The Giants ended their first half with a resounding thud. The team, riding high after a dominating sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers, performed less than admirably against, at the moment, contending teams in the National League. The Giants split a series against the Reds, were swept by a rising Washington ballclub, and were lucky to limp out of Pittsburgh with a single win. All in all, the team finds itself struggling as the second half is set to start.
I was recently asked the question: “Are you happy with how the Giants have played in the first half?” At the time, and it still holds true, I answered a truthful, “yes.” The team ends its first half at six games over .500 and just one-half game out of first place in the NL West. Not a bad position to be in for a club that lost one its best hitters for a month (Pablo Sandoval) and one that’s had its top starters (Tim Lincecum) suffer a career worst stretch of pitching. The Giants, despite their failings against the Nationals and Pirates, are still in the hunt. The added Wild Card team will most likely keep the Giants in some sort of competitive running throughout the year, barring a total and catastrophic collapse, of course.
Still, the team has some large questions that loom on the horizon of second half baseball. As far as I can tell, these are the questions.
1. Will Tim Lincecum get things turned around?
For Giants fans, it doesn’t get any worse than this. Tim Lincecum’s starts have gone from something you would look forward to a week in advance, to something that you’re now starting to dread. The former two-time Cy Young Award winner has struggled in ways that were previously unimaginable. Even worse, the supposed theories for Lincecum’s troubles have ranged from absurd to ridiculous. It’s rare to see a pitcher fall this far, in such a quick time. Since 1970, there have been just seven starting pitchers that averaged an Adjusted ERA (ERA+) of 135, or better, over their first five seasons. Those pitchers are Brandon Webb (144), Roy Oswalt (142), Kevin Appier (141), Roger Clemens (141), Mike Mussina (139), Tim Lincecum (137), and Tim Hudson (137). I don’t need to tell you, but that’s quite the group of pitchers.
We can’t truly know what’s going on with Lincecum health-wise — he’s said he’s healthy, we’ll believe him for now — but the Giants have to be panicking on some level, despite the team’s statements that they’ll stick with Lincecum. A better second half for Lincecum will start with a reduction in walks, more consistency out of the stretch, and consistently keeping the ball down in the zone. Lincecum has shown himself to be a resourceful guy and I think he’ll eventually get things sorted out, but whether or not it’s this year, or next, is anyone’s guess. One thing is clear: excluding any trades for a SP, the Giants don’t have anyone to stick in the role who has even a small upside of being acceptable. Eric Hacker? Brad Penny? Yusmeiro Petit? For better or worse, the Giants’ season could hinge upon Lincecum figuring things out.
2. Will the outfield continue to be an asset?
In the first half, Giants’ outfielders have combined for a total WAR of 7.2 (Fangraphs). That’s the seventh best outfield, by WAR, in all of baseball. I don’t think anyone saw this one coming. The Giants have reaped huge dividends on Melky Cabrera’s insane season (148 wRC+), and Angel Pagan, although streaky, has been a welcome addition (105 wRC+). Gregor Blanco looked like an early season favorite to stay in the outfield, but he’s slumped something awful over his past 140 plate appearances. On May 26th, Blanco’s on-base percentage sat at .403; since then he’s been mired in a slump, batting just .226/.285/.356. Blanco’s always profiled as a guy with modest OBP skills, so it’s unlikely that, when speaking about true talent, he’s the plus-25 percent above league average batter we saw briefly earlier in the season. He still appears to be a plus-defender, so even if he regresses some with the bat, his defense and baserunning should keep him valuable.
3. Is the bullpen this shaky?
Pitchers are volatile. Relievers are pitchers. Relievers are volatile.
I’ll keep chanting those three sentences to myself, over and over, until the pain stops, but the bullpen — a traditional strength for the Giants — has been a subject for concern this first half. The good news is that the bullpen is still pretty good overall: the pen ranks 7th in baseball in FIP; 11th in xFIP; and 11th in SIERA. That’s not a bad bullpen, not a great bullpen, but by no means bad. Still, the Giants have been challenged at times. Santiago Casilla has done a good job as the fill-in closer, but I think the team will head in another direction in the second half. There’s a good chance a trade will be made, tears will be wept, and the Giants seem likely to pull off one of those lateral moves that drives me crazy.
The Brian Wilson injury was the first domino to fall in a bullpen that’s generally been one of the better pens around over the past few years. However, outside of Sergio Romo, the bullpen looks like it’s largely full of average-ish to below arms. It’s hard to look at the bullpen and find an impact arm and that’s worrying. The top three leaders in WAR? Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, and George Kontos. Kontos basically just got here and Affeldt has been pretty serviceable. After you get past that trio, things don’t look much better. If the Giants want to contend, they’ll need more from the bullpen.
4. Will the team “find” playing time for Brandon Belt?
Aubrey Huff and Brett Pill originally looked like Brandon Belt’s main roadblocks towards playing time. And yet, even though both of those players are no longer on the team, Belt still struggles for playing time. The newest frustration du jour is the personal catcher myth. The Giants have decided to use Hector Sanchez — one walk in 125 PAs, 64 wRC+ — as the personal catcher for Barry Zito and, lately, Tim Lincecum. When Sanchez is catching, Buster Posey usually shifts over to first base. We’ll come back to that in a second. So, that’s nearly two games out of every five where Brandon Belt is going to sit. Toss in the occasional benching — though, the Giants are doing better in this regard — against LHP, and Belt’s playing time has been choppy.
However, it’s fair to say that Belt has struggled with consistency this year. But I have a hard time faulting a player for not making adjustments from the bench. Belt, coming off a tremendous June, has undergone some bumps over the past two weeks. Despite those bumps, his wRC+ of 113 ranks him as the fourth best hitter on the team behind Cabrera, Sandoval, and Posey.
I don’t have a problem with Posey playing first base when he gets a night off from catching duties. But, while I’m probably in the minority here, I wouldn’t mind seeing the team giving Buster actual, full days off. The Giants have played 86 games this year; Posey has started 74 of them and appeared in 77 of them. That seems like a lot for a guy coming back from a major injury. Bottom line: if Posey is healthy enough to catch, he should catch and Belt should play first. If Posey needs a night off from catching, give him a full night, and let Belt play first. Any other configuration to get Sanchez in the lineup, just to get him in the lineup, is silly.
This post isn’t meant to come off as depressing. After all, the Giants are still in pretty good position to make a playoff run. But the team will be challenged in certain aspects when regular season play resumes on Friday against the Houston Astros. If the team can answer some of these questions, their chances for playing meaningful baseball at season’s end will be even greater. If not, it’s going to be another long offseason.