The Houston Astros have an offensive blueprint the Giants should follow

Following Tuesday’s “End of the Season” press conference, Giants fans were provided with an extremely general “vision” as to how the front office plans to attack the offseason. As Dieter Kurtenback of the Bay Area Newsgroup summarized, the four-man panel of Brian Sabean, Bobby Evans, Larry Baer, and Bruce Bochy focused on five topics, all of which, will inevitably contribute to either a turnaround or continued struggles for the Giants franchise.

1. The Giants aren’t changing their “pitching & defense” blueprint to winning

2. Bruce Bochy believes this core can win without adding any big pieces

3. Third base, centerfield, and the bullpen top the list of offseason priorities

4. Money won’t be a factor in free agency if the player is the right fit

5. The Giants have enough high-level prospects to trade for a star, if needed

 

Fans can agree or disagree all they want in regards to the approach the Giants are taking, but from my standpoint, I believe the organization is missing the boat all together in terms of how to improve the roster given what they have.

If we take the Giants brass at their word, the core of Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, and Joe Panik will continue to be everyday players in 2018, while Hunter Pence and Denard Span will also see significant, if not daily, playing time. Realistically, that leaves two areas to improve, centerfield and 3rd base. With GM Bobby Evans already acknowledging the Giants need to improve their outfield defense, I think it’s safe to say whoever the Giants pursue will impact the club more with his glove than his bat. Externally, Jarrod Dyson and Billy Hamilton have been linked with the Giants due to their defensive abilities, and internally, Steven Duggar appears to be a candidate.

With the departure of Eduardo Nunez, uneven performances from Pablo Sandoval and Ryder Jones, plus the injury to Christian Arroyo, 3rd base is a major area of concern. Royals All-Star Mike Moustakas seems like a logical fit, so much so that even Jon Heyman of FanRag sports has said the Giants “will be all over Mike Moustakas.”

Given their obvious struggles and roster holes, why do I think the Giants are missing the boat?

Mainly because I don’t think their supposed approach, nor the players they are linked to, address the core problem – a total lack of offensive balance. Aside from Buster Posey, the Giants roster is filled with either right-handed hitters who can only hit left-handed pitching, or left-handed hitters who can only hit right-handed pitching. This lack of balance, in my opinion, is the biggest reason the Giants were the most inconsistent offense in baseball this season, and is ultimately why I’m fearful of a 2018 repeat.

Many might assume that hitting left-handed pitching is a small segment of a game or season – after all, the majority of pitchers in baseball are right-handed, so why put weight on a relative rarity?

Well, for one, it isn’t quite as rare as you might think. The National League, and NL West, in particular, are stockpiled with left-handed starting pitching. And even when a left-handed pitcher isn’t starting, left-handed specialists impact nearly every game in the most critical moments.

Think back to the Giants World Series runs in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Manager Bruce Bochy made a name for himself by effectively managing his specialists – namely Javy Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt, in critical situations. In 2010, it was to minimize the impact of Jason Heyward and Brian McCann of the Braves, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard of the Phillies, and Josh Hamilton of the Rangers. In 2012, it was Joey Votto and Jay Bruce of the Reds, and Prince Fielder of the Tigers. In 2014, it was Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche of the Nationals, Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams of the Cardinals, and Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon of the Royals. All were premier hitters in the game whose strengths as hitters were minimized due to the effectiveness of the Giants’ bullpen specialists.

Now flip the script.

With the Giants having such a left-hand dominant offensive core (Belt, Crawford, Panik, Span), it’s no surprise that they struggle so badly against left-handed starters and late in games (as evidenced by their 18-125 record over the past two seasons when trailing after 6 innings).

Just how bad were they this season?

FanGraphs has a statistic called wRC+, which is defined as “a rate statistic which attempts to credit a hitter for the value of each outcome (single, double, etc) rather than treating all hits or times on base equally, while also controlling for park effects and the current run environment. wRC+ is scaled so that league average is 100 each year and every point above or below 100 is equal to one percentage point better or worse than league average. This makes wRC+ a better representation of offensive value than batting average, RBI, OPS, or wOBA.” While wRC+ is far from exact, it provides us with a better idea as to how players perform relative to the rest of the league, while also accounting for AT&T Park (which Giants fans know plays an enormous role on offensive performance).

