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Giants’ model will be impossible to replicate

November 1, 2010 Leave a comment

The San Francisco Giants are World Series Champs. Ask anyone how they did it and they’ll probably give you a similar answer: starting pitching, timely hitting and a great rookie catcher. This formula seems foolproof for playoff success, but any other club will have a difficult time recreating the same type of magic.

For starters (pun intended), elite pitching is incredibly difficult to come across at any cost. After the mid-90’s dominance of Atlanta, much was made of the Braves’ model and the incomparable strength of three Cy Young candidates in your staff. Teams such as the early 2000’s Cubs tried to build on that idea, only to see some of their big arms flame out.

The Giants were able to obtain their homegrown product by investing three first-round draft picks and developing a late-round pick into dominant starters. For the most part, this is extremely rare. A lot has to come together for any of these picks to become as dominant as the Giants’ four have become. Even if a pitcher merely becomes an average starter, injury is a constant reality in the life of a young arm.

Given the time, variability and risk in developing a pitching staff, a different approach has been to add top starters via free agency. The most recent example has been the Yankees, but they haven’t even had a season where four starters have put together great years. Even the World Series Champion Giants engaged in the free agent game by giving Barry Zito an albatross of a contract. It appears that even though free agency can grant a few good years out of a pitcher, building an entire rotation that way will ultimately lead to some bad investments.

The last time four starters of this caliber came together for a World Series win was back in 2005. The Chicago White Sox had a mix of homegrown and acquired talent featuring the fearsome foursome of Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland, Mark Buerhle and Jose Contreras. For a few of these pitchers, this was a year of career years. In the Giants case, their success almost seems guaranteed for a good part of this decade.

In terms of the Giants’ hitting, they will be almost as impossible to imitate. Catcher Buster Posey is another first-round pick who developed into a star. For the rest of the team, you have a bunch of seemingly stop-gap solutions and castoffs: Freddy Sanchez, Juan Uribe, Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell, Andres Torres and Cody Ross make up part of a long list of players who played at unexpected levels. Posey, the team’s only cornerstone, didn’t even join the club until a quarter of a way through the championship season.

The Giants’ hitters feature additional unproductive contracts: Aaron Rowand earning $13.6 million, Mark Derosa at $6.0 million and Edgar Renteria at $10 million. Any small or mid-market team looking to take this approach would go bankrupt before winning a World Series.

For the Giants to come together in 2010, it took a solid group of young players along with several bottles full of lightning while ignoring tens of millions of dollars in dead money. Any GM would be wise to look the other way as they enter the winter meetings.

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World Series Game 1: Cliff Lee’s Crazy Night of BABIP

October 27, 2010 Leave a comment

“This just goes to show you we have no idea what we’re talking about.” – Joe Buck during the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 1

Cliff Lee had his first rough outing of the postseason tonight against the Giants in Game 1 of the World Series. Over 4 2/3 innings, his line was 7 R, 6 ER, 8 H, 1 BB, 1 HBP and 7K. If you think like me, your first glance at that line will have you thinking “where are all the outs in play?” Let’s take a look.

Lee faced 24 batters over his 4 2/3 innings. Here’s a breakdown of the plate appearances:

7 strikeouts
1 walk
1 HBP
5 aerial outs (including bunt foul popup by Linececum)
1 groundout
1 error
8 hits

The Rangers got 8 hits on 15 balls in play for a .533 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and the Rangers defense only converted 6 of 15 balls into outs at a 40% rate. These are some pretty extreme numbers, needless to say. This isn’t to say that Lee got completely unlucky — a lot of his pitches were off and he was giving up a lot of hard-hit balls even though none left the park. However, we can compare this to his season-long performance for some perspective.

Compared to the .533 BABIP in Game 1, that number was at .302 during the regular season. Unfortunately for Lee, really small sample sizes will give you that discrepancy. Over the course of the year, there were only three starts where Lee gave up hits in more than 33% of plate appearances.

