Power driving Giants' resurgence
San Francisco leading National League West despite struggling rotation, Panda
PITTSBURGH -- The game runs in cycles. So it is that the hottest team in baseball can quickly go cold, felled, in the case of the San Francisco Giants, by the combo of the sport's first defeat at the hands of a walk-off replay review Tuesday night and a Tim Lincecum clunker Wednesday afternoon.
But when the Giants do begin their biggest series of the season, to date -- a four-game visit to a Dodgers team newly infused with and emboldened by Clayton Kershaw -- they'll do so with the top spot in the National League West and, in fact, one of the best records in baseball in hand.
And if you're not surprised by San Francisco's resurgence in another even-numbered year, you can at least be surprised by the manner in which the Giants have made it happen.
If the expectation was that the Giants would improve primarily through renewed excellence in the rotation or if the assumption is that the current record (21-13) was built upon outstanding showings from the stars, the reality of the matter is quite a bit different. San Francisco has, on measure, been a homer-happy team with some unexpected flaws in the lineup and some frustrations in the rotation.
That the Giants have won in spite of these quirks might just make them all the more dangerous going forward.
"I think, looking back at that first month, it was a good month," Buster Posey said. "But there's room for improvement, offensively and on the pitching side."
Some of the assumed rotation uptick after last year's weak showing on the starting front has occurred, thanks largely to the addition of the ageless Tim Hudson and his Major League-best walk rate (0.5 per nine innings). Hudson's 1.99 ERA has been a godsend in a rotation enduring Lincecum's command troubles (it took him 88 pitches to get through four innings Wednesday) and the current absence of Matt Cain after his sandwich-slicing snafu. In Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and certainly Lincecum, the Giants have potential for better rotation numbers than they've posted, to date, and they showed it in a superb series last weekend in Atlanta.
What has been the pleasant surprise, though, is the proficiency in the power department that hasn't really been seen in San Francisco since Barry Bonds stopped depositing long balls into McCovey Cove.
The Giants have the second-best home run rate in baseball -- second only to a Rockies team that, you might have noticed, plays its home games in a ballpark significantly more welcoming to the long ball than is AT&T. They've already reached 39 percent of their 2013 home run total.
"I'm a little surprised at the number," manager Bruce Bochy admitted, "but I did think we would have more power than last year."
For one, San Francisco was counting on a more familiar first baseman's type of output from Brandon Belt. While his overall streakiness and decline in patience has been an issue, Belt has at least delivered on his power potential. The home run he sent deep into the right-center-field seats here Wednesday was his ninth of the young season.
The Giants have also been rewarded for their one-year, $6 million gamble on Michael Morse, in which they sacrificed defense in left for some bop at the plate. Morse has provided plenty of the latter early on, bringing back memories of his late-20s breakout with the Nationals and making us forget about his Seattle slump. He has eight homers and a .624 slugging percentage, essentially erasing all talk of a potential platoon with Gregor Blanco.
"He lengthens our lineup," hitting coach Hensley Meulens said. "He keeps it moving."
The lineup is kick-started by the continued, underrated excellence of Angel Pagan (.320/.353/.448), and it is augmented considerably by the improvement Brandon Crawford has shown against left-handed pitching (he's batting .400 off them after a .199 mark last season).
So it has not been totally dependant on pure power.
It's important to remember, though, that the power that San Francisco has shown so far does have the potential to diminish in a hurry, especially in today's pitching environment. Morse, in fact, had nine homers before May 2 last year yet finished the season with 13.
That's why the Giants know they need more than they've received both from their rotation and their lineup in order for the overall success to sustain. Hunter Pence, who has averaged 24 homers in his career, can't possibly maintain a .392 slugging percentage all season. Belt, who went into a 3-for-34 funk before heating up in Pittsburgh, will need to find a better way to marry that aforementioned power potential with his past plate discipline.
And then -- most prominently -- there's the Panda. Despite improved conditioning, Pablo Sandoval, who was out of the starting lineup Wednesday with what appears to be minor thumb soreness, is lugging around a .174 batting average in his walk year, and he's left the Giants scratching their heads.
"We've never seen him like this," Meulens said. "We don't know what's going on. It's hard to pinpoint anything. He works hard. Then when the game starts, you have to find a way to relax and repeat that. Hopefully he can snap out of it here soon."
The Giants bought themselves a return to the top of the NL West with their early power display, and it's probably not sustainable in their home park. But any decline in power production can clearly be offset by improvement from what have been the lineup's weakest links and by steadier input from the starting staff.
"We've come out of the gates pretty well offensively," Hudson said. "But you know what? I think our pitching is starting to click a little bit, as soon as we get Cain back from his paper cut. I think the strength of this team will probably still be our pitching, hopefully. But hopefully our offense