It’s an even-numbered year, Giants fans, so you know what that means: the Giants will win the World Series. How can I be sure? Simple. Imagine this were on a math test:
2009, miss the playoffs; 2010, win the World Series; 2011, miss the playoffs; 2012, win the World Series; 2013, miss the playoffs; 2014, ________
Baseball is about statistics and this statistic is irrefutable. Since the start of the Posey Era (peace be upon him), the Giants win the World Series in every even year. So before we get to the formality that is the 2014 regular season, let’s take a look at the hitters that will be parading down Market Street in 7 months.
C: Buster Posey
Buster isn’t merely first in the position numbering system, he’s first in our hearts. In the recent sham election for which player represents the Face of MLB, Buster lost, demonstrating that the moral arc of the universe still has quite a ways to bend. Buster is the face of the Giants, the face of MLB, maybe the face of all humanity. They don’t even play the national anthem at Giants games, they just show Buster on the jumbotron and everyone hears the song in their heads. What I’m saying is you just don’t get this kind of production from a catcher.
That Buster’s 2013 could be considered a down year, despite a .294/.371/.450 line and 4.8 fWAR, says it all. And yet compared to his 2012 MVP campaign, one of the all-time great catcher seasons, it was. His power was way down as he slugged 9 fewer home runs, a difference composed entirely of home runs off left-handed pitchers (he hit 11 homers against righties in both 2012 and 2013). This is bizarre in light of the Bondsian numbers he posted against southpaws in 2012, and seems attributable almost entirely to some wild variance in home runs per fly ball vs lefties, from an absurd 30.2% in 2012 to an equally absurd 7.1% in 2013. Obviously, Posey’s true talent lies somewhere between these two extremes, and I’m certain it’s closer to what he showed us in 2012. The real lesson here is that some wacky stuff can happen in only 180 PAs.
That’s the how of Buster’s power loss last year, but what’s unknown is the why. His second half of the season was completely miserable, with only 2 home runs and 9 extra-base hits in 228 PAs. It’s possible that fatigue was an issue, as he played deep into the postseason in 2012 after recovering from a catastrophic leg injury. But the guy is only 26 years old and was #MVPosey for much of last season, which makes me feel like his sudden inability to drive the ball was the result of some power-sapping injury the public was never made aware of. It isn’t uncharacteristic of the Giants to force a player to play through an injury, especially in a title defense season. Let’s hope they don’t do it in 2015.
The recipe for enjoying Buster Posey this year is the same as always: hope for health, sit back and enjoy one of the game’s best players. I’ll predict a .315/.403/.495 line, stellar defense, and a top-5 finish in MVP voting.
1B: Brandon Belt
Imagine trying to live up to your parents’ expectations when one of your brothers became President, one cured cancer, and another landed on the moon. Tough, right? It certainly was for Brandon Belt, who debuted in the majors for a fanbase utterly spoiled by the recent performances of their top prospects. When Belt only appeared in 63 lackluster games for the disappointing 2011 team, many were ready to call him a bust.
This continued into 2012, even though he finished the year with a 118 wRC+; solid, but not remarkable for the position. The power he flashed in the minors had yet to come, but his walk rate ticked up and strikeout rate fell. This wasn’t good enough for some. Through no fault of Belt’s own he became a kind of lightning rod in baseball’s culture war. See, the nerds loved him. He had that wonderful strike zone control and walk rate, and stats folk generally don’t care about strikeouts. And because the nerds loved Belt, the traditionalists couldn’t. They complained that he struck out too much, and that when he did, he petulantly slumped his shoulders. This wasn’t their grandfather’s kind of ballplayer, this was a modern, sissified Moneyball type. Belt didn’t care, he just went out and helped win a World Series.
In 2013 the nerds were vindicated, and after a slight mechanical tweak Belt made fairly early in the season, he finished with a tidy .289/.360/.481 line, which was good for a stellar 139 wRC+. Belt was quietly the team’s best hitter last year.
I don’t expect that to be the case in 2014, but only because Posey is going to be a monster and Belt will only be a monsterette. I appreciate projection systems and the work their creators put into them, but I think Belt is going to have a bigger year than his .264/.349/.441 ZiPS projection. He’s finally arrived and is going to showcase that in a big way this year, with a .280/.380/.495 line.
2B: Marco Scutaro
Remember when Freddy Sanchez dove for a grounder and fell into a sinkhole, never to be seen again, and the Giants were forced to roll out the likes of Mini Mike Fontenot, Jeff “Human Statue” Keppinger, and Emmanuel fucking Burriss? It was an ugly 2011 at the keystone for the Giants after their aging second baseman suffered a career-ending injury. Bad news for 2014: Marco Scutaro is 38 years old and, due to a bad back, managed only 2 ABs this spring, and will start the season on the DL with no clear timetable for his return. What a couple months ago looked like a solid 2-win position for the Giants now has serious black hole potential. Expect to see a revolving door of Joaquin Arias, Ehire Adrianza, and Brandon Hicks until Scutaro returns, if he even can. Best-case scenario is replacement-level play from that unholy utility triumvirate, with Scutaro able to start a rehab assignment as soon as his DL stint ends.
I’m pessimistic. With Scutaro’s age and the nature of his injury, there’s a real possibility this could be the end of the road for him. 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. If he can get on the field, he’ll be the same ol’ Marco, hitting .295/.345/.395.
3B: Pablo Sandoval
Before a sports fan makes fun of their significant other for reading a gossip magazine, they should remember that Pablo Sandoval’s weight is more widely reported and obsessed over than anyone on the cover of Us Weekly. The latest from the year-round Panda Fat Watch has his condition being downgraded from “Too Fat” to “Not That Fat (For Now)”. Barring a midseason extension, Sandoval will be a free agent this year, and so has millions of incentives to keep the pounds off.