5/21 v. SDP
6.1 IP, 32 batters faced, 11H, 8R, 7ER, 7K, 0BB

8/21 @ BAL
5.2 IP, 28 batters faced, 10H, 8R, 8ER, 4K, 1BB

8/31 @ KCR
4.2 IP, 25 batters faced, 10H, 7R, 4ER, 5K, 0BB

Tonight’s start looks pretty similar to each of these. However, Lee had a much more dominant night tonight in terms of missing bats. Here’s the % of batters struck out in each appearance:

5/21 vs. SDP – 21.9%
8/21 @ BAL – 14.3%
8/31 @ KCR – 20%
10/27 @ SFG – 29.17%

So, from a statistical standpoint, this looks like a night of aberration.

FOX Color Commentator Tim McCarver did offer up the observation that Lee was not getting ahead of batters nearly as much as he normally does. In fact, his first pitch strike rate tonight was 60%, compared to 69.8% on the year. On top of that, Lee threw 66.3% of pitches for strikes, compared to 71.14% on the year. These numbers could help explain the fact that he actually walked a batter and hit another. The Giants also could have been able to make better contact off Lee due to his poor control. Still, this doesn’t account for his whole performance.

In the end, it was a slightly-off performance combined with good hitting by the Giants and some bad luck. To top it off for Lee, reliever Darren O’Day immediately surrendered his two inherited runners on a Juan Uribe 3-run homer, adding two more earned runs to Cliff Lee’s total.

These are the kinds of results you get in playoff baseball. It may not be just, but it is definitely exciting.

Update: Joe Pawlikowski at Fangraphs did a great breakdown of Cliff Lee’s pitches showing that the left-hander was hitting the middle of the zone a whole lot more rather than the edge of the plate. This would explain all the hard hit balls, and as a result, hits.

Categories: MLB, World Series Tags: , ,

The LiveBall Sports 2010 World Series Preview

October 27, 2010 Leave a comment

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Up to this Point, the Texas Rangers have had anything but an easy ride in the playoffs. After winning two games in Tampa Bay to open up the ALDS, they dropped two at home and needed Cliff Lee’s Game 5 masterpiece to close out the series on the road. The series saw the Rangers being aggressive on the basepaths, but some of their big bats went silent. The bullpen remained a concern as rookie phenom Neftali Feliz looked shaky, but was not forced into pressure situations. In the end, the combined efforts of Lee, Andrus, Cruz and Kinsler were able to outlast the MLB’s best regular season team.

The Rangers went on to face the Yankees in the ALCS and surprisingly dominated them aside from a Game 5 lapse with the Yankees on the brink of elimination. Cliff Lee was only needed for his Game 3 domination as many of the Rangers’ bats came alive, most notably Josh Hamilton. Hamilton posted a 1.536 OPS in the series, cranking four home runs and drawing eight walks in 28 plate appearances. The Rangers continued their great work on the bases, and veteran Bengie Molina continued a resurgent postseason with a three-run home run against A.J. Burnett in Game 4. While C.J. Wilson struggled in his second start of the series, Colby Lewis was consistent, getting the win in the clinching Game 6. His 1.98 ERA for the series and 13 strikeouts over 13 2/3 innings were critical to the Rangers advancing.

Aside from the Game 2 bullpen breakdown and C.J. Wilson’s Game 5 start, the Rangers were firing on all cylinders all series long. This type of performance was what allowed them to run away with the AL West and will make them tough to defeat in the World Series. Most figure Hamilton and Cruz to get their hits and home runs, but when the Rangers are able to get strong production from Bengie Molina and Mitch Moreland like they did in the ALCS, they are unbeatable.

From the San Francisco Giants’ perspective, it’s clear that the road to the World Series was far more difficult in October for the Rangers, who had to dispel the best two teams in baseball over the 2010 season to reach the Fall Classic.  Of course, the Rangers had to wait until the 5th game of the ALDS for the gut-check that comes with being put on the ropes by a potentially better opponent, and asking your offense to give Cliff Lee the support he needs to propel them to the next round.  They had to wait until the first game of the ALCS to taste defeat in such a crushing manner and make sure they could bounce back from it and still remain the dominant team in the series.

