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2018: The year the Giants couldn’t make contact

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and then it found another level.

MLB: Game 1-Los Angeles Dodgers at San Francisco Giants Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

2018 RECORD: 73-89 (+9 over 2017) | NL West Finish: 4th, 18.5 GB (+1, +21.5)
RUNS SCORED / ALLOWED : 603 (-36) / 699 (-77)
TOP HITTER: Brandon Belt (2.1 fWAR) | TOP PITCHER: Derek Holland (2.0 fWAR)
ATTENDANCE: 3,156,185 (-147,467)


The team attacked this season focused on righting the wrongs of a 98-loss 2017. It wasn’t an impossible task. The franchise had good bones, the landscaping just needed some work and a fresh coat of paint would make the house look brand new. The Giants entered 2018 committed to winning.

Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria were solid on-paper moves to compliment Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, and Brandon Crawford in the lineup, and whatever the Giants could get from the rest was expected to be at least league average.

Madison Bumgarner would once again be the ace and whatever blister issues Johnny Cueto had wouldn’t be an issue. Jeff Samardzija pitched 200-ish league average innings last year and with a slightly better team around him, he could do it again and be a little bit better. The back of the rotation wasn’t quite set, but there was optimism, and the late addition of Tony Watson coupled with the healthy returns of Mark Melancon and Will Smith meant the bullpen was trending in a positive direction — it could actually be a force for the team. The Giants’ pitching was ready to help them compete as a 84-86-win second Wild Card team.

That middling goal has been the Giants’ plan for decades now and it served them well when they had Barry Bonds or elite pitching from top to bottom because it meant that they were more than likely to get a little positive luck if they just kept things close. It’s a strategy that can work when everything else on a roster that’s not exceptional is at least average.

But the Giants never planned for a day when things wouldn’t be close. They never considered the cost of trading prospects for experience when the prospects weren’t being replenished. They never intuited for themselves the advantage of trading their own proven commodities for prospects or other proven commodities. They never stockpiled enough of that league average talent their model required — they thought they could coach and scout up what they had on hand to an average level. And now they’re in a spot where they have to start from scratch.

We’ll be doing single-player reviews for 2018 for the next couple of months, but in this moment, here’s the season review of the Giants. This is slightly different from the monthly report cards, but the intent is mostly the same: how’d the Giants do?

The Giants failed both abstractly and materially. Larry Baer’s mantra has been “win and develop”, but 2018 continued a 2.5-year run of neither happening. For the second straight season, the entire organization posted a losing record. The team has spent nearly $400 million in payroll the past two seasons but has no accomplishments of note. No surprising MVP candidate, Cy Young contender, out of the blue Gold Glover, league stolen base leader, league home run leader, etc. etc. It’s all just been a base of mediocrity with a dollop of losing. “Disappointing” is a generous way to describe the situation — “a $2.85-billion dollar franchise’s worst nightmare” is more accurate.

Was there anything great about the 2018 team? Rookie right-hander Dereck Rodriguez comes very close to being that surprise accomplishment of note — a minor league free agent dumped by the Twins but picked up by the Giants at Pablo Sandoval’s urging — whose 1.7 wins above replacement in just 118 innings pitched really stands out (it was 4th-best of the Giants’ pitching staff). Andrew Suarez developed into a solid-average back of the rotation starter. Will Smith came back from Tommy John surgery to become the team’s closer and win the team’s Willie Mac Award. Tony Watson was dynamic for the first half of the season and then had a stellar September.

That’s all a great bit of improvement. As Grant noted in last year’s statistical recap:

Cory Gearrin was the second-most valuable pitcher on the Giants

I ... was not expecting that. If you would have told me that before the season, I either would have said, “Wow, I can’t believe they let Gearrin throw 110 innings!” or “The Giants lost 98 games, didn’t they?”

The pitching was not “the problem”, but it wasn’t the cure for the franchise’s near-future woes that a lot of the fanbase presumes it will be. The team’s 101 ERA- was 16th in MLB (9th in the National League), meaning that overall, it was 1% worse than league average. Call it league average and we’re set. By comparison, the team’s 104 ERA- in 2017 was 19th in MLB.

Madison Bumgarner is no longer an ace, Johnny Cueto is out until 2020 thanks to Tommy John surgery, and there’s a nonzero chance Jeff Samardzija might never pitch again. Derek Holland was a pleasant surprise in that he turned his career around — he also led the team in fWAR (2.0) — but the likelihood of him becoming a rotation-leading dominant force is just as likely as him simply improving upon his performance from 2018. The team’s pitching isn’t in great shape even going into next season, but given the ballpark and the team’s resourcefulness, it’s not in dire straights.

Which brings us to the offense. This is why Bobby Evans was fired. This is why Brian Sabean stepped away before the 2015. This is why the franchise is at a crossroads and why the net few years are going to be achingly bad.

The Giants can’t hit. They don’t know how to draft, sign, or develop hitting talent. For the foreseeable future, the lineup will be populated with disappointments and aging-out veterans who need to string together a dozen singles to score a single run. Just how bad was the Giants’ offense in 2018?

First, let’s look at some “top line” numbers from 2017 to see how much the team improved:

RUNS: 639 (29th in MLB)
HR: 128 (30th in MLB)
fWAR: 9.6 (29th in MLB)
wRC+: 82 (30th in MLB)

How’d they do in 2018?

RUNS: 603 (29th in MLB)
HR: 133 (29th in MLB)
fWAR: 7.3 (29th in MLB)
wRC+: 82 (30th in MLB)

They hit more home runs than last season. That’s it. Oh, and the Marlins intentionally tanked their season while a Hellmouth opened up beneath the Orioles. That’s the only reason they’re not worse in those top three categories. The Orioles’ offense, for instance, posted an fWAR of 2.7.

