Saturday, February 10, 2018

Your 2018 Giants: State of the 2018 Giants

I thought I would take a hand at looking at the State of the San Francisco Giants.  This repeats some of what I've been saying, plus take a deeper look into what Fangraph's Depth Chart WAR projections mean and where it can go wrong, when you know how projections are done.  Also covers a lot of new stats I've run into reading my latest Bill James Annual.  And good timing, Giants FanFest was just held on Saturday, earlier today.

ogc thoughts

I think going in that the Giants are in a good state.  The team, while not clearly dominant, is in good shape overall, I believe that they can be competitive for a wild card playoff spot, as long as they are reasonably healthy.  Ah, but that's the rub when you have an older team, health is not as guaranteed.

Age and Reliability

However, BaseballHQ, in their publication Baseball Forecaster, which helps Fantasy Baseball players, has researched the reliability of players to maintain their past production and found that older is better for reliability.  "To draft the most reliable batters, and maximize the odds of returning at least par value on your investments, you should target the age rage of 28-34."  And, "the most reliable age range for pitchers is 29-34."    The current 40-man roster has 22 players in that range, and based on my best guess of the 25-man out of this roster and NRI, 17 of those players are in these ranges.

WAR: What Good Is It For

Based on Fangraph's Depth Chart fWAR calculations, the Giants are currently in line for the WC2 spot,  with an 84-78 record, behind the Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals, and Cards in fWAR projections.  At 84.4 wins, the Giants are projected at about 1 win ahead of the Mets and 6.4 wins behind the Cards.

However, many Giants' projections are lowered because these formulas usually only account for past productions, and injuries will have a negative effect on any player's projections for the year.   And as I've noted all off-season, the Giants horrendous 2017 season was mostly due to injuries taking out our co-aces, closer, only effective Loogy, best power hitter, second best power hitter, thrown in with some unexpected poor performances from our #3 and #4 starters, plus our shortstop's hitting, CF fielding, and 3B after Nunez was traded.   Here are some upsides for the Giants in 2018, while looking at each projected 2018 fWAR:
  • Belt:  3.3 fWAR projection.  2014's injury marred production, plus 2017 missing time, adjusting for all that, Belt has averaged roughly 4.0 fWAR per season since 2013.  
  • Crawford:  2.9 fWAR projection.  His 2017's bad hitting in the first half hurt his overall season production.  He hit .283/.348/.441/.789 in the second half, after clearing his mind during the ASB, which is basically what he hit in 2015-16, when he averaged 5.1 fWAR.
  • Longoria:  3.0 fWAR projection.  He's trickier.  He did have an early season injury that hurt his early numbers, and then he started hitting like he normally does in the middle of the season.  However, he sagged at the end.  So I think he still has the skills, but that late season lapse suggest that maybe he is dealing with stuff that will keep his production down.  But he basically averaged 4.0 fWAR in the prior 3 seasons and he's only 32 YO for the 2018 season. 
  • Pence:  1.5 fWAR projection.  As I noted in a recent post, he was Pence-like for most of the second half of 2017.  His problem was playing injured and then returning before he got his bat back.  His unorthodox batting mechanics, borne of his rare physical condition, appears to be hard to get into playing shape.  If he is healthy and ready to play, he probably can produce about what he produced in 2015-16, 3.5 fWAR.
  • Jackson:  0.5 fWAR projection.  He produced roughly 2 fWAR last season in less projected PA.
  • McCutchen:  2.8 fWAR projection.  He produced 3.7 fWAR in 2017, and at age 31, should be able to produce similarly in 2018.  And he played below average in CF in 2017, but should be able to play RF at a better level.  Still, he was streaky in 2017, bad for first month and a half, then scalding for the next two months, cools off in August before hitting well in September.  The key for him (as with most batters) is when he minimizes strikeouts (low k%) while maximizing walks (BB/K).
  • Bumgarner:  3.4 fWAR projection.  Bumgarner produced 5.0 fWAR in the prior two seasons.  
  • Samardzija:  3.5 fWAR projection.  He's been transitioning the past two seasons, learning new ways of pitching.  So while this projection is close to his 3.8 fWAR in 2017, he has some upside if he can consolidate his learning in 2018 and consistently deliver.  His peak was 4.1 fWAR.
  • Cueto:    2.5 fWAR projection.  He averaged 4.7 fWAR in the prior 3 seasons, and did poorly in 2017 because of his blister issues.  This projection assumes 2017 is something that might happen again, but if he returns to prior norms, that adds over 2 wins.
  • Melancon:  1.1 fWAR projection.  He averaged 1.8 fWAR the prior 3 seasons, to show his potential if he's back to normal.
  • Dyson:  0.6 fWAR projection.  He averaged 1.1 fWAR the prior two seasons, and the Giants appear to have fixed him up, though still some hiccups still, particularly at the end.  Excusing that first game hiccup, he had a 2.45 ERA in all his games until those last two games.  
  • Strickland:  0.3 fWAR projection.  Averaged 0.8 fWAR the prior 3 seasons, and he's only 29 YO for the 2018 season.  
  • Gearrin:  0.2 fWAR projection.  Averaged 0.45 fWAR (0.3 and 0.6), and is 32 YO for the season, so there is some upside.
  • Smith:  0.1 fWAR projection.  He averaged 0.8 fWAR 2012-15, and had 1.4 fWAR in 2016.  And in his short season with the Giants, pro-rated to around 2 fWAR.  
All together, there is fWAR upside across all these players.   The total is roughly 15 wins added should everything swing our way and everyone reaches the above high points.  If we add up the ones I think are likely to happen, it is roughly 6 wins, which would push the Giants basically equal to the Cards at around 90 wins.

So, from a projected WAR analysis, it roughly looks like the Giants will end up somewhere around 81-87 wins, which I think most would take after last season.  I think the Giants will be competitive for the wild card with a good chance of competing for the WC1 spot.  The Dodgers, projected at 98 wins, means that the division title is out of reach unless the Dodgers have as bad a season with injuries and poor performance as the Giants did last season.

