Saturday, September 04, 2010
Why the Giants Can Catch the Padres
About two weeks ago, when the Giants grabbed Cody Ross on waivers, ostensibly to block the Padres from getting him, some wags in the media, including one of my favorite columnists, questioned whether the Giants should even be worried about the Padres at all. At that point, they were six games back, I think, and just coming off of that horrid loss against Jaime Garcia in St. Louis. Although the Giants were about as down in the dirt as you can possibly get at that point (and as many reactionary KNBR callers were getting their nooses ready), even the most hardened naysayers should know that a month left in the season is enough time for a lot of things to happen. Now, of course, such claims that the Giants should give up the division race look downright silly.
The Giants enter Hades for a three game set with the Dodgers, and they are now just three games back in the division. The Padres are suddenly reeling, having now lost eight in a row. The odds of winning the division are still against the Giants, but now they have the momentum, as well as some other factors that spill in their favor. Here are a few reasons to be optimistic about the team's chances of catching the Pads down the stretch.
-They're only three games back with a month to play. Ok, so the easy one first. Not only is there a lot of baseball left to be played, but the Giants and Padres play seven more times down the stretch, including a final series in San Francisco which could set the stage for some major drama. Of course, the Padres have had the Giants' number this year, but given the way the Padres have played of late, the tide could turn very easily.
-The Padres have a rough schedule. Certainly rougher than the Giants', anyway. From here on out, the only team the Pads face with a losing record will be the Cubs. On top of that, they have a four-game set in St. Louis, smack in the middle of a ten-game road trip that will also take them to Coors Field. That ain't fun. When they get back from that road trip, they get the Reds, who currently have the best record in the NL. Compare that to the Giants, who get the Dbacks six times, and also one series each against the Cubs and Brewers.
-The Giants' offense is as good as it has been in, well, six years. Gone are the days when we would just assume a ground ball double play would occur whenever the Giants strung two hits together in the late innings. The Giants now have some legitimate thump in their lineup, for the first time since, yes, 2004. Aubrey Huff, Buster Posey, and Pat Burrell are the three imposing middle-of-the-order hitter we've been yearning for for years. Freddy Sanchez and Pablo Sandoval look like they're starting to heat up, too. Combine that with Andres Torres continuing to rake at the top of the order, and added punch from Cody Ross against lefties, and this is the most potent lineup the Giants have had since Bonds left.*
*Blogger's Note; Uh, yeah, this was written before the Giants got shut down by Chad Billingsley. Let's just whistle our way past that for now...
-The Padre offense is still terrible. Even with the additions of Miguel Tejada (who is basically crappy, anyway) and Ryan Ludwick (he isn't), the Padres still have a hard time scoring runs. They can't blame it on the ballpark this time, either, as they score just as many runs at home as they do on the road. They rank near the bottom in nearly every hitting category and only really boast one scary, game-changing hitter in Adrian Gonzalez. Other than him, there are a lot of Will Venables (though to be fair, Venable's middling .705 OPS actually merits a 100 ERA+ in that crazy ballpark).
-The Padres' pitching might be built on a house of cards. The Padres have had tremendous pitching thus far but, with the exception of the freaking studly Matt Latos, have also had a lot of good fortune. That's not inherently bad, of course, but it does mean that a semi-collapse could occur at a moment's notice, if it hasn't already.
Take Jon Garland. He's having a hell of a year at first glance, with a 3.29 ERA to go with 13 wins and a lot of solid innings munched. If we get a little nerdier, however, we can see that he's living on a shaky foundation, if not one built on a flood plain with crumbling levies. First off, Garland's career ERA is a decidedly averagish 4.33, so his current low mark already screams insane fluke. Some of the success comes from Garland being a fly ball pitcher playing in the vast spaces of Petco, but much of it is due to just plain luck, and pitching in front of a good defense.
Garland's xFIP (for you non-dweebs, it's essentially ERA dictated by factors a pitcher can control), is 4.54. Now, that's a lot more in line with his career totals. Sure enough, if you look at most of the other Padre starters, including Wade LeBlanc, a pitcher with a similar repertoire to Garland, you'll see that their xFIPs are substantially higher than their ERAs (excepting, interestingly enough, awful Kevin Correia, who has an xFIP way lower than his actual ERA). This doesn't necessarily mean that a correction in Garland's ERA will occur over the course of the last month; it's just extremely likely, given his fielding independent stats and his history. Likewise, most of the Padre starters look likely to regress given a simple reversal of luck or the loss of a key defensive player. Hey, speaking of which...
-Gone with the Gwynn. The Padres recently lost Tony Gwynn Jr. to injury, and he'll be gone until at least the last week of the season, if he isn't completely done for the year. Now, Gwynn is having a miserable year at the plate and has never been a very good hitter, so why, you ask, would his loss have any kind of effect on the Pads? Well, because he might be the best defensive center fielder in the league. Yes, Gwynn's UZR rating is 13.1, meaning, essentially, that he's saved 13 runs more than an average center fielder. That number is insane when you realize that Gwynn hasn't even really played every day.
With him gone, the Padres have to live with lesser glove talents in their outfield (Gwynn's injury shows why they may have had interest in Cody Ross), and that could be a major impediment for a team that has relied on the best defense in the NL for a lot of their success. Never underestimate the value of a guy like Gwynn to a team full of fly ball pitchers playing in a ballpark with an expansive outfield.
I have a sinking feeling that I'm jinxing the Giants with this "hell, this is why the Padres suck and will collapse" post. In my mind, I've had a long and sordid history of jinxing the team, from continuing to record Game Six of the 2002 World Series even as the Giants started falling apart, to staring too long at the waitress's cleavage at a sports bar during a key game last year. So I'm seriously tempting fate here.
Still, this isn't to say that the Padres are terrible and are guaranteed to fall apart. They've been doing this for too long to simply reveal themselves to be a total fluke this late in the game. These are just some reasons why Giants fans should like their chances of making this an interesting September. And wouldn't you know it, as I write this, the Pads are in the process of losing their ninth straight game.