For the Giants, this kind of adversity was a season-long proposition.  It wasn’t until September that winning the division became any more of a reality than it was in Spring Training, when it was an expressed goal of the team.  The San Diego Padres led in this division from April through the middle of September, before the Giants overtook them in the division with two weeks to go.  Even appearing in the post-season wasn’t anything more than a likelihood on the final day of the regular season.  Furthermore, the Giants offense that exists now started the season on many different teams, brought together in July and August to bolster the offense of a team that clearly had the pitching to make it.

Season-long statistics are unappreciative the power of this rotation, because there was a point in the season where Giants’ ace Tim Lincecum was in a batter-to-batter struggle to survive in a rotation.  The Giants went through the whole regular season trying to survive Barry Zito, who started out fortunate, and ended up diasterous.  In any case, the Giants bring an elite pitching rotation to the Texas lineup, one that was not thought to be elite as recent at three weeks ago when the playoffs began.  Texas certainly must feel it’s advantages are held against a low-scoring Giants offense, but with rookie Catcher Buster Posey leading the charge, it’s uncertain if the Rangers hold many advantages at all in this World Series.

The Giants have a fairly straight-forward plan in this World Series: if the Rangers really need two victories from Lee to stay in it, they can really stick it hard to the Rangers as early as tonight.  A win for Lincecum over Lee, and every analyst who picked the Rangers to win is going to be strongly re-thinking such a front running pick.

The Lineups

Texas Rangers
SS Elvis Andrus (.265/.342/.301)
3B Michael Young (.284/.330/.444)
CF Josh Hamilton (.359/.411/.633)
RF Vlad Guerrero (.300/.345/.496)
LF Nelson Cruz (.318/.374/.576)
2B Ian Kinsler (.286/.382/.412)
C Bengie Molina (.249/.297/.326)
1B Mitch Moreland (.255/.364/.469)

Bench: Dave Murphy, Jeff Francoeur, Julio Borbon, Esteban German, Andres Blanco, Matt Treanor

The Rangers come into the World Series with two incredibly hot MVP caliber players: Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz. Both were dinged up at times during the season while posting a wOBA over .400. This success continued into the ALCS and both look unstoppable. Ian Kinsler was one of a few elite second basemen in the playoffs, but is the only one left. Kinsler, Michael Young and Vlad Guerrero round out the meat of the order, but the leadoff, 7 and 8 hitters are still not black holes. Mitch Moreland followed up his solid rookie campaign with a consistent postseason effort and will force Giants’ hurlers to make quality pitches. Catcher Bengie Molina had a terrible season at the plate, but has come alive in the playoffs. The Rangers won’t depend on him hitting against his former team, but he is more than capable of driving in runs. Andrus will never hit for much power, but his ability to make contact and wreak havoc on the bases make him a valuable hitter.

The real loss to the Rangers will come in the games in San Francisco; Vladimir Guerrero will either not be in the lineup or taking the place of David Murphy. This takes out one quality hitter from the lineup, but leaves the Rangers will a better bench bat than anything the Giants have to offer. Manager Ron Washington has said that he will start Guerrero in right field in Game 1 to keep his bat active, but we may see a switch to Murphy in Game 2.

The Rangers are going to score runs in the series, one way or another. The Giants will not only have to focus on slowing down Josh Hamilton, but also Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler and the running game of the Rangers.

San Francisco Giants
CF Andres Torres (.268/.343/.479)
2B Freddy Sanchez (.292/.342/.397)
1B Aubrey Huff (.290/.385/.506)
C Buster Posey (.305/.357/.505)
LF Pat Burrell (.266/.364/.509)
RF Cody Ross (.288/.354/.466)
3B Pablo Sandoval (.268/.323/.409)
SS Juan Uribe (.248/.310/.440)

Bench: SS Edgar Renteria, IF Travis Ishikawa, IF Mike Fontenot, OF Aaron Rowand, OF Nate Schierholtz, C Eli Whiteside

The Giants use their bench interchangeably with their starting lineup in many places.  Every player on their team has started a playoff game except Schierholtz, Ishikawa, and Whiteside.  Fontenot is a platoon player, but Rowand and Renteria might as well be listed with the starters, giving them 11 interchangible players.  Schierholtz is a defensive replacement for the late innings.  Whiteside pinch hits deep in games and otherwise sits there and waits for something terrible to happen to Buster Posey.

