Did the Giants really get better?

The Giants saw their winning percentage climb from 53% in the first half of the season to 61% after the All-Star break. At first glance, it seems like the Giants obviously played better in the second half because they won more. I’m not so sure though….to the stats!

The pitching/defense combo seemingly improved in the second half, as the team ERA fell from 3.50 to 3.20. This was, in part, due to a huge bump in K/BB by the entire staff from 1.97 to 2.87 (league average is about 2.0). So what happened?

People might want to believe that Posey’s catching is significantly better than Bengie Molina’s, but the stats do not support that claim on the whole. Looking at the following chart which takes pitchers’ stats from the last two years (split between Molina and Posey), there does not seem to be an overall effect from the catching change.

FIP xFIP
Pitcher Molina Posey Molina Posey
Lincecum 2.34 3.426 2.87 3.227
Cain 3.89 3.764 4.22 3.781
Sanchez 4.24 4.116 4.24 3.992
Zito 4.31 4.74 4.46 4.947

 

Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum both regressed in xFIP and FIP, while Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez improved. So while Posey may not have impacted the staff as a whole, there was a distinct difference in Cain’s pitching that may have influenced his success in the second half.

With Posey catching instead of the ever-fattening Molina, Cain’s fastball rate dropped 8%, while he threw 12% more curveballs and changeups. I’m not sure if it was manager Bruce Bochy, pitching coach Dave Righetti, or Posey that made that change, but Cain’s strikeout rate jumped from 6.5 to 7.9 K/9, and more importantly his walk rate dropped from 3.1 to 1.7 BB/9, half his career average. A walk rate of 1.7 BB/9 is Greg Maddux status, and if he has finally figured out his control then welcome to elite status, Matt Cain. Had he maintained those 4.68 K/BB throughout the entire season, that would have ranked him second in the NL between Roy Halladay (7.30) and Josh Johnson (3.88), excellent company.

While Posey did not have a significant impact on the primary starters, he may have influenced Matt Cain in the positive direction. However, we still need to find where this staff improved overall. Look no further than Madison Bumgarner. Before this kid made his first start of the season on June 26th, Todd Wellermeyer was the Giant’s fifth starter.

Here’s what Todd Wellermeyer did in 58.2 innings: he walked 5.4 batters every nine innings, and gave up 12 ding dongs en route to a 5.68 ERA.

Bumgarner did this in 111 innings: 3.30 K/BB, 11 twinkies, 3.00 ERA. Explanation complete.

However, when the giants ERA fell, so did its run scoring. The offense dropped from 4.44 R/G in the first half to 4.14 in the second. Despite the additions of Posey, Pat Burrell and Cody Ross, and an improved second half from Pablo Sandoval (how could he not, right!?), poor second half splits from Aubrey Huff, Juan Uribe, Aaron Rowand and Andres Torres sucked San Fran’s offense down.

Since the offense and defense/pitching moved in opposite directions in the second half, the Giant’s run differential remained virtually the same. The Giants were a +61 in the first 88 games. In general, that leads to a 58% winning percentage over 88 games, yet they only won 53% of those games. What this likely means is that San Francisco was, at times, scoring runs when it didn’t need them, but coming up short precisely when one or two runs would suffice. In the second half, a +53 run differential in 74 games estimates a winning rate of 59%. So in terms of run differential, the Giants didn’t really improve much at all, but the timing of those runs got a lot better, and thus the Giants played more like we’d expect them to in the second half.

If you’re of the school of thought that believes clutch-ness is a thing, and that the Giants had it in the second half, making plays when they most needed them to be made, then the Giants definitely improved. But I’m more inclined to believe that the Giants were always good, and just needed a few balls to drop in here and there at the right times. The Giant’s offense got a bad rap, yet still finished right at league average in scoring. And that pitching/defense combo was always good, and got even better when Cain figured out how to not walk people and Bumgarner joined the party. All in all, I think San Francisco was always good enough to win 90-some games and have a shot at winning the World Series. The Baseball Gods just decided to stop screwing them in the second half.

 

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