Saturday, April 03, 2010

Your 2010 Giants: Big 6 Questions

This is my annual exercise on what the Giants big questions for the season are.

1. Is Panda Real or Not?

This is the critical question because he is the offensive linchpin to whatever offense the Giants will put up this season. I believe he is.

Even though he was not highly touted, he showed coming up the farm system that he had a great eye and the bat speed to make contact, as his strikeout rate was good. The big question was the lack of walks and his body. But he's much more athletic than he appears, as anyone who saw him score on either of those bang-bang plays at home plate in late 2008. And people forgot that he was young relative to any league he was in and inexperienced. He busted out in 2008 at age 21, and last year learned how to hit for HR power.

He continued to show his great ability to make good contact with the pitch in the majors that he showed in the minors (nobody has ever discussed this that I've seen, but I believe that his learning how to be ambidextrous, able to throw accurately with either arm, helped with his control of the bat), and that supports him continuing to do well.

In addition, I recently read that only three other hitters had a better batting average in their first full season in the past 40-50 years (don't remember period or where I read it but it was a long period). That's not really something you do by accident.

Plus, even if there is a drop off there, he started hitting for homers in June last season, meaning that there was two months of a low amount of homers, so as long as he hits for homers consistently in 2010, that should make up for any loss in batting average by boosting up his SLG.

Furthermore, he was making progress at the end of last season in terms of taking more walks. He also spoke with our new hitting coach, Bam Bam Meulens, about working to avoid pitches out of the strike zone because, even if he can hit that well for a hit, getting into a better pitch count could force the pitcher to throw a strike that he could hit even more authoritatively.

And along those lines, it was discovered over the off-season that he needed glasses. Now, he said in the interview about this, he can see the pitches clearly whereas before they were blurry. The ability of hitting the baseball improves with the ability to see the baseball. It was rumored that Ted Williams was far-sighted and that helped him recognize pitches earlier. Imagine that: Panda did as well as he did last year hampered by his vision but he is unimpaired this season.

Most projections have him regressing "to the mean". But the mean they are using are based on faulty data. First, it considers to some extent this stats before he figured out how to hit in the minors. Second, it includes stats before he figured out how to hit for homerun power. Third, he was hampered by his poor vision last season. I think he should not only match what he did, but he should be able to improve on it.

2. Can Lincecum Compete for a Third Straight Cy Young?

I say compete because there are so many factors into winning the award, but first he has to have the stats great enough to compete for it. I understand doubting it. Nobody had won a Cy Young in their first two seasons, so winning a third would be even more unprecedented. Plus, there is the article about Lincecum dealing with less top shelf velocity.

But in his last outing of the spring, Lincecum said that he's ready. His pitches were in the 93-95 MPH range. Baggarly quoted him, "Definitely. I felt like I had the right stuff.
The breaking balls, both of them, were good. Change-up was good. Fastballs feel like they're getting the life on it. I feel ready for the season."

The more important thing is that he is not experiencing any pain. The human body will eventually result in lessening functionality, and luckily, Lincecum has experience dealing with finding another edge against batters, due to all those doubts brought to his attention. That will help him find the way to do well and get in position to compete for another Cy Young.

And the Cy Young is not what is important, but rather that he performed well enough to be considered again. I think the Giants pitching rotation's performance will depend greatly on how well he does. Not that Zito and Sanchez don't have to take another step forward and duplicate their great late 2009 season surge for the whole 2010 season, or that Cain don't have to keep up his improvement from 2009 into 2010 (which will be hard because his FIP is much higher), but if Lincecum does have a poor season, I think that will be a domino fall that affects the other pitchers, pressuring them to do better.

3. Can Renteria Return to Prior Goodness?

Some may not consider this a key, and scoff, but since he is batting in the #2 position, he will need to do well there to set up the hitters in the middle for RBIs. And he was actually a plus hitter previously, with a good OPS period, and great for a SS.

The #2 hitter is key because an out here would result in: 1) no advancement of any base runners most times, 2) two outs facing the #3 hitter, wasting his AB's potential for scoring, and 3) even one out limits the potential, whether the first hitter got on or not. One study of lineup creation maximizing found that you would want your best hitter batting #2. If Renteria is hitting like he used to, one of better hitters would be batting there (only Sandoval beat that last season for the Giants).

This is also key because if he does poorly, then the Giants will have to play Uribe more at SS to get offense. And he's really not a good hitter, 2009 notwithstanding. Then SS would become a sinkhole offensively, another hole in the lineup, like it was in 2009.

Also, if Renteria is hitting, then we have good hitters 2, 3, 4, and 5, maybe 6 with Molina, creating a good mass of hitting ability to generate runs more regularly. Else, then we are looking at only 3, 4, and 5, realistically.