The one consistent thing among this bench is that there are really no bats on it.  Edgar Renteria has seen his playing time and plate appearances increase in the playoffs, as he usually leads off for the Giants when he plays shortstop.  When Renteria plays, the Giants usually bump Uribe over to third, or sit Uribe and play Sandoval.  The playing time there is pretty even.  Rowand and Torres play fairly evenly in Center.  Torres is better.  Rowand gets paid more.

Renteria is believed by the team to be a clutch option in the postseason.  He is 3-for-18 with a walk this postseason.  Juan Uribe is 4-for-28  with a walk and a homer.  Sandoval is 3-for-14 with two walks and a double, good for a sparkling .313 on-base-percentage this postseason, leading all 3rd basemen and shortstops on this team.

You probably know by now that Posey and Ross have been tearing the cover off the ball this postseason.  Huff has been a masher for this team all season, and Sanchez gives the team exactly what they are paying for in that two hole.  Cost-free pickups Burrell and Cody Ross are the reasons the Giants have made it this far.  The Giants’ biggest problem is they lack a leadoff man.  Torres is the best man for the job, sporting a .409 on base percentage in the NLCS, but Torres hasn’t convinced manager Bruce Bochy to play him every day in the postseason, and Bochy uses his bench as much as any manager in the game.  Edgar Renteria is an inadequate leadoff man, but as long as Cody Ross is hitting for power, he’s the best the Giants can do in games that Torres doesn’t play.  Mike Fontenot is a decent option to leadoff against RHP.  That’s not a group that includes Cliff Lee.

The other problem here is that the Giants have no bats after the 6 hole.  That’s really going to hurt them on the road in Texas when they have to bat nine position players.  That’s a problem you’ll run into if you only have 5 hitters on your roster.  The good news is, for spots 2-6 in this lineup, the Giants are nearly as strong as the Rangers are.

The Rotations

Texas Rangers
Game 1: Cliff Lee (3.18 ERA, 212 1/3 IP 185K 18BB)
Game 2: C.J. Wilson (3.35 ERA, 204 IP 170K 93BB)
Game 3: Colby Lewis (3.72 ERA, 201 IP 196K 65BB)
Game 4: Tommy Hunter (3.73 ERA, 128 IP 68K 33BB)

Cliff Lee is without a doubt the best pitcher on the Rangers and in the World Series. He also has little competition for “Best Pitcher in the League” honors. The Rangers are 3-0 in his starts this postseason and have a high likelihood of going 2-0 in his two games. Lee last faced the Giants on July 31 of 2009 as a member of the Phillies, pitching a complete game and giving up one run on four hits with a 6/2 K/BB ratio. The Giants team he will face this time is a bit different: Randy Winn, Eugenio Velez and Ryan Garko won’t play a role in this series and Pablo Sandoval and Aaron Rowand are now part-time players. Needless to say, we can’t learn too much from that performance. After shutton down the Yankees, the Giants should be a cakewalk. However, when Cody Ross can homer twice off Roy Halladay, anything is possible.

The rest of the rotation is solid, but will have trouble winning games singlehandedly. Ron Washington made the decision to go with Tommy Hunter again in Game 4, keeping the other pitchers from going on three days rest. Colby Lewis has looked the best in the playoffs, but had some issues giving up the longball during the season. C.J. Wilson has been shaky and led the AL in walks issued, second in the majors to Jonathan Sanchez of the Giants. Tommy Hunter won’t miss many bats, but has some pretty good control. If the Giants come out overaggressive against him, he could eat up some innings in Game 4.

Overall, this rotation is good enough to win the series, but not good enough to sweep. The ultimate fate of the Rangers will depend on how many quality starts they get out of Wilson, Lewis and Hunter.