Kenny wrote a great piece yesterday about every stat category that was led by a Giant, so rather than step on that by showing you every category the Giants’ offense was at the bottom or near the bottom of, I’ll highlight just a few more:

FanGraphs has an Off stat (Offensive Runs Above Average) that seeks to measure a player’s total offensive contribution:

While statistics like wOBA and wRC+ communicate a player’s batting performance on a per plate appearances basis, when looking for total value you want to scale those to the total number of plate appearances. Additionally, Off also includes base running value to provide you with a complete sense of the player’s offensive game.

Off is set with league average equal to zero and about every ten runs above or below average is equivalent to one extra win. [...] If you want to know how much value a player has added on offense, Off is the place to look.

The Giants were -141.0 runs below average in this category, dead last in MLB. Hold this thought.

There’s another stat: wRAA (Weighted Runs Above Average):

Weighted Runs Above Average (wRAA) measures the number of offensive runs a player contributes to their team compared to the average player. [...] A wRAA of zero is league-average, so a positive wRAA value denotes above-average performance and a negative wRAA denotes below-average performance. This is also a counting statistic (like RBIs), so players accrue more (or fewer) runs as they play.

The Giants were 29th in MLB with -129.0 runs below average.

Divide these values by 10 (remember: 10 runs is what the saber community generally agrees is the equivalent to 1 “win”) and you get two numbers: 14.1 and 12.9. These mean that had the Giants been an average offense, they would’ve won 13-14 more games; 86-76 or 87-75.

This is more or less the target set by the Giants’ front office every season. It wasn’t the ballpark — it was the players. And, more importantly, is was the player evaluators.

The team’s BAbip was .299 which is .001 points below average — but I’m rounding up and making them a .300 team here. They were basically “average” with their batted ball luck, which means the numbers they put up weren’t fluky in either direction. They were who they were as a lineup. We might assume that they were a weak-hitting team, but the numbers don’t show that.

The measured quality of contact shows the Giants to be about middle of the pack:

18.0% Soft Contact Rate (15th in MLB)
45.9% Medium Contact Rate (18th)
36.2% Hard Contact Rank (14th)

Ah, but how much contact did the Giants make? Their 11.5% swing and miss rate was 23rd in baseball (tied with the Rockies, ahead of the Phillies). They were 15th in swinging at pitches outside of the zone (31.0%), which was a good thing because their 61.2% O-Contact rate was 24th in MLB. Then again, even when they did stay disciplined, their 84.4% Z-Contact rate (contact on pitches in the strike zone) was 26th in MLB, though, to be fair, that’s a really bunched together category: Cleveland is #1 at 88.6%.

They were also 4th in MLB / 2nd in NL in First Strike percentage (61.7%, behind the Padres), meaning Giants hitters started behind in the account the majority of the time. That’s partly because the Giants 44.2% zone percentage (the amount of pitches seen that were in the strike zone) led MLB. Pitchers just weren’t afraid of Giants’ hitters. And when the Giants’ hitters had the temerity to swing (47.6% swing rate was good for only 23rd in MLB), they just didn’t do much damage (75.9% contact rate, also 23rd, and then all those offensive numbers referenced before).

The Giants weren’t nearly as bad against the curveball as I thought they’d be, but against the fastball, slider, and changeup — the three main pitches thrown in MLB — the Giants were a combined -119.6 runs below league average, meaning the offense lost the equivalent of 12 games because it couldn’t hit the three main pitches thrown.

FanGraphs has their own formula that seeks to assign dollar value to wins above replacement. Currently, $8 million is the cost of 1 Win Above Replacement . By that measure, the Giants’ team fWAR of 7.3 was the equivalent of a $58.4 million payroll. The Giants spent approximately $196 million on payroll this season.

The front office wants to say that the nagging injuries to Evan Longoria and Brandon Crawford combined with the season-ending injuries to Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Steven Duggar, and Pablo Sandoval were huge blows to the offense, and that the trade of Andrew McCutchen (who led the team in RBI with 55 even though he was traded before September began), though necessary, was also a setback, but September alone didn’t crater the lineup.

The Giants entered September with a 68-68 record and ended the season at a franchise crossroads. Pablo Sandoval pitched a helluva inning in relief against the Dodgers, Andrew McCutchen completed a 6-hit night by walking off the Dodgers, the Giants swept the Braves in Atlanta, and Madison Bumgarner caused Alen Hanson to dump PowerAde all over himself, but at the end of the day, the Giants followed up one of the worst seasons in team history with a season so bad it forced the franchise to change its philosophical direction.

BUT! If I’m just averaging the grades from all these monthly report cards,

APRIL: B-
MAY: C-
JUNE: B+
JULY: C-
AUGUST: D+
SEPTEMBER: F

then here it is:

Final Grade: C-

I know, I know. Worst offense in franchise history (probably), longest losing streak in San Francisco history (definitely), worst month by record in the 135-year history of the franchise (yup), and very little to look forward to heading into 2019 (though, your mileage may vary if you’re popping popcorn for this GM search) — but I can’t cheat the grades at this point, even if it’s well-deserved.

The Giants didn’t give us much to cheer about this season, but the last days of Hunter Pence, the reemergence of Pablo Sandoval, and the realization that our favorite players’ days’ are numbered were all galvanizing moments along the way to not only help us steel ourselves for the inevitability of change but to begin mentally preparing for the excitement that comes when the team figures out their next identity.