Predicting the NL West: San Francisco Giants

President of the San Francisco Chess Club. Worship him! WORSHIP HIM!

I don't know why the rest of the National League West are even bothering to show up this year. St. Buster of Posey has returned from damnation to lead the team to a certain World Series title. I mean, the stats prove it. San Francisco in seasons where Posey plays 50 games = 100% World Series champions. Might as well clear the streets for a November parade round the bay. And, knowing SF traffic, I'd recommend they start on the clearing now.

Let's take a look at the numbers, and see how many games the system predicts their margin of victory will be in the National League West.

2011 Production
There's little way to disguise or soften the fact that the 2011 Giants were utterly inept, offensively. Like, really, really bad. As in dead-ball era level - in some years, poo even by the standards of that time, e.g. the 1913 National League, where only one team scored less than the 570 managed by the Giants last season. And San Francisco played nine games more than those St. Louis Cardinals. The Giants scored two runs or less on seventy occasions, a number not surpassed in the NL since the '82 Reds. That's not a recipe for contention, but the Giants led the division as late as August 9.

The reason is, of course, their pitching, which held the opposition to two runs or less 68 times, allowing them to stay in games. It helped that the Giants did particularly well in one-run games, posting a record of 33-22 in one-run games - they scored an average of just 2.82 runs in those contents. That allowed them to stick around, even as they were outscored overall by their opponents. However, a 6-16 streak from late July through mid-August took them out of first-place for good, and their second half was forgettable, as they went 34-36, and were lucky to do so. The Pythag records for the two halves were .514 and .467, which is a base figure of 78.2 wins.

Off-season moves
So, with the team producing runs at a level that would have been inadequate a century ago, surely the off-season priority for management would be to open their wallets and lure some of the big names - maybe resign Carlos Beltran too. What? You'll take Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan and like it? Admittedly, matters aren't helped by the Giants paying $11.5 million this year to Aaron Roward, who they DFA'd in August. But one does feel that exercising a $5 million team option on reliever Jeremy Affeldt was not perhaps addressing the team's most pressing need. Somehow given a payroll close to $140 million, I'm not quite sure where it has all gone.

Arrivals WAR Departures WAR
Brian Burres 0.2 Carlos Beltran 1.0
Melky Cabrera 2.9 Pat Burrell 1.0
Eric Hacker 0.1 Orlando Cabrera -0.4
Clay Hensley -0.2 Mark DeRosa -0.2
Ramon Ortiz -0.2 Darren Ford 0.2
Angel Pagan 0.2 Bill Hall -0.7
Ryan Theriot 0.0 Waldis Joaquin
Jeff Keppinger -0.6
Ramon Ramirez 0.8
Cody Ross 1.6
Aaron Rowand 0.9
Jonathan Sanchez 0.1
Miguel Tejada 1.0
Andres Torres 1.3
Eli Whiteside -0.5
Total 3.0 Total 5.5

I think this illustrates the underwhelming nature of the Giants off-season, with Cabrera the sole player acquired to have posted more than 0.2 WAR the year before. On the other side, they lost seven players with that level of production, though I was surprised to discover that the most valuable of them all was Ol' Beady Eyes himself, Mr. Ross [though Beltran's WAR came in about one-third the number of games]. The team really needs to hope that Cabrera is for real, and not the same player who produced less WAR (2.6) over 2008-10 combined. Conversely, they need to hope Pagan is the same player he was in 2010, not the 2011 version. Based on last year, it's -2.5 wins.

Aging
Despite the presence of St. Buster, Belt, Pill, Pablo the Buffet Slayer, etc. the Giants are not a young team. Among likely starting position players, Aubrey Huff is 35, Freddy Sanchez 34, and Pagan turns 31 this season, though the departures of Tejada, O. Cabrera and DeRosa will certainly help in this area. The pitching isn't much younger, with Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong both 34, and key bullpen arms Bryan Wilson, Affeldt and Guillermo Mota all in their thirties (approaching their forties in Mota's case, with his 39th birthday in July).

An important question would be, how much playing-time are the youngsters like Brandon Belt and Brett Pill going to see? [though the latter is now 27; "young" is relative in SF] If you think Kirk Gibson likes veteran presence, he seems to have nothing on Bruce Bochy. Giants' fans currently think that what they'll get in 2012 is going to be 130 games of Aubrey Huff, which is probably a good thing for the rest of the division. Based on the 2011 numbers, the Giants were 1.6 years above the NL median age on hitting, and 0.35 years above it on pitching. That would equate to -3.9 wins due to aging, but I'm going to discount that a bit, due to the retirement of their oldest players. Call it -2.9 wins.

