After closing the first-half with the league’s best record, the San Francisco Giants have now dropped their first five games since the All-Star break, including last night’s 11-7 shellacking at the hands of the Red Sox.
Is it time to panic for the Giants? No. They are still going to win the NL West, especially now that Clayton Kershaw might be out for the rest of the season. Statistically, they remain one of the best teams in baseball as well. In particular, they rank third in hitting and first in fielding according to Fangraphs. Put it this way: The Giants have won the World Series before with far weaker rosters than the one they have this year. That’s why I’m still confident in San Francisco, who I picked both before the season and at the end of June to win the World Series.
But there are two things that concern me about the Giants, and it was on display in their loss to Boston last night. The first is their starting pitching depth. Fortunately, San Francisco has two of the game’s best starters in Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, who rank sixth and fifth respectively in WAR among starting pitchers, to disguise this weakness. But in the playoffs, Bumgarner and Cueto won’t be able to start every game. That’s why it would be helpful for San Francisco to have third and fourth starters they can rely on.
I’m not sure they do. Jeff Samardzjia and Jake Peavy rank as some of the weakest three and four starters out of the contending teams. Samardzjia is not having that bad of a season, but he is only 69th in WAR and has been below average in terms of strikeouts per nine innings. Peavy, on the other hand, is lucky to get out of the fifth inning in every one of his starts. His 5.15 ERA is the seventh worst in baseball; and to prove this isn’t a fluke, he has the 9th worst xFIP of all qualified starters as well. Moreover, as I witnessed last night, the Matt Cain that was so great during their first two championship runs is no longer walking through that door. He was tagged for three monstrous home runs in only 2.1 innings, which dropped his record to 1-6 and raised his ERA to 5.88.
In contrast, take a look at the pitching depth of the Nationals. Washington has three pitchers who rank in the top fifteen in WAR (Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Tanner Roark) and a fourth–Joe Ross–who is 27th in FIP. Similarly, the Cubs have four starters in the top 50 in WAR (three in the top 30) and a fifth in Jason Hammel, who has at least had flashes of brilliance this year. These are the two biggest threats for the Giants in the NL, and they both will likely have a big edge in Games 3 & 4 of a potential playoff series, especially if Bumgarner or Cueto fail to live up to expectations.
Another thing that concerns me about the Giants is their bullpen. This could be considered an even greater, more fatal weakness than their lack of pitching depth. San Francisco relievers rank 27th in WAR; and yet this hasn’t really caused the Giants to struggle because they haven’t relied on their bullpen much at all. Giants relievers have pitched the fourth fewest innings among all other bullpens, meaning that they have benefitted from Bumgarner and Cueto pitching deep into games. And yet, even though they have pitched so little, their bullpen has the most blown saves in all of baseball. Considering how starters usually have shorter leashes in the postseason, I can’t imagine that manager Bruce Bochy has a lot of confidence moving forward in either his middle relievers like Albert Suarez, who I saw get lit up to the tune of five earned runs last night, or his late inning guys like Santiago Casilla, who no one will confuse with Aroldis Chapman.
Even though I’m a tad concerned about my World Series pick, as I said at the beginning of the article, the Giants shouldn’t panic. Of course, they should certainly not stand pat at the trade deadline, as they could definitely use another quality starting pitcher and a better reliever or two. But even if nothing were to change, these weaknesses I mentioned won’t necessarily prevent San Francisco from winning the World Series. Bumgarner and Cueto are elite pitchers, and if Samardzjia in particular steps up then the Giants can make do with him as their third starter. Plus, the idea that you need a bullpen in order to win in the postseason is overrated. For instance, San Francisco’s bullpen in 2012 and 2014 ranked 26th and 24th in WAR respectively, which is right in line with where the Giants relief staff ranks now.
I still think the Giants will win their fourth World Series in seven years. But as evidenced by their recent skid coming out of the All-Star break, it’s hard to overlook their weaknesses.
Matt Cain photo courtesy of Charles Krupa/Associated Press