How The San Francisco Giants Blew Open The NL West Race
The San Francisco Giants have pulled away in the NL West, with an 83-62 record and a 7.5 game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers coming into Sunday’s games. The easy thing would be to assume the Giants’ pitching eventually wore down all challengers. It would be an easy and understandable assumption, given this team’s track record over the last few years, but it would not be accurate. It’s offense that keyed Frisco’s pullaway to what looks like a second NL West crown in three years.
If we look at the season-long numbers, San Francisco is pretty balanced, ranking 6th in the National League in runs scored and 5th in ERA. Given public perception of the team, just being balanced means the offense is carrying a larger-than-expected share of the load. But if we narrow the focus to what’s happened since the All-Star break, we see the lineup moving up to fourth in scoring runs, while the pitching slips to eighth in ERA.
Buster Posey has carried this lineup. He’s at the forefront of the MVP discussion, and while I still have him a little bit behind Ryan Braun and the fading Andrew McCutchen, my guess is that Posey will be the one who ultimately wins the award. And whether you’d pick him or not, it’s hard to argue he’s a deserving candidate. He’s got a .407/.546 stat line in on-base percentage and slugging percentage for the season and that’s driven by a scorching .464/.663 pace since the All-Star break.
It’s further notable that Posey’s best play has come in a stretch when San Francisco was rocked by the suspension of Melky Cabrera for PED use. In the aftermath of losing Cabrera, who posted a .390/.516 season, combined with the Dodgers loading up at the trade deadline and then in the mega-deal with the Red Sox, it looked like Frisco wouldn’t have enough to keep up. Posey has taken it unto himself to rectify that.
San Francisco has had to overcome disappointments in its everyday lineup. Pablo Sandoval was hurt early on and has never really bounced back from the broken hand of spring, as he’s batting .242 since the break with zero home runs. Hunter Pence, the big trade deadline acquisition, has only hit .228 since coming over from Philadelphia. The supporting contributions have come in bits and pieces, with Brandon Belt posting a .359 on-base percentage, Marco Scutaro hitting .346 since being acquired from Colorado and Angel Pagan heating up in the second half, to the tune of a .351/.485 stat line.
The troubles of Tim Lincecum have been a justifiable major storyline with the pitching this season and the two-time Cy Young Award winner still has an ERA over 5, but since the break he’s 6-4 with a 3.33 ERA. What has to concern manager Bruce Bochy is that Lincecum’s post-All Star ERA is the best in the starting rotation. It’s not as though Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner have come apart—they are more or less in the same ballpark. But no one is really pitching great right now, while Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito are starting to struggle. With an impending Division Series matchup against Cincinnati or Washington, the Giants are going to need Cain, Lincecum and Bumgarner to all be locked in.
Bochy has done an admirable job with the bullpen since losing closer Brian Wilson for the year early in the season. Santiago Casilla has handled the closer’s role well, with Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo also getting significant work and posting sub-3.00 ERAs. The same goes for George Kontos and Javier Lopez who are more situational pitchers. The only inconsistent arm in the pen is Clay Hensley. One basic rule about the Giants remains true it’s that they can go to the pen anytime after five innings and still have plenty in reserve for the next game, something Bochy will surely use in October when the leash on the starter becomes shorter.
San Francisco has a fairly soft schedule the rest of September, a diet of Colorado and San Diego, with a series mixed in against Arizona, who’s also below .500. The odds are high they will have clinched the NL West prior to the final series of the year in Dodger Stadium from October 1-3. The main goal now would be catching Cincinnati, whom they trail by 2.5 games, for the two-seed in the NL playoffs and homefield advantage in the Division Series.