The Vogelsong question.
I'm not making any adjustment for this, but it's interesting to ask if he can repeat his unexpected 2011 performance in 2012? A little while back, Dan analysed Ryan Roberts breakout season at age 30, and concluded hitters that have done something similar tend not to sustain their success. What about Vogelsong? I took the top 200 seasons at age 33 by bWAR (the cut off was about 2.7 WAR, a win below Vogelsong's 2011), then took the players there and resorted by total bWAR, up to and including the breakout year. Vogelsong was the only one below replacement. The table below shows him and the half-dozen closest comparables, with what they did the year after their breakout:

Name Age 32 Tot WAR Age 33
Ryan Vogelsong 3.7 -0.2 ???
Bill Krueger 2.9 0.7 1.0
Dave Danforth 2.9 2.5 1.0
Rip Sewell 4.2 3.8 0.8
Ed Wells 2.7 4.0 0.7
Luke Hamlin 3.0 5.0 4.1

It doesn't look promising for Vogelsong: predecessors who had breakout years, have tended to go back to mediocrity the following season. Hamlin is the sole exception, actually improving with the 1939 Brooklyn Dodgers, and finishing 10th in MVP voting. However, he had never actually been below replacement: as mentioned in a discussion with blue bulldog, Vogelsong's year came after an entire decade of mediocrity in the majors, minors and Japan. While it's possible he suddenly realized how to pitch at his age, that's just not something which happens often, and I have significant doubts about him for 2012. But, as noted, I'm not adjusting for that.

Fudgecicles
Which is where things get interesting, of course. Because, as we all know, the Giants were the only baseball team last year to suffer any injuries. What? They weren't? Well, it certainly seemed like that. However, there's no doubt the loss of St. Buster affected them, so let's take a look at what a full season of him might do.

As a starting point, he racked up 1.5 vWAR in 45 games last year. Tangotiger's playing time projections, linked above, give him 133 games in 2012. That's close enough to three times the number, so the finger in the air number (which is in line with the rest of this system!) says he'll produce 4.5 bWAR, or an additional three victories over a full season. Hmm. That seems low. I was assured he was worth, ooh, 20-25 wins over the course of a campaign. But, actually, 4.5 WAR would be in the top ten seasons of all-time for a 25-year old catcher, alongside names like Johnny Bench, Gary Carter and Joe Mauer.

It's also in line with the combined 2010-11 numbers, where Posey produced 4.6 WAR over 153 games - a little off that for 20 fewer games, a little on for aging. ,And though the math is different, fangraphs.com is projecting something not radically different, at an additional 3.6 fWAR. However, I do note, his value depends on how he's used. If Posey can catch 130 games, that's a radically different thing from having to spend half his games at 1B. However, in spring, the split has been 80/20 behind the plate, so no discount is needed. +3.0 wins it is.

Outside of that, the Giants weren't actually particularly hit by injuries. Even including Posey, they ranked fifth by total DL days in the NL. While that should result in a little regression toward health, it'd be countered by the lack of help from a farm system that, many pundits agree, is the most barren in the division. For example, John Sickels ranks them #26, FanGraphs #23 and Baseball Prospectus #25. There won't be much help coming from the farm system, except of course for top pitching prospect Zach Whee... Oh, sorry: my mistake. Tee-hee.

Conclusion
Pretty much everything is going in the wrong direction for the Giants. They over-performed Pythagoras last season, made moves that made them worse, in terms who was let go and who stayed, and are a team down whose neck Father Time is breathing heavily. That's pretty much the Triple Crown of red flags, and while the return of St. Buster will help, and the front of the rotation will be as good as ever, in Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, I doubt the back end can produce their share of the 33 one-run wins managed last season. Final projection: 76-86.

Well, that's a stunner.While radically different from most projections, it's not one that I feel uncomfortable with. I genuinely think the Giants got weaker over the winter, and that was from a team who already conceded more runs than they scored. It's difficult to believe their offense will be as bad as it was last year, but Melky Cabrera alone won't replace Beltran, Burrell, Ross and Torres. Runs may well be as rare in San Francisco as free parking spaces.

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