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Series Preview #45: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. San Francisco Giants

I trust you know why...
I trust you know why...

It's easy to get caught up in the playoff hype, I get that.  It feels like the Diamondbacks haven't lost in forever, while the Giants just finished an unequivically terrible month which saw them turn a four-game lead into a six-game deficit in just over four weeks.  Teams have blown six-game leads in September of course, but it's hard to do.  And besides, the Giants don't seem that motivated to make up the difference anyway, so let's all relax and just enjoy the race to the play--

Stop it.  Stop it right now.  The Giants are STILL a huge threat,  they STILL have a rotation that's among the best in baseball, they STILL have a bullpen with a collective 2.89 ERA.  We all know by now that the Giants don't have a good offense, but it also isn't likely to stay as cataclysmically awful as it has been over the past month or so.  And most important of all, the Giants STILL control their own destiny, as they are six games back of the Diamondbacks with six games left to play against them.  If the D-Backs lose those next six games, and the two teams have the same record otherwise, we end up in a tie for first, with a one-game playoff looming.

So, yeah, do something other than that, Diamondbacks.

One thing that can't be disputed is that August has been an absolute disaster for San Francisco.  They went 11-18 in the month, getting outscored by 26 runs in the process.  During that time, the team has an OPS of .636, which is bad even by the low standard the Giants' offense has set for itself.  This eventually culminated with the team getting rid of two of the worst offenders, Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada, just before September call-ups.  Call it regression to the mean, bad luck or plain old terrible baseball, but the Giants dug themselves into quite a hole in just one month.

What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):

San Francisco
Hitting (wRC+): 94 78
Pitching (FIP-):
99 86
San Francisco
Fielding (UZR):
52.9 8.3


The Giants' offense is not very good.  I don't really consider this to be trash-talk or bravado, just an objective statement: grass is green, sky is blue, batters wearing orange and black have not been very successful at offense this year.  Have some fun with that link, sort the teams on the list in by whatever category you wish.  You'll probably notice one thing: if it's even a marginally important batting metric, the Giants offense is probably last or nearly last in it.  This is because, just in case I haven't mentioned it yet in this article or you haven't heard it in the last four months, the Giants' offense is not particularly adept at hitting the baseball.

Luckily for the Giants, their pitching is very adept at not letting runs score.  They have the second-lowest ERA in the majors at 3.13, which has a bit to do with batted-ball luck and their home ballpark, but not a whole lot.  That FIP- is tied for the second-lowest in baseball, suggesting that the Giants would still have a great rotation even if they up and moved to Coors Field.  They also happen to be tied for the highest strikeout rate in baseball, at 21.6, which explains a lot of their success.

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Ryan Roberts, 3B
2. Gerardo Parra, LF
3. Justin Upton, RF
4. Miguel Montero, C
5. Chris Young, CF
6. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
7. Aaron Hill, 2B
8. John McDonald, SS

San Francisco Giants

1. Andres Torres, CF
2. Jeff Keppinger, 2B
3. Carlos Beltran, RF
4. Pablo Sandoval, 3B
5. Brandon Belt, LF
6. Aubrey Huff, 1B
7. Mike Fontenot, SS
8. Chris Stewart, C

So here's a fun fact: Buster Posey, who hasn't played a game since May 25, still has the second-highest fWAR of any offensive player on the Giants.  This should trigger two thoughts immediately:

  1. Buster Posey is a very special player and this would be a different race if he had played the entire season for the Giants.

Well, since you asked...  Andres Torres bats lead-off, with an OBP of .311 that only looks good when compared to his SLG% of .339.  Jeff Keppinger has been pretty decent for the Giants at the plate, with an OPS+ of 104, though his defense eliminates a lot of his value.  Carlos Beltran was the big acquisition at the trade deadline, but rather than breathing life into the Giants' offense he became infected by it, and has accumulated an OPS of .664 in 20 games.  Obviously, if he starts playing up to his career numbers, that changes the entire complexion of the lineup.

