In foolhardy defiance of the prudent maxim You Can’t Predict Ball, I tried to do that very thing earlier this year with my Giants 2014 season preview. I started off joking that because it’s an even year, the Giants will win the World Series, and indeed they still may. They pounded the Pirates in the Wild Card game and tonight face off with the best team in the NL, the Nationals. That’s a tough assignment. At any rate, since the regular season is over, and that’s what I was really trying to predict, I’m going to revisit those predictions player-by-player and see how smart or lucky (mostly lucky) I was.
C: Buster Posey
America’s Sweetheart and unofficial Face of Baseball had a somewhat down year in 2013, and I predicted that he would bounce back somewhat, though still not approach the titanic production of his MVP campaign in 2012. It was hardly a bold prediction, since his terrible second-half of 2013 clearly indicated some sort of nagging injury or fatigue, and so bounce back this year he did. I suggested he’d finish with a .315/.403/.495 line, and he ended up at .311/.364/.490. Not bad. Buster showed more power this year, as expected, thanks in part to a baseball-leading 181 wRC+ in the second half.
What I didn’t expect was the large decline in his walk rate, from 10.1% in 2013 to 7.8% this year, causing me to miss his actual OBP by nearly 40 points. Even considering 2014’s historically low level of offense, that’s a large drop, and it looks to be because Buster was being much more aggressive at the plate. His overall swing rate was the highest since his rookie year, as was his rate of chasing pitches outside of the zone. Whether this was a conscious effort on his part, an artifact of the run environment, or a sign that he’s losing discipline (not something one would expect of a 27-year-old) isn’t clear. He saw the same number of pitches in the strike zone this year than others, he just chose to swing at more of them.
As usual, Buster’s defense at catcher graded out as positive, and he’s one of the game’s better pitch framers. He also looked very capable at first base, something the Giants are keenly aware of. The issue of where Pablo, Belt, and Buster will be playing next season will dominate much of the Giants’ offseason discussions. Overall, Buster had a great season, was the Giants’ best player, and I think my prediction of a top-5 MVP finish will come true.
1B: Brandon Belt
Aside from being a millionaire baseball player who’s won a World Series, Brandon Belt must be the unluckiest guy on Earth. In what I predicted would be his best season yet, one that would see him snag some down-ballot MVP votes and be one of the best first basemen in baseball, he managed to play only 61 games in a lost, injury-plagued campaign. First, after a solid April, and what was becoming a monstrous May, he was hit in the hand by Paul Maholm and broke his thumb, knocking him out until July. He returned July 4th, played 11 games, and hit nothing. Then, before the game on July 19th, Marco Scutaro, during his year-long attempt to rehab (more on that later), threw a ball to Belt and hit him in the face, giving him a concussion. Belt returned for five moribund games in August, hit the DL again and finally came back for good September 17th, where he hit mostly like the Belt of old to close out the season. In the end he tallied three trips to the DL, 235 PAs, and a .243/.306/.449 line, a far cry from my .280/.380/.495 prediction.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that none of these injuries are the fault of Belt himself, or rather, his body. He isn’t deserving of the label “injury-prone”, unless we take that phrase to mean someone who is a magnet for baseballs breaking parts of his body, in which case he is. Here’s hoping Brandon has better luck next year and provides us many more opportunities to use #belted on Twitter.
2B: Marco Scutaro, Brandon Hicks, Ehire Adrianza, Joaquin Arias, Dan Uggla (seriously), Joe Panik
When the Giants first acquired Marco Scutaro, I joked that he’s the kind of player Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean fantasize about while making love to their wives: a gritty, veteran second baseman with incredible bat control and workmanlike defense. This year Scutaro was less fantasy than phantasm as he unsuccessfully tried to rehab a lower back injury. The Giants managed to reanimate his corpse for 5 games in July where he dribbled one hit in 13 plate appearances and generally moved like Lisa Kudrow in a back brace. Before he returned to the spirit realm he managed to derail Brandon Belt’s season, making Scutaro responsible for more disabled list days than he actually served.
In March I wrote, “If he manages to play 100 games this year I’d be pleasantly surprised, with a likely outcome being a year spent endlessly rehabbing, a la Freddy Sanchez in 2012.” Pretty spot-on, and not difficult to see coming.
Unfortunately, the rules of baseball dictated that the Giants had to have someone wear a uniform and stand at the second base position, so they started this year with a mashed-up wad of (f)utility players and quad-A types like Brandon Hicks, Ehire Adrianza, and Joaquin Arias. This started out better than it had any right to, with Brandon Hicks doing a decent impression of a major league baseball player for the first six weeks of the season. He had a shocking 129 wRC+ as late as May 14th, and then the league realized it never had to throw him a fastball. He was back in the minors by July 10th.
Joaquin Arias survived the entire year on the roster by being able to play several infield positions poorly, yet better than Ehire Adrianza, whose only redeeming feature as a ballplayer is an excellent name. All year, Arias looked as though he was swinging his bat through oatmeal and produced accordingly. Speaking of slow bats, in a desperate cry for help the Giants signed the desiccated husk of Dan Uggla, but after only four games he stubbed his toe on the dugout steps, broke apart, and drifted away on the wind.
