Losing Buster Posey stung. It stung a lot. But the moment Pablo Sandoval joins the San Francisco Giants’ lineup, that loss will start to sting just a little less.
When Sandoval went down, on April 29, he’d only played in 24 games. And yet, he’d already racked up 1.6 Wins Above Replacement according to baseball-reference (bWAR) and 1.7 WAR according to FanGraphs (fWAR), while playing quality defense and striking balls into the gaps, as well as lofting balls over the outfield fences. He’d hit safely in 19 of those 24 games, and two of those 0-fers came in pinch-hit, one-shot appearances.
Not knowing whether or not he’d continue his early-season brilliance, you could at least wish on it. Amortizing his 24-game value over a full season, (we’ll call that 150 games) the Panda was on pace to accumulate 10 WAR, which is certainly adequate to earn an MVP award. (That’s assuming you don’t play in the same league as Jose Bautista – Sandoval obviously doesn’t.)
He was drawing walks around a league-average rate of 8.8 percent and striking out just under 17 percent of the time. His isolated power (ISO) was extremely good at .217 and similar to the .226 he posted in his 2009 breakout party. And there weren’t any red flags, either, with a .328 average on balls in play (BABiP) that seemed more than reasonable for a player of his skill set. (Pablo is a line-drive, pole-to-pole hitter who has a proven ability to beat the league-average BABiP rate.)
His line through 24 contests was .313/.374/.530 (average/on-base percentage/slugging) for a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .390. He was also tied for the team lead at the time with five home runs.
And perhaps most encouraging was the improvement he was showing in plate discipline, which isn’t at all to say he was turning into a super patient batter. Pablo’s out-of-zone swing percentage was down five percent from 2010; it was also a career-low, essentially two percent less than in his 2009 season in which he finished seventh in MVP voting.
I mentioned that Sandoval was tied for the team lead in home runs. Well, Sandoval remained tied for the team lead until yesterday, when Aubrey Huff got his dinger on against the Cardinals’ minor-league call-ups.
On Friday, Sandoval will play the first game of his eagerly-awaited rehab assignment for the A-Advanced San Jose Giants. If all goes well (fingers crossed), Pablo will be back sometime early next week against the Nationals, or certainly for the weekend series against the Cincinnati Reds.
Now, it’s important not to expect Sandoval to do too much, too soon. He’ll be coming back from a hand injury that’s likely to cause him some discomfort. It’s also unfortunate that the injury was sustained on his right hand, thus it can be expected to affect his left-handed (and more important) swing more. Still, Sandoval’s return does something else, completely unrelated to his on-field performance.
Pablo’s return will place Miguel Tejada squarely on the bench and out of the number two spot in the order – thanks for that, Bochy. The smart move, and the one Bochy is hinting at, will be to place Brandon Crawford at shortstop where 1) he’s unlikely to produce an OPS of less than 0.508 – soak that in for a second – and 2) his glove and range will be monumentally better, the gap between the two players’ defensive prowess being Grand Canyon-sized. (Crawford’s resemblance to John Stamos (Uncle Jesse from the San Francisco set Full House) is not of particular note, but it does make me laugh.)
This is a huge step in the right direction. It both improves the Giants’ defense on the left side and improves the offense. The question is if Huff can avoid going back into a deep freeze and hit even league-average or thereabouts for the rest of the season, if Freddy Sanchez can continue his excellent offensive season for a second baseman, if Andres Torres can remain healthy and continue to be a quality leadoff hitter with on-base and extra-base ability, and if Bochy can effectively balance a good platoon in the corner outfield spots between Cody Ross, Nate Schierholtz and Brandon Belt – leaving Pat Burrell primarily for pinch-hitting duties.
If that’s possible, then the Giants might yet have a prayer at sustaining a league-average-ish offense that’s at least capable of supporting the Giants’ stellar pitching staff.
