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The 2012 San Francisco Giants: Reinvention or Status Quo?

Here’s the tidy tag line a lot of sports media are spouting to sum up the fall of the 2011 Giants: San Francisco’s season ended on May 26th when Buster Posey was lost for the season. After that, it was all downhill.

And here’s what actually happened. The 2011 season was a mirror image of the Giants’ 2010 championship year when San Francisco stunk the joint up in the first half then proceeded to light the place on fire in the second half.

Despite the terrible offense and the injuries to Posey, Freddy Sanchez, and Pablo Sandoval the Giants rode high throughout the first half of 2011 and the playoffs looked like a lock.

The Giants then nose-dived throughout an ugly August: .235 team BA, .287 team OBP, 2.69 runs scored per game. Give the talented Arizona Diamondbacks full credit for putting together a potent combination of dominant power pitching and power hitting just as the San Francisco Giants started their second half slide.

The next several months will be about the critical changes that need to happen for the San Francisco Giants to get to the post season and into the 2012 World Series. Of the current players, some should stay, some should be escorted out of the building; and several free agent signings and trades should be made.

This is the first of several blogs that will 1) examine why the Giants 2011 season collapsed; 2) discuss which position players should stay or go; and, 3) assess whether the Giants organization is capable of a philosophy change that will rebalance their offense to reinvent this damaged team into a contender by Opening Day 2012.     

First, Let’s Conduct a Forensic Autopsy of the 2011 Season [play the "Law and Order" musical "dum-dum" exclamation here] 

1. The loss of catcher Buster Posey did not doom the Giants 2011 season.

Sorry to complicate a convenient and popular story line. When the Florida Marlins sent Buster Posey into rehab on May 26th, the wheels did not come off the bus. In fact, the bus traveled in the fast lane for two months after Posey went down. The San Francisco Giants hit their 2011 high water mark, in the observant words of Giant broadcasters Dave Flemming and Jon Miller, on July 28th when they took 2 out of three from the Phillies at Philadelphia.

On that date the Giants were 61-44 in 1st place in the NL West a full 4 games in front of the Diamondbacks.
But on July 29th the team proceded to:
> get swept in a three game series at Cincinnati;
> come home August 1st and drop 2 of 3 against Arizona, 3 of 4 against Philadelphia, and 2 of 3 against the Pirates.

And so the Giants’ Titanic-like 11-18 August was fully underway. This team, already struggling offensively, proceded to go completely under and it’s not likely that even a healthy Buster Posey could have turned that ship around all by himself.

2. The lead-off spot in the batting order was an early and ongoing disaster but the Giant’s front office never addressed the issue.

Giants lead-off hitters batted .232 in 2011 with a .292 OBP. Andres Torres, who was so spectacular in 2010, hit .221 in 112 games with a .643 OPS and 95 SOs.

Even teams with a solid 3-4-5 middle of the order depend on a lead-off hitter to set the table and cause high jinks on the base paths. Certainly the National League team whose run scoring hovered between 29th and 30th out of 30 MLB teams could not hope to survive without a significant upgrade at the lead-off spot. Only it never happened.

3. The Brandon Belt chronicles.

When rookie first baseman Brandon Belt did not immediately light the National League on fire and the overall offense continued to be sluggish, General Manager Brian Sabean went to his default offensive philosophy: go to veteran hitters because they just might have enough to carry this great pitching staff.

So players like Miguel Tejada, Aaron Rowand, Bill Hall, Orlando Cabrera, Aubrey Huff, and Andres Torres were allowed to amass almost 1,700 at-bats in 2011–nearly 80% of which were unproductive outs. It is amazing that, despite their year-long struggles at the plate, many of these players were still being penciled into the starting line-up through early September.

As for Belt, he was sent up and down from Triple-A Fresno a number of times and, even when he was up with the big team, often sat on the bench. Each time the front office determined Belt needed to make adjustments at the plate he went to Fresno rather than  learning his craft at the big league level.

The question remains: how much would Brandon Belt have contributed to the team’s failing offense if the front office had simply kept him up, given him more big league at bats, and worked through his hitting issues with big league coaches?
 
Look at two different approaches taken by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals with their own rookie infielders last season:

Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt started 2010 in Triple A and like Brandon Belt had a mercurial rise through the minor leagues. The D’Backs brought Goldschmidt up on August 1 and stayed with him through several hitting slumps. 

After Danny Espinosa started 2010 in AA, the Nationals brought him up at the September 1, 2010 call-ups; Espinosa hit .214 in 103 ABs. In 2011 Washington committed to Espinosa as their starting second baseman from day one.

2011 AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI OPS AVG
Paul Goldschmidt 1B ARZ 156 28 39 9 1 8 26 .808 .250
Danny Espinosa 2B WAS 573 72 135 29 5 21 66 .737 .236
Brandon Belt 1B SFG 187 21 42 6 1 9 18 .718 .225
Belt projected @ 573 ABs 573 64 129 18 3 28 55 .718 .225

Belt was out for six weeks with a hand injury and would not have played the whole season (and amassed 573 ABs), but this illustrates his potential contributions with the numbers he was producing. Note that Atlanta rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman had 571 ABs in 2011.

It is also reasonable to project that Brandon Belt would have likely increased his OBP and overall hitting with additional and consistant plate experiences. Performing at his 2011 level projected to 573 at bats (Espinosa’s number), Belt would have:

> finished 3rd in RBI after Sandoval (70) and Huff (59);
> finished 2nd in hits;
> led the Giants in runs scored;
> led the team in home runs.  

4. Infield defense.

The final contribution to the demise of the 2011 San Francisco Giants was the front office’s gross negligence when it came to infield defense.

Much was made of how understanding and patient Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and Madison Bumgarner were with the team’s anemic run support. It started out as a joke among writers and fans, but once the opposing team scored three or four runs in a given game, that game was essentially over. Throughout the year, the Giants’ starting pitchers carried the party line and were not critical of the offense.

But what was intolerable was the infield defense behind the starting pitchers. Even though it became clear early on that veteran free agent Miguel Tejada could no longer field his shortstop position, he was trotted out there game after game for months. It wasn’t the clumsy errors that hurt, it was the glaring lack of range and a chronic inability to turn the double play that simply killed the starting pitchers.

At mid-season the team brought up rookie shortstop Brandon Crawford who was spectucular on the field but struggled at the plate. The front office responded by signing aging veteran Orlando Cabrera, who made some of the most embarassing errors of the year beside displaying his own diminishing lack of range.

At second base, Bill Hall hit .158 with a .220 OBP before he was injured and later cut. Mike Fontenot hit .227 with a  .304 OBP at second, short and third. The Giants traded for Jeff Keppinger, who brought a .300 Avg from Houston but finished up hitting .255 with a .285 OBP. 

In the desperate season-long search for offense, the Giants’ front office was willing to trade infield defense behind their starting pitching for more offense. In the end, they got neither:

Miguel Tejada: .239/.270 OBP
Orlando Cabrera: .222/.241 OBP
Mike Fontenot: .227/.304 OBP

On a team built around outstanding starting and bullpen pitching, Giants management undervalued a key element that allows outstanding pitching to create wins.

Next: Position players– who should stay, who should go.

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