March 5, 2007
Hope and Faith
How the San Francisco Giants Can Win the World Series
It doesn't take a big leap of imagination or faith to envision the Giants bringing home actual hardware, in the form of big shiny rings, to 24 Willie Mays Plaza. It's not because the Giants are a team loaded with a bunch of extremely talented studs in the prime of their careers-that's one thing they most definitely are not. But a team doesn't have to fit that mold in order to win a World Championship. All they need to do is get to the postseason, and have a hot streak. Even when the regular season is a torturous 162 games, it's possible to win that marathon with just a few lucky breaks here and there. The San Francisco Giants are as poised as any team to take advantage of those breaks.
There are really two key points to understanding how "luck-sensitive" this team is. First, you need to understand the very real issue of how hard it is to recognize when your team was lucky last year. This can absolutely kill teams for a long period of time. A good example of this syndrome is the 1997 Detroit Tigers. That team had a number of really lucky performances: oft-injured Justin Thompson threw 220 innings with an ERA right at 3.00, journeyman Willie Blair was durable and effective, and a cluster of offensive players had years right at the very top of mildly reasonable expectations, as Bobby Higginson, Damion Easley, Tony Clark, and Brian Hunter (the lanky one) all performed exceptionally well. The Tigers finished the season at 79-83, and thought they were positioned pretty well for the following season.
They weren't. Instead of improving on high-end performances, there was some mild (and some not-so-mild) regression to the mean, and some truly bad mound machinations from Frank Castillo and Brian Powell. Those two combined to allow approximately nine million runs in 35 starts, doing their part to help the 1998 Tigers death-march their way down to 65 wins, leaving the franchise with little positive to build on for the next several years. At its core, the problem was that the Tigers had confused good luck with true quality. They were in a circumstance where good luck had brought them to 79 wins; to be fairly defined as a bona fide contender, you need to be in a spot where good luck, as experienced by the 1997 Tigers, can boost you to 92-94 wins.
Which brings us to the 2007 San Francisco Giants. Realistically, clubs need to look at somewhere around six or seven starting pitchers, six to eight relievers, and perhaps 15-18 position players to figure out where their playing time for the year is going to come from. Guys get hurt, sometimes enough to land on the DL, sometimes not. Players are pushed into service at inopportune times, sometimes slightly out of position, sometimes to fill in for a few days here and there. There are spot starts, and extra-inning games. You need those slack guys, usually more than you'd like. So let's take a look at the players likely to get the bulk of the Giants' playing time in 2007. The group of guys charging onto the field in China Basin will probably be something like this:
SP Barry Zito RP Armando Benitez SP Matt Cain RP Brian Wilson SP Matt Morris RP Vinnie Chulk SP Noah Lowry RP Steve Kline SP Jonathan Sanchez RP Jack Taschner SP Russ Ortiz RP Scott Munter SP Tim Lincecum RP Billy Sadler SW Brad Hennessey RP Pat Misch C Bengie Molina Eliezer Alfonso 1B Rich Aurilia Ryan Klesko Lance Niekro Mark Sweeney 2B Ray Durham Kevin Frandsen 3B Pedro Feliz SS Omar Vizquel OF Barry Bonds Todd Linden Dave Roberts Randy Winn
The good news here for Giants fans is that Bruce Bochy and the decision-makers out at Phone Company Park have a good deal of control over where they want to take their chances. The Giants won 76 games last year, and a lot of those wins were due to the resurgence and health of Ray Durham. Durham hit 26 home runs and slugged .538. At his age, and based on his career history, he's not likely to repeat those numbers. Jason Schmidt has departed for Bluer pastures, replaced by lefty Barry Zito. Schmidt's dominance abated significantly last year, meaning his performance was right in line to be replaced by Zito. A quick look at the performances of the 2006 Giants shows that it wasn't a situation where everything went right for them. For the most part, players performed well within the boundaries of reasonable expectations. Talk radio voices would have you think that the Giants will drop along with Ray Durham's performance and Barry Bonds' health, but there's room for some rebounds too, like Randy Winn, who could feasibly bounce back to an 800 OPS. (That's just an example-don't glom onto that just yet.)