There isn’t a clear correlation between his weight and offensive performance, because whatever his bust size, Sandoval can hit. He might have the best raw bat-to-ball skill of any player in the game, with plate coverage he leverages to often hilarious effect. Each year you’ll see Pablo get hits on pitches most other players wouldn’t even swing at, like 55-foot curves he’ll hit on the bounce, or doubles he’ll yank off his shoe tops. Part of you wishes he’d stop swinging at so many bad balls, but the other part enjoys it too much when it works out.
What’s up for debate regarding Sandoval is how well he mans third base. The consensus seems to be “average at best”, but he did put up some truly great defensive numbers in his famous slim year of 2011. Maybe it was single-season defense statistic anomaly or Panda simply being a better fielder with less mass to shift. Probably it’s both. I think Pablo is going to have a big walk year, hitting .308/.355/.500, showing some of the power he’s been missing the last few years, especially from the right-side, and playing average defense. His agent certainly hopes so.
SS: Brandon Crawford
Brandon Crawford is the kind of player all pitchers are happy to see. If your job is to get hitters out, Crawford can help, no matter which jersey you wear. He does it with the stick by being a pretty terrible hitter and he does it with the glove by being a pretty terrific fielder, and the latter is why the Giants are trotting him out there on Opening Day.
Nope, Crawford cannot hit. More specifically, he can kinda not hit against righties but he can really not hit against lefties, which is why the Giants have already announced that he’ll be platooning with Joaquin Arias this season. Being a lefty, Crawford will get most of the playing time, so he’ll have more opportunity to add value the only way he’s capable, with his glove. Arias is a statue at short and will give back most of the few runs he’s capable of producing at the plate. The two combined will hopefully prove average at hitting, with Crawford’s defense making the position something less than a complete disaster.
Protecting him from lefties will allow Crawford to put up the best slash line of his career, .255/.320/.375, with +10 runs on defense.
LF: Michael Morse/Gregor Blanco
Michael Morse will be standing in left field on Opening Day, but I list Gregor Blanco here as well since my limited capacity for optimism still has me wishing for an eventual platoon. In 2011, Morse was the kind of player all pitchers hated to see, slugging homers and booting grounders, an offensive powerhouse and a defensive outhouse. He hit .303/.360/.550 with 31 homers but twenty runs given back in the field. It was his first full season and he was 29 years old. Since then, he’s played in 190 games over two injury-plagued seasons and been completely terrible, batting .258/.299/.432, with a 5:1 K/BB ratio and defense that should’ve made him unplayable.
The Giants gave Morse six million dollars this year and a starting job in the hopes that he can get healthy and do what he did in 2011: pound the ball enough to make up for the fact he sometimes has to wear a glove. They’ll do what they did with Pat Burrell in 2010, which is give Morse three at-bats a game to run into one and then yank him for a defensive replacement, probably Gregor Blanco. But I’d like to see Blanco start against righties and only see Morse against lefties. Blanco has no power, but he can draw a walk and his defense is elite. He’s been the most valuable minor league free agent signing of the last two years because of that glove. Morse’s upside is something like .280/.330/.490 and a magical talisman to ward off fly balls; his downside is a huge, stinking crater where left field once was.
CF: Angel Pagan
I’m incredibly excited about the upcoming Field Tracking System for many reasons, but seeing Angel Pagan’s defense analyzed is a big one. See, I think it’s terrible, and the numbers mostly bear that out. He has pretty bad instincts, a terrible first step, and comical routes, but can survive out there on speed alone.
Luckily, when Pagan is healthy, he can hit. Last year a hamstring injury caused him to miss nearly half the season, but when he was on the field he was most of that stellar player from 2012, actually putting up an identical 114 wRC+ in both years. If his surgically-repaired hamstring allows him to rack up 600 PAs of similar production this year then the Giants will be in good shape. I’d be happy with a .280/.330/.415 line, solid baserunning, and merely below-average defense.
RF: Hunter Pence
Hunter Pence looks funny playing baseball but still does it well enough to have earned himself a 5-year, $90m contract. That contract begins this year, Pence’s age 31 season, and boy could it turn out ugly. I’m talkin’ Aaron Rowand ugly, which should scare and disgust anyone who wants to watch and enjoy Giants baseball.
It probably won’t end up that way, only because geez, how often can someone be as terrible as Aaron Rowand?
Pence keeps himself on the field, swings for the fences, and hustles like hell. He’s fun to watch when his herky-jerky style produces, which I expect it to this year. I was wrong about Pence last year, seeing his miserable 2012 as the start of a precipitous decline. It looks more like an odd blip, as Pence was terrific in 2013. He’s going to hit .285/.350/.490 this year, even better than last year, with not-terrible defense and good baserunning.
* * *
No one’s ever accused me of being overly optimistic, but I feel like the Giants offense is going to be pretty damn good this year. Good enough to win the World Series, I mean. Since I provided raw batting line predictions and not park- and league-adjusted stats, it’s important to remember that in AT&T Park, in 2014, a slugging percentage near .500 is tremendous, and a .330 on-base percentage for an up-the-middle defender is extremely solid. The season will hinge, like last year, on the pitching staff, which right now is looking like Bumgarner and Cain and pray for rain. But since it’s an even year, expect big things from Hudson and Lincecum, and Vogelsong to be a serviceable fifth starter. Can’t wait to see who will win World Series MVP.