Bad pitching, bad defense and a path to the postseason

Aside from a burst offense in an aborted comeback on Wednesday, little has gone right the last three days against the Oakland A’s. The defense has been bad and the pitching has been worse. Health, too, has been a problem; Angel Pagan hasn’t played since Saturday and Marco Scutaro has caught the virus making its way through the Giants’ clubhouse.

The Giants have played themselves into a tie for second in a very tight NL West. At this point, the winner of the division might only need 85-87 wins. The defending champs aren’t out of anything, but the last three games have been enough to wound the spirit of a once-believing fan base. Let’s ask some questions and posit some answers:

Is this just bad luck? Are the Giants vulnerable? Is this a .500 team?

First, let’s address what made the Giants successful from 2009-2012:

1. The pitching- The Giants starting rotation was 1st in ERA and 4th in xFIP from 2009-2012. They got stellar performances from at least three pitchers in each of those seasons, occasionally locking down a fourth with Jonathan Sanchez or Ryan Vogelsong. This year, the rotation is 24th in ERA and 12th in xFIP. The discrepancy in xFIP (3.97) and ERA (4.84) means the starters are suffering from bad luck. Or bad defense.

2. The defense- I’m not a huge believer in defensive metrics so I’m going to go old school on you: the Giants have been worse defensively this season than at any time during their recent success. Marco Scutaro has been a death trap at second base, and many other Giants are underperforming at their positions. San Francisco has 39 errors on the season, good for third in the league. While errors aren’t a true measure of the capabilities of a defense and individual defenders, they have led to 24 earned runs. Compare that to the D-Backs’ 10 unearned runs or St. Louis’ 12 and you can see that the defense is costing the team wins.

3. The offense (except in clutch situations and the playoffs) was not a strength of the Giants from 2009-2012. In that time period the Giants were 12th in the National League in wRC+, a metric that measures a team’s ability to create runs (adjusted for league and ballpark). This year’s Giants rank 1st, just a hair above the St. Louis Cardinals. The result:

Secondly, let’s put the Giants on a path to success:

1. The offense stays the best. Hunter Pence has been a force in the lineup, while Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey do Panda and Posey things. The Brandons (Belt and Crawford) are streaky, but when they are going it’s hard to keep the Giants under 6 or 7 runs. Andres Torres has been hot in the absence of Angel Pagan, and Marco Scutaro continues to annoy the hell out of pitchers. This isn’t your older cousin’s Giants, but you can win this way.

2. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner become 1-2-pray-for-rain. Bumgarner has an ERA (3.13) consistent with his career production (3.19) but has seen his walk totals go up from 2.12 per nine innings in 2012 to 2.75 per nine in 2013. Another pitcher with sudden-onset walksies is Matt Cain. The longest-tenured Giants has seen his BB/9 rate drop every season since 2006, down to 2.09 in 2012. This year he is walking 3.16 batters per nine innings, contributing to a swollen 5.00 ERA.

But Matt Cain has been one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball since 2009, having compiled a sub-3.00 ERA in all but once season (3.14 in 2010). I fully expect The Horse to get right, and for the Giants to have a 1-2 punch that would shut down any team the first two games of a series.

3. The Giants stop wearing their shoes on the wrong feet when they take the field. This has to be it, right?

With two wild cards available, it isn’t as hard to make the postseason as say, 1993. Heck, the 2010 NL West race would have been a moot point with the second wild card. So despite their struggles, the Giants do have a path to the postseason. But something still gnaws at me:

Run differential and Pythagorean expectation of wins. The Giants have allowed five more runs than they have scored for a -5 run differential. The lowly Chicago Cubs have a +1 differential and a 21-30 record. That’s where Pythagorus comes into play. Runs scored and runs allowed are how baseball is played, so over the course of a 162-game schedule a successful team will score more than they allow. How successful you are depends on how good you are at both aspects. The Pythagorean expectation of wins looks at run differential and spits out a W-L record based on those numbers. Those Cubs? They should be 26-25. Those Giants? They should be 26-27. Bruce Bochy & Co. should be thankful for their success in 1-run games. They are 11-7 and the Cubbies are 7-12.

I don’t expect the Giants to finish 2013 with a negative run differential. Heck, I’ll be you my Mark Hammill autographed lightsaber that they finish with more than a +15 differential. But by Gob if three ugly losses to the plucky team across the bay doesn’t shake my faith. Go Giants.