It Should be Stanton-or-Bust for the 2018 Giants

Despite free agency still a couple weeks away, the Giants have been extremely busy this offseason, revamping the majority of their coaching staff, and setting the zone for what is expected to be a busy winter. Over the last week, GM Bobby Evans announced the following changes…

  • Former Giant pitcher and Dodgers AAA pitching coach Matt Herges replaces Mark Gardner as bullpen coach
  • Former pitching coach Dave Righetti was named special assistant to general manager
  • Hensley Meulens moves from hitting coach to bench coach
  • Ron Wotus moves from bench coach to third-base coach
  • Steve Decker was reassigned from assistant hitting coach to a special assistant in baseball operations
  • Jose Alguacil and Shawon Dunston will stay on in their respective positions
  • Phil Nevin was fired as third-base coach

That leaves arguably two of the Giants most critical needs, hitting coach (head and assistant) and pitching coach as the remaining vacant positions on the 2018 coaching staff.

Two potential candidates (one of which is an assumption) are no longer options for the Giants as Chili Davis (who interviewed with the team), and former Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, accepted positions with Joe Maddon and the Chicago Cubs. That leaves external options like the Cubs’ John Mallee and the Nationals’ Rick Schu, or internal options like Will Clark or Barry Bonds (or the content writer for Straight 108 ) as potential candidates to fill the hitting coach role. Additionally, the Cubs’ Chris Bosio and Dave Eiland seem like logical fits to fill Righetti’s role, especially now that pitching guru Mike Maddux has been hired by the St. Louis Cardinals.

Whoever the Giants turn to in order to fill out their staff, it will all play second fiddle to the personnel moves that are to come over the next few months. Two days ago, Bobby Evans emphasized on KNBR, that “our roster has got to be improved… and ultimately our staff changes are not really the focus of our plans for 2018. It’s really got to be about our roster.”

Shortly thereafter, USA Today baseball writer Bob Nightengale added to the commotion when he went on the Gary & Larry Podcast, and relayed that the “Giants are not only the leaders in the sweepstakes to acquire Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, but that either he or Diamondbacks outfielder J.D. Martinez will be on the team ‘for sure’ in 2018.” Nightengale added “I’d be shocked if they don’t have Stanton or J.D. Martinez playing for them next year. It’s going to be one of those guys for sure. You know they’ve got plenty of money, they don’t have prospects. Obviously if you sign Martinez, it doesn’t cost you any prospects, and same with Stanton. The Marlins want to dump his salary so bad, you’ve just got to eat most of it. Not $285 million worth, but $200 or $225 worth and then give them some fringe prospects, because they just don’t have those top, top quality prospects.”

Yesterday, FanRag baseball writer Jon Heyman echoed Nighengale’s stance on Stanton, suggesting “The Giants have made clear they have no intention to rebuild despite having the worst record in the NL, and with their strong fan base and legendary, a stable of stars under contract, a recent history of titles with those very players and legendary Bruce Bochy under contract two more years, nobody doubts that they mean it.”

 

So where do the Giants go from here?

For those who have followed Straight 108, you know full well that I’ve long been an advocate of the Stanton-or-bust philosophy, simply because I believe that Stanton is the only player in baseball capable of single-handedly transforming the Giants from pretender to contender in 1 offseason.

Don’t get me wrong – Martinez is a fantastic player who would provide the Giants with some much-needed thump. But when you consider that Martinez’s next contract could surpass the six-year, $132.75 million deal that Justin Upton signed with the Tigers in 2016, it’s fair to wonder whether the 30-year old outfielder who has hit more than 23 homeruns and driven in over 100 runs only twice in his 7-year Major League career, is worth that type of risk/commitment, especially considering the hefty contracts already doled out to Mark Melancon (4 years, $62 million), Brandon Belt (5 years, $72 million), Brandon Crawford (6 years, $75 million), Jeff Samardzija (5 years, $90 million), Hunter Pence (5 years, $90 million), Johnny Cueto (6 years, $130 million), and Buster Posey (8 years, $159 million), not to mention an overdue mega extension to Madison Bumgarner, who is on track to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020.

 

Another cause for concern?

Martinez had the luxury of spending the 2nd half of 2017 hitting at Chase Field, the 3rd best hitters park in baseball. Over his career, however, Martinez is a .203 hitter at AT&T Park with 2 homeruns in 63 plate appearances, .237 at Dodger Stadium with 5 homeruns in 41 plate appearances, and .235 with 1 homerun in 38 plate appearances at Petco Park. And although he’s a .447 career hitter at Coors Field, he’s managed to hit just 2 career homeruns in 41 at-bats. Overall, that’s pretty subpar production given the contract he’ll demand.

Stanton, on the other hand, is only 27 and has hit more than 23 homeruns in each of his 7 full seasons in the Big Leagues. Additionally, he’s had significant success within the NL West, batting .306 with 9 homeruns (in 121 at-bats) at AT&T Park, .286 with 10 homeruns (in 104 at-bats) at Coors Field, .310 with 9 homeruns (in 94 at-bats) at Dodger Stadium, .253 with 7 homeruns (in 94 at-bats) at Chase Field, and .323 with 8 homeruns in 69 at-bats at Petco Park.