And thus the last man standing was Giants 2011 1st-round draft pick Joe Panik. Panik had been kicking around the roster for awhile, getting 25 PAs in June and 53 in July, but it wasn’t until midnight struck for Hicks, Uggla died, and Adrianza hit the disabled list that Panik was handed the second base job full time. All he did with it was produce a crazy, BABIP-fueled August and a more reasonable—but still probably unsustainable—September, rescuing the Giants’ keystone and being a lot of fun to watch. Panik probably (definitely) isn’t this good, but more on that can wait until next year. As for my prediction, that Scutaro would probably miss the season and his replacements would suck, yeah, it was mostly true. Funnily enough, my predicted line for a hypothetically-healthy Scutaro was .295/.345/.395 and Panik ended the season with .305/.343/.368, so pretty close.
3B: Pablo Sandoval
Pablo came into this year determined to be the prettiest debutante at the cotillion and to go home with a big commitment from an eligible billionaire. It didn’t start off well. Pablo looked nothing like his old self in April, and that isn’t a fat joke—I mean that he was…patient. He would hardly swing at anything. Pitchers threw fastballs at eye level, they bounced curveballs on home plate, but he never swung, merely strained like a dog against its leash. It was as though someone told him that if he walked more this year and could get his OBP up he’d receive a bigger contract. It was very ugly and not at all who Pablo should be.
He eventually wised up and said fuck this, I’m going to swing at everything. It was glorious. Suddenly he was old Pablo again, except slimmer and playing great defense. While he cratered in September, he managed to salvage a decent overall wRC+ of 111, though it’s definitely not what he or his agent were hoping for. My prediction of .308/.355/.500 and more right-handed power was laughably wrong, as he hit .279/.324/.415 overall, with an absolutely disastrous .199/.244/.319 from the right-side. I’m no scout, but his right-handed swing did look terrible all year, as it has for a few seasons now. I am starting to accept that this is just who Pablo is. He isn’t the MVP candidate of 2009 or 2011, he’s a slightly above-average hitter who has no power from the right-side, and if he isn’t too fat has playable defense at third base.
I don’t know if the Giants will sign him. During his horrendous April I had an awful taste in my mouth about Pablo and I just felt tired of him; tired of the weight discussion, tired of the hacking (when it doesn’t work), just tired. The Giants may feel the same way.
SS: Brandon Crawford
Brandon Crawford, the Giants’ reliable, full-time shortstop since 2012 came into this season as the platoon partner for Joaquin Arias. I predicted that even though Arias is terrible, this plan would shelter Crawford from his biggest weakness at the plate, which is left-handed pitching. It didn’t work out that way. Arias was quickly relieved of his bat and handed a broom to sweep up sunflower seed husks from the dugout floor, and Crawford was given the full-time job that was rightfully his. It was an interesting season for handsome young Brandon. He started wonderfully, cooled off in May, hit like an MVP candidate in June, then went into a deep hibernation through July and August. He emerged in September to hit better than he had all year. The whiplash production resulted in a final line of .246/.324/.389 which was pretty close to my .255/.320/.375 prediction. Add to that his characteristically above-average defense and he was one of the Giants’ most valuable players this year. Not bad for a guy who was supposed be part of a platoon.
If only it were that simple. Crawford showed an absurd and bizarre reverse platoon split this year, mashing lefties and being hapless against righties. Virtually every time this happens it’s the result of some small-sample shenanigans, and indeed, in only 178 PAs against lefties this year, Crawford’s production was simply luck-driven. Anything can happen in 178 PAs, and did; Crawford hit lefties as well as Buster Posey this year (152 wRC+!), thanks to a completely unsustainable .404 BABIP. Don’t look for that to happen in 2015.
Equally bizarre but for a different reason was Crawford’s performance against righties, a career-low 79 wRC+, caused largely by an unlucky .262 BABIP. Obviously neither of these extremes represent Crawford’s true talent; PA numbers of 178 and 386 are simply too small of a sample size to tell us much. Crawford is still a better hitter against righties than lefties, he just had some strange fortune this year that ended up making my prediction look just fine.
LF: Michael Morse
Here’s where the Giants have ranked in team home runs, from 2010 through 2013: 10th, 22nd, 30th, 29th. A large part of that is the ballpark, which is consistently the least homer-friendly in baseball. Still, even considering AT&T Park, the Giants have experienced a major power outage these last few seasons. Enter Michael Morse.
Morse, coming off two terrible seasons, was signed for an essentially risk-free 1-year and $6m contract, with the hope that he could get healthy and provide some pop from a corner outfield position. The Giants knew he would be a massive defensive liability, but were gambling on him hitting enough to make up for it. Early on it looked to be paying off massively, as Morse started the season hitting like the monster he was in 2011. His tremendous production was a huge reason the Giants were the best team in baseball through May.
