The Giants are coming off a 13-4 run that has seemed to wrap up the National League West even before All-Star Weekend. With Colorado fighting to get to .500 and the Diamondbacks and Padres continuing to embarrass themselves, the Dodgers were the Giants’ only competition for the division title this year. But the boys in blue are underperforming as usual and now have to worry about going without Kershaw for an extended period of time. Everything seems perfectly poised for the Giants to continue the even-year streak and actually manage to win the Bay Area championship everyone saw coming. But underneath the surface, the Giants might be experiencing a little bit of fool’s gold.
Betraying the 100 percent home-grown strategy that had certainly seemed to be working for San Francisco over these past few years, front office guru Brian Sabean decided to give a major free agent contract to a pitcher approaching 30. The Giants gave Johnny Cueto, coming off a World Series title with the Royals, a six year $130 million deal, essentially the first premier free agent signed in the entirety of Sabean’s tenure. So far, most people think that deal has worked out incredibly, Cueto has an ERA of 2.42, putting him in the top 10 for qualified starters. His strikeouts haven’t dipped and he’s walking batters at a career low rate. What’s not to like?!
Well, over the past three years, Cueto has been letting up about .9 home runs for every nine innings he throws. That’s a perfectly fine number. This year, Cueto leads the league by only allowing .3 home runs for every nine innings he pitches. That’s absolutely unsustainable. He’s never even gotten close to that level — in 2011, he barely got to .5 and that was a year in which he only started 24 games. AT&T Park is certainly good for pitchers, but to let up a third as many home runs as a year before, I would expect him to have moved from a little league field. Those numbers are going to correct themselves eventually, and it’s going to take a toll on Cueto’s statline.
Madison Bumgarner is having his best regular season yet with an ERA less than two and a strikeout per nine innings rate of more than 10. But his Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, which is considered to be a better indicator of future performance by most analysts, is hovering at three. The most Bumgarner has overperformed compared to his FIP in the past five years was a .3 difference. That difference stands at a full run right now. Maybe Bumgarner was due to have some good luck and blow past his projections for just one season — that’s not incredibly rare. But considering how closely he’s hewed to his FIP in the past, I can’t imagine he’ll continue to overperform to this level — I’d also expect his numbers to come down by about three-quarters of a run in the second half if you ignore the first.
A lot has been written about how the Giants seem to be a team more reliant on their offense than in years past. My concern is that they seem to be an offense focused more on very few players than before. Brandon Belt has been underrated for years but has established himself as a star this season with a gaudy On-base Plus Slugging, or OPS, of .919. The problem is, the only player with an OPS within .125 of that is Hunter Pence, who has already missed 25 games this year. If Belt drops off, it’s anyone’s guess where the offense would come from. With struggles from the back of the starting rotation and the drop down in performance I expect to see from the top two starters, the Giants offense needs to remain spectacular rather than revert to the boring but OK that they’ve been for six years.
The good news is that the Giants’ current record still counts, and the Dodgers won’t be challenging their division championship unless a lot changes. But if they want to continue the streak, they’re going to have to cross their fingers and hope a lot of the lucky breaks they’ve received continue to break their way.
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