In addition to being the safer-choice with significantly more upside (which does come at a steep price), the impact Stanton would have on the Giants lineup balance would be huge. First and foremost, the transaction would allow the Giants to get Buster Posey out of the clean-up spot, a necessary move for the Giants to score more runs. Posey is one of the best pure hitters in baseball and a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but continuing to put him in a spot he isn’t well suited is a disservice to both him and the Giants. Posey has driven in 90+ runs in a season only twice in his 8-year career, and slugged only .427 with men on base this season, whereas Stanton has slugged .506 (and climbing) over his career with men on base.

In addition to taking pressure off Posey (as well as Belt and Crawford) to drive in runs, Stanton would also force pitchers to pitch to Posey, something that hasn’t happened over the last two seasons. The days of Buster Posey hitting 20+ homeruns may be behind him, so putting him in a lineup where he can focus on being a pure hitter (as opposed to a run-producer), would likely (in my estimation) lead to a spike in overall production.

Generally speaking, we saw a similar effect take place with the Dodgers. Cody Bellinger, who finished with a rookie-record 39 homeruns, single-handedly had an incredible impact on the Dodgers. In the 33 games Bellinger has missed due to injury and time in the minor leagues, the Dodgers finished 3 games under .500, whereas with Bellinger, the Dodgers are close to 50 games over .500.

Bellinger doesn’t just make the Dodgers better because of his 39 homeruns, he forces teams to attack their lineup differently to ensure a single swing doesn’t beat them. Aside from Bellinger and Corey Seager, the Dodgers really don’t have any other proven, star-studded hitters. Guys like Chris Taylor and Justin Turner, who have experience journeymen careers, benefit greatly from Bellinger and Seager’s presence, similar to the way I believe Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt would benefit from Giancarlo Stanton and Buster Posey.

Coming into 2017, it was well documented how well the Giants do when they stick to their blueprint of scoring 4 or more runs. In fact, over the last 3 seasons, the Giants are 203 – 58 when they score 4 runs or more, good for a .778 winning percentage. Over the course of a 162-game season, that would equate to a 126-36 record. And remember, that isn’t over a small sample size – that trend has existed over the past 486 games and beyond. 203 – 58 accounts for the 30 blown saves from a year ago and the 30-42 record after the 2016 All-Star break.

Some assumed that number would change given the Giants horrific 2017 season, but the 4-run trend has continued to be a strong predictor in the Giants ability to win games. Even despite winning only 64 games this season, the Giants were 50-22 when they scored 4 runs or more, and 14-76 when they didn’t. 

 

How do the Giants improve their chances of reaching the 4-run threshold more consistently if they don’t get Stanton?

If you watched the 1st two games of the World Series, perhaps you have a better understanding of why I put so much value on lineup balance. In the Dodgers’ 3-1 Game 1 victory, right-handed batters Chris Taylor and Justin Turner provided all the offense the Dodgers needed against left-hander Dallas Keuchel. On the other hand, the Astros’ Alex Bregman was responsible for the only run against Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw with a solo-homerun in the 4th inning.

In game 2, it was left-handers Corey Seager and Joc Pederson who got to Astros ace (and right-hander) Justin Verlander, whereas George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Marwin Gonzalez all had big hits for the Astros.

 

So what’s the point?

The simple fact is that regardless as to whether these teams are facing right-handed or left-handed pitching, they both have players who can impact the game regardless as to the handedness of the opposing pitcher.

 

How does this relate to the Giants?

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.

 

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.

With this is mind, it becomes clear why teams simply don’t pitch to Buster Posey with a left-handed pitcher in the game. Furthermore, it’s all-the-more reason why Giancarlo Stanton and his 202 wRC+ against left-handed pitching in 2017 would be such an impactful move.

 

The Astros provide the blueprint to offensive balance

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.

Similarly, the Dodgers finished 1st as a team with a 103 wRC+ against right-handed pitching, and 109 wRC+ against left-handed pitching despite only Cody Bellinger hitting more than 24 homeuns and more than 77 RBIs. For the Dodgers, role-players like Kike Hernandez (144 wRC+), Logan Forsythe (138 wRC+), and Austin Barnes (136 wRC+) all excelled against left-handed pitching, whereas it was Bellinger (147 wRC+), Yasiel Puig (136 wRC+), and Chris Taylor (127 wRC+) who did the most damage against righties.

Regardless as to whether they are able to acquire Stanton or Martinez, the fact remains that lineup balance is an issue that must be addressed this offseason.

 

What would lineup balance look like without Stanton?

As I have maintained in the past, there more creative ways to accomplish this without the quick & easy fix of a Stanton. Finding value-laden free agents like Austin Jackson and Howie Kendrick is a necessary first step.

After being acquired by Cleveland, Jackson has played in 85 games for the Indians, 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 (whose offensive production becomes secondary to his defense) against left-handed pitching.

 

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.

In my opinion, all of the coaching turnover within the Giants organization is smoke-in-mirrors unless 1) the Giants starting pitchers perform to the level they are being compensated, and 2) the Giants find hitters who excel against left-handed pitching. The next few weeks should bring answers (hopefully) to the latter.

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