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The Giants are lucky, unlucky, or historically great

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You can believe what you want to believe about the 2016 Giants. There's supporting evidence for optimists and curmudgeons alike.

Unrelated, but the greatest picture I haven't used yet.
Unrelated, but the greatest picture I haven't used yet.
Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

"The Giants are lucky," says the awful man, while the fires from the bullpen spread and destroy acres and acres of forest behind him. "They just keep getting hits in the right spot," he continues, unaware of the screams from the immolating wildlife and snapping trees. "Here, look at this expected record based on runs scored and runs allowwaaaahhhhh," he shrieks as the bullpen fires consume him and everyone he loves.

So, no, you don’t want to hear about the Giants’ good luck right now. Not after Tuesday night’s game. But you can make an argument that they’ve been a little lucky. They’re three games better than their expected record. And if you look at BaseRuns — how many runs you might expect a team to score and allow when you add up the results of their plate appearances — they’ve scored more runs than should be expected and allowed fewer. That’s given them something like an extra five wins.

Beyond the Box Score took a look:

They’re second in one-run game record, seventh in cluster luck, seventh in third-order overperformance, and tied for third in BaseRuns overperformance. Meanwhile, their closest rivals, the Dodgers, are underperforming their BaseRuns and third-order records, while posting -2.8 runs of cluster luck and going just 12 - 13 in one-run games. If the Dodgers had gotten a few more breaks and the Giants had held fewer close leads, the NL West race would look a lot different.

Yep, that’s what I think of when I think of the 2016 Giants: a team that’s adept at holding all of the close leads. But it’s actually kind of true, and you can see it in their record in one-run games, 19-9. That’s not sustainable.

Doomed. We’re all doomed.

Except allow me to present some informative articles found online on the web. It’s half counterpoint, half link dump, and all reassuring. The first informative article found online on the web comes from Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight.com, who focused on the Cubs’ pitching. They tracked the teams whose pitchers showed a verifiable ability to prevent hard contact, and the Giants came out ahead of most teams:

Giants’ ranks in runs saved
Fielding: 6th out of 30
Pitching: 4th out of 30

These numbers include the arsonists in the bullpen, too, and it’s an effective combination. The Giants are excellent at inducing weak contact, and they’re also extraordinarily effective in converting batted balls into outs. They’re among the league leaders in avoiding dumb plays, too.

This doesn’t explain why the Giants would outperform their expecting pitching performance, though I do suspect there is some sort of as-yet undiscovered effect from the top defensive performances being clustered entirely in the infield. I’m not smart enough to know what that might be, but I’m just dumb enough to beg the question, while also dumb enough to use "beg the question" incorrectly at the same time.

But when you talk about luck, what are you really talking about? On the surface, you’re using raw hit totals, which is all we have access to. Except Inside Edge actually employs people to keep track of cheap hits, line drives, and hard-luck outs, and they’ve determined which teams have been a little unlucky on that front. It turns out that the Giants have been one of the unluckiest teams in baseball according to their calculus, which includes cheap hits, hard outs, bad walk calls, bad strikeout calls, and other factors. If this is valid, it would help even out a lot of the gains they’re getting from their cluster luck.

Finally, we have an ESPN Insider article from Jeff Sullivan, noted quitter, who points out that the Giants have been doing some historically fine work at the plate.

One way to interpret this: Of all the teams that draw a good amount of walks, the Giants strike out the least. Another, flipped interpretation: Of all the teams that make a good amount of contact, the Giants walk the most. So, again, simple: many walks, limited strikeouts. That's not everything about hitting, but it's a lot of it.

They’re not just doing well compared to the rest of their peers in 2016. They’re on pace to be one of the best strike-zone controlling teams compared to their peers in modern history. The only team that’s close is the 2004 Giants, who had Barry Bonds screwing up all of the data. In a baseball universe where teams are striking out more, they’re putting the ball in play more without sacrificing any of their free baserunners.

They’re putting way more pressure on opposing defenses than most teams, which is probably a good strategy, considering the opposing defenses probably aren’t as good as the Giants’ defense. It’s something of a vicious circle.

Add it all up, the ability of the pitchers to induce low exit velocities, the defense’s ability to convert batted balls into outs, the comparatively bad luck on a per-outcome basis, and the lineup’s ability to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to contact and walks, and I’m not sure this is a team that is going to work perfectly in a generic model that purports to explain how lucky a team is. They’re an outlier in so many ways.

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible that the Giants are a mirage — Pythagorean record still works, and while BaseRuns is imperfect, it’s better than our own dumb anecdotes — but that we’re dealing with a very, very unique team, especially when they’re healthy. They’re unique when it comes to pitching, fielding, and hitting. Which is just about everything, other than baserunning (where they’re average).

Please get healthy.

The Giants are lucky, the Giants are unlucky, and the Giants are doing things we haven’t seen much of in baseball history. I’m still twitching from Tuesday night, too, but I don’t think it has to be the beginning of the end. This team should still have surprises left for us.