Wait 'Til Next Year: Poor pitching sinks defending champion Giants
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait ‘Til Next Year series. Next up: the San Francisco Giants.
NOTE: All stats are through Sept. 29.
Current Record: 82–75 (.522, second in the NL West)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 29
What went right in 2015: As one might expect regarding the last National League team to be eliminated during the regular season, quite a lot went right for the defending world champion Giants in 2015. Superstars Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner had representative seasons at the plate and on the mound, respectively, with Posey once again performing like a top-five MVP candidate (albeit in a year in which Bryce Harper should win the award unanimously). Bumgarner not only showed no ill effects from the 270 innings he threw in his age-24 season last year, but he also pitched even better than he did in carrying San Francisco to its third title in five years, setting personal bests in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, walks per nine, strikeouts per nine, strikeout-to-walk ratio and innings pitched (throwing one more frame than he did in the 2014 regular season).
The Giants also continued to have unexpected success with their home-grown talent. Twenty-four-year-old third baseman Matt Duffy and 27-year-old righthanded starter Chris Heston (who no-hit the Mets at Citi Field on June 9) both exceeded expectations to become valuable contributors in their rookie seasons, and 26-year-old righty Josh Osich deepened an already strong bullpen after making his major league debut in early July. Meanwhile, 24-year-old second baseman Joe Panik built on his surprising freshman campaign with an even better sophomore season, making his first All-Star team.
Led by Posey, Panik, first baseman Brandon Belt and a power surge from shortstop Brandon Crawford, who also made his first All-Star team and has hit 20 home runs, doubled his previous high, the Giants' offense has been among baseball's best, ranking fourth in runs scored per game.
San Francisco also got good work from its bullpen, which has compiled the third-best relief ERA in the NL, behind those of only the Pirates and Cardinals, and which is tied for the third-best save percentage in the league behind those two playoff-bound squads. George Kontos and Hunter Strickland, the latter of whom allowed just four home runs in his first 55 games after allowing six in eight appearances in last year’s playoffs, took big steps forward there. Thanks in large part to those two, the top five men in San Francisco’s 'pen by appearances (closer Santiago Casilla, LOOGY Javier Lopez, Kontos, Sergio Romo and Strickland) have combined for a 2.40 ERA over 273 2/3 innings.
What went wrong in 2015: All-Star and freak-flag mascot Hunter Pence finished last year with the longest active streak of consecutive games played in baseball, having not missed a game since he was with the Phillies in April 2012. However, due to a variety of injuries that began with a broken arm in spring training, Pence appeared in just 52 games this season. Panik played in just three games after Aug. 1 due to a lower back injury. Meanwhile, oft-injured centerfielder Angel Pagan managed to stay healthy but actually hurt the team by doing so, playing poorly in the field and sinking into an awful slump in mid-May from which he never recovered; after a strong start, his production vanished, creating an offensive sinkhole in the lineup that lasted until after his late-August DL stay for patellar tendinitis.
Meanwhile, the rotation behind Bumgarner and Heston was a mess. Jake Peavy, who has been the only other Giants starter to post an ERA+ above league average, missed most of the first half of the season with a bad back. Tim Lincecum’s season, and possibly his San Francisco career, ended before Peavy returned, as he was diagnosed with a degenerative hip condition while on the DL after getting hit in the right forearm by a comebacker and had season-ending surgery in early September.
Charged with replacing Lincecum in his July return from 2014 elbow surgery, Matt Cain managed just three quality starts in 10 tries, posting a 6.15 ERA before being bounced to the bullpen in September. Veteran Tim Hudson also got the bullpen boot in early September with a 4.80 ERA in 17 starts. Unfortunately, his intended replacement, deadline addition Mike Leake, landed on the disabled list after his first start for the team and then struggled after returning, posting a 5.18 ERA over seven starts, only three of them quality.
All of that forced the Giants to turn repeatedly to Ryan Vogelsong to fill rotation holes, and the veteran responded with a 4.50 ERA in 22 starts. Ironically for a team that won its championships behind strong starting pitching, it was a lack thereof that sunk San Francisco in 2015.
Overall Outlook: The Giants are still a tremendously talented team with am MVP-quality catcher, a Cy Young-caliber ace and a home-grown infield; all six of those players will still be in their 20s next year. All San Francisco really needs to do to rebound from falling short of the postseason this year is to keep everyone healthy and rebuild its rotation behind Bumgarner. With Hudson retiring and Leake, Lincecum and Vogelsong all hitting free agency in November, there’s ample opportunity to do that, provided the Giants can resist the temptation to re-sign everyone, which has been their modus operandi during their current run. Indeed, Lincecum and Vogelsong have both already been re-signed by San Francisco once before, and per the San Jose Mercury News' Andrew Baggarly, re-signing Lincecum yet again is "a matter of when, how much and in what form, rather than if."
Brian Sabean’s work could be done for him in the case of the team’s other deadline addition, outfielder Marlon Byrd, who is likely to return via his $8 million vesting option (Byrd needs 15 more plate appearances in the Giants’ final five games to get there). That may be less than ideal, but if they can fix the rotation, it will be difficult to bet against the 2010, '12 and '14 World Series champions heading into an even-numbered year.