2014 playoff team preview: San Francisco Giants
SI.com is previewing all 10 playoff teams as they begin their chase for a World Series title. You can find each team's individual capsule here.
Regular Season Record/Finish: 88-74, second in NL wild-card
How They Got Here: The Giants got off to an outstanding start this season, going 43-21 through June 8. At that point, they had the best record in baseball by 3 1/2 games and a 10-game lead over the Dodgers in the National League West. But they were a losing team from that point forward, going 45-53 and finishing the regular season with a 6-9 record in their final 15 games.
San Francisco had a few hot streaks in the second half of the season, most recently a 13-3 stretch from Aug. 26 to Sept. 12. But it is here less because of anything it did over the past few months and moreso because of the big lead it built up and because of the late collapses of the wild-card challenging Braves and Brewers.
Why They'll Win: The Giants have made some positive adjustments in the wake of their midseason collapse. At the end of June, they demoted incumbent closer Sergio Romo to lower-leverage situations in favor of Santiago Casilla, who was then fresh off the disabled list and has since converted 17 of 18 save opportunities. Jake Peavy has pitched better than anyone had a right to expect since being acquired from the Red Sox on July 26, shrinking his walk and home run rates and going 6-1 with a 1.35 ERA in his last nine starts. Five days after acquiring Peavy, the team designated Dan Uggla for assignment, from which point rookie Joe Panik ran away with the second base job, hitting .338/.367/.414 over 208 plate appearances through the end of the season.
The team also got Brandon Belt healthy just in time after a season in which he missed 96 games due to a trio of disabled list stays. Belt, who had been out for all but five games since July 19 due to concussion symptoms, was activated on Sept. 17 and, in his last six games, has gone 8-for-20 with three extra-base hits and three walks for a .381/.458/.619 line. Speaking of hot hitting, 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey finished on the periphery of this year's MVP debate by hitting .414/.446/.711 with eight home runs over the final 33 games of the season.
Madison Bumgarner has been outstanding since the All-Star break, going 8-3 with a 2.29 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 8.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio and more than a strikeout per inning in 13 starts, 11 of which were quality. That gives San Francisco a legitimate ace to anchor its rotation. What's more, Bumgarner has hit .258/.286/.470 this season with four home runs. Those rate stats compare favorably to the career line of Diamondbacks slugger Mark Trumbo and effectively extend the Giants lineup to nine hitters whenever Bumgarner is on the mound.
Why They Won't: As the fifth seed in the NL, San Francisco has the most difficult route through the playoffs. Simple participation in the Wild-Card Game (a.k.a. the coin-flip game) is enough reason to bet against any team, but the Giants will be playing the Pirates at PNC Park in that game. That’s significant, because the Giants were 2-4 this season against Pittsburgh, which went 51-30 (.630) at home and finished the season by going 17-6 over its last 23 games.
San Francisco would appear to have the upper hand in the pitching matchup, which is likely to be Bumgarner versus Edinson Volquez. But Bumgarner's only two non-quality starts since the All-Star break were his most recent one and a disaster outing against the Pirates (4 IP, 5 R), on July 28, his only start against them all year. Volquez, meanwhile, has gone 9-1 with a 1.85 ERA over his last 17 starts, with a 1.36 ERA over his last 10.
If the Giants survive that game, they’ll have to take three out of five in the Division Series from the Nationals, who had the best record and run differential in the NL this year and look like the best team in the league, if not the entire postseason, heading into October. Washington finished the regular season on a 33-13 (.717) run, and went 5-2 against San Francisco and matched Pittsburgh by going 51-30 at home on the season.
That would be a stiff challenge even if the Giants were clicking on all cylinders, but they're not. Gregor Blanco is doing a capable job of filling in for centerfielder Angel Pagan, who is out for the year following back surgery, but the additional loss of Mike Morse to an oblique injury has left the team with a large hole in leftfield that it has struggled to fill. Travis Ishikawa, who has made three starts in the outfield in his major league career, appears to be the leading candidate to start in left for San Francisco in the playoffs despite the fact that his bat has gone cold and that the chances of him making a costly fielding mistake are significant.
In addition to the hole in left, rightfielder Hunter Pence and third baseman Pablo Sandoval are also bringing frigid bats to the postseason. Pence may have a knack for rallying the troops, but he has managed just a single and two walks in his last 30 plate appearances and is 4-for-his-last-54. Sandoval, meanwhile, has hit .218/.274/.276 in September.
On the mound, late-blooming set-up man Jean Machi, having made a career-high 71 appearances this season, has struggled of late, and the rest of the starting rotation behind Bumgarner and Peavy has been a mess, combining for four quality starts in 15 turns this month. Yusmeiro Petit, who replaced Tim Lincecum in the rotation at the end of August, has been the best of that bunch, going 1-2 with a 4.40 ERA, while Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Hudson have both gone 0-4 with ERAs of 5.53 and 8.72, respectively.
Those rotation issues are compounded by the fact that the Giants will have to burn Bumgarner in the Wild-Card game, meaning he will only be able to make one start in the Division Series. And while Peavy has been excellent down the stretch this year, there has been some luck on balls in play involved in that success, and his next quality postseason start will be his first. Officially, Peavy is 0-3 with a 9.27 ERA in five career postseason starts, three of them outright disasters, but that doesn’t include his performance against the Rockies in the wild-card tiebreaker in 2007. Peavy gave up six runs in 6 1/3 innings in that game, which actually lowers his playoff ERA to 9.10.
Given all of that, there doesn't seem to be much hope for San Francisco winning its third title of the decade.