The Giants were relatively quiet in the offseason, looking inward to improve on a disappointing 2011 season. Names like Sanchez, Posey, and Bumgarner were spoon-fed to confused Giants fans who were looking for some fresh lumber to spark a second deep playoff run in three years. Instead, they are left making Spring Training speculations like Fontenot/Theriot, Pill/Belt, and Blanco/The World (Blanco’s winning). The Omega Man of the Giants off-season may be Nate Schierholtz, who appears to have lost a job that he was promised at the end of last season. While this may be bad for Nate, it may not be all bad for the Giants.
Nate Schierholtz “broke out” in 2011. It was easy to break out on a Giants offense that scored 23 runs fewer than the much-maligned San Diego Padres, good for last in the National League. At .278, Schierholtz was second on the team in batting average for players who came to the plate at least 300 times. When combined with his defensive prowess and unique arm strength, Nate became the solid right field option Giants fans have craved since his first call-up in 2008.
In the postmortem following the 2011 season, Bruce Bochy told reporters that right field was Nate’s job to lose . However, as Spring Training winds down, reports are coming in from the beat-o-sphere that Nate needs to turn it on at the plate and in the field to be assured of his job. Some of the pressure is due to the off-season acquisitions of Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera, and the rest is from the Huff/Belt/Pill overflow at first base. And oh ya Gregor Blanco is tearing up spring to the tune of .338/.400/.429 and 13 for 14 on steal attempts. This confluence of events may push Nate back into the position of a role player, used to spell starters and enter the game late for defensive purposes. This is how Giants fans grew accustomed to number 12, before the failures of John Bowker, Jose Guillen, Aaron Rowand and a rash of injuries led to Schierholtz becoming the de facto starting right fielder by June 1st. Pushed into the relative limelight, Schierholtz blossomed and earned that vote of confidence from manager Bruce Bochy. With Nate’s job in question, let’s look at how playing time has affected Schierholtz’s performance over his career.
It appears regular at-bats have a lot to do with Nate’s success at the plate. Nate’s batting average bottomed out at .248 just three weeks after receiving regular playing time. His slugging percentage also dropped below .400, not the thump one would expect from a starting corner outfielder. But starting June 24th Nate found his groove, raising his batting average 30 points (36 slugging points) before heading to the disabled list with a foot fracture on August 28th, ending his season. Nate’s 2011 campaign also doubled his home run total, with 9 bringing his career total to 18. Clearly, he was a different player in 2011, especially when his playing time wasn’t in doubt.
Using FanGraphs fWAR, Schierholtz posted a 1.4 in 2011. This is below the expected threshold for a starting player in the majors, but there are some mitigating factors to this low total. Nate has posted above average defensive metrics in every season of his career EXCEPT 2011, so I’ll disregard this as an outlier. Also, an injury and lack of healthy playing time helped keep his fWAR low. For the purposes of a full, defensively-normal season for Schierholtz, his total would easily creep over 2, the standard for a starter. On an offensively depleted roster like the Giants, Nate certainly makes the grade. Also in Nate’s corner is Jonah Keri’s description of him as a “low-variance” player, one whose fluctuations won’t sink or make a team. No Huff-ian flameouts but no All-Star potential. Low-variance.
So if the Giants aren’t looking for a league-average starter in the outfield, what are they looking for? The answer: upside. A huge part of the World Series run in 2010 was other-worldy performances from Juan Uribe, Pat Burrell, and Andres Torres. These performances were unrepeatable, as 2011 showed, but the Giants continue to try to squeeze wins out of unlikely sponges, like the aforementioned Blanco and the unproven Brandon Belt. The Giants appear ready to play around with their lineup, preferring a boom-and-bust offensive strategy to complement one of the more stable pitching staffs in the majors. And as a low-variance guy with nagging health concerns, Nate Schierlholtz will finish more games than he starts.