PECOTA projections also look promising for the Giants.  I read in an article about this that the Giants are projected at 84-78, which is roughly what Fangraphs projects (though here, they end up behind D-backs, and tied with Cards).  And the same issues of projecting lower wins for the players above holds for their projections too, so I feel that there is a good chance that they can easily end up with more wins than projected.

And, as much as the Giants get beat up on age, the Dodgers actually had an older pitching staff than the Giants in 2017, average 29.7 years vs. the Giants 29.1 years.  And with Cain and Moore replaced, most probably by Stratton and Blach/Suarez, and Law most probably stepping into the bullpen, we should be going down some, relative to the Dodgers.

Dodger Starting Rotation Madness Method

I do have to hand it to the Dodgers, though, they have somehow managed their collection of 30-something injury prone pitchers into a collaborative pitching rotation.  Other than Kershaw, who normally should be around 32-33 starts (he only had 27 due to injury in 2017, and he'll be 30 for the 2018 season), the rest of the staff are not expected to pitch a full season.   They have been able to mix and match them in a way that works, so far, without bruising egos too much, over the past three seasons.

Let's look at how good they have been in the past three seasons with overall run allowance, which is majorly related to their pitching.  In 2017, they led with 3.58 RA/game, roundly beating the second place team, at 4.07.  Getting to 4.56 RA puts us at 8th in the NL, just slightly better than the average 4.63 RA.  They were at 3.94 RA in 2016, 5th place (Giants 4th with 3.90 RA; Cubs first with 3.43 RA).  In 2015, they were second with 3.67 RA, behind only the Cards at 3.24 RA (Giants 6th at 3.87 RA).   And for comparison with before they started up this, in 2014, they had 3.81 RA, 8th in the NL (Giants 6th with 3.79 RA).

Let's take a deeper look at how they were in 2017, and who they got for 2018.  In 2017, Kershaw led with 27 starts, with four starters with 24-25 starts (Wood 2.72 ERA; Hill 3.32 ERA; Ryu 3.77 ERA; Maeda 4.22 ERA; these are overall ERA, some also relieved).  Two are gone now:  McCarthy (now traded to Braves in Kemp trade) had 16 starts and Yu Darvish (now free agent; but apparently being pursued still by LA, though same issue as with Stanton, they don't want to go over the CBT penalty threshold and they are right there, like the Giants, so they would have to find a way to dump Kemp to save enough money to get Darvish) had 9 starts. 

Three are still around:  Urias 5 starts at 5.40 ERA (still only 20 YO, but this is the example for why you can't always count your eggs until they are hatched, and he just had shoulder surgery, TINSTAAPP; reminiscent of the Dodgers during the 2000's, when they would have a parade of prospect starters who were considered a Top 100 prospect, while Cain wasn't, seems like the raters are still overvaluing what the Dodgers have), Brock Stewart 4 starts at 5.27 ERA as a starter (much better as reliever 2.18 ERA), and Ross Stripling 2 starts at 0.00 ERA (but 5.0 IP means they were relief starts; he was the guy taken out of a no-hitter facing the Giants in 2016, I think his debut start, perhaps).   Plus their best SP prospect, Walker Buehler.

So for 2018, they look to have Kershaw, Wood, Hill, Ryu, Maeda as their "top 5", with Stewart and Buehler supplementing, and Stripling appears to be expected to try to compete for a rotation spot, as well, giving them 8 starters, but with 3 huge ERA question marks in Stewart, Buehler, and Stripling, and three injury huge question marks in Hill, Ryu, and Maeda.  It will be interesting again to see if they can mange his high wire act, this looks like the fourth season they have been doing this.

The good news for NL West Division Title hopefuls is that their expected Starting Rotation in 2017 were massively under their FIP:
  • Kershaw:  2.31 ERA; 3.07 FIP
  • Wood:  2.72 ERA;  3.32 FIP
  • Hill:  3.32 ERA; 3.72 FIP
  • Ryu:  3.77 ERA; 4.74 FIP
  • Maeda:  4.22 ERA; 4.07 FIP
Maeda was the only one whose ERA was worse than it should have been per DIPS.  On average, each SP was under their FIP by roughly 50 points.  And, over their careers, they have all been roughly around their FIP, so their ERA should be rising anywhere from 40-60 points higher.   That would return them back to the pack, placing them somewhere in the Top 2-3, if we move their 2017 numbers back that range.  Still, increasing by half a run allowed per game would drop their Pythagorean in 2017 from the 102 wins that baseball-reference.com has them at (they won 104, so they were two games above expected), to 92 wins.   And most manager's teams regress, suggesting they could be at zero or negative wins, so they might end up in the 90-92 win range.

However, they are missing McCarthy and Darvish this season, so unless they make a big trade mid-season for someone similar, they might fall even further back, as they currently have only Stripling, Stewart, and Buehler as SP depth.  Given their history of picking up spare SP, I would expect them to invites a bunch of NRI on minor league deals to spring, in hopes of stashing them in AAA for the season.  Or working out a deal with another team to get a young pitcher like Wood in exchange for their young prospects.

Lineup

There is mostly good but some key bad.  The major bad being that we have no obvious traditional leadoff hitter.  At least, not until Duggar forces his way into the lineup, as he has exhibited the ability to get on base in the minors (MiLB .382 OBP) as well as the ability to steal (has shown speed but not effectiveness previously, but after work with Vince Coleman, our MiLB coach, he did great in AFL, 9 steals in 10 attempts, also during season with 10 SB in 12 attempts).

Still, the lineup is pretty strong up and down, even with CF and leadoff in flux.  Here are the projected OBP/SLG/OPS for a sample lineup (data from after the McCutchen trade; for some reason some have moved up or down a couple points or so):
  1. Panik:  .348/.413/.761
  2. Pence:  .326/.432/.758
  3. Posey:  .375/.458/.833
  4. McCutchen: .376/.484/.860
  5. Belt:  .366/.463/.829
  6. Longoria:  .324/.458/.782
  7. Crawford:  .325/.412/.737
  8. Jackson/Blanco:  .326/.372/.698
This lineup would average around 4.73 runs scored per game.  Along with the projected 3.92 ERA (and assuming 0.31 unearned runs for a total 4.23 runs allowed) that works out to a 89 wins season, at the high end.  Just substituting in each player's full position stats (including bench players and assuming they are used in the same lineup spot, which admittedly is a probably not happening), I get only 4.52 runs scored per game, which only works out to a 86 win season, which is what I would be expecting for 2018, somewhere in the 84-86 win range, which should be good enough for battling for the WC2 spot.

