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The Non-Decline and Fall of the San Francisco Giants

The Chicago Cubs, hinting that this year they may have magick stronger than The Goat, recently brought the San Francisco Giants’ even-year playoff dominance to an end. It was an offensively offensive series; add the two teams’ OPS together and you’re just 100 points better than David Ortiz. The low-velocity Giants staff struck out a batter an inning, and both lineups walked at a lower rate than the unwalkable Royals. My working theory was that this series represented the final demise of the already waning power of the current edition of the Giants, and that the next chart-topping version of Big Head Bruce and the Monsters would have mostly new musicians. Turns out that this theory is only partially correct.

Your 2016 San Francisco Baseball Giants were actually a little better than the world-beating 2014 squad, at least when resort is had to statistics:

Stat                                            2016 (MLB rank)            2014 (MLB rank)

Position Player fWAR                   26.7 (4)                                  23.0 (9)

SP fWAR                                          15.0 (5)                                  10.1 (21)

RP fWAR                                           2.1 (22)                                  1.4 (24)

Position Player wRC+                    98 (t12)                                   99 (9)

SP FIP-                                              96 (t7)                                    104 (19)

RP FIP-                                              97 (20)                                    98 (18)

Run differential/game                    +0.51                                      +0.31

Let’s pause a minute to consider the bullpen numbers, which are the very essence of “meh” both years. The Giants have had the reputation of having a good, cheap bullpen. It’s certainly cheap: Sergio Romo is the plutocrat of the unit at a relatively unimposing $9 million. But “good” is more of a stretch; the Giants relievers have delivered value pretty much consistent with what they’ve been paid.

Some commentators have carpeted Bochy for his bullpen usage during the NLDS, but (perhaps because I’m not actually a Giants fan) I take a longer view. The miscellaneous roadies Big Head Bruce has had to work with will hardly make anyone forget The Nasty Boys, but he has often been able to squeeze value out of them when it’s mattered most. In order to maximize value out of this motley crue (I’m in town all week — try the garlic fries) Bochy has had to be very active in the late innings, and the more decisions any manager has to make, the more that will go wrong.

Giants general manager Brian Sabean has correctly recognized that in Bruce Bochy he employs one of the best tacticians in the game today. Sabean has maximized the value of this skill by handing Bochy a collection of misfit bullpen toys and saying “here, you figure this out.” On most nights Bochy does, but every once in a while he fails, as happened in the star-crossed six-pitcher 9th in Game 4. If you want to see what a bullpen meltdown looks like in graphic form, here it is. (Younger or more sensitive Giants fans are advised not to click on that link.)

My guess is that Bochy has had a few other bad bullpen nights, but most of those have happened when the East Coast was already asleep. When you happen to have a bad night nationwide, people may be a little too inclined to draw definitive conclusions. (I do not cut Buck Showalter this kind of slack. Bochy has a bunch of semi-interchangeable parts that present numerous non-obvious choices. Buck doesn’t.)

But back to our regularly scheduled program: the 2016 Giants were, by most measures, a better squad than the 2014 one. This is a roster that’s peaking, and perhaps fell victim to what will soon be a storied Cubs team, or (more prosaically) to the bad luck inherently possible in a short series. So the Giants can look forward to an extended run of playoff contention!

Or not. The Giants are heading in full sail toward the dragon-pocked part of the map. This an old team — the Giants have the sixth-oldest set of position players in the majors and the oldest pitching staff. They have just two regular players under 27, Madison Bumgarner (still just 26) and Joe Panik (25). To borrow a Casey Stengel line, in 15 years Bumgarner may be in the Hall of Fame. In 15 years, Joe Panik will be 40.

The Giants’ farm will provide little aid. Their system has just two MLB top-100 prospects, with the best being the positionless Christian Arroyo at #79 (though the excellent Bernie Pleskoff is less hostile to his defense than I am). Austin Slater isn’t in the top 100, but he raked at AAA at age 23 with good plate discipline, so he may be able to fill the outfield spot Angel Pagan is likely to vacate.

On the bright side, the contracts of Jake Peavy and Pagan expire this year, taking $26 million off the books. Romo and Santiago Casilla will be departing for broadcasting careers as well, taking $15 million more of liabilities with them. The Giants need one or two outfielders and starting pitching, but especially with respect to the latter, next year’s free-agent class would make a cow laugh. The 2018 list is a better one, but between now and both free-agent classes likely interposes a new collective bargaining agreement, so there’s enough fog to compel Sabean to operate his lights on low beam.

And the competition isn’t sitting still. Regardless of how the hated Los Angeles Dodgers fare in the NLCS, they are poised to compete for a while. The Rockies have an exciting core of young talent, even if casual Rox fans despair of the team at the moment. The Outlaw A.J. Preller merits a blog post all his own (say, there’s an idea!), and while the Padres seem to have a bit of transmission loss between talent and wins, some improvement there is possible as well, especially if Tyson Ross can make a successful return from thoracic outlet surgery. (What? You say there’s another team in the NL West? Hmm … I’ll research that and get back to you.)

So the Giants may be stalling or even slipping backward in a division where at least two of the teams are making progress. The Giants have a good but mostly older core which could use the kind of help that free agency and prospect trades are unlikely to provide in 2017. So 2016 may indeed be the last gasp of this once-in-a-while mighty franchise, at least for the moment. Sabean has pulled a whole warren of rabbits out of his hat during his long tenure, but in 2017 he’s going to have to dig deep.

Perhaps there will be a powerful goat looking for work …