The 2014 baseball season hasn’t been one where everything has broken right for the San Francisco Giants. They got mediocre work from rotation ace Matt Cain and then lost him for the season. Second baseman Marco Scutaro has never gotten his back healthy. First baseman Brandon Belt hasn’t really developed as a hitter and now he’s got a persistent concussion. By rights, San Francisco should be on the outside looking in.
Maybe that’s where things will end up, but after four-plus months, the Giants are still dogging the high-priced Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West, only 3 ½ games out coming into Saturday’s games. San Francisco is in a three-way dogfight with the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals for the two wild-card spots. How has Bruce Bochy continued to keep the Giants in the hunt for a playoff berth and possible third World Series title in six years?
The foundation of San Francisco’s pitching dominance in their championship runs of 2010 and 2012 wasn’t so much starting pitching—though the rotation was obviously very good—it was the bullpen. And the same holds true in 2014.
Closer Sergio Romo went through inconsistencies and lost his job (add that to the list of SF woes), but Bochy simply plugged Santiago Casilla into the role and the 34-year-old simply changed from being one of the game’s best setup men to one of its best closers. It’s not hard to envision Casilla being to this October what Koji Uehara was for the Boston Red Sox last October—the setup reliever who gets his shot to close and turns into someone unhittable.
Nor has the depth suffered because of Casilla’s promotion. Jeremy Affeldt and Jean Machi each have ERAs in the 1s, and situational lefty Javier Lopez is at 2.10. Whatever challenges the Giants have, this ironclad fact remains-if you don’t have the lead after five, you’re in serious trouble. This bullpen is second in the NL in ERA and just comes at you in waves.
San Francisco ranks seventh in the league in starters’ ERA, and while it’s not great, Cain’s troubled year could have made it a lot worse. The Giants have been saved by Tim Hudson. The veteran, formerly of the Oakland A’s and Atlanta Braves, has a 2.74 ERA and has made up for Cain and the fact Tim Lincecum isn’t ever going to be anywhere close to his Cy Young days again.
Madison Bumgarner, the talented young lefty, has been consistent all year and has 13 wins with a 3.22 ERA. Ryan Vogelsong has been spotty, but serviceable with a 3.77 ERA. The Giants made a move at the July 31 trade deadline to get Jake Peavy from the Red Sox, but Peavy is on a hard-luck year, with only one win. And his 4.73 ERA tells you he’s not shutting anyone down to begin with.
Collectively, a manageable starting rotation and superior bullpen has produced a good enough staff to carry an offense that ranks in the middle of the National League. The Giants hit home runs—they’re fifth in the NL—but they don’t drive the ball in the alleys consistently and don’t keep a steady flow of baserunners. The team ranks in the NL’s bottom third in both doubles and on-base percentage.
Hunter Pence has been the team’s best offensive player, leading the club with 15 homes runs and a stat line .345 OBP/.472 slugging. Michael Morse also has 15 homers, and Pablo Sandoval gone deep 14 times.
Centerfielder Angel Pagan has been able to set the tone for the offense, hitting .307. And while Buster Posey isn’t going to be in the MVP conversation, his .350/.439 stat line continue to mark him one of the game’s most productive catchers.
All of this is enough to make it easy to understand why the Giants are a competitive team. But it seems like it should be more along the lines of Braves/Reds competitive, where it’s still an uphill climb to make the playoffs. And as noted, maybe that’s where San Francisco ends up by season’s end. But for now, let’s give a lot of credit to Bochy and the organization. They’re outgunned financially by the Dodgers, but are hanging in for a division title and at the very least in position to steal a wild-card spot.
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