This lineup is pretty good up and down, which should help to minimize streaks of poor scoring.  Also helping is that many of our players are not that bad against pitchers who throw with the same hand as they bat.  The lineup above is based on my interpretation of what Bochy has done before as well as initial thoughts he has noted about where guys might bat.

A better lineup would be to swap Pence and Posey so that Posey bats second and Pence third.  OBP and SLG is wasted in the 3rd spot because a lot of the time, he comes up in the first inning with 2 outs (estimate around 43-44% of the time) or with no one on base (another 3-4%).  However, this also shows how little lineup manipulation don't matter much on a one-by-one basis, it only bumps the lineup up to 4.75 runs scored per game, or roughly 2 runs in a season.  Only moves the win needle by 0.2 wins.

Injury Depth

The Giants end up looking bad here overall.  But it is hard to have depth for .800+ OPS hitters, so that is a natural for Posey, Belt, McCutchen, and I'll throw in Longoria since he is close.  Hundley is the best backup we have at C.  Aramis Garcia will be starting 2018 at AAA, but unless he really figures out the pitching quickly there, 2019 is the earliest we can expect him to be a good enough replacement for Posey should he not be playing C (whether by injury or change of position, like when he mainly played 1B in late 2017 when Belt went down).

We had some depth at 2B, 3B, and SS when we had Arroyo, but he was traded, so now it's mostly Tomlinson, so not as good.  However, if we end up keeping at least one of these guys, Alen Hanson (I mentioned in a previous post that perhaps he's an eventual replacement for Nunez, playing IF/OF, speed, plus OK batting peripherals, suggesting he could develop more as a hitter) and Andres Blanco (recently minor league signing with $1.1M MLB contract if he makes the team; .682 OPS projection by Steamer) are probably as good a backup as Arroyo for the 2018 season, without the potential for the future.   Plus, currently Sandoval is depth at 3B, and if we end up keeping him on the bench, I would not be unhappy with him starting at 3B, as there is the potential he gets fit enough to be an average major leaguer, which is great depth (think a version of having Gregor Blanco being backup in OF for all those championship years).  And Miguel Gomez is probably depth at 3B/2B (.713 OPS per Steamer; .561 OPS per ZiPS) plus perhaps C, he was listed under there by Baseball-Reference.com.

The outfield has some better depth now that we signed Jackson and Blanco.  Parker is also nice depth, as he has a career .791 OPS, and .729 OPS over the past two seasons, and he was clearly overwhelmed by being a starter early in 2017, struggling with his bat, but once he returned from the DL, he had a .747 OPS (basically the same as the .751 OPS he had in 2016, so I would say that appears to be his current talent level;  average NL LF in 2017 had .766 OPS).  I would be surprised if the Giants got rid of him, given his relative youth and clear lefty power off the bench, something no other bench options provide right now.

Plus, there is prospect depth here as well.  Chris Shaw provides depth at 1B and LF.  Steamer projects him at .681 OPS, ZiPS at .701 OPS, so not that great, but so far in his career, he has hit .900+ eventually at each level, and if he continues, would hit .900+ OPS in AAA this season, preparing him for a solid MLB start in 2019, should he win the LF starting position.  And Slater is projected at .715 OPS by Steamer, .690 OPS by ZiPS, which is similar, but had a .740 OPS last season, though that high K% means he'll be up and down a lot, probably.

And, of course, we have Duggar, who is expected to be ready to play in the majors at some point during the 2018 season, perhaps as soon as opening day.  He is not projected for much (.613 OPS by ZiPS, .666 OPS by Steamer), but his sterling defense should help counter any offensive loss by upping the defense at whichever OF position he mans (presumably, if the Giants bring him up, he's playing CF, and if necessary, the then current CF's would move to the corner to take the spot of guy who needs replacing, unless, of course, he's replacing a CF).  And given the current CF options, if he's close to the  .666 OPS projection, I would think the Giants would just start him in CF and bat him 8th until he figures out things.

Still, as nice as these backups are, while I think we are OK at backup OF (more because we currently have two OF who are not expected to be even average 2 WAR, though both Parker and Slater are not bad as replacements, almost exactly average; and if McCutchen has any issues, that's a big problem here), we are lacking depth around the infield, including C, though perhaps hopeful that Shaw can be one sometime during the 2018 season.

The bench is OK with Jackson, probably Gregor Blanco, and Tomlinson on there, and probably Sandoval as well, though Hanson and Andres Blanco will be pushing on both Tomlinson and Sandoval for an infield bench spot, and probably Parker as 5th OF.  Hanson plays some OF, so I can see him winning the last OF bench spot should Duggar not win the starting spot and Parker struggles, and the Giants end up with Jackson, Blanco, and Hanson along with Pence and McCutchen in the OF.

