Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Swinging and Missing: Giants Power

Most of this winter, I have seen articles much like this one from the Sporting news here, where the author notes, in one way or another, "San Francisco failed to acquire a power bat."

Sure, we don't have the prototypical cleanup hitter's power bat - no one would ever confuse Bengie Molina for that - but we have a number of players who can put up around 15-20 HRs in 2009 that we did not have for the whole season of 2008, when the Giants only hit 94 homers, good for last in the NL by 23 homers: Lewis, Sandoval and Ishikawa. In addition, Molina is usually capable of doing that plus Rowand was hampered by injuries (as inside reported by Bruce Jenkins here and which was acknowledged on another website as I posted on recently).

That will lead to improvements in HR hit in the following positions:
  • 1B: only 14 hit last season, most projections have Ishikawa hitting between 15-20 homers plus being platooned with probably either Uribe or Aurilia, who could add another 5 homers playing 1B. That would add around 10 homers.
  • 2B: only 5 hit last season, Frandsen, who should win the battle, hit 5 in just 264 AB in 2007, and even if he don't win the 2B battle, he should see enough AB to add 5 homers to the Giants 2009 total.
  • 3B: only 12 hit last season, only 8 by Castillo, most projections have Sandoval hitting between 15-20 homers plus Uribe or Aurilia will probably see time there and add another 5 homers playing 3B. That would add at least 5 homers.
  • SS: only 1 hit last season, Renteria has hit at least 10 homers every season except for one over the past 10 seasons, has at least 11 homers in 6 of those 10 seasons. That would add around 10 homers.
  • LF: only 12 hit last season, Lewis accounted for only 9 of those but he will be hitting 5th for us in 2009 and has prepared this off-season to beef up and be able to hit 20 homers. Let's count 5 additional homers there.
  • Bench: Not entiredly sure how many were hit by whom, other than 6 were hit as a substitute (88 as starter), but given that Schierholtz and Uribe/Aurilia look to get significant ABs in the lineup, as well as off the bench, I would say that there would be at least an additional 5 homers here not accounted for above, both from Schierholtz starting as well as Uribe/Aurilia PHing (3 homers in 2008).
In total, that would be another 40 homers, pushing last year's 94 total to roughly 135 homers, at least, in 2009, which would not move us up much in last year's rankings, from 16th to maybe 14th or even 13th. But that should move the Giants up roughly to 4.3 runs scored per game. And that along with the projected improvements in the pitching staff should put us squarely at .500 for 2009, which would be competitive for the NL West division title in 2009.

Sure, a power bat would be nice and is probably required in order for us to move up in the rankings for contention for the NL Championship that gets us into the World Series (hopefully Villalona could be that bat in a couple of years). Still, the additions the Giants have made, both during the offseason and late in the 2008 season, should add an additional layer of power to the team that will help them, hopefully, break the string of losing seasons that we have gone through in the rebuilding of the Giants, post-Bonds.

Power is not the be-all and end-all of putting together a team. As Baseball Prospectus showed in their analysis of successful teams in the playoffs, once a team makes the playoffs, their offense, while useful in helping them getting there, the offense is effectively neutralized by the better pitching encountered in the playoffs (perhaps because teams often jettison their 5th and sometimes even 4th starter from the rotation) and results in the offense not providing any additional help towards being successful in the playoffs.

What BP found was that in the playoffs, it is a strong pitching staff as shown by a high K/9 rate, a successful closer as measured by BP's proprietary relief metric WRXL, and a good defense as measure by BP's defense metric, that contributes, at a statistically significant level, to a team's chances in the playoffs. And this was preceded by The Hardball Time's similar study that found that it was pitching and defense that counts in the playoffs, not offense and certainly not power.

Thus, all this worry about the Giants power additions is misleading on two dimensions. One, the team has made some significant additions to their power both during the offseason as well as late in the 2008 season. The homerun total should increase by 50% in 2009, even more if you take away the contributions of the players who contributed at the end of 2008. Sandoval and Ishikawa both hit 3 homers each; if Pablo hit at his rate for Castillo's AB, he would have hit 16 homers to the 6 Castillo hit and if Ishikawa hit likewise for Bowker and Aurilia, he would have hit 15 to their combined 10.

Secondly, power is overrated by the fanboys, which I understand because I love the long-ball too and fans have loved the long ball since Babe Ruth hit more homers by himself in a season than most teams did as a whole. However, power is not the factor most important in the playoffs, it is not even significant to success in the playoffs, so focusing so much on it is detrimental to winning in the playoffs.

We just need enough offense to win nicely with the great pitching and OK defense that we have, we do not need to have a great offense to win a lot of games. For example, we only need to score runs at a 4.47 runs per game rate in order to win 90 games with a 4.00 runs allowed per game average, which we should be close to in 2009. That would only be good enough for 10th place in offense, just barely over Arizona's 4.44 in 11th place.

And to win the NL West, it probably won't take more than 85 wins to win the division as LA had 84 wins in 2008 and even if they resign Manny, they have lost Lowe and other free agents, so they are probably breaking even there. To win 85 games with a 4.00 RA, the Giants only have to score 4.20 RS per game, which most of the projections, using the lineup calculator, says our offense is capable of doing.

This is why I've been saying that the Giants should win at least 81 games in 2009, they were 4 games above Pythagorean in 2008, so if they are 4 under (the theory is that this regresses to the mean and zero over time) in 2009, then 81 would be the likely win total. But there are a number of positives that I think makes that conservative:
  • Bullpen is greatly improved with Affeldt, Howry, and Romo in place now setting up, as that is a leveraged situation beyond their numbers;
  • Rowand should improve over 2008 if healthy and I would think after 2008's poor second half showing, he's going to do his utmost to stay uninjured;
  • Sanchez should be much more improved over 2008 than most projections say he will;
  • Renteria should do better than most projections, which have him in the mid-700 OPS, I think he'll be closer to 800 OPS;
  • Zito has a good chance of improving his ERA over the high 4 ERA that many project for him, I think he'll be closer to 4 than 5;
  • Frandsen should do better than most projections, which put him around 700 OPS;
  • Lewis should do better than most projections, which put him around mid-700 OPS, I think he'll be closer to 800.
Of course, any significant injury will throw that projection out of whack, particularly Rowand or anyone in the pitching rotation. Still, I think given all these positives, the Giants have a good chance of attaining .500 in 2009 even if someone is unexpectedly not as productive as expected because then other positives would help counteract that negative to the overall production.

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