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2014 Team Previews: San Francisco Giants

If you’ve liked watching the Giants the last few years, I’ve got good news and bad news.

Christian Petersen

If you’ve liked watching the Giants the last few years, I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is that the team is unlikely to win its third World Series in five years. The good news is that you’ll get to watch almost all of the players you’ve grown to love, with only one starting player from last year’s squad departing, and with a rotation and starting lineup that will be almost identical.

2013 Season in Review

After winning the World Series for the second time in three years in 2012, expectations were understandably high entering 2013. Out of the gate, the Giants played well, winning enough to be eight games over .500 and first in the division as late as May 12. But the bottom soon fell out, with San Francisco falling 16 games behind in early September. The Giants ended up tying for third place in the NL West with just 76 wins and a run differential of -62, while falling out of the playoff race fairly early in the season.

Hunter Pence dominated in his first full season with the team after being traded to San Francisco at the 2012 trade deadline, posting by far his best season (5.4 WAR) in 162 games played. Buster Posey was unable to repeat his historic 2012 at the plate, but was still one of the best catchers in baseball. Meanwhile, Brandon Belt threw himself a coming of age party (139 wRC+) at the plate after a so-so sophomore season in 2012 ( 118 wRC+). Overall, the team was just a hair above average offensively (99 wRC+, league average was 96 wRC+). And on the pitching side, the Giants staff stayed slightly above average, finishing 12th with a team FIP of 3.80 after ranking 9th (3.78) the year before.

Key Offseason Moves

All three of the moves highlighted below will be very important to the 2014 iteration of the club, but note that the extension the team signed with Hunter Pence on one of the final days of the season would have appeared here had the criteria been different. I also gave some thought to including "Not Re-Signing Barry Zito" as a key offseason move, but as something of a self-evident truth, I found that there wasn't much to write about it. But on to the other important moves:

1. Signed Tim Hudson to a two-year contract. With a Zito-shaped hole in the rotation and a crew of pitching prospects not due to reach the majors until 2015, the Giants filled a need with Tim Hudson, reportedly fully recovered from a grisly ankle injury suffered while covering first base. Hudson arguably has as much or more promise for 2014 than any of the other free agent pitchers on the market, and unlike with some comparable pitchers, Hudson signed for just two years. The projection systems may be rating Hudson a little too low (1.2 WAR, both Steamer and Oliver; 2.2 WAR ZiPS) given the freak nature of his injury; before getting hurt Hudson had put up three consecutive 2+ WAR seasons and was well on his way to doing so again in 2013 (1.7 WAR in 21 starts). Regardless of whether he returns to those production levels and where he slots into the rotation, however, the Giants could have themselves a steal at 2 years, $23 million.

2. Signed Tim Lincecum to a two-year contract. This deal was a head-scratcher in the industry, but in re-signing Lincecum, the Giants stuck with a player they knew while limiting the length of his contract. It may well be that the Giants could have paid less if Lincecum had tested the market, but part of the general sentiment that he signed at too high a yearly salary may have had to do with the general sentiment that Lincecum might be best used as a reliever going forward. All it would take was for one team (Seattle?) to have viewed Lincecum as a starter, and as VP and Assistant GM Bobby Evans noted on March 14 in Arizona, the team knew it was paying a premium for a shorter-term deal. That may mean that the team is due neither a raised eyebrow for the salary nor a back slap for the contract length. The Giants, who are without much major league depth for the rotation, will truly be banking on Lincecum as a starter in 2014.

3. Signed Michael Morse to a one-year contract. This one is a little more curious for the Giants. An injury-marred season with poor production led Morse to accept a one-year offer for just $6 million. The Giants hope to get seasons like 2010 (133 wRC+) or 2011 (148 wRC+) out of Morse, or at least a season closer to 2012 (113 wRC+) than 2013 (78 wRC+). If they don't, Morse may not be much of a step forward. Gregor Blanco led the team in LF starts last season and stellar defense (10 DRS, 11.8 UZR) helped make him arguably the fourth-most valuable position player on the roster (2.8 WAR). Blanco may still see significant time in the field as a frequent Morse replacement, but because Morse has no career platoon split (.284 vs. LHP, .280 vs. RHP), he is a less-than-ideal part time player.

One to Watch

This one’s easy: Matt Cain. Prior to 2013, Cain went seven years in a row putting up WAR totals of 3.2 or greater, totaling 26.7 WAR in that time frame (3.8 WAR per year). He did that while consistently posting one of the highest fly ball percentages among qualified pitchers, and one of the lowest HR/FB rates. In 2014, Cain posted a measly 1.3 WAR in 184.1 innings while his HR/FB ballooned to 10.8%, easily the highest rate of his career (next highest was 8.4%). That was largely the result of getting hammered in the first half last season (12.7% HR/FB), but who will Matt Cain be going forward, assuming the loose fragments in his elbow don’t bother him? Will he be Matt Cain the Unicorn, a high fly ball, low home run pitcher fairly represented by a 3.68 career FIP? Or will he be Matt Cain of 2014, an innings eater that gets burned more than most by the long ball, fairly represented by his (HR rate normalized) 4.16 career xFIP?

San Francisco Giants by the Numbers

.181: That’s the difference in winning percentage for the Giants in 2013 between games 1 and 2 (a lowly .402 winning percentage) and games 3 or 4 of series (an excellent .583). That was, by far, the greatest discrepancy for any team in MLB last season (only one other team had a discrepancy greater than .1: the Cleveland Indians, at .136). Is this early-series mediocrity or late-series superiority sustainable?

When I looked at a possible correlation between total pitches seen or pitches per plate appearance and a team’s record in late-series games, I kinda/sorta found something – except that the Giants completely broke my model. So maybe there’s something going on here that I didn’t detect, or maybe the Giants’ late-series record was complete chance. Either way, the Giants’ record in late-series games is something to keep an eye on.

2014 Team Outlook

The 2014 team projections at FanGraphs, which take both Steamer and ZiPS into account, would make for a major bounce back campaign: 85-77, good for 4th in the NL. That would still put them off the Dodgers’ 91-71 projected pace, and with the Giants, Padres, Rockies and Diamondbacks all projected within 4 wins of each other, one stumble could mean falling behind. Still, if Michael Morse and Matt Cain bounce back and if aging veterans like Marco Scutaro and Ryan Vogelsong can push back the sun, the Giants’ core that has been together for so long could get one more day of summer.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Ryan P. Morrison is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score, and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, a site on the Arizona Diamondbacks with a sabermetrics slant. You can follow him on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.