San Francisco Giants
Game 1: Tim Lincecum (3.43 ERA, 212.1 IP 231K 76BB)
Game 2: Matt Cain (3.14 ERA, 223.1 IP 177K 61BB)
Game 3: Jonathan Sanchez (3.07 ERA, 193.1 IP 205K 96BB
Game 4: Madison Bumgarner (3.00 ERA, 111 IP 86K 26BB)

It’s because of the strength of this group that Tim Lincecum doesn’t qualify as the unit’s clear ace the way that Cliff Lee does for the Rangers.  If we took off the names, you’d struggle to pick the two-time Cy Young award winner’s line out of that group (you’d probably confuse him and Cain), but it’s Lincecum who is expected to draw Cliff Lee twice in this series.

Matt Cain was very underutilized in the NLCS, starting Game 2 and pitching masterfully for a win before not appearing again in the rest of the series.  Because of the strength of the Texas Rangers as a ballclub compared to the Phillies, it’s Cain and not Lincecum who is really going to decide the course of this series.  Even if the Giants are able to steal one from Lee, it’s hard to see the Giants winning the series if they cannot win both of Matt Cain’s starts.

Jonathon Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner will be asked to keep the Giants competitive, which is a tough task since two runs in the first six innings is considered an above expectation performance from the Giants offense.  Colby Lewis is a very tough draw for Sanchez in particular, as the main difference between the two pitchers is that Sanchez has a tendency to put guys on base via the walk.  Bumgarner will be an odds on favorite to win Game 4, which could be a swing game in this series.  I don’t have to tell you how jittery big league managers get about playoff pressure on rookies pitching in the World Series, but if the Giants take home the title, you’ll have to look at Bochy’s decision to pitch Bumgarner in the playoff rotation over the overpaid Barry Zito as one of the biggest decisions of the postseason.

The Bullpens

Texas Rangers
LHP Derek Holland, LHP Darren Oliver, RHP Neftali Feliz, RHP Darren O’Day, RHP Alexi Ogando, LHP Michael Kirkman, RHP Dustin Nippert, LHP Clay Rapada

The Rangers stocked their bullpen with left handers in the ALCS, selecting Kirkman and Rapada over Nippert and infielder Esteban German. Ron Washington may prefer the infielder to an extra pitcher given the four possible games in San Francisco The need for left handers is also less against the Giants as only Andres Torres is a bigger threat against right handers.

Holland will continue his role in providing long relief in case Wilson, Lewis or Hunter leave early. Darren O’Day, Darren Oliver and Alexi Ogando will mix and match for the late innings if needed. Clay Rapada got a lot of appearances against the Yankees, but without the need for a lefty specialist, he could have a minimized role.

After Neftali Feliz’s shaky start to the postseason where he walked five batters in 2 1/3 innings, he has struck out four over his last 2 innings pitched. This was after only walking two batters in the entire month of September. Also, Feliz gave up only one home run after July 18th, but then surrendered one in Game 2 against the Rays. He still hasn’t been presented with a save situation in the playoffs and is a real wild card if he is called upon late in a game.

The Rangers’ bullpen is underrated, but has been the weak link thus far in the playoffs. O’Day, Oliver and Ogando all had great regular seasons and missed bats frequently. However, we’ve already seen nearly every pitcher struggle thus far and the bullpen as a whole is weaker than it looks on paper.

San Francisco Giants
RHP Brian Wilson, RHP Sergio Romo, RHP Guillermo Mota, RHP Ramon Ramirez, LHP Jeremy Affeldt, RHP Santigo Casilla, LHP Javier Lopez

The bullpen is the biggest strength of the Giants over the Rangers, but a lot of that is based on my assumption that the Rangers’ pen won’t revert to regular season performance expectations.  The Giants’ pen had a miniature meltdown in Game 2 of the NLDS, as Sergio Romo didn’t record an out in the 8th inning, and Ramon Ramirez got too much of the plate to Rick Ankiel.  Since then, this group has been tremendous.

If they have a weakness, it’s to left handed batters, but more in quantity than in quality.  Javier Lopez has been a tremendous pickup from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Jeremy Affeldt, who struggled out of the pen this year, has been an effective reliever in the playoffs.  He faced nine batters in the NLCS and gave up one run on no hits.  There are no other available lefties, though late in this series (as well as in the first game), they can use Bumgarner out of the pen.