Starting Pitching

As I've been stating during the off-season, particularly once I discovered how elite Stratton is with his pitchers, I'm pretty high on the Giants starting pitching.  We could potentially have four ace level performances, in the best scenario.  But obviously, lots of risk involved, so most probably not.  Let's look into each expected SP.
  1. Bumgarner:  He's projected at 3.67 ERA.  I'm not sure exactly why he's projected so high, but my best guess is that since jumped from 2.74 in 2016 to 3.32 in 2017, the algorithm weights that highly, and assumes another jump.  As we all know, he had his dirt bike injury, and as long as he don't do that again, should revert back to prior norms, as he's just 28 YO.  Prior 3 seasons, 2.88 ERA, career 3.01 ERA.  He had a 3.00 ERA when he went down, and probably came back too soon, given his bumpy return, he had a 3.18 ERA in his last 11 starts.  I think he'll be closer to his career 3.01 ERA than his projected 3.67 ERA.  If he does, that boosts the win projections up above by a game or two, depending on how close he can get to his career norms.  
  2. Cueto:  We have a similar situation here:  3.86 ERA projection, 3.33 career ERA, 2.80 ERA over his prior 3 seasons.  If he can get it back down to career range, that adds 1-2 wins, if he can get it down to his prior 3 seasons, that's around 3 wins.  But this is not a sure thing, him coming back.  He'll be 32 YO in 2018 (and thus 31 for 2017), so we don't know that while he was suffering from his blisters that he wasn't also starting his decline as a pitcher.  As reliable the early 30's are relative to other ages (as I noted above), it is around when players start their age related decline (why the 20's are so volatile with their stats are both because they are still learning, as well as the league adjusting back).  One good thing in his stats was that his strikeout rate did not decline, in fact, it rose from 8.1 to 8.3 K/9.  His issue was that he was wilder than usual before the strikeout, with his H/9 rising from 8.0 to 9.8, and his BB/9 from a terrific 1.8 to an average 3.2, pushing his K/BB from a great 4.40 to an average 2.57.  And it was not like he was bad all the time, but which suggests the projection might be apt:  in an 11 start sequence in the middle of the season, he had a 3.82 ERA, and in the first four starts after returning, 3.71 ERA, before a horrendous last start, where he was hit like a rug, he probably should have given Moore that start.  I think his abilities are still in his body, based on him being able to maintain his K/9, but there are too many moments where his command slips and he gives up a hit or walk instead, which suggests the blisters were the main reason for his decline.  So hopefully the training staff was able to prescribe some exercises where he can toughen up his fingertips so that it won't blister again, there are no guarantees that the balls in 2018 will be any different from 2017.
  3. Samardzija:  He's projected at 3.75 ERA by Steamer, career 4.06 ERA since becoming a full-time starter, 3.91 ERA the past three seasons, 3.81 ERA his previous season with the Giants.   And if he can be consistently good, he ended the season with 3.40 ERA in his last 12 starts.  But for him, that's been fool's gold, as he would have a great 8-12 start stretch, only to have a bad 8-12 start stretch, back and forth.  In any case, if he just does what's projected, that's still 3.5 fWAR, and there's nothing wrong with that in the #3 starting rotation spot.   
  4. Stratton:  He's projected at 4.31 ERA by Steamer (1.4 fWAR), 4.66 ERA by ZiPS (0.4 zWAR), 3.67 ERA career, 2.98 ERA as a starter.  Not that much is typically expected out of the 4th starter, basically the expectation I've gathered from reading about 3/4 starters is that they are about average, so if #3 delivers 2.5 WAR, then #4 delivers 1.5 WAR, which is what he's projected at, and as you can see by his career and starter ERA's, that's the potential upside if he can deliver an elite ERA to go with his elite spinrate's and xwOBA's.  He is probably the biggest swing performance on the team where the swing upward is as likely as the swing downward, from his projection, for if he can deliver anything near his career ERA, that puts him in Shark's 3.5 fWAR range, and if he can be close to his career ERA as a starter, we are talking Bumgarner/Cueto 5 fWAR range.  But if the other teams figure him out, we could be talking 0 WAR or lower.  Given his elite spin rates and xwOBA, I expect him to be closer to his career ERA than his projected, partly because his prior ERAs, which the projections account for, were probably affected by his recovery from his concussion from a batted ball in his first pro season, and 2017 is unlike his other seasons, a result backed by his elite pitched balls.  
  5. To Be Determined:  Nothing is sure here.  But as I've shown, the Giants during this Dynasty period has been able to win with 3 good pitchers, one average, and with the 5th starter struggling and being filled by a number of starters.  I'll go into more detail below
Fifth Starters

Blach is the likely 5th starter, but if Heston can be close enough in performance in spring, I can see the Giants deciding to start Heston again, see if they can help him find his no-hit talent again, since Blach did so well in the long/6th starter role at the end of 2017.  But we can't forget that Blach was figured out really badly at the end (7.90 ERA in his last 5 scheduled starts).   But then ended with 4.32 ERA in three long relief appearances.  Nor can we forget that Heston was so bad that Seattle and Minnesota (he was also briefly with the Dodgers) gave up on him and let him go, and they both need pitching. 

Given the question marks with these two starters, prospects' chances are enhanced this spring.  Beede is a possibility, but he was up and down in 2017, though one bad stretch hid his good stretches.   He started out 2017 with 9 starts at 3.31 ERA, then was totally lost, 8.90 ERA for 5 starts, then found it again, 5 starts at 3.23 ERA, before his injury shut his season down.  So the potential is there, as seen by those 14 brilliant starts.  But the big question is whether he can be consistent enough (and whether the new Giants coaches are good enough to fix him fast when he's lost) because that 3.3-ish AAA ERA should easily translate to the majors.  

This brings us to my dark horse for winning the #5 starting position, Andrew Suarez.  He had a 3.55 ERA in AAA last season - with 3.92 ERA projected by Steamer, 4.46 ERA per ZiPS - and I can easily see Blach, Heston, Beede falter while Suarez just does what he does consistently (3.24 career ERA as pro, with high of 3.95 in 19 starts in Richmond in 2016, but 2.96 in Richmond in 2017, 1.83 ERA in 2015 across three teams, 2.22 ERA in San Jose) and win the spot.  And he ended the season pretty well before getting blown up in his last start, with 9 starts:  54.1 IP (6.0 IP/start), 8.0 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 2.0 BB/9, 2.65 ERA, .626 OPS.  

Suarez has done well enough with each rise up the ladder, but he is one of those prospects who need to prove it at each level.  His main negative as a prospect is that he has no one outstanding pitch that he can use to get batters out, and so he has to be a pitcher and has been so far, at each new level.  He will now need to prove it at the MLB level at some point, and should get that opportunity, if he continues to do as well as he has.

Lastly, the Giants just signed LHP Derek Holland, who was once a pretty good pitcher, but appears to have had TJS in 2014, and after missing most of 2014-15, he has gone from bad to worse in the seasons since then.  Presumably they saw something that his overall stats don't show.  He was actually very good in his first 10 starts before the wheels came off. 