4. Can Jonathan Sanchez Be Consistently Good Over a Full Season?

This is important because one of the keys to last season's good standing was not just our top guys doing well, but our back of the rotation guys beating the asses off the other teams' rotations. Even though Lincecum and Cain pitched well in September and Zito actually kind of poorly, they had poor W/L records for the month while Zito won a lot of games. Penny too. That was because they pitched well enough to beat the back of rotation guys that the other teams threw at us.

Sanchez is our #4 starter this season, and as my PQS study showed, he can be very dominating a pitcher when he is on, as good as any front-line pitcher on any team. However, he's our #4 starter, so it could be lambs being brought out for slaughter pitting him against the lousy starters that other teams have in the back of their rotation.

My experience with fantasy baseball finds that most pitchers lineup to face their fellow rotation order buddies, as long as everyone is on a 5 man rotation. As our #4, he will get to face mainly #4's plus some #3 and #5, and a smattering of #1 or #2 performances when you have breakout performances. If he is pitching well all season long, he should be in the conversation for the Cy Young because he should be winning a lot of games, in the upper teens, which usually catches the eyes of the Cy Young voters. With 5 votes instead of 3 this season, he could be in the conversation with a strong season.

5. Can Rowand Return to Prior Performance Levels?

I was wrong with Rowand's possible performances the past two years, he has not hit anywhere near where I thought he might. He underperformed by a lot.

However, now that he's gotten himself into shape, he can help himself greatly, both offensively and defensively. He has been a hitting god this season. As we have seen the past two seasons, he can be totally on as a hitter, but once he tires or injures himself, then he's pretty bad. He reportedly has worked hard this offseason to improve his overall fitness and not have that second half lag that he had the past two seasons.

Meanwhile, reports are that with the weight loss, he is running more effortlessly in CF. That would improve his range a lot, meaning that he would get to a lot more balls in the OF, improving our OF defense overall, as he was a weak link last season. (Both DeRosa and Schierholtz have been plus OF defensively, by a large margin)

And we will need both types of improvement. His defense because we greatly rely on our pitching to beat other teams. His offense because he is going to be leading off for us again. His hot streak last season leading off helped the Giants go on a nice winning streak in the middle of the summer (that and Panda's HR emergence). Both at his prior goodness would be a great boon to our team, either at the reduced levels of the past two seasons, could sink us.

6. Can Huff Be Enuff at 1B and Cleanup?

It is all interlinked. If he is not good enough defensively, then it don't matter if he hits as well as he did before, they will have to play Ishikawa. If he is not good enough offensively, then they will have to play Ishikawa or worse be tempted to start Posey there. In any case, then Bochy could be tempted to bring back the Bengie Molina Clean-up Experience if Huff is out. That would not be good news for our offense, I think Molina did all he could there but he really hurt us there offensively due to his low OBP as well as his inability to run even averagely.

Giants Thoughts

I think the Giants will have enough good answers that they will be competitive in 2010. I think they can win 90+ wins, and with all the question marks facing our NL West competitors regarding key players in their plans (Manny and the Divorse, Street, Webb), we have as good a chance of winning the division as anybody else.

I expect both Posey and Bumgarner to come up in the early August timeframe. Posey will become our backup catcher and platoon at 1B with whoever is starting at 1B, Huff or Ishikawa, giving us a great bat off the bench and a potential DH if we get to the World Series. Bumgarner will be a reliever at minimum, starter if Wellemeyer isn't doing that well again (he didn't really do that well in 2008 either, his FIP was much higher).

I am hopeful that one or both of Bowker and Schierholtz will hit well enough to win a starting position in the outfield. I think Panda will take another leap forward this season and bring the Giants with him. I think the bullpen will make our starting rotation that might more airtight, and that will have a positive feedback loop into the starters relaxing more and pitching better. I think the defense will be enough to enable the pitching to be the best in the majors in 2010, topping what they did in 2009.

I think the Giants, once they get into the playoffs, are capable of getting to the World Series, and with Posey as a potential DH, would have a good chance of winning it, if they can survive the gauntlet that is the MLB playoffs, as it is structured against a better team winning a majority of the time. So the key will be having a pitching staff that is dominant in terms of PQS, which will result in more games for the Giants where there is a great pitching performance, giving their offense more chance to score and win a game.

In any case, I think that we will have a great season, one that we will long remember, for good or bad. I think we are on the cusp of a recurring playoff team that will do damage deep into the playoffs, and finally win that elusive World Series championship we all long for. This is just year One.

Go Giants!

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