A Giant Upset    (09/07/00)

OK, I was wrong.  At the beginning of the season, I thought the NL West would be an interesting race.  It won't be.  The Giants are 7.5 games up on the rest of the division and they have the most favorable schedule the rest of the way.  This one is over.

In the preseason, they had a lot of questions, mostly due to the injury history of their key players.  Barry Bonds played only 102 games last year.  Ellis Burks has averaged 127 games played a season since 1996, and Jeff Kent hadn't played more than 140 since 1997.  There were also concerns about the health of the pitching staff.  Manager Dusty Baker is notorious for letting his starting pitchers throw more then 120 pitches per outing, and 3 of his starting 5 were in the top 10 in the majors last year in pitches per inning and pitches per start.

In my spring training evaluations, I said that if everything went wrong for each team in the NL West, the Giants would finish last.  I still believe that.  Without Bonds, Kent and/or Burks for a full season, this team sputters.  And the pitching ranks are too thin in the Giants organization to compensate for any significant injuries.  But everything has gone right for the Giants and they are clearly the best team in the division this year.

But I'll go one step further.

Not only are the Giants gonna win the division, but they are gonna win the World Series.

Let me explain why.

When you adjust for the home park, the Giants have the best offensive team in the NL and second best in the majors.  Everyone on this team gets on base and just about everyone in the line-up can put the ball out of the park.  The Giants have the second best team on base percentage (.364) in the majors and by the end of the season, they will likely have 10 players who have hit at least 10 home runs.  There's an outside shot that 5 guys in their starting lineup will have 20 homers.  They will also have 9 guys with at least 20 doubles.  This team is somewhat reminiscent of the 1998 Yankees offense, but without the team speed.  Of course, the 1998 Yankees didn't have Barry Bonds, one of the 25 best players ever..

The Giants have a very good shot, given their remaining schedule, of finishing with the best record in the NL.  If they do, they will be a virtual lock for the World Series.  They are 49-20 at home this year, by far the best home record in the majors.  Against their likely playoff opponents, they swept a 4-game set against the Mets at Pac Bell, and took 3 of 4 from Atlanta there.  They've played St. Louis only 3 times at home but won 2 of 3 and split 6 games in St. Louis.

Why are they so good at home?  Their pitching.  Not that their pitching is overwhelmingly good... just overwhelmingly good at home for some reason.  Livan Hernandez has a road ERA of 5.27.  At home, his ERA is 2.41.  Russ Ortiz has a road/home split of 5.78/3.97.  Shawn Estes numbers are similar: 5.27 on the road, 2.65 at home.  Kirk Rueter - 5.68/2.85.  Are you seeing a pattern?

And what about their starting pitching?  What happened to all that talk about young pitchers, high pitch counts and severe arm injuries.  Why haven't those young arms of the Giants fallen off by now.  Well, maybe Dusty Baker is finally hearing what I've been saying.  Before the All-Star break, Russ Ortiz had thrown 120+ pitches 6 times.  His ERA was 6.92.  Since the All-Star break, he's topped 120 just once.  His ERA since: 2.18.  Coincidence?  I don't think so.  His strikeout to walk ratio before the break was 1.19.  Since then it's 1.80.  Maybe he's just pitching better... or maybe because his arm isn't getting abused so regularly that it's recovering faster after each start, which helps him maintain his control and thus, pitch more effectively.  All pitching coaches will tell you that it's not the velocity that goes when an arm is tired or injured; it's the control.  Ortiz' case bears that out.

The Giants also have a very good bullpen, headed by closer Robb Nen.  He's one of the best in the game and perhaps more importantly this time of the year, he has playoff experience.  He was the closer for the Marlins 1997 championship team.  The Giants also have lefty Alan Embree (Cleveland 1995-1996, Atlanta 1997) and Doug Henry (SF 1997, Houston 1998-1999) who been through the emotional wringer that is October baseball.  Three hardthrowing young guns have also contributed significantly to the success of this bullpen: former D-backs closer Felix Rodriguez, swingman Joe Nathan and lefty Aaron Fultz.  Rodriguez has been sensational as the Giants' primary set-up, posting an ERA of 2.44 to date, 0.71 since August 1.  Nathan began the year as a starter but some tenderness in his arm sidelined him for about a month and a half.  Since his return, Baker has been using him and his high-90's fastball out of the bullpen to great effect.  Some of you may remember that Fultz had a sensational winter league last year.  Although he struggled in June, he's posted a very respectable year overall.  Down the stretch, though, he's been awesome, allowing just 3 runs, 3 walks and striking out 20 in 20 innings since July 18.

So add it up - the 2nd best offense in the majors, a soft September schedule, solid starting pitching, a high quality deep bullpen, and an overwhelming home field advantage.  What you end up with is the National League representative in the World Series.

But that's only part of the equation.  They still have to beat the AL pennant winner.

The consensus is that the Yankees will again be in the World Series.  I don't necessarily buy it - outside of Clemens and Pettitte, their starting pitching is quite inconsistent and their bullpen looks vulnerable - but for the sake of argument I'll go along.

The Giants have a better offense - they score more runs, have a better on base and slugging percentages, and that's WITH the pitcher's batting - and they have the type of pitchers who give the Yankees fits - very hard throwers.  What do Jaret Wright, Curt Schilling, Bartolo Colon, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson all have in common?  They all throw in the mid-to-high 90's and each has had dominating high profile (playoff or critical game) starts against the Yanks in recent years.  Ortiz, Estes, Nathan, Rodriguez and Nen each has similar velocity to these guys.  They'll have an additional advantage of facing the Yanks for the first time.  Batters almost always struggle against pitchers they're seeing for the first time.  They don't know their tendencies or their release points, two things that all successful hitters key on.  It usually takes a few at bats to pick up such things.  Two or three at bats is too many when you only have 2 or 3 opportunities to get a hit.  Unfamiliarity and high velocity is not a winning combination for hitters.  On the flip side, the Giants hitters have faced Gooden, Cone, Stanton and Neagle, all former NL pitchers.  Advantage: Giants.

San Francisco was "Title Town" a few years back when the 49ers were winning championship after championship.  But the salary cap, age and free agency have taken their toll on that team and it may be a while before Candlestick is home to another champion.  Nevertheless, the residents of the Bay Area will have reason to celebrate the coming of autumn this year because a former resident of Candlestick will be bringing a championship to San Francisco.