine basis, his home run and walk rates are identical to last year, though his strikeout rate has fallen, and while his batting average on balls in play has as well, it's still within five points of his career norm:
On a performance basis, the major difference between this year's model and last is that Lincecum has been less efficient. His 4.04 pitches per plate appearance, up from last year's 3.89, is the league's fourth-highest rate among qualifiers. The cost of that is roughly half an inning per start; where he was averaging 102 pitches and 6.18 innings per turn in 2013, he's at 98 pitches and 5.73 innings per turn in 2014. Given his sub-replacement performance, that's not the worst thing — at least in isolation — because the Giants' bullpen has the league's third-best ERA (2.65), but the reality is that the team's rotation is quite mediocre, placing increased stress on the relief corps.
The Giants' rotation ERA of 3.74 ranks a middle-of-the-pack eighth in the league, but their 51 percent quality start rate ranks 11th. As I pointed out two weeks ago, among their starters, only Madison Bumgarner (2.63 ERA, 130 ERA+) and Tim Hudson (2.62, 131) are preventing runs at a better-than-average clip, with Lincecum, Matt Cain (4.82, 71) and Ryan Vogelsong (4.13, 83) far off the pace, albeit for different reasons. Cain has been rocked for 1.4 homers per nine and has served two stints on the disabled list, one for a finger laceration, the other for a hamstring strain. After a strong first outing in his return, he's been pulverized for 18 runs in 17 1/3 innings over his last three turns. Vogelsong has been scorched for a .323 BABIP, though his peripherals and ERA are at least much better than last year. Meanwhile, Hudson has been pounded for 21 hits and 13 runs (11 earned) in 10 1/3 innings over his last two turns, taking the shine off what was previously a league-best 1.81 ERA.
The good news is that in the grand scheme, the Giants' 3.65 runs allowed per game ranks third in the league, while their 4.18 runs scored per game ranks fifth; the former is slightly less impressive once you adjust for ballpark, the latter moreso. At 46-32, they have the league's second-best record but still the best run differential (+41), though Wednesday's win was just their fourth in their last 15 games. On June 8, they were 42-21, holding a commanding 9 1/2 game lead in the NL West and on a blistering 108-win pace, but their lead has shrunk to three games thanks to the Dodgers going a league-best 11-5 during their slide.
Lincecum's no-hitter took the sting off a bad bit of news, in that Angel Pagan was placed on the disabled list prior to Wednesday's game due to lower back inflammation. The 32-year-old centerfielder and leadoff man is batting .307/.356/.411, good for a 120 OPS+, but he hasn't played since June 14; after conceding that he wasn't able to swing at full intensity during batting practice sessions on Monday and Tuesday, he was shelved retroactive to June 15. That means he could be back in the lineup as early as July 1 (the Giants are off on the day he's eligible to return).
The Giants have to hope Pagan is back on that schedule, because not only had they gone 2-6 in his absence prior to Wednesday, but it was also just a year ago when his injury was essentially the turning point of their season. He tore a tendon in his left hamstring while running out an inside-the-park home run on May 25, at which point the team was 27-22, in a three-way tie for first place in the NL West. After exacerbating the injury while rehabbing, he underwent surgery a month later and didn't return to the lineup until September 2. The Giants went 34-53 in his absence, and by that point were 20 games behind the Dodgers, who reeled off an historic 42-8 run along the way.
Gregor Blanco started in Pagan's place on Wednesday and as with last year, he figures to get most of the playing time in the middle pasture until Pagan's return. Alas, he's hitting just .239/.316/.310 through 161 plate appearances, and even last year's .265/.341/.350 showing was good for only a 100 OPS+. While his defense is certainly good enough for center, he's a liability against lefties (.232/.323/.311 career). Righty Juan Perez is Bochy's platoon option, but he's shown a drastic reverse platoon split through his 139 PA in 2013-14, and owns a career line of just .228/.272/.331.
Given that they're getting above-average production at every position except second base in terms of OPS+, the Giants' offense can cover for a defensively sound centerfielder. Even so, Bochy ought to consider shuffling his lineup to get Blanco out of the leadoff spot, and while nobody else offers similar speed, every regular save for Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Hicks have higher on-base percentages. The much-improved Brandon Crawford (.260/.338/.463) is one alternative, though his career .311 OBP pales in comparison to Blanco's .344.
Until further notice, Pagan's absence is a transient thing, far less impactful than the rotation in terms of the team's fortunes. Lincecum can't be expected to muster another outing like his no-hitter or to recover his stellar form more than intermittently, but he and his fellow starters will have to pull their own weight if the Giants are to prevail in the NL West.