Four Reasons Why The San Francisco Giants Are World Series Favorites
by 17 July 2016, 10:00 AM
The number one reason is that it’s an even year. The other three? They may surprise you.
The San Francisco Giants have the best record in baseball and currently sit atop the NL West with a 5.5 game cushion. Not bad for a team that missed the postseason last year. The Chicago Cubs have started to cool off, and the Giants have taken advantage, passing them by winning eight of their last 11 games. Their meteoric rise can be explained in three words: pitching and defense. It’s what carried the Kansas City Royals to their title, and it’s probably what will carry the Giants to theirs. Let’s take a closer look.
Dominant Starting Pitching
As the old saying goes, pitching wins championships, and the Giants definitely have high quality pitching. According to fWAR, they have the fourth best starting rotation in baseball. They’re also third in FIP. It’s not like the rotation is striking many people out—they rank 13th in K/9. They’re succeeding by not walking anyone and by not giving up home runs.
They rank second in the majors in BB/9 and third in HR/9. Fueling the low number of home runs hit is a minuscule homer to fly ball ratio, the only one in the majors under 10%. You could attribute some of that low number to luck, but I would give the credit to AT&T Park, one of the most pitcher friendly venues in all of baseball. According to research from ESPN’s Tristan H. Cockcroft, the Giants home park is the most pitcher friendly in the bigs.
Playoff hero (and hitting machine) Madison Bumgarner and All-Star starter Johnny Cueto lead their rotation. Both rank in top five in fWAR in the NL (fifth and fourth, respectively), as both have been dominant this year. MadBum ranks seventh in K/9 (10.28) and sixth in FIP (3.05). Cueto more embodies the rest of the rotation. He has the fourth lowest BB/9 (1.64) and the lowest HR/9 (0.41) in the league.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
An argument could be made that Bumgarner should regress in the second half based on his high strand rate (85.2%, highest in the NL) and low BABIP (.259, ninth lowest in the NL). I would counter by saying that the high strand rate is not because of luck but because he is an excellent pitcher. Other pitchers who rank high in strand rate include Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Bartolo Colon, all three of whom were All-Stars. Bumgarner has increased his strikeout totals, and that too is a reason for the high LOB%. As for the BABIP, he has a 19.9% soft contact rate, 18th in the NL, and a 20.2% line drive rate, 27th out of 48 qualified starters, so he’s not necessarily been very lucky.
Speaking of luck, Jake Peavy, another member of the rotation, has been unlucky this year. He has the sixth highest BABIP and the fourth lowest strand rate in the NL. Though probably resulting from his low soft contact and high hard contact, Peavy is still due for some positive regression because his ERA is a whole run higher than his FIP. The regression has started as, over the past 30 days, he’s been the 16th best starter in the NL in terms of FIP (3.58).
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Slick Fielding Defense
Just like the Royals in 2015, the Giants lead all major league teams in defensive runs above average. Their defense has saved 39 runs more than the average team, and one player has far exceeded everyone else: shortstop Brandon Crawford.
The 2015 Gold Glove winner has been amazing so far this year at baseball’s premier position. He leads the majors with 19 defensive runs saved. If you prefer UZR/150 as your defensive stat, well, he leads the NL in that too. He ranks second in the NL in fWAR, and though his offense has been pretty good (116 wRC+), his defense is the main reason. And it’s easy to see why with plays like this. And this. And this. If there’s a ball hit to the left side of the infield (or the right side, when the shift is on), Crawford is going to get to it.
Giants’ pitchers must feel like they’re spoiled because in addition to having the best defensive shortstop, they also have the best defensive catcher in Buster Posey. He is the best pitch framer in the game, adding 16 runs above average with his skills, four more than second place Yasmani Grandal. He’s also thrown out 57% of would-be base stealers, best in the NL. That’s ridiculously high, given that last year’s leader threw out 44% of runners, and the best career best mark is also at 57%.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Return of Injured Players
The scary thing about the Giants is they can get even better. Stars Hunter Pence and Matt Cain have missed time due to injury, but both are expected to return in the next two weeks and contribute.
Pence, who missed significant time last year as well, has been out since June 1 with a hamstring injury. Before being placed on the disabled list, he was an offensive machine, putting up a .369 wOBA and 137 wRC+. Alex Pavlovic of CSN Bay Area reports that the Giants have a soft return date set for July 25, but he could be back even sooner. He would be an improvement over Gregor Blanco, who’s been a bit below average at the plate (90 wRC+), and rookie Mac Williamson, who has been slightly better (93 wRC+). Those two have primarily handled right field while Pence has been hurt.
As for Cain, well, he hasn’t pitched well in the past two years, but he’s been on the DL quite a bit. Tentatively scheduled to start on either Wednesday or Thursday in Boston, he is looking to become a solid starter again. Though the Giants aren’t expecting the Cain from 2012 (3.40 FIP, sixth in Cy Young voting), they are hoping he becomes a solid starter who will give them a chance to win every time out.
Even Year Magic
Though I generally tend to be a data-driven person, even I have to admit there’s something special about the Giants and even years in the 2010s. How else can you explain World Series victories in 2010, 2012, and 2014 and playoff no-shows in the other years? To quote Vizzini from The Princess Bride, it’s inconceivable. And lo and behold, it’s an even year, and the Giants are again in position to take the World Series trophy. If it’s not magic, it’s probably just starting pitching and defense.
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