Then came June. Morse went into an extended slump, along with the rest of the team, and through the end of July produced a .256/.303/.381 line, which, thanks to his as-advertized abysmal defense, saw him surrender nearly all of the value he had accrued early in the year. He recovered somewhat with a very solid August, including a weekend where he reached base 9 consecutive times over two winning games (incidentally, the only two games I’ve attended since 2012. Thanks Mike!) Then, in early September he suffered an oblique injury that ended his regular season.
The final tally: a .279/.336/.475 line (I had predicted a best-case scenario of .280/.330/.490), 16 home runs that the Giants were desperately looking for, and nearly 20 runs given back on defense. He ended up being worth a tidy 1 WAR, and the Giants finished 17th in home runs as a team.
It’s worth noting that while clutch isn’t a skill that players have, it is a thing that can happen, and this year Morse was clutch. With the opportunities he was given to produce runs, he performed at an above-average level, which means he was worth more than the context-neutral stats would suggest. Signing Morse this year was an unqualified success.
CF: Angel Pagan
One of the most commonly-cited stats this year surrounding the Giants, and this will continue during the playoffs, is their winning percentage when Angel Pagan is in the lineup compared to when he isn’t. It’s staggering, and beyond what you would expect even considering the quality of player Pagan is.
The stat is also cited a ton because, for the second year in a row, Pagan has managed to play fewer than 100 games. Two years into his 4-year, $40m contract, he’s managed 167 games and between 2 and 3 WAR. At this point you’d have to call the contract a bust, and with Pagan’s 2014 season ending with back surgery, it may only get worse next year.
Like 2013, when he was healthy Pagan was a valuable player, basically the same one he has been since 2012. His power was slightly down, but he was still getting on-base at a great clip and running well once there. I said at the start of the year that I’d be happy with a .280/.330/.415 line, and in his 96 games he hit a respectable .300/.342/.389, but it just wasn’t enough. I truly hope he can stay on the field more next year, as unlikely as that looks to be.
RF: Hunter Pence
Hunter Pence, as every baseball fan knows, is very weird. He looks weird, runs weird, swings weird, and throws weird. It’s safe to assume he does plenty of non-baseball things weird, too. But what’s weird to me is how his weirdness seems to distract people from his actual ability.
Pence is a good player. He just finished his 8th big league season and in all but one he’s been an above average hitter, usually well above. He’s a good baserunner. He’s incredibly durable. The weakest part of his game is his defense, but it isn’t so bad that he’s killing his team out there. It isn’t weird at all that he’s received down-ballot MVP votes in each of the last five seasons, and will this year as well.
Prior to his disaster—and somewhat worrying—September, Pence had an argument for being the Giants’ most valuable player. I predicted he’d have an even better year than 2013, hitting .285/.350/.490, and through August it looked like I’d be right: to that point he was batting .295/.347/.479. Then he started to look not only weird, but bad. At the time he was the owner of baseball’s active consecutive games started streak, and it’s possible he just wore down. Over his final 70 ABs he managed just 8 hits. His final line was .277/.332/.445—still solid, just not what it could’ve been. Let’s hope his lost final month was a combination of fatigue and bad luck, not the start of a severe decline.
LF/CF: Gregor Blanco
I want to single out Gregor Blanco because, for the third consecutive year, he’s played much more than the Giants wanted him to, and for the third consecutive year he’s performed much better than anyone expected him to. Going back to his signing in 2012, he’s ably filled in during Pagan’s injuries, and after Melky Cabrera’s suspension, and as a defensive replacement for whichever lummox the Giants have trotted out to left field. He has a good eye and will draw a walk, plays solid defense at every outfield position, and has just enough power to hit for extra bases once in awhile. I said earlier this year that since 2012 he’s been the most valuable minor league free agent signing in baseball, and after this season that’s probably still true.
He isn’t a perfect 4th outfielder since he is a truly terrible baserunner, despite his speed, but the Giants have been better over the last few years thanks to Blanco, and I just want to acknowledge that.
* * *
I was surprised how well I did overall this year. Hitters are pretty easy to predict (and notice I didn’t even bother with the pitching staff), but I was still off by enough to be able to draw some conclusions and hopefully improve next year.
One thing I consistently did was overestimate a player’s slugging percentage. Whether I’m not fully taking into account their home park, or the increasingly punitive run environment, I only underestimated one player’s power this year, and that was Brandon Crawford. His season was so bizarre, though, that I can’t feel too bad about that.
I didn’t write about Andrew Susac, though he was a wonderful surprise this year and it’ll be very interesting to see what happens with him in the offseason. Scouts believe he’s a starter for someone, and if the Giants aren’t looking to move Posey from behind home plate, they may look to capitalize on Susac’s value. It isn’t absurd to imagine a scenario where they let Pablo walk, move Posey to third base and start Susac every day, though that may be a bit premature. But what isn’t premature is to ask your boss for time off at the start of November so you can attend the Giants’ inevitable World Series parade.