If you were going to talk about the 2011 Giants at length, you would almost certainly cover, in heaps, both Ryan Vogelsong and their run differential-defying ways.
Vogelsong is thriving now despite a decade of failure, at least in terms of success in Major League Baseball (more on this later). And the Giants are thriving in the NL West (and their geographical location and thus division may well be a part of the equation) despite, for most of the season, scoring fewer runs than had their opponents.
I’ve shown this run differential graph a few times, and here it is again updated through the Giants’ double header yesterday at Wrigley.
They’ve had a positive run differential at the end of just 34 of 80 games, been even after four and negative after 42. So, mostly, they’ve been outscored. But not after yesterday’s events.
The Giants trounced the Cubbies yesterday in the opener by a score of 13-7. They then beat them 6-3 in the nightcap, which frankly was a blowout (for them) when you consider their pelt pile of one-run victories. After which, they were again in the “green.”
The questions, then, become whether or not they’ve 1) been lucky, and 2) can sustain such success in the win-loss (and standings) column with such a razor-thin margin. For today, I’ll mostly defer to a couple of very smart gentlemen and their somewhat dissenting opinions.
Jonah Keri, the author of the excellent The Extra 2%, believes the Giants do deserve a good portion of the credit (ESPN Insider):
If you’re not battling total patsies (the team just behind the Giants this season, the Arizona Diamondbacks, are on pace to win a respectable 88 games), the best way to accomplish the feat is to excel in one-run games. Sure enough, the Giants hold the best one-run record in baseball at 22-11…
Teams that excel at run prevention can keep scores low, thus creating more opportunities for one-run games. More specifically, teams with great bullpens improve their chances to pull off close wins late in the game. The Giants rank third in the majors in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), a stat that runs along a similar scale to ERA but strips out defense and other factors beyond a pitcher’s control. Going by expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP), which also regresses home run rates to league average, the Giants own the second-best bullpen in the majors.
Jonah also goes on to note that the Giants have been much better in innings seven and beyond, or in “clutch” situations. It’s difficult to know whether or not that will continue. Still, Jonah paints a more rosy picture for the Giants.
Meanwhile, our old friend (and old skipper, at least for Chris Quick and Otis) Rob Neyer is a bit more cynical about the whole thing. On winning with a negative run differential:
So yes, it can happen. It’s not how you design the season going in, though. If you go into the season figuring on being outscored but winning two-thirds of your one-run games – as the Giants were doing, before drubbing the Cubs this afternoon – you will 1) fail to win two-thirds of your one-run games, because that’s up to God and Allah and Odin and all the rest of them, and 2) fail to reach the playoffs 99 times out of 100. At best.
Here’s some truly brilliant baseball advice, then, from an old pro… Outscore your opponents, if you can. And if you can’t, start thinking about next year.
Rob’s right, in that it sure isn’t how you the design the season. Were the Giants still equipped with reigning NL Rookie of the Year Buster Posey (and Freddy Sanchez for that matter), they likely would have a few more runs, a better run differential. Losing Pablo Sandoval for six weeks didn’t help, either.
As it is, I suppose they are trying to patch this boat on the fly – they’ve plugged one (gaping) hole with no-hit good-glove shortstop Brandon Crawford to take time from Miguel Tejada, which sort of worked for a while; they’ve tried to mix and match with the uninspiring Emmanuel Burriss and Bill Hall at second; they’ve platooned all three outfield spots depending on handedness of opposing pitchers (as well as gut feeling, who’s hot, and whatever else Bochy comes up with) with Cody Ross, Pat Burrell, Nate Schierholtz, Andres Torres and Aaron Rowand; and lastly, they’ve given the dish to worst-hitters-ever Christ Stewart and Eli Whiteside, one who it seems can’t catch much and the other quite the opposite (Stewart).
Yet with a run differential of just +5 after yesterday, they find themselves in first with a 46-34 record and a 2.5-game lead on the Snakes. And, with the trade deadline coming in about one-months time, they ought to be able to find some reinforcements in one form or another in the market. An outfield corner is an area of opportunity, as are catcher, second base and shortstop. And the return of Brandon Belt shouldn’t be forgotten.
If they can muster a plan to get a few more to cross the plate, they’re remarkably in great position. And even holding with their current formula, I have a hard time believing they aren’t strong contenders if not full-on favorites in the less-than-stellar West. Still, if I had my druthers, I’d prefer they never find out, that they go at it another way: score more than they give up.
The only reason that the Giants have had success this season, of course, is their pitching. And as you may have heard, Vogelsong has been a big part of that. In fact, he’s less than two innings shy of being neck-and-neck for the NL ERA title with Jair Jurrjens. He’s also been their best starter, though he’s thrown three games less than Tim Lincecum (starting today), Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner.
According to Baseball Analytics, it’s no fluke:
… [his] fastball has been one of the most effective pitches in the game. He’s holding hitters to a .294 slugging percentage… which ranks fourth among [starters].
Vogelsong’s curve has been sharp, too, limiting batters to a .200 slugging percentage that ranks in the top 20 among starters…
Vogelsong’s fastball and curveball have been the biggest reasons for his success… [and] Vogelsong’s four-pitch mix makes hitters of both hands squirm.
I have little more to add on the subject, as Dave Golebiewski has broken down (with heat charts!) what Vogelsong is doing beautifully. In fact, I cannot recommend this article enough, as it is perhaps my favorite analytical article about the Giants this season.
It wasn’t how they drew it up. But with Vogelsong, the rest of their rotation (I never thought I’d write it that way: Vogelsong and “the other starters”), and the bullpen, they are well-positioned. Plus, run differential wise, it’s still pretty early. On June 15 of last season, exactly a year and two weeks before today, the Phillies had a 32-30 record and just a +14 run differential. They went on to score 132 more runs than their pitching gave up and win 97 games. Granted the Giants aren’t nearly as well-equipped to boost their offense so significantly, but they are theoretically five games better than the Phillies were, at 12 games better than .500 and a full two weeks closer to the end of the season.
I don’t expect they’ll be able to drastically improve their offense, but if Sandoval starts hitting like he was pre-injury, Belt returns, plays and produces, and they make an acquisition that contributes solidly, I think they can end up in very decent position.