Sep 18, 2013; New York, NY, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain delivers a pitch in the first inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. (Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)
The San Francisco Giants dropped from 12th in the league in runs scored during 2012 to 21st last year. They also fell from 7th in ERA to 22nd. However, when looking at wins above replacement—better known as WAR, which is far from a perfect stat—it becomes clear that in order to compete in 2014, the Giants need better pitching.
While the offensive component of WAR is probably quite trustworthy, the defensive aspect is still a work in progress. Here’s Colin Wyers, formerly of Baseball Prospectus and currently in the employ of the Houston Astros, on WAR:
"We are more confident that the gap between their offensive production (measured by OPS, linear weights, or anything in between) is meaningful—that is to say, reflective of what actually happened—than the difference between them in DRS [the advanced defensive metric Defensive Runs Saved]. If you don’t believe me, you can ask John Dewan, who runs Baseball Info Solutions, the organization that collects the data and runs the calculations behind DRS. At SABR Analytics, he was asked about the reliability of those measures, and said:“I feel like we’re getting about 60 or 70 percent of the picture with current defensive metrics versus 80 or 90 percent on offense,” said Dewan. “If I knew how to find the other 40 percent, I’d be doing it!”"
The flaws of WAR having been acknowledged, I still believe it’s a useful stat when trying to take a bottom-line, holistic view of things. Thus, when comparing the 2012 Giants to the 2013 Giants, WAR is probably the best tool we have.
Surprisingly, the 2013 Giants position players were just about as good as the 2012 version, which—as you may recall—won the World Series.
"2013 Giants Position Player WAR: 26.32012 Giants Position Player WAR: 27.1"
The difference is negligible. Buster Posey (7.7 WAR in 2012, 4.8 WAR in 2013), Angel Pagan (4.5 WAR in 2012, 1.3 WAR in 2013) and the left field situation were all worse last year than they were in 2012. However, Hunter Pence (5.4 WAR in 2013) and Brandon Belt (1.7 WAR in 2012, 4.0 WAR in 2013) made up most of that gap.
Getting a healthy season from Pagan in 2014 would appear to be a huge key to the club’s success, particularly since the plan is to run out the light-hitting Gregor Blanco as the primary left fielder once again. The absence of Pagan from June through August of last season due to a hamstring injury forced the Giants to rely on Andres Torres as their primary left fielder, with Blanco moving to center. Torres, Blanco, Brandon Crawford and the pitcher’s spot left the Giants with four lineup voids.
If Pagan were to go down again 2014, the club would likely have to turn to the light-hitting Juan Perez in center field. A bottom half of the order consisting of Brandon Crawford, Perez, Blanco and the pitcher’s spot won’t suffice. Offensive outfield depth clearly remains an issue for the Giants.
Yet general manager Brian Sabean is right to believe the offseason approach needs to be centered on pitching rather than offense. Sabean said,
"“I think if you look at the Dodgers and more so who went to the playoffs in the National League, the league is very pitching-centric and we failed in that area from top to bottom (last season), some of which was health related. In our estimation, this is a proven model and it worked for us in 2010 and 2012. It’s working for other teams as we speak, including the teams that went to the playoffs.”"
The statistic I’m going to use to compare the 2012 and 2013 pitching staffs is RA9-WAR, or WAR based on runs allowed per nine innings. This stat gives the totality of the blame or credit for runs allowed to the pitching staff. Obviously, the stat is flawed because it totally disregards defense and luck. However, we aren’t looking for perfection here, just a general comparison between the Giants pitching staff that posted a 4.00 ERA last year and the one that posted a 3.68 ERA en route to a championship the season before.
"2013 Giants Pitching Staff WAR: 5.62012 Giants Pitching Staff WAR: 14.9"
Matt Cain (5.6 WAR in 2012, 1.3 WAR in 2013), Ryan Vogelsong (3.3 WAR in 2012, -1.8 WAR in 2013) and Barry Zito (1.3 WAR in 2012, -2.3 WAR in 2013) accumulated 13 fewer wins in 2013. The Giants finished 16 games behind the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers, so repeat seasons from Cain, Vogelsong and Zito might have made the NL West race closer last year.
It’s too simplistic to say that the Giants will be great again if they just get the rotation fixed. Baseball doesn’t lend itself to that type of analysis, unfortunately. It’s possible the Giants will get their rotation fixed only to watch the offense completely collapse.
The Giants need Cain—the staff ace—to get back on track, and he showed signs of doing that by lowering his ERA from 5.06 before the All-Star break to 2.36 in the second half last year. The Giants re-signed Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $35 million deal in the hopes that he can continue to trim his ERA. After posting a 5.18 ERA in 2012, Lincecum trimmed that down to 4.37 last season. Sabean declined club options on Vogelsong and Zito while adding Tim Hudson to the back of the rotation via a two-year, $23 million deal.
Better seasons from Cain and Lincecum, an improved back of the rotation with Hudson and whomever else Sabean can acquire, and the steady presence of Madison Bumgarner (3.2 WAR in 2012, 4.4 WAR in 2013) would combine to make this rotation significantly better in 2014.
If the Giants are going to get back into the postseason in 2014, it will likely have to be via much-improved starting pitching.