Friday, 4 May 2012

Understanding Giants Hitting Woes, and Bochy's Decisions

For the second straight season the San Francisco Giants came out of a home series with the Marlins with nothing to show except for 3 more losses in the standings and an all-star on the disabled list. This past series however had a worryingly different feel to any series so far this year, it brought to the fore some issues that have been simmering for a while now, and it appears this teams struggles go beyond their problems with RISP.
To begin with I’m going to give Brian Sabean credit, he made two big offensive upgrades in the trade market and at this point it appears he got the better of the Mets and Royals by getting Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera for two struggling pitchers and an oft injured, league average center fielder. He’s done his bit in that regard. Last season the Giants as a team hit just .242 which was good for 28th overall, this season has saw them hit .260 so far which ranks 11th. You may say small sample size but that is a number which I see holding up over the course of the season. One number that cannot be allowed to hold up however is the batting average with RISP.
It may be stating the obvious but you simply cannot score enough runs to win games if you fail to hit with men on 2nd or 3rd base. If you’re the Texas Rangers you might find a way to win at times via the long ball, but this is a Giants team ranked 19th in the majors in home runs and not built to hit for a lot of power.
Angel Pagan has the leagues current longest hitting streak, Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey are both expected to hit over.300 and Melky Cabrera is coming off a 200 hit season.  That’s a more than solid top 4. It’s unclear what exactly we have in Gregor Blanco and I am far from sold on him, but he seems to have a knack of getting on base, and can do it in more ways than one. Then there is Brandon Belt who has the ability to be .260-.270 hitter this season I believe. The everyday line-up is definitely not short of raw hitting ability, which leads me to believe that the situational problems stem from the approach at the plate.
For example with runners on second and third and one out in the bottom of the seventh yesterday Bruce Bochy pinch hit Nate Schierholtz for Brandon Crawford.  The Giants were down by one at the time, the situation called for a professional AB simply to get the runner in from third. Schierholtz however swung at a first pitch fastball in on the hands and popped out.  It’s a common theme with lots of young Giants hitters. It seems the only plan is to hack away and hope for the best. Hector Sanchez has the same problem, and he has been exposed lately by breaking balls below the strike zone. Pablo was the same when he first reached the show. Brett Pill and Brandon Crawford have also shown a tendency to swing at bad pitches, they have only 2 walks each in 80 and 31 PA’s respectively. Nate Schierholtz is no different. The Giants average 3.66 pitches per plate appearance, that’s 29th in all of baseball ahead of only the Cubs who average 3.65. They also swing at 30% of first pitches, which is the sixth highest percentage in the majors. This is fine when you are hitting which the Giants are doing, except with RISP when pitchers knuckle down and AB’s become that much harder, it requires a player to grind and wait for his pitch and not try to do too much with it, a simple up the middle approach is all that’s required a lot of the time, heck even a ground ball to short gets the job done sometimes.  Here’s another interesting stat, the Giants swing at 49% of all pitches, that’s more than any other team. I put the blame for this not only on the players but somewhat on the coaching staff. You’ve got to believe though that Bochy and Bam Bam Meulens are fed up telling the hitters to take a more patient approach.  The worst case scenario is that this is an organizational problem that begins well below the major league level. If this is the case something has to change in the minor leagues, young hitter after young hitter is coming through the Giants system without learning how to grind out a good AB. I’m not saying every hitter that comes up doesn’t know how to take a walk or have good AB’s, but it’s a worrying trend with a majority of them.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post the Giants problems go beyond hitting with RISP, to score a run doesn’t always require a hit and in the series with Miami that’s another problem that reared its ugly head. This year the Giants have a 63% success rate on moving runners with sacrifice bunts, in comparison the Dodgers and Diamondbacks are both averaging 86%. This is a Giants team that can’t afford mistakes fundamentally, they score few enough runs as it is, remember this team is built on pitching and defense, grinding out runs should be their strength and so far that has not been the case. Another situation which saw the Giants struggle against the Marlins was runners on 3rd and less than 2 outs. They have had 54 such situations this year and converted just 46% of those opportunities, well below league average. If it makes you feel any better though, the A’s have converted just 30% of the time, ouch. We all know this isn’t a high powered offense, and it’s a team that is destined to be in a lot of one run games. To win those kinds of games requires fundamentally sound baseball. The Giants are just 5-7 in one run games this season. If they aren’t going to blow teams away, which they aren’t, then that record needs to improve to stand any chance of a post season appearance. Mistakes cost teams close games.
One big surprise so far this season has been the defensive problems. This is once again a part of the game where the Giants just cannot afford to make mistakes, they don’t score enough runs to be giving free runs away. Unsurprisingly they have a league worst .971 fielding percentage and have committed 28 errors, second only to the Padres, that’s not good company. The positive here is that this is most likely an early season blip. It’s highly unlikely that the defense will continue to underperform so badly and you can put most of the errors so far down to lack of focus rather than lack of ability with the glove, certainly in the case of Brandon Crawford. The defense will come around, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Finally I feel the need to second guess some decisions made by management during the past few days. I already mentioned the pinch hitting of Nate Schierholtz in the bottom of the seventh inning yesterday.  Bochy pulled Brandon Crawford who was having an awfully poor game and I can see some sense in that decision, it can’t have possibly helped the young shortstops confidence however at a time when he was probably most lacking in that department. Bochy sent Schierholtz to the plate, who had at the time just one hit in his last 22 AB’s. This wasn’t for match up reasons, both Schierholtz and Crawford bat left handed. I didn’t understand the decision at the time and I was left even more confused when Bochy then hit Ryan Theriot next. If he was willing to use Theriot against the righty Sanchez then why not in place of Crawford with just one out? A veteran like Theriot would surely be a better bet in that situation than Nate. Theriot eventually grounded out to second base, if there had been one out the runner would most likely have scored from third. There was another odd moment involving Theriot earlier in the series. With one out in the seventh the Giants were trailing 2-1 with Crawford at the plate, Theriot ran, and was CS, which cleared the bases and Crawford, flied out on the next pitch, poor decision in my opinion.
It hasn’t been the easiest and most fluent of starts to the season for the Giants. A lot of things have yet to click and the team has yet to play anywhere near its best ball, it’s only a matter of time I think before things come together though. I don’t think Bochy and the players can just sit around however and wait for things to change, a lot of talking has to be done and there are some serious issues to sort out with the offense. The problems on this team are real but the good news is they are more than fixable. If the Giants can make fewer mistakes than their opponents,  play better small ball and have better AB’s in clutch situations we will begin to see a major improvement very soon. There is work to be done though and thing don’t get any easier with your best hitter on the DL.