The Giants play their first game of 2017 today. Although I’m more a fan of the game than any one team, when I moved to the Bay Area I transferred my rooting allegiance from the Mets to the Giants, so the first thing I turned to in the new Baseball Prospectus was the analysis of the Giants’ 2016 season. No surprises. The team was described as unwatchable due to those countless bullpen breakdowns.
In 2016 the Giants did not win a single game they were losing after eight innings. Every season since their move to San Francisco in 1958 they had come from behind at least once in the ninth. They even did it three times in 1985, the only season in history (including their years in New York) they lost a hundred games.
And then the Giants lost nine games they were leading after eight innings. That had never happened in their San Francisco history either. Apparently Bullpen Contagion is a thing, and the Giants had it in 2016.
The good news is that Bullpen Contagion doesn’t last, and the disaster is unlikely to recur.
So how do I think they will do?
I’ve always shied away from pre-season predictions. True, it’s an innocuous exercise, but it’s still kind of foolish, since none of us know the future. All we’re really doing is exposing our ignorance of probability, by which I mean most of us figure the team will do the same as it did last year.
The biggest variable is what The Fabulous Wife calls injury luck. If a team has good injury luck, few if any of its important players get hurt. If a team has bad injury luck, irreplaceable contributors miss sizable chunks of time and the rest of the team wallows pathetically until Fan Appreciation Day.
With injury luck, the Giants ought to make the playoffs. But if one or more of these players go down, don’t expect any post-season thrills at Third and King.
The loss of either catcher Buster Posey or pitching ace Madison Bumgarner would be devastating. Both are potential Hall of Famers. On the field and in the clubhouse, they are the heart of the team. And there’s precedent: when Posey’s ankle was destroyed in a grisly May 2011 home plate collision, the Giants, who won their first World Series of my lifetime the year before, were finished. Bumgarner has pitched over 200 highly effective innings each of the last six years, a contribution no team can afford to lose except perhaps the Cubs.
Behind Posey and Bumgarner are four really good but not Hall of Fame-caliber players whose loss would be nearly as critical. Baseball Reference considered Johnny Cueto the fourth most valuable pitcher in the major leagues last year (going by Wins Above Replacement, or WAR). He and MadBum combined to pitch thirty percent of the team’s innings. Shortstop Brandon Crawford brilliantly plays the second-most critical defensive position on the field (after catcher) and has become an offensive force as well. Hunter Pence (injured for significant periods the last two years) plays a great right field, hits well, and exemplifies the team’s spirit with his humor and drive. First baseman Brandon Belt, criticized by less sophisticated fans for never having hit twenty homers in a season, is a quiet offensive force, specializing in overlooked contributions like doubles and walks.
There’s a third tier of good players who would be difficult to replace but whose loss might be survivable: second baseman Joe Panik, starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Matt Moore, and new relief ace Mark Melancon.
As for everyone else, I’m sure they’re terrific people and pillars of their community, but if they’re hurt, they can probably be replaced. Farm system arrivals Jarrett Parker (left field) and Ty Blach (pitcher) may pleasantly surprise us, but I suspect they too will perform only a bit above replaceable levels this season.
Anyway, yay! It’s baseball season. The Fabulous Wife and I have been watching Star Trek on a digital broadcast channel called Heroes and Icons rather than the news. Now we have something else to distract us.
And if you root for a team other than the Giants, cool. We hope to see you in October with a championship on the line!
Postscript: so what happened? The Giant bullpen blew leads in the eighth and ninth innings to lose the opener to Arizona. Perhaps Bullpen Contagion can survive winters after all.