He was with the White Sox, whose pitching coach admitted that he failed Samardzija when he was with them before the Giants, missing him tipping off pitches, so maybe they screwed up with Holland, who had a 2.37 ERA after 10 starts last season, before imploding horribly the rest of the season.  His peripherals weren't the best during that streak (but high k-rate with 52 strikeouts in 60.2 IP, almost 8 K/9), but at least was doing decent, so something went really bad.  Obviously, the Giants hope to find that early Holland, and keep him most of 2018.  He could cause a lot of dominoes to fall if he pitches well enough in spring, especially if the Giants can solve his problem.

How Good Giants Pitching Is And Looks To Be

Bill James has been tracking and ranking pitchers by their Game Score (his invention, updated version), kind of like 538's ELO method of ranking teams, and published the ranking in his 2018 Annual.  He starts everyone at 300 to start their career, then adds 30% of their new start's Game Score to 97% of their last Game Score cumulative ranking score, which decays it by that percentage for each start (thus, while they are missing starts on the DL, they will lose a percentage of their cumulative score).  It basically supplies a means of measuring how well a pitcher has pitched over time, weighing his current performance level as well as what he has demonstrated in the prior year, as the older scores depreciates at 3% per start.

At the beginning of 2017, the Giants were considered to have 2 of the very top 9 starters in baseball (Bumgarner 5th; Cueto 9th), plus 30th (Samardzija) and Moore was 55th.  That was an elite rotation, with roughly 3 co-aces by this methodology (if every team drafted pitchers as ranked, 1-30 are ace #1 starters, 31-60 are #2, and so on).  After the season, Bumgarner was still 9th, but Cueto fell to 34th, while Samardzija rose to 23rd.  That's still a pretty great top of rotation to have, with anticipation that Bumgarner and Cueto will rise once more, and Samardzija will be as good or better in 2018.

Stratton ended the season at 164th, which is not so great on an overall basis.  With 30 teams, that's not even the worse team's rotation, if each team took a SP in a draft.  However, that's great when you consider that all pitchers start with 300 and either build up from there or stay at 300.  He had 300 to start August and rose to 357.8 by the end of the season, two months later.

To understand the scope of that rise, here are some thought exercises.  Not likely, but if he did a full season of that in 2018 (basically 3 times, ending with a low-to-mid 2 ERA), he would roughly be at 530 or so.  That would put him at 10th place, if he went a full season of what he did in the last two months of 2017.  If he only did two times what he did, he would be at 470-ish, which would put him at 45 (which I would call a #2 starter type).  Even if he just accomplishes in 2018 what he did in 2017, that would place him 105th, which is a #4 starter.  That is roughly what Samardzija did in 2017, as he rose 56 points.  So what Stratton did in two months was extremely good.

Another way to look at it is to see how much the Top 10 pitchers rose and fell in 2017.  Corey Kluber (625.5), +86.7;  Max Scherzer, +55.3;  Clayton Kershaw, +26.5;  Chris Sale, +76.1; Justin Verlander, +57.9; Zack Greinke, +71.7; Stephen Strasburg, +91.1; Carlos Carrasco, +90.6; Madison Bumgarner, -0.5; Jake Arrieta, +12.2.  Seven of the Top 10 at the start of the season stayed in the Top 10, with three falling out:  Lester, 4th to 18th, -23.6; Cueto, 9th to 34th, -19.7; and Price, 10th to 46th, -32.4.  Thus Stratton's +57.8 was relatively elite, particularly over two months, if he can continue this level of climb with his 2018 starts.  Of course, as he climbs higher, it'll be that much harder to climb the same amount, so it should be expected that he won't be climbing as fast as he did in those two months.

So, overall, per Bill James ranking, Bumgarner and Samardzija are ace type pitchers, Cueto is one of the best #2's in the league, and could be co-ace once again if he can return to prior goodness, and Stratton, while far back to start the season, worse than a 5th starter, could be anywhere from 5th (where he starts the 2018 season) to 2nd starter (if he continues to climb +56.8 every two mmonths).   And per other research in Bill James' 2018 annual, the eight teams in 2017 with the lowest ERAs among starters all made the playoffs, showing the significance of having a top rotation for getting into the playoffs.

Bullpen

The bullpen is pretty set with Melancon, Dyson, Smith, Strickland, and Gearrin holding five spots, with the last spot and long relief spots open.  Law is the one most likely to win that  last spot, and a loser for the 5th starting spot (out of Blach, Heston, Beede, Suarez) will win the long relief spot.  That's a pretty good top 5 bullpen (all five have had sub-3 ERA's in past few seasons), as long as everyone is healthy and produces as expected.

Of course, both Melancon and Smith are question marks, Smith even more so in that he could end up on the DL at the start of the season.  We are covered nicely at closer by having Dyson around, who filled in great for Melancon as closer until his last two appearances, where he got blown up; after his bad first appearance, he had a mid-2 ERA from then until that end of season blow up.  Smith is a slight concern but as long as he don't miss a lot of the season, we are good, as long as he recovers from TJS as expected.  But it's not automatic, not every TJS recovers back to his norms, and we don't really have a great replacement lined up.

Dyson is a slight question mark.  Were the last two appearances random glitches that would have been smoothed out with more season, or a sign of bad things to come?  Still, he had a 2.45 ERA after his first appearance for us, until those two glitches at the end of the season, and had there been more season, his ERA would have averaged out those bad outings.  I think that overall, he's going to be closer-like for us, our new Affeldt who can shut down the other team in the 7/8 innings, while Melancon will shut down in the 9th.  That's a combination that worked for us before, and with Smith returning, and also an Affeldt type, Bochy can go righty or lefty depending on the situation, and still feel good if the other team pinch-hits.  The Giants have realized that there is value and flexibility by having hitters and pitchers who can do well against either side, even their weak side handedness.

