As the baseball season drags through the dog days of August, it becomes easier to separate the contenders from the pretenders. A lot can change from now until the end of the season, but right now we have a pretty solid idea of where things stand. The Braves are certainly going to the playoffs, and one can feel similarly confident about the chances of the Tigers, Dodgers, Cardinals, and (gulp) Pirates, all with at least a 97 percent chance of going to the dance (according to coolstandings.com). On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is no hope for the Marlins, Astros and White Sox. They haven’t played meaningful baseball in months and were essentially eliminated on opening day.
But nobody expected those teams to be good. The San Francisco Giants, winners of two of the past three World Series, were supposed to make another title run. Almost all of the players who hoisted the championship trophy last October returned, and almost all of them have remained healthy. With a stellar starting rotation, deep bullpen and reigning MVP Buster Posey anchoring their lineup, the San Francisco Giants were supposed to be one of the National League’s most formidable teams.
Instead, they’re toiling in last place, 15 games below .500, playing out the string when they should be battling the Dodgers for the division crown. How did that happen?
The explanation is simple. The San Francisco Giants struggle to score runs, ranking third-to-last in the NL in runs and runs per game. They’re just as ineffective when it comes to run prevention, ranking third-to-last in ERA, runs allowed per game and defensive efficiency. In the average game, San Francisco allows 0.7 more runs than it scores. When that happens, you’re going to lose more often than you win.
The biggest reason for San Francisco’s slide is the starting rotation that was the backbone of last season’s championship squad has underachieved. On paper, the Giants should have a case for the best starting five in baseball, seeing as how every member is a current or former All-Star with Cy Young votes on his resume. Instead, their rotation is one of the league’s worst because Madison Bumgarner is the only one performing up to expectations. Matt Cain’s enduring the worst season of his career. Tim Lincecum has been wildly inconsistent, unhittable at times but brutal at others. Barry Zito’s been terrible (surprise). Ryan Vogelsong’s pitched well since returning from the disabled list, but missed two and a half months and was terrible before landing on the shelf. Put it all together, and the rotation sports a 4.53 ERA, well above last year’s 3.73 mark.
It doesn’t matter that the bullpen has been even better than it was last year, because by the time Bruce Bochy deploys his relievers, it’s usually too late. San Francisco Giants pitchers have a 4.87 ERA in the first three innings and 4.44 ERA in the middle innings. All too often, the Giants find themselves down early in the game. And once they fall behind, they typically stay behind. The punchless Giants lack the offensive firepower needed to slug their way back into ballgames, for they rank second-to-last in the NL in home runs, total bases and slugging percentage. One would think San Francisco should compensate by swiping bases to manufacture runs, but they rank fifth from the bottom of the league in steals. This may have something to do with the fact the San Francisco Giants field the league’s third-oldest starting lineup.
It seems impossible to remember now, but the San Francisco Giants got off to a good start. In fact, they were leading the NL West as late as Memorial Day weekend and were still in second place four weeks after that. The wheels fell off in late June/early July, when the Giants dropped 14 out of 16 games. With the offense sputtering lately, they’ve continued to lose ground over the past month and let Los Angeles run away with the division. Since May 26, their last day in first place, they’re 28-49 (.364) — the worst team in the Senior Circuit.
It’s time for the Giants to start thinking about next year, which means re-signing Hunter Pence, figuring out who’s going to play left field and deciding whether Lincecum is worth keeping. As nightmarish as this summer has become for the San Francisco Giants, they still have a lot to be optimistic about for 2014. They have one of the game’s most indispensable players in Posey and a bona fide ace in Bumgarner. Breakouts Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford should continue to improve as they enter their prime years. Marco Scutaro is aging well, and they’re likely to get bounce back seasons from Cain and Pablo Sandoval. There’s plenty of talent here, so it shouldn’t take much retooling from GM Brian Sabean for the Giants to get back to their winning ways next year.