Perhaps more important than that, though, is the seeming winnability of the division. The Dodgers appear non-contenders, and the Padres even more so. The Diamondbacks enjoyed a couple of days in first place, but it’s hard to imagine their pitching remaining effective enough to carry them through game 162. Also, they don’t seem a particularly good candidate to add payroll at the deadline. That leaves the Rockies as perhaps the Giants’ most formidable opponent. After their torrid April, they banged off just nine wins in May, worst in baseball. They are currently 4.5 games back and looking for answers.
So, the truest roadblock between the Giants and back-to-back NL West titles is perhaps offensive futility, and their ability to remedy it. Can they find a way to score more runs? Maybe. While the Giants’ budget is already stretched, the fact that they’ve sold out every game this season and are coming off a World Series championship would portend to an ability to add payroll at the deadline. I think that’s important when considering each teams’ respective chances.
I purposely did not address the catching position. Perhaps I’m still in the “denial” phase. Surprise, surprise, this is likely to become the Giants’ black hole once Tejada is no longer in a starting role. Eli Whiteside’s current line is .188/.286/.292. He also has a career adjusted OPS (OPS+) of 69, slightly better than the 61 he has through 56 plate appearances. Which is to say that it’s not likely to hit much, if at all, better.
Exacerbating the problem is the defensive component. Taking away what is difficult to quantify (rapport with pitching, on-field leadership, etc.), Posey was a much better thrower. This means that he both threw out a high number of would-be base stealers and was a highly effective deterrent to such attempts.
Whiteside has thrown out only three of 17 (18 percent) so far this season and 31 percent over his career. Posey had tossed out 36 percent this year and 37 percent over his career. And not only that, one might infer that Posey’s chances came against a higher quality of base runner, that the less swift simply stood still. Again, he was a deterrent; the current sample size concurs with this theory, as a steal was attempted in every 8.60 innings with Posey catching and every 7.70 innings thus far for Whiteside. (I’ll try to check back on this later to see if it holds*.)
*I wanted to investigate this theory further. In a sample of the top-17 catchers by innings in 2011, the average is an attempt every 10.59 innings. Last season, runners attempted to run every 10.68 innings on Posey. Unfortunately, there are a lot of factors to consider. For example, the ability or inability of one teams staff to hold runners on. Also, the number of base stealers or base-stealing teams a catcher has faced, especially considering how unbalanced the schedule is. Unsurprisingly, Yadier Molina, the game’s premier defensive catcher, has seen an attempted theft only every 14.79 innings this year, least often in the majors.
Expect this to hurt the Giants’ right-handed pitchers the most, especially pitchers like Tim Lincecum who have had trouble in this area in the past. It’s difficult to know how much of Lincecum’s supposed improvement was his getting better at holding runners, and how much was Posey’s presence behind the dish.
Posey’s bat will be sorely missed. It should be. Not to bum you out or anything, but the loss on defense is potentially significant, too, especially this season when runs are down, runners are running more often than they have in years, and every base counts that much more.
On another injury-related note, one of the Giants’ most intriguing outfield prospects, Francisco Peguero, returned from an injury and played his first game of the season for the San Jose Giants, going one for five with three strikeouts. He played all of last year for San Jose and put up impressive numbers while hacking away in the Cal League. He had a line of .329/.358/.488 with 19 doubles, 16 triples, 10 home runs and 40 stolen bases. His tools are very alluring with a lot of speed and athleticism, a fantastic arm and the ability to make hard contact for a high average, often with some power. That set of skills has prompted a few to call him a five-tool player.
Of course, in today’s game, we ought to be talking about a six-tool player. Now that’s a guy you could drool over. The sixth tool would of course be the ability to get on base often. And it is in that highly important area that Peguero leaves something to be desired. He walked only 18 times to 88 strikeouts last season. Despite being of the Giants’ closest outfielders to reaching the majors, at least according to ZiPS and other projections coming into the season, the usefulness he might have in the majors is foggy until he can prove at higher levels that he can get on base enough for his average, power, speed and defense to take over.