Because of this, the more I think about this, the more I think this will happen:  Blach will be used in the last reliever spot eventually.  First, with Smith possibly missing the start of the season (not confirmed but speculated in the press), Blach would take his spot as the Loogy, with Law taking the last relief spot, and Heston and Suarez taking on the #5 and long relief roles, whoever pitches better.  But Law has options too, so when Smith is ready, I think Smith would take Law's spot on the active roster, so that Bochy would have two lefties in the bullpen.

For much of his time as the Giants skipper, Bochy has had at least two lefties in the bullpen, and sometimes had three.  He mostly had one last season, from what I recall, and even when he had two, neither Okert or Osich was all that effective most of the season.  Thus, I don't see the Giants giving either of them a roster spot right away on opening day, the Giants will make them pitch in AAA and have to force their way up.

Blach has been relatively effective in relief spots, ending with a better ERA than either Okert or Osich last season.  And he gives the Giants the ability to pitch through the middle of the game when a starter is knocked out, and hold the fort, for the offense to try to catch up.  As noted, above, this offense is likely to be better than average and thus someone who can hold the fort in the middle of the game is valuable. 

How do I end up with Heston and Suarez?  There was really no other choice at this moment.  It will probably change at some point (with so many free agents still out there, the Giants is likely to invite one or two to spring training as minor league deals), but right now there are no former MLB starters that are NRI with a minor league contract with the Giants that I can think of who could take one of these positions. 

And I like Suarez, who, as I've noted, is my dark horse for winning the #5 starter's spot, given how well he pitched in AAA last season.  Heston has been effective before, and maybe the Giants have figured out what he needs to do for consistent success.  More likely, he's OK but not enough to start, so he's long relief, and we see how Suarez does for a month or two before we need to do anything with that rotation spot, whether he holds it, Heston shows enough to take it away, or Beede rises up in AAA to take it.

We are probably weak, overall, in 5th, 6th, 7th starter depth, which got exposed last season, as we had problems with starters 1 through 4, but if Bumgarner, Cueto, Samardzija be the horses they were in the past, and Stratton continues to excel in spin rates and xwOBA, our lineup is good enough that this weak depth won't get exposed much.

Strike Throwing 2017 Data

Another section of the Bill James Annual provides each pitcher's strike throwing rate, as well as swinging strike rate.  The first gives a clue for how good the pitcher's command is, being able to throw it into the strike zone, and the second gives a clue as to how good the pitcher is at getting hitters to swing and miss, that is, do they have an out pitch that they can go to.   From prior research, it is good if the pitcher is over 63% for strikes thrown (66%+ for elite), and over 15% for swinging strikes (18%+ for elite).

Here is the data for all the pitchers with 50+ batters faced in 2017 (bolded ar e good, orange if elite, per above) and who are still on the roster:
  • Blach:          64% Strike%/10% Swinging-Strike%
  • Bumgarner:  67%/16%
  • Cueto:          64%/17%
  • Dyson:         63%/13%
  • Gearrin:        62%/19%
  • Law:            61%/17%
  • Melancon:    64%/16%
  • Okert:           64%/16%
  • Osich:           63%/15%
  • Samardzija:   67%/16%
  • Stratton:        62%/15%
  • Strickland:    64%/18%
Everyone on the team was good at either throwing strikes or in getting swinging strikes, or both.  And seven of the above twelve are good or better at both.  The elites are Bumgarner and Samardzija in getting strikes, and Gearrin and Strickland in getting swinging strikes.  Stratton was on the low side considering how well he did as a starter, have to think that was when he was relieving and doing that well.  And Dyson's stats are hurt by his time with the Rangers, so we don't know how good or bad he was with the Giants.

Of note, Cueto was still elite in his strike throwing, but the blister would cause him to make mistakes that the other team would punish.  And in Melancon's case, his arm problems would do the same, he was pitching well in terms of throwing strikes and getting swinging strikes.  Plus Okert appears to be pretty good too, but just making mistakes at the wrong time.  Not sure how fixable that is.  Lastly, showing the potential for Samardzija, he had the same percentages as Bumgarner, but much worse results, as he was still learning how to pitch (and not just throw) during the first part of the season.  If he can put it together as Bumgarner has, we would be really set up nicely in the rotation.

Defensive Upgrades

An objective for this off-season was upgrading the defense, to help improve the runs allowed performance.  The Giants, per DRS, was among the worse in the majors in 2017, which is quite different from where they were during the early parts of the dynasty, when they were regularly among the top teams in DRS, and I believe was tops or nearly so, when summed up over a number of seasons.  In 2017, they were a horrible -43 DRS, tied for 4th worse in the majors (with the Braves).   For contrast, from 2013-2015, the Giants were +75 DRS, 4th overall, tied with the D-Backs, averaging +25 DRS per season.

Areas of poor defense included 3B and CF.  CF in particular, with -32 DRS, was responsible for the vast majority of the negativeness, with Span at -27 DRS and Gorkys at -3 DRS.   Just getting average defense there from Jackson and Blanco (then Duggar at some point) would be a huge lift to our defense.  3B was not as bad, but excluding Hwang's +3 (in limited play to boot), 3B had a -5 DRS (but of returning players, both Tomlinson and Sandoval were +1 DRS at 3B).

And there were a lot of negative DRS performers no longer with the team.  Nunez was an area of poor defense as well, with -10 DRS, so that will be a boost to the defense as well.  He was -2 at 3B, -4 at SS, and -4 in LF.   Between him and CF, together they were -42 DRS.   Other negative DRS players no longer with the team include:  Mike Morse (-3 DRS), Aaron Hill (-5 DRS), Conor Gillaspie (-2 DRS), Justin Ruggiano (-4 DRS).  Together, that's -56 DRS removed from the team, which should put us into the positive DRS then, depending on how bad McCutchen ends up in RF at ATT Park, though should be mitigated by Longoria providing positive DRS at 3B (+11 DRS in 2017, but -15 DRS, total, over the three prior seasons, or -5 DRS per season; grass should help him though).