The Giants had the 4th lowest wRC+ against left-handed pitching in all of baseball. This number by itself would be worrisome, but when you combine those results with the fact that the Giants had the most plate appearances against left-handed pitching in 2017, the lack of production becomes magnified. Even though the Giants had the 2nd lowest strikeout rate against lefties in the NL, their 27.3% soft-contact percentage against lefties was the highest in all of baseball. When you consider that the Giants had the most opportunities with the slowest batted ball results, perhaps now you get a better idea as to why I find this to be such a big concern. The 1835 plate appearances Giants batters had against lefties were roughly 230 more than the NL average, and a whopping 481 more than the Washington Nationals.

Some of this has to do with the sheer fact that there’s more left-handed starting pitchers in the NL West, but a less-documented reason is the fact that the Giants offense gave opposing managers no reason to work matchups the way Bochy had to in the playoffs because big chunks of their lineup was completely ineffective against lefties. As a result, opposing managers were able to utilize their situational left-handed pitchers for multiple batters, and sometimes even full innings, undoubtedly providing a bullpen-advantage towards the end of each 3 and 4-game series.

Circling back to FanGraphs, only Buster Posey had a wRC+ over 115 amongst Giants regulars against left-handed pitching. Posey’s wRC+ of 161 was the 9th best mark in the National League, while Hunter Pence’s 107, placed him 54th, behind the likes of the Cubs Jon Jay and the Phillies’ Cesar Hernandez.

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Core players Brandon Belt (92), Joe Panik (91), Brandon Crawford (76), and Denard Span (59), all qualify as “below average” to “awful” according to the wRC+ chart above.

Knowing what we know now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that if you don’t pitch to Buster Posey, there’s no other threat in the lineup, especially against a left-handed reliever.

Simply from a strategy standpoint, having offensive balance is important. If you look at the Houston Astros, arguably baseball’s best offensive team, the first thing that stands out is their balance against both righties and lefties. In a season which saw the most homeruns hit in baseball history, the Astros homerun leader, George Springer, hit 34 – the 20th most in baseball. Aside from him, nobody else hit more than 24. Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that the Astros RBI leader, Marwin Gonzalez, had only 90 RBIs on the season, the 34th most in baseball, for a team who scored the most runs in the majors.

So where are all the runs coming from?

If you dive a little deeper into the Astros production against right-handers and left-handers, it becomes evident that the Astros run production is a by-product of their depth and the ability to replace one hitters’ weakness with another’s strength. Only Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa finished in the Top 5 on the team in wRC+ against both righties and lefties. Against right-handed pitchers, Marwin Gonzalez, Josh Reddick, and Yulieski Gurriel combined with Altuve and Correa to help the Astros score a league-best 684 runs. Against left-handed pitching, Springer, Alex Bregman, and Jake Marisnick combined with Altuve and Correa to produce the highest team wRC+ against southpaws in all of baseball.

It’s one thing to have a Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, or Nolan Arenado, all of whom demolishes baseballs regardless of who’s pitching. But what the Astros are proving, is that you can become a more efficient offense through lineup balance and proper player evaluation.

How does this relate to the Giants, you might ask?

Realistically, the chances of acquiring a marquee hitter in this market given the Giants financial limitations are minimal. But that doesn’t necessarily doom the Giants into another cellar-dwelling season. Based on the blueprint provided by the Astros, the Giants can follow-suit and construct an offense that, while it may not be amongst the best in baseball, would certainly be serviceable enough to back a pitching staff whose performance needs to resemble its compensation for them to be successful in the first place.

How can the Giants accomplish something like this?

Obviously, this is purely hypothetical as it’s impossible to understand the Giants spending ability as well as the true market-value for certain players without being in meetings. It’s also difficult to know the organization’s true vision for the future as the ability to compete now without jeopardizing the future (which is what they have said they intend to do) typically doesn’t go hand-in-hand. But for arguments sake, the additions I make are based on being competitive next season, and shouldn’t jeopardize the development of the Giants next wave of players (Arroyo, Shaw, Duggar, Garcia, Ramos, Gonzalez, etc). The purpose of this isn’t necessarily to suggest what the Giants need to do, instead by throwing out a (relatively) realistic scenario, I hope to demonstrate that the Giants can drastically improve their offense without adding more big contracts.

In short, the two acquisitions (to start) I would make would be to sign Indians centerfielder Austin Jackson and Nationals utility-man Howie Kendrick to free agent contracts.