So what has to happen for the Giants to win the World Series in 2007?
1. Get real about expectations. That means dump Russ Ortiz now, because there exists no plausible circumstance where he can help the club as a starting pitcher. The Giants are not a team that momentum and time are going to help. They need to be active, and trim the roster of guys who have absolutely no upside. Better to take a chance on someone, anyone, who has a semblance of stuff, upside, potential, electricity-whatever you want to call it. Russ Ortiz is not one of those guys. A good rule of thumb applies here-if a ballplayer seems like he would have been at home on the 2005 Orioles, ship him out.
2. Two Guys have to get lucky. Two players. Be they relievers lighting it up like a phoenix reborn, à la Rod Beck in 2003, or Brady Anderson catching lightning in a bottle, or even Ray Durham repeating his 2006 season, they need to have two guys step up in addition to avoiding calamitous injuries and getting the other items on this list. Getting lucky could mean getting 130 games out of a still-productive Barry Bonds.
3. Break camp with Lincecum in long relief. Let's be serious, and clarify something at the same time. When I first wrote that "There's No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect," it meant two things, one of which has kind of become lost over time. Yes, it means that pitchers get hurt at approximately the same rate that methheads swipe identities and lose teeth. That's what all pitchers do, not just prospects. But it also had another meaning-that guys who are totally blowing people away in the minors like they're so many hot dog pretenders before Kobayashi are absolutely not pitching prospects-they're already pitchers, and more time in the minors only means time off the living, pulsating clocks that are their labrums, rotator cuffs, and elbows. No pressure, but Tim Lincecum in 2007 = Johan Santana in 2003, if the Giants are going to go anywhere. There's nobody that doesn't know that without Lincecum, the Giants aren't going to win. Some of us might not want to admit it, but c'mon.
4. Brandon Webb and Randy Johnson need to leave some balls up in the zone. We're all adults here. Getting lucky means that sometimes, bad things happen to good people-who happen to be your competitors. A few things are going to have to go wrong in San Diego, Colorado, and Phoenix. Or, more accurately, a few more things than go wrong in San Francisco.
5. The Physics Effects Fairy could smile on the Giants. There's a major item that's kind of unspoken this year, and it's possible that this item could really help some teams more than others. I'm talking about the policy that baseballs at all parks will be stored in humidors this year. Based on the "smoothing" effect that the humidor has had in Colorado, it's going to be the policy that game-used balls will be stored at 70 degrees and 50 percent humidity this season. As anyone who's played a lot of baseball, softball, or golf can tell you (or anyone who's studied materials science), there's a lot of variance from game ball to game ball. You can have diameter changes, elasticity changes, color changes, seam changes, all of which can dramatically affect the flight of the ball. I don't know how that's going to affect the game at any given park, or during any given at-bat. But it's entirely possible that there will be a systematic advantage or disadvantage bestowed on one team, player, type of pitcher, or what have you. The Giants have some extremes going on with their team-the ballpark's very big, and some of their pitchers, notably Matt Cain and Barry Zito, have extreme pitching characteristics. Who knows? The Giants might see a big benefit from the change in protocol for storing baseballs.
If you take a look at the table above, showing a hypothetical set of performances for some of the Giants this year, you'll find that it kind of encapsulates the magic that fans of all teams can grab onto this time of year. The "Hope and Faith" lies to some extent in the possibility that the various trials during the year are not independent of each other. Maybe there's something systemic, be it a new trainer, a new coach, some new ergonomic chairs in the dugout-whatever-that's contributing to a team-wide 'bump' in performance. Just a little luck spread out over a few guys (or a bunch concentrated into just a couple) can make most teams contenders. Maybe that's why the pennant race is so hard to take one's eyes off of.
The Giants are not the favorite to win the NL West, nor should they be, and much less is the chance they get through the 1/8 coin toss that is the postseason. But it doesn't require the same suspension of disbelief to see them win the division and get a shot at the ring that it does to watch an entire episode of "24."