Turns Out, Winning the NL West Was the Easy Part

homeplate-2-sfg copyA baseball season always looks so clear after the fact. How clear? In the words of Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan Jessup, “crystal”. And that rule can apply even before the season is actually over. Like, for example, the San Francisco Giants’ 2012 regular season (you didn’t really think I was going to do 650 words on the Houston Astros… ).

Looking Back
The Giants will play game #154 tonight against the Arizona Diamondbacks, with eight left to play to finish the regular season– two more with the Snakes, three against the Padres, then finishing up with three against the flailing Los Angeles Dodgers and their additional $275 million in new contracts.

Having clinched the 2012 National League West title last Saturday this is all about looking ahead, and we will certainly do that. But first a brief look back.

The date this team turned it around and began playing to its potential was July 13, 2012, the first game following the All Star break. In the 67 games from July 13 through September 23rd, the Giants went 43-24 (.642), and they will finish the season having spent a total of 79 games in 1st place (49%).

And the Melky Cabrera meltdown? San Francisco put up a 27-11 record after Cabrera’s August 15th suspension for a positive PED test, a .711 winning percentage. Bottom line here is the Giants started to find themselves right after the All Star break, and one month later kicked it into high gear after their best hitter was suspended for the rest of the season.

The three reasons for the Giants’ turnaround + focus are really simple: 1) an outstanding starting rotation and bullpen; 2) the trades for Marco Scutaro and Hunter Pence; and, 3) outstanding performances from Buster Posey and Angel Pagan.

And, sure, this is a truly a team effort and every player on the roster contributed, most notably Barry Zito. But without #1-3 above, 2012 would have ended in a desperate (and probably losing) fight for an NL Wild Card slot.

Looking Forward
How team management deals with clinching a playoff spot eleven days before the regular season ends is fascinating. Washington Nationals Manager Davey Johnson has already declared that he will give his regular starters a rest. Giants’ Manager Bruce Bochy appears to have suggested that he will keep everyone going in their usual roles right up to the playoffs.

This is a classic situation where both approaches are supported by logic, reason, and experience. Why rest Ryan Vogelsong just when he seems to have rediscovered his mojo after seven poor starts in a row? Why hold Tim Lincecum back when he has put together a string of good starts and now looks like he has a chance to be the biggest contributing number three starter of any playoff team?

On the offensive side, Pablo Sandoval has had an impressive rebound over the last two weeks and may be getting his approach to the plate together at just the right time, so why sit him on the bench? 

On the other hand, would Vogelsong get stronger if he skipped a start, does Matt Cain or Madison Bumgarner need a break, could the bullpen regulars stand down every third game no matter what the score? It’s been a long comeback year for Buster Posey who’s been working hard no matter how many games he’s started at first base. And how long do you play 36 year-old Marco Scutaro five or six times a week without a break?      

Other regulars in the line-up have legitimate personal goals that also work for the team: Buster Posey has 98 RBI and Hunter Pence has 96 RBI– 100 RBI is within reach for both players. Posey is also only 5 points (.332) behind National League leading hitter Andrew McCutchen (.337) of the Pirates to win the NL batting title. Angel Pagan has 92 runs scored and 15 triples, which leads the Majors. Brandon Belt and Pablo Sandoval would probably love to move into the 60+ RBI category before the end of the season.

And no doubt shortstop Brandon Crawford wouldn’t mind in the least if his batting average nudged up to .250 by the final game of the season.

Team wins are not the biggest consideration at the moment, but runs scored may well be. Demonstrating that they have finally improved their chronically poor offensive numbers over recent years, the San Francisco Giants are on line to score 723 runs in 2012, the most in six years:

SF Giants runs scored
2006 746
2007 683
2008 640
2009 657
2010 696
2011 570

 
  

Two different philosophies in preparing for the post season from two winning managers. It’s more likely that Bochy and Davey Johnson will ultimately fall somewhere in the middle of their stated approaches as they prepare their teams to take the field for the 2012 National League Playoffs.

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