Following some difficult seasons in 2014, 2015, and 2016, Jackson finally got his career back on track with the Indians as a platoon outfielder. Since being acquired by Cleveland, Jackson has played in 85 games, batting .318 with 7 homeruns and 35 RBIs. But what makes Jackson even more appealing, especially for a team like the Giants, is the fact that destroys left-handed pitching. This season, Jackson batted .352 with a .440 on-base percentage and .574 slugging percentage while playing 38 games in centerfield, 38 games in left field, and 18 games in right field. Additionally, Jackson hit .303 with runners in scoring position and .364 when leading off an inning. Jackson’s 171 wRC+ this season against left-handers, was the 9th best in all of baseball this season amongst qualifiers.

Similar to Jackson, Kendrick would also provide the Giants with a versatile player who can balance out their lineup. Kendrick hit .315 this season while splitting time between the Phillies and Nationals. Primarily a LF at this stage of his career, Kendrick has also played 13 games at 2nd base, and could absolutely be a serviceable 1st baseman when needed. Against left-handed pitching in 2017, Kendrick hit .322 (16th best in the NL) with a .390 on-base percentage (24th best in the NL) and .511 slugging percentage (36th best in the NL). Additionally, his wRC+ of 137 against lefties was the 24th best mark in the National League this season.

Neither of these players will draw big headlines, but both would significantly improve teams offensive balance without a big price tag. Now, if we go back and assess the Giants offensive output with just these two players in the mix, the level of production looks much more competent. I am not suggesting these are the only two moves the Giants should make, but it shows how adding mid-level free agents could provide big return.

Against Right Handed Pitching                     Against Left-Handed Pitching

1. Denard Span (LF) – 113 wRC+                    1. Austin Jackson (CF) – 171 wRC+

2. Joe Panik (2B) – 110 wRC+                         2. Joe Panik (2B) – 91 wRC+

3. Brandon Belt (1B) – 133 wRC+                    3. Howie Kendrick (1B) – 137 wRC+

4. Buster Posey (C) – 116 wRC+                     4. Buster Posey (C) – 161 wRC+

5. Brandon Crawford (SS) – 90 wRC+             5. Hunter Pence (RF) – 107 wRC+

6. Pablo Sandoval (3B) – 87 wRC+                 6. Austin Slater (LF) – 118wRC+

7. Austin Jackson (CF) – 100 wRC+                7. Brandon Crawford (SS) – 76 wRC+

8. Jarrett Parker (RF) – 86 wRC+                    8. Kelby Tomlinson (3B) – 89 wRC+

If we re-visit the wRC+ rating chart, we notice that in only 1 slot in the batting order, is there a player whose rating falls between “below average” and “poor”, and that’s Brandon Crawford against left-handed pitching.

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With the addition of two mid-level (at-best) free agents, the Giants suddenly find themselves with 5 hitters against both right-handers and left-handers who qualify as “above-average” in baseball’s most comprehensive offensive rating system.

It is for this reason that I’ve been adamant for so long that the Giants go out and look for a right-handed bat or two that could help even out their lineup. Not Billy Hamilton, not Dee Gordon, not Mike Moustakas, not #7 prospect Steven Duggar (hit .275 in 2016 with 2 homeruns in 131 at-bats against lefties in A & AA), and not #2 prospect Chris Shaw (hit .279 with 2 homeruns in 86 at-bats against lefties in AA & AAA). While both have bright futures, neither fills the short-term need the Giants have for impactful offensive production against left-handed pitching.

1,658 of 5,551 of the Giants at-bats this season were against left-handed pitchers, or 30%. The Giants simply cannot afford to be an inept offensive club 30% of the time, especially when the 3 playoff teams within their division, the Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Dodgers, made up half of the top 6 scoring teams in the NL.

When you factor in that over the last two seasons, the Giants are 111-46 when they score 4 runs or more, an emphasis needs to be placed on manufacturing runs. And if acquiring an easy fix like Giancarlo Stanton isn’t an option, then getting creative by improving their lineup balance needs to be a top priority.

1 Comment

  1. A.J. on October 6, 2017 at 10:32 PM

    Knowing how AT&T park plays, why do the Giants draft or acquire so many left-handed hitters? You sort of answered this question in your article when you said it would seem there are more RH pitchers, so it makes sense to stock up on lefty hitters. But most teams nowadays have at least one or two LH starters and a plethora of LH relievers that they can throw at you in any given situation. You know the game well at every level so maybe you can tell me why so many young players who are right handed opt to bat left handed? To get an advantage over RH pitching, obviously, but isn’t that strategy somewhat obsolete now with teams using so many situational specialists?



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