After redeeming their road trip by taking three out of four from the Marlins, our Diamondbacks return home to face the World Champion San Francisco Giants in a titanic duel of the fates to determine
who will walk out alive who will take the lead by a couple of games in mid-June. If the team dominates the series and it propels them to the playoffs, we'll all talk about how this was a statement series and the team proved their mettle by defeating the defending world champs. If they get swept, well hey, they're still only 3.5 back with almost four months to play.
The Giants have had a weird season. Not the same sort of weird season as the D-Backs--who poured Ian Kennedy's tears, Ryan Roberts' tattoo ink, a dash of grit, and several quarts of alcohol in a blender, chugged the whole mixture and stumbled up the stairs into a fight for the division title--but a weird season nonetheless. Most people haven't really regarded it as such, since the Giants were expected to win, and they've fulfilled their end of the bargain so far, but it's important to look at how they've pulled it off.
After the Giants won the World Series, people largely forgot that their lineup was comprised primarily of veteran role players who unanimously decided around the trading deadline to start playing well over their heads. As a result, it was a huge surprise when the team struggled out of the gate in 2011. At the beginning, Aubrey Huff started playing like Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres started playing like Andres Torres, and so on.
Then the important characters started getting hurt. You may have heard that talented young catcher Buster Posey is out for the season with a leg injury, what you may not have known was that he has joined Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Belt, Mike Fontenot, and now Freddie Sanchez on the list of Giants who have missed significant time with injuries. As angry as we all at how much playing time Mora and Nady get, just imagine how many starts they'd get if the entire starting infield got injured. Yeah, it's like that in SF.
The Giants enter the series leading the NL West by half a game, despite regression, despite injuries, despite pretty much everything. And they've mostly done it on the strength of their pitching staff. At last glance, the Giants had 72 pitchers on their 25-man roster with ERAs below 3. And for this reason, seemingly every game the team has played has been a 2-2 tie going into the ninth inning before someone, typically Cody Ross, hits a game-winning single back up the middle.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs)
Arizona (37-30) San Francisco (37-29) Edge
Hitting (wRC+): 98 82 Arizona
Pitching (FIP): 4.04 3.12 San Francisco
Fielding (UZR): 18.1 -0.9 Arizona
Take a moment to appreciate the fact that wRC+ is scaled for park effects, meaning that even if the Giants' offense played it's home games at a neutral location, rather than one of the worst hitters parks in baseball, they would still be one of the worst hitting teams in baseball. The Giants are 29th in Runs Scored, ahead of only the Padres, which is sort of like not finishing last at a swim meet only because one of the other kids drowned during the backstroke section.
Luckily (or "annoyingly," from my perspective), the Giants pitching has been something else entirely. That FIP is third-best in MLB. They're well-balanced too, as their starters are second-best, and the relievers are third-best. This is a team very clearly designed to win close, low-scoring games.
San Francisco Giants
Pablo Sandoval is returning after being out for much of the season with an injury, so I don't know exactly what they'll do with him. If I had to guess though, I'd assume they will stick him right back in the 3-hole, given the strength of the rest of the lineup. Sandoval started off the season by recalling shades of 2009, putting up an OPS+ of 149 before the injury sidelined him. That was only 91 Plate Appearances though, and your guess is as good as mine as to what Pablo's going to do after being out for over a month.
Other than that, there's not much to write home about in this lineup. Andres Torres is having a nice season, as his OPS+ of 112 is nice to have in the leadoff spot. Cody Ross is a roughly average left fielder, with an OPS+ of 113 from a power position. More importantly, he has inherited the crucial position of "Middling Giants Player who all Diamondback Fans Loathe" from Randy Winn. Just look at those beady eyes.
The rest of the lineup ranges from "pretty decent if you squint a little" (Nate Schierholtz) to "kinda terrible but the best we could do on short notice" (Emmanuel Burriss) to "kinda terrible but at least we paid a lot of money for him" (Miguel Tejada). And as well as Aubrey Huff played last season, it's difficult to compete to a playoff spot with a .682 OPS from first base.
Tuesday: Matt Cain (5-4, 3.36) vs. Josh Collmenter (4-1, 1.12)
Insightful Commentary: Josh Collmenter struggled with his pitch count in his last start against the Pirates, throwing 102 pitches in just 5 innings. But since he also didn't give up a run during that span, this feels a bit like nitpicking. At this point, Collmenter can regress to the mean somewhat and still be a very solid pitcher, as his 3.29 FIP suggests. But if he'd rather expand on his 13-inning scoreless streak instead, that's cool too.
Matt Cain is striking out a fair number of batters, not walking many, and keeping the ball in the ballpark at a solidly above-average rate. In short, he is having the most Matt Cain season imaginable. I've spent ten minute scouring fangraphs for something remarkable about him this season, but alas. Matt Cain is a good pitcher. He is continuing to be a good pitcher in 2011. Analysis!
Insightful Commentary: 2-8?! Sheesh, this Bumgarner guy must be terrible. I hate to help out a division rival, but I almost wish the Diamondbacks would take this scrub off the Giants' hands (ed. note: I really, really wish this. Please make this happen). In all seriousness, Bumgarner put up a 3.00 ERA in 111 innings as a rookie last year, and he has a valid case for being even better this year than last. Both his FIP and xFIP are lower than they were last year, and it has all happened despite a .317 BABIP. Also, he's 21. Just thought I'd mention that.
Well, we knew it had to end sometime for Joe Saunders, who snapped a string of solid starts by giving up five runs in six innings against Florida. Florida has a solid lineup, and pitching in the heat and humidity of Miami can wreck havoc on a pitcher's stamina. More encouraging was the fact that Saunders continued a trend of walking fewer batters, with only one free pass issued against the Marlins. He has average stuff, and will give up hits in bunches from time to time, but it's good to see him control things within his power.
Thursday: Ryan Vogelsong (4-1, 1.81) vs. Ian Kennedy (7-2, 3.23)
Insightful Commentary: Kennedy struggled with the long ball in his last outing against Florida, giving up three homers. However, it was encouraging to see him go eight innings despite his struggles. Again, it was just one start, and we shouldn't necessarily read too much into the homers.
Ryan Vogelsong has been an amazing story. Any time a career minor leaguer can accumulate seven quality starts in a row, it makes a cool side note. Add in the fact he's 34 and has returned to the team that he first reached the majors with, and you have a candidate for Story of the Year. For that reason, I feel slightly guilty that I want him to get lit up on Thursday. Wait, no, I don't feel guilty about that at all.
Final Verdict: The Giants have had the D-Backs's number so far in 2011. The 1-5 head-to-head record doesn't fill me with a ton of confidence, nor does the Giants' style of play, which suppresses runs and gives them a chance to win games late. I'm trying to be optimistic, I really am, but this Giants team does not feel like a good matchup for the D-Backs and the head-to-head record reflects that. I'm saying Giants two games to one.
As always, head over to McCovey Chronicles for the Giants perspective on things.