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Checking in on the Giants’ ability to give up home runs when ahead in the count

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It’s a skill because it’s a choice.

MLB: Houston Astros at San Francisco Giants Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t just about today’s game or even last night’s game. The Giants were never going to win either game because they’re not better than the Astros.

No, this is about that time in 2002 when Brian Sabean was on KNBR in the middle of the Giants’ matchup against the Philadelphia Phillies (in Philadelphia) explaining to Jon Miller why the Giants only acquired Kenny Lofton at the trade deadline and not another starting pitcher and starting pitcher Ryan Jensen gave up a three-run home run to Ricky Ledee that wiped out the 5-2 lead the Giants had just built up in the previous inning. Sabean was audibly pissed because Jensen gave it up after being ahead in the count 0-2. Jensen then gave up a home run to the next hitter, Jimmy Rollins, and the Giants would go on to lose the game 8-6, but that’s besides the point.

We know Ryan Jensen was a below average pitcher and that the Giants would go on to make it to the World Series in 2002, so this is about how that was the first time I became aware of the importance of count leverage and started paying more attention to that. I understood that a pitcher getting 2 strikes against a hitter was good for the pitcher, of course, but it was that count leverage — 0-2, 1-2, even 2-2... “pitcher’s counts” — that was the missing piece for me.

Over the years, the Giants have had a lot of moments involving big home runs when their pitcher was ahead in the count, and the last two nights featured two such moments. For recollection purposes:

Now, every pitcher will tell you they are unhittable so long as they execute their pitch, so let’s go with that and assume that every single pitch called in the history of the Giants has been the perfect pitch in every moment. Have the Giants’ pitchers been better or worse than the rest of the league at executing properly when the odds are in their favor?

Well, just firing up the ol’ FanGraphs and sorting the league pitching split to “Through 1-2 count”, we see that the 2018 Giants have surrendered 51 home runs in “pitcher’s counts” of 0-1, 0-2, and 1-2 counts. That looks not great, but it’s actually good for 5th place in MLB in terms of fewest allowed, behind the Astros (42), Cardinals (48), Rays (50), and A’s (50).

So, at least this year, the Giants have had a few hiccups, but not nearly as bad as most of the league has had it. Which brings me back to that 2002 game with Jensen...

FanGraphs only goes back to 2002 for this particular type of sorting, so I can look at the numbers since then, when I first became aware. The Giants have allowed 1,023 in 0-1, 0-2, and 1-2 counts since 2002.

That’s good for #1 in all of baseball in the that stretch of time for fewest allowed.

The Giants were even 3rd best in 2002 (55 allowed) behind Philadelphia and Atlanta (both with 52) in 2002. They were only 8th-best in 2017.

Overall, the Giants have allowed 2,683 home runs since the beginning of the AT&T Park era (2000). That’s the fewest allowed in baseball by a decent margin. The Marlins and Braves are tied for 2nd place with 2,814 allowed.

The only odd bit of home run flotsam I noticed in my quick research for this time period was that the Giants have allowed 480 on the first pitch. That represents 17.9% of the total home runs they’ve allowed as a team. Thank you, AT&T Park.

So, as has usually been the case with numbers and fandom, reality is far less terrifying and sports-level depressing than perception and the Giants are an exceptional team when they have the advantage. The Giants have not been a team of Ryan Jensens over the years.

Admittedly, I’m not examining the batting average, on base percentage or slugging percentage of these situations or other leverage factors like runners on base, inning, and and outs, but in a raw count, they don’t usually give up big home runs in these situations.