After a down year last year, Pablo Sandoval has bounced back in a big way (Freudian slip or fat joke?  You decide!) this year, putting up an OPS+ of 136 that easily leads the team.  My putting Brandon Belt in the lineup is probably a bit premature, as Bruce Bochy seems at times to go out of his way not to play his talented LF/1B, so we'll probably see a mix of Nate Schierholtz, Pat Burrell and Belt in left.  Aubrey Huff has looked slightly better in August, but still has an uninspiring season line of .243/.301/.375.  Mike Fontenot is scrappy and Chris Stewart continues to not be Buster Posey.

Pitching Matchups:

Friday: Joe Saunders (9-11, 3.82) vs. Matt Cain (10-9, 2.87)

Insightful Commentary: In a season filled with surprises, Joe Saunders' solid but unspectacular performance in the middle of the rotation seems like it has been largely passed over by the media.  Despite terrible peripherals, he's on pace to have his lowest ERA since 2008.  He hasn't set the world on fire, but he's been a key component of a very unlikely season.  More importantly, he hasn't been a problem spot, like he was expected to be for the first month of the season, and that's helped the team excel.

Matt Cain is the front-runner for the Matt Cain Award, which is given out at the end of every season to the pitcher who has had the most Matt Cain season in baseball.  He doesn't walk many batters, as his BB/9 of 2.20 indicates, and he definitely doesn't give up many home runs.  Cain has the third-lowest HR/9 in baseball, at a minuscule 0.38.  He has always done this successfully, but in 2011 his ERA and FIP are both at career lows, signaling that he's reached new levels of Matt Cain this season. 

Saturday: Ian Kennedy (17-4, 3.03) vs. Tim Lincecum (12-11, 2.58)

Insightful Commentary: So this matchup happened earlier this season, in this game, where the two pitchers combined to throw 16 scoreless innings before the Giants eventually won 1-0.  This loss dropped the Diamondbacks to 15-19 on the season, and as I recall, we were mostly just happy with Kennedy for matching Lincecum pitch for pitch.  I don't think it's unfair to suggest that there's a bit more on the line for Kennedy this time.

Lincecum's strikeout rate has dropped every year since 2008, from an elite 10.51 per 9 innings, to the less-elite-but-still-awesome 9.39 it is at today.  This probably has something to do with decreased velocity on his fastball, as it currently sits right around 92.5 MPH on average.  But at the same time, his GB% has increased every year and he is back to allowing very few home runs after a bit of an uptick last year.  Lincecum isn't the same pitcher with a blazing fastball and wicked strikeout rates who used to strike fear into us as a rookie.  Instead, he's a pitcher with a devastating arsenal of pitches who can get outs any way he pleases and strikes fear into us as a veteran.  I'm not sure with version I prefer, actually.

Sunday: Daniel Hudson (14-9, 3.61) vs. Ryan Vogelsong (10-5, 2.65)

Insightful Commentary: Daniel Hudson went seven innings in his last start, and gave up no runs on only three hits.  Hell, he only gave up two line drives the whole game.  He's one pesky out away in the Nationals game from having gone 16 scoreless innings in a row.  Even more encouragingly, he has struck out 14 batters over that stretch, alleviating concerns about a more serious problem, at least for the time being.

Anyone claiming that "nothing" has gone right for the Giants this season needs to be reminded of Ryan Vogelsong, who is having one of the most inexplicable awesome seasons in recent memory.  His FIP is up at 3.73, indicating that he has gotten at least a bit lucky, but I'll cut him some slack, considering that he hasn't pitched in the majors since 2006.

Final Verdict: I have a bad feeling about this series.  I imagine that the Giants and their fans are looking at this as their last stand in 2011, as a series loss would be disastrous for them.  So the team to be motivated and borderline desperate, and the Diamondbacks have not hit Giant pitching particularly well all year. 

With that in mind, the Diamondbacks don't need to sweep or even win this series to stay in good shape.  If they take even one game, they will have left San Francisco in better shape that they were when they got there, since one win means that the Giants cease to control their own destiny through games with the D-Backs.  And since they've only gotten swept once since May, I like their chances to take a game.  So there you have it: just win one, Diamondbacks.  And anything else you do is gravy.  Giants two games to one.

Visit McCovey Chronicles if you want to chat with the only people who hate the Giants more than we do right now.

All batting data courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise mentioned, all pitching data courtesy of Fangraphs.