Another big negative DRS player is Panik, at -11 DRS at 2B in 2017.  Not sure what happened there, as he was +3 DRS in 2016 and +2 DRS in 2015 (though -2 DRS in 2014).   He was considered good defensively, and per RTots, about a half win better than what DRS showed.  UZR/150 had him pretty good in 2015-16 (roughly adding half a win through his defense), but slightly below average in 2017, so there was something affecting him in 2017, but no reported injury.

Perhaps his concussion from 2016 had lingering effects on him in 2017?  It did take him almost two months to figure out how to hit well again, and defensive stats are not available split by months, so I don't know if he was really bad early on and got better, or not.  Assuming he returns to his 2015-16 goodness, that should also help to bring the Giants back into the positive range for DRS, as he was the second worse DRS on the team, behind only Span.

Overall, the Giants defense looks prime to jump back to being positive in 2018, after being so bad in 2017, with most of the gains the results of removing the players who put the team in a hole defensively.  Only Panik remains of the really negative DRS players.  Whether we end up positive or negative will swing with how good or bad Longoria and McCutchen will be at 3B and RF, respectively.

State of the 2018 Giants

I came into this exercise thinking things were okay, that the Giants would be competitive for a wild card spot, mainly the second one, with some chance of fighting for the first spot.  However, after going through the above, I think the Giants could be competitive for the division title as long as they have health and the expected production that they are projected for and the Dodgers don't acquire a #2 type starting pitcher.  Still, most likely just battling for one of the two wild card positions.

The 25-man roster looks like this to me right now (underlined starters):
  • SPBumgarner, Cueto, Samardzija, Suarez, Stratton (only because Bochy don't want two lefties following each other; but if they are able to sign a useful veteran SP, he's probably winning the last rotation spot with a good spring)
  • RPMelancon, Dyson, Smith (eventually), Strickland, Gearrin, Blach (as other loogy, though Snelton could make a play for this role), Law while Smith is out; Heston as long relief
  • CPosey; Hundley
  • IFBelt, Panik, Longoria, Crawford; Tomlinson, Sandoval (though I wouldn't be surprised if Hanson or Andres Blanco grabs Sandoval's spot; I can see the Giants DFAing Pablo to AAA to get regular starts and coaching, if they think he's close, they would love a great bat off the bench; depends on how in shape he gets during this off-season)
  • OFPence, Jackson, McCutchen; Blanco, Parker (I think they will want Slater playing AAA in all 3 OF spots regularly, perhaps even infield, to prep for uber utility role in 2019, or even starting in LF, if he can beat out Shaw and Parker there, plus RF is open if they don't resign McCutchen).
The team, by the variety of analyses I did above suggests that the team should be in the 85-90 win range if everyone performs as expected, and nobody declines greatly without someone else countering that by doing really well.  That puts us within range of the Dodgers if their pitching regresses back to their FIP for 2017, and even if not, at worse, the Giants should be competitive for one or both Wild Card spots, which is an advantage for us over other wild cards because we can throw Bumgarner out there and follow up with Cueto in the divisional series.

And as I have noted before, a part of the Dodger's gain was being able to beat up on the Giants in 2017, when the Giants had beat up on them in 2016.  They were 11-8 in 2017, but was 8-11 in 2016 (also 2015).   That will also help to swing them back to the pack in the NL West, as their pitchers regress back to their FIP, and the Giants, now healthy and not forced to play lesser players, are able to fight back better, especially now with McCutchen and Longoria in the lineup, something they did not have back in 2015-16.

The offense is greatly improved, with good proven hitters up and down the lineup, even in CF, which works for 8th place batting.  The defense has been greatly improved, mostly by removing most of the negative performances on the team, other than Panik.  The starting pitching better be improved, or it'll be another lost season.  That depends on Cueto returning to normal, Samardzija doing well again or improving, and Stratton showing off the same elite spin rates.  And the bullpen should be greatly improved by having a healthy and productive Melancon and Smith in there.  But I worry that Melancon, having surgery on that area of his arm, might have poor results like we saw with Lowry and DeRosa, though luckily we have Dyson to step in should that happens.

Playoff Competitive

I'm happy with being playoff competitive in 2018.  I have never insisted that the Giants go all out to have a good player at each position, as I know that is not possible within the parameters of how the MLB (or, really, any sports league) is constructed.  There are payroll as well as talent constrictions.  I've been generally happy about the Giants roster construction during this dynasty period, with my quibbles, but nothing I can really argue against other than letting go of Duvall without trying him out full-time in LF, we could have really used him the past couple of seasons.  One of the rare mistake trades in Sabean era

Plus, I like that the Giants generally leave one position for their top prospects to push to try to win a starting spot.  CF is that position in 2018, LF in 2017.  Sometimes it works, lots of times, it fails, hence why the Giants like to have a sturdy average-ish veteran as competition for those spots, so that it's not a total black hole while the young player figures it out in AAA or MLB.     

Overall, we should see some good baseball from the Giants in 2018, while seeing young prospects get chances in CF and the OF, as well as in the rotation and the bullpen, so we get a little something there as well.  We should be competitive for a playoff position, and it is not out of the question that the Giants could push the Dodgers for the division lead at times during the season, and though it is still likely the Dodgers will end up with the title, I still like the Giants chances of grabbing the title from the Dodgers, since they seemed to regress over the off-season, trading away a productive McCarthy for semi-useless Kemp for an outfield that is already full of productive players.  I expect some deal to move Kemp to help reduce their money against the penalty threshold, and that they will sign a bunch of free agents to minor league deals and load up the options for them in AAA.  

7 comments:

  1. I noticed that I should update the post some: Yu Darvish signed with the Cubs earlier today. I had most of this written a while back but wanted to include the PECOTA, but had a lot of work to finish up this week. So the Dodgers won't be getting him back.

    With lots of young prospects, though, they probably can procure another good SP mid-season when they need another one. Still, harder to do that when everyone know they need someone.

    Though with Beuhler around, they might just go with him some.

