Brian Sabean is fond of describing the NL West as a different sort of animal than other divisions, with tight, low-scoring games comprising the majority of each team’s schedule. While this isn’t always true in a division that includes the Rockies, three NL West teams go into the 2016 season with at least one ace and three clubs play in pitcher-friendly ballparks, so the margin for error is often miniscule.
The Giants’ main strategy to avoid lengthy offensive droughts is targeting high-contact, low-strikeout hitters. But even in an age when DH-assimilation seems inevitable, the Giants look to gain an advantage in an area where many senior circuit clubs tend to punt, either by design or necessity.
San Francisco led the National League in home runs hit by pitchers with nine in 2015. Madison Bumgarner had five. No other team had more than two. Their staff led the league in runs scored, doubles, slugging, wOBA, wRC+ and fWAR (which also includes defense). They also finished tied for first in hits with 52, and second in batting average at .167 (Nationals pitchers hit .168).
They obviously have Bumgarner to thank for most of this — he hit .247/.275/.468, with an OPS+ above the league average for position players, easily winning his second straight Silver Slugger award. Over the last three years he’s transformed himself. Once a 5 o’clock hitter who pelted batting practice meatballs into the bleachers, Bumgarner is now a dangerous hitter — he was even used to pinch-hit when the Giants’ bench was perilously shallow.
The Giants also had a few semi-competent hitters in their rotation other than Bumgarner. Chris Heston hit .198 and Jake Peavy hit .193 with a home run. The Giants lost Tim Hudson, who hit a home run and had a higher OPS (.521) than Hector Sanchez or Joaquin Arias last season, and in December they replaced Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong (who also hit a homer) with two expensive starters. Neither are known as sluggers, but Jeff Samardzija’s average is .194 since 2014, the year he hit a booming double off the bricks in right field at AT&T Park.
Perhaps Hensley Meulens can help Samardzija and Johnny Cueto. No longer the embattled target of talk show callers he once was, Meulens might be a pitcher whisperer of sorts. Barry Zito could barely put the bat on the ball when the Giants signed him and, while utterly powerless, he became a pretty decent bunter who could slap the ball into the outfield on occasion. Same goes for Tim Lincecum, whose bat improved moderately over the years.
Here’s how the projected starting rotations compare in the NL West (lifetime offensive numbers).
- Zack Greinke: .220/.261/.337, 6 HR
- Shelby Miller: .113/.155/.188, 1 HR
- Patrick Corbin: .119/.165/.167, 0 HR
- Rubby De La Rosa: .113/.123/.113, 0 HR
- Robbie Ray: .121/.121/.152, 0 HR
- Jorge De La Rosa: .121/.130/.132, 0 HR
- Chad Bettis: .047/.128/.047, 0 HR
- Tyler Chatwood: .275/.306/.304, 0 HR
- Jordan Lyles: .132/.169/.206, 2 HR
- Jon Gray: .000/.154/.000 (0-for-11 with two walks; 1-for-25 in the minors)
Los Angeles Dodgers
- Clayton Kershaw: .153/.193/.176, 1 HR
- Scott Kazmir: .115/.115/.115, 0 HR
- Brett Anderson: .097/.157/.138, 0 HR
- Kenta Maeda: .147/.174/.200, 2 HR (Japan Central League)
- Alex Wood: .103/.146/.120, 0 HR
- Hyun-Jin Ryu: .181/.204/.248, 0 HR
San Diego Padres
- James Shields: .165/.186/.191, 0 HR
- Tyson Ross: .203/.236/.250, 1 HR
- Andrew Cashner: .158/.179/.203, 1 HR
- Robbie Erlin: .077/.122/.077, 0 HR
- Colin Rea: .222/.300/.333, 0 HR (2-for-9 with one walk)
San Francisco Giants
- Madison Bumgarner: .183/.222/.300, 11 HR
- Johnny Cueto: .107/.134/.109, 0 HR
- Jeff Samardzija: .130/.164/.198, 2 HR
- Matt Cain: .121/.155/.176, 6 HR
- Jake Peavy: .167/.203/.224, 3 HR
Cain is an interesting case. He went 0-for-16 last year, which isn’t all that surprising after so much time off, plus hitting wasn’t his main concern coming off elbow surgery. Cueto had his best year at the plate in 2015, hitting a robust .162. Hmmm. OK, the Giants may not have a distinct advantage at the plate in 2016 unless Bumgarner goes off once again. However, the Giants definitely have a type when it comes to pitchers: strong all-around athletes.
No wonder they were willing to spend huge money on Zack Greinke, the second-best hitting pitcher in the game and the winner of consecutive Gold Gloves.
Hudson, even after suffering a brutal ankle injury, could handle the bat and field his position. One of the reasons why they liked Mike Leake was his skills as a hitter and fielder. Cueto isn’t a great hitter by any means, and the Giants are paying him over $20 million annually to throw 200+ quality innings each season, but he was the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year at his position in 2014 and finished 10th in defensive runs saved in 2015. Heston finished 13th in defensive runs saved. Bumgarner and Cain are capable fielders, and Samardzija — while not the greatest at fielding his position — was an excellent wide receiver at Notre Dame, so he has no problems moving around despite his size.
The Giants’ starters won’t see many at-bats if they can’t get outs. However, in a division and league in which pitchers are asked to do more their peers in the American League, having five workhorses in the rotation who provide slight edges at the plate and with their gloves could help the Giants capture their first NL West title in four seasons.