They are strong and powerful on the right side.  Few superlatives can adequately describe the season that closer Brian Wilson is having.  Wilson technically blew a save in Game 2 of the NLDS, but he hasn’t given up a run in the post season.  Sergio Romo and Ramon Ramirez have been strong contributors to the pen this season.  Guillermo Mota was an effective big league fireman just a season ago, but has had a wildly inconsistent career, and his results have never backed up the stuff he has.  Mota has not appeared in the playoffs this season.

Other Factors

The case for Texas: For being an American League team, the Rangers are structured quite well to play National League style baseball. They have demonstrated extraordinary capabilities on the bases and have a bench full of power, speed and defense. The National League winning the All-Star Game could end up being an advantage for the Rangers.

Nevertheless, the Rangers were much better at home this year, going 50-31 while being under .500 on the road. Cliff Lee winning Game 1 is critical as it swings the homefield advantage in favor of the Rangers. The real question is if the Rangers can hit nearly as well at AT&T Park as they can at home.

Staying with Cliff Lee for a moment, he is also more rested than Giants’ ace Tim Lincecum, thanks to the Rangers win in Game 6 against the Yankees. He will have eight days off between starts while Lincecum will have only 5. This may be good or bad, but Lee has racked up a lot of pitches in the postseason and probably needed some time off for his arm.

Last, the defense is a mixed bag for the Rangers. They have some of the best of the arms in the game, but Guerrero (a once great arm) moving to the outfield makes the defense a tad shaky. Kinsler and Andrus are improving defensively, but Michael Young is moving in the wrong direction. Molina’s veteran presence should solidify their infield defense, but there are places to be concerned.
After their performance in the ALCS, the Rangers seem to be the team to beat. They have a mix of young an old, a few good stories, and a franchise that has done anything but win over its history. It certainly feels like it is the Rangers’ time, but we will have to wait until the finish to know for sure. Until then I am predicting they win the World Series in five games.

The case for San Francisco: The Giants have been a run prevention team all season long, and actually, have done a strong job preventing runs for many consecutive years, which caused them to be a trendy pick to come out of the NL this season.  Those who picked them to reach the World Series ended up being correct.  There is no flaw in run prevention for the Giants.  They finished the season 2nd in all of baseball in team UZR.  They have strikeout pitchers throughout their rotation, and one of the most efficient rotations in baseball.  After they take the starters out, their bullpen holds the lead.  Their poorest rated defenders, Cody Ross and Mike Fontenot, make it up with the bat, and Fontenot has been a plus defender in the past.

Their manager, Bruce Bochy, gets criticized for poor tactical decisions (read: bunting), but he does the big things well.  He gets his bench involved in the world series run, and he makes the tough decisions when it’s obvious that he needs to in order to improve win percentage.  Bochy is a big reason the Giants have come this far.  There’s a reason that Jose Guillen and Barry Zito are not on the playoff roster.

The Giants have overcome a lot to get this far.  They weren’t a great pick to make the World Series, I didn’t think.  This was a weak NL playoff field.  Not many thought the Giants had a chance to beat the Phillies, but they proved to be the tougher of the two teams.  They pitched better than the Phillies and because they had the better pitching performances, the hitters performed better.

The key for the Giants is to ensure that they don’t get down two games in the series to the Rangers as the Rays and the Yankees did.  With Cliff Lee sitting on the other side, that’s easier said that done.  The Giants are ahead if they can go through the rotations once and be tied 2-2 or ahead of the Rangers 3-1.  The Rangers have to be up early, and they have to clinch with Lee when they have the chance.  At the very least, the Rangers need to return to SF up 3-2 if they can’t clinch in 5.

Because of that, I like the Rangers in a short series, but the longer it goes, the more I think it’s viable that the Giants are a World Series Champion.  Right now, I think if they can get by Cliff Lee once, the Giants will win in six games.  Their margin of error isn’t much though, so a sweep or five game series at the hands of the Rangers could be a reality if their offense struggles even just a bit.

Brian Cesarotti wrote the Rangers-centric parts of this post.  Greg Trippiedi covered the Giants.