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  2. Not sure why you and other baseball analysts find Kemp to be semi useless. If we had his production in centerfield we would probably be finding reasons why he is putting us over the top. He has faced quite a few injuries in the last few years, but when he is healthy he has been quite productive. Of course he cannot play center like he formerly did, but he is far from useless. Overall I like your very in-depth analysis, and find that it has the optimism of a fan, which is what I would argue too. I do think that it is extremely important that Bochy gets this team off to a good start, and they never look back. If the giants do not get off to a good start this year, I do not think it will bode well for the team or for Bochy. A very good April and May, and a June without a swoon, will speak volumes for this giants team.

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    Replies
    1. He's been the definition of useless the past five seasons: bWAR of 0.4, 1.0, 0.6, 0.0, -1.3; fWAR of -0.4, 1.4, 0.4, 0.7, -0.5. That's an average of 0.14 bWAR or 0.32 fWAR.

      WARP is actually very kind to him, bad defense for sure, but not as bad as other sites have had him. According to BP, he was still even two years ago, but even they saw nothing redeeming about him the past two seasons: 0.6 and -0.7. He was basically even worse than replacement level per their stat too.

      His offense has been good, which is why you probably thinks he's so good, but both major baseball stats sites rate him as beyond horrible in defense. He really should have become a DH about 5 years ago, he actually moved to a corner OF position and got even worse defensively.

      It almost looks like he played the corners worse just to spite the teams he played for. However, a recent study by BP's Matt Swartz found that the defense spectrum might not really work. One could think a CF could move to RF no problem, heck and field even better, but perhaps he knows how to play CF but don't know how to play RF. In any case, no matter what major system you look at, Kemp has been basically as bad as any minor league AAAA player replacement player, which by definition is producing zero value, i.e. is useless.

      He should have a lot more value to an AL team, as he could be of help there, but there is a penalty to playing as DH, from what I recall, so his offense will not easily translate over.

      Delete
    2. On Kemp, I think what they fail to consider, but is real, are the injuries he has had to put up with. If they continue then he will continue to be bad on defense. If his injury issues improve he should improve but less than he would like as age considerations are important.

      Delete
  3. Great rundown overall, I think you are very optimistic with the rotation. Im thinking something along the lines of:
    MadBum : 3.10 ERA
    Cueto: 3.30 ERA
    Smarj: 4.00 ERA
    Stratton 4.30 ERA
    fifth 4.5 ERA

    I think Madbum will roughly return to form, while Cueto is getting older but will still be fairly good. Smarj just always seems to give up HR at the worst time, inflating his ERA more than he seems. Stratton was dominant went starting last year, but now the rest of the league has a whole offseason to figure him out and layoff his curve. I am hoping for the fifth starter to be better, I really am not expecting that much out of the youngings. They may need at least half or a whole season more in AAA before they are ready. While I would agree with some prospects, like Duggar, can figure it out on the fly, I just dont think these pitchers can. Heres to hoping Im wrong though.

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  4. Got some bad news today: Smith will be out until May 1st. So they will need a LHP to hold the fort at least for one month. Apparently they have hit up a LHP free agent, not sure who.

    However, Snelton is a lefty and I just found out today that both ZiPS and Steamer projected him as a 3.4-ish ERA reliever, so I would update my post above to say that I think he's the likely replacement for Smith's spot. And would be in a battle to keep the last open relief spot when Smith returns.

    Then you got Law, Fernandez, and I still believe Blach will be battling for that last bullpen spot. Blach will probably be battling Heston for the long relief spot, as well, but my gut tells me that I think the Giants want to have more lefties out of the pen, and by having both Snelten and Blach as relievers, then Bochy could try each in different situations to see who would do better, testing them until Smith is ready to return and take one of their places. Blach was really figured out in his starts, but was able to do OK in his relief spots.

    It's possible the Giants might hold onto Fernandez into the first month of April, basically get to try him out in the majors, and with the Rockies trying to compete, their 40-man should be full then, and thus the Giants might be able to force a trade with them in order to keep him when Smith returns. We'll see.

    Law, if he can out-pitch Blach, could force the Giants to try going without a lefty in the bullpen, but given the projections on Snelten, he would need to really screw up a lot this spring not to win a spot, a mid-3 ERA today is great, and a lefty to boot. He has not been hyped much so far, but I would say to look out for him this spring.

    And the projections has Suarez with a mid to high 4 ERA, which could be enough for him to hold onto the #5 rotation spot. But one system has him much better than Beede, the other much worse. And I'm liking Holland, who, as I noted in the post, was actually very good early on then lost it totally.

    That reminds me of Dyson, how he lost it, and the Rangers gave up on him, but if the Giants can figure out what Holland's problem is, they got a great 5th starter, who at best is an ace level pitcher, at worse, good enough to hold the fort as the #5 starter until Beede or Suarez figures things out by mid-season. Given the Giants needs for a lefty reliever, I just don't see the Giants not going with Blach as one of their bullpen relievers, especially since he was good the first time around the lineup, but not so good after (though I would note that much of that was because he got battered pretty badly in those last starts as a starter).

    With him on a minor league contract, perhaps they can send him down if they need more time to work with him, but if the pitching experts on our team can figure him out, he'll at least be our long reliever, but more likely our 4th starter, with Stratton as our 5th starter, as Bochy don't like to have two lefty starters in a row (and Holland is a lefty) but also he's the vet.

    Right now, my bets on Bum, Cueto, Shark, Holland, Stratton, with Heston as long relief and Beede and Suarez working to take either Holland's or Stratton's spots if they falter (Hesto too). For relief, Melancon, Dyson, Strickland, Gearrin, then for the last two spots, Snelten and Blach, with the wild card being how well Fernandez does, if the Giants want to keep him longer to see how he does in majors. Law would have to really impress to win the last spot (or Snelten or Blach has to really do badly), as he still has an option and the Giants have already said that they will be going to relievers at lot, and might swap out starters in order to bring up a reliever, then bring the starter back later and send a reliever down, juggling among Stratton, Blach, Okert, Osich, Snelten, Moronta, Slania, perhaps Fernandez if they can work out a trade, perhaps Beede and Suarez if they show they can start in the majors.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The Watson acquisition, at least for 2018 should more than make up for the lack of Crick. This lefty should be able to get out righties as well as lefties. In the more distant future, perhaps Crick could be of more value.

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