Yeah, I know. Another article about how the Giants win the World Series every other year, on even-numbered years…funny coincidence and all that jazz. This time it’s different though. No but seriously, the Giants are dominant these days. While they’ve shown they can be an unstoppable team during the playoffs, this is really the first time in more than a decade that we’ve seen the Giants this intimidating during the regular season. As of today they’re pacing the league in wins, at 53. Keep in mind, Hunter Pence has missed about 30 games already, and is still expected to miss several more. To me, this is reminiscent of the 2012 squad that lost Melky Cabrera midseason (albeit for different reasons), yet surged on to be World Champions regardless.
As you might think, this team’s strength has been their pitching. They rank 6th in ERA at 3.66, in addition to leading the way in Complete Games with 6 and boasting the 3rd-lowest walk rate in the league. The Giants of recent memory have steadily been strong, pitching-wise, but never showed their full potential during the regular season. Instead, they’ve saved it for October. Now we’re seeing a different style of Giants. These Giants are within the top-10 for several offensive categories, which somewhat of a new concept in San Francisco. This team ranks 4th in OBP and 11th in Runs (outside of the top-10 by 1 measly run) despite dealing with a ton of injuries to their lineup. Though they’re not exactly a slugging team, they are also racking up extra base hits more than usual, placing 2nd in Triples and 10th in Doubles.
One might assume that the Giants made offensive additions over the offseason, thus explaining the boost in numbers. However much to the contrary, this is the same lineup as last season, minus Nori Aoki and Marlon Byrd sharing time in the outfield. The big offseason additions were to the pitching staff, in the forms of Johnny Cueto (6-years/$130 million) and Jeff Samardzija (5-year/$90 million). The rest of the changes were minor, and were in regards to the bullpen and the bench. What’s really made the difference this year is that a couple of the team’s homegrown players are finally coming into their own.
You could say that SS Brandon Crawford already had his breakout last year, and I wouldn’t argue with you. When a shortstop with a career Slugging % under .400 starts hitting 20+ home runs, that’s considered a breakout. This year, he’s gotten even better. While the power has gone down a few ticks, he’s getting on-base as a much better rate, as he is sporting an OBP nearly 30 points above his career mark of .317. Combine that with his defensive wizardry (you want to click that link), and you’ve got a truly elite player. So that makes one improved Giant, but who’s the other? It can’t be Buster Posey. Former Rookie-of-the-Year and MVP recipients don’t qualify as breakout candidates, am I right?
Yes, Posey is great, but he’s been great for awhile now. Instead let’s talk about Brandon Belt. For the first 4 years of his career, Belt seemed a lot like James Loney 2.0. He was a first baseman that was good with the glove, and made a lot of contact. Not a ton of walks, not a lot of power, but good contact and baserunning. Sort of an inverse first baseman really, if you think of the standard Ryan Howard/Prince Fielder skillset that many at the position are known for. That was his first 4 seasons though, and now it’s time to look at the modern version of Brandon Belt.
Today’s edition of Belt is a bit more intimidating at the plate. He’s no Anthony Rizzo, but he’s on pace for 5+ WAR this year, which is pretty damn good. His defense has slightly improved (or so the numbers say), and his on-base percentage has gone from good-to-great. He’s also started hitting more home runs these days, so that’s cool. If he keeps this up, Belt will finish the year with roughly 20 home runs, 90+ walks, 50 doubles, and a Slugging % above .500. Now those are some nice counting stats.
So you’ve got an improved Brandon Crawford, and improved Brandon Belt. Besides two guys named Brandon getting better, the Giants are basically the same. As I mentioned before, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija are new to the club, and they’re doing what they should be doing. Cueto is pitching like the ace he is (2.57 ERA with 107 strikeouts thus far), and Samardzija is pitching like the middle of the rotation arm he’s probably supposed to be (3.97 ERA with 84 strikeouts). To me, this version of Samardzija is much better for the Giants than the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde sort of player that he has been over the past two years, considering he’s been both terrible and excellent in recent memory. The contributions of Cueto and Samardzija are much to thank for the team’s success this year, but I’d like to note that the biggest thing to take away from the signings of these two pitchers might be that the wound from Barry Zito’s contract has finally healed.
Back to the matter at hand: today’s Giants. They’re no longer the sleeper team, now they’re the juggernaut. A healthy Angel Pagan has helped the cause, but the boost in offensive numbers can be greatly attributed to the natural progression of the two Brandons. When Hunter Pence finally returns from injury, this lineup will get even better. Even if the triumvirate of Belt-Posey-Crawford isn’t quite as scary as the Bonds-Kent-Snow days, they’ve been the foundation of the best Giants lineup in a long time. See I told you, it’s the same even-year magic thing. Except this year, it’s different.
As I’m sure every Giants fan is inclined to do, remember to #VoteBelt before July 8th if you want to see that lanky first baseman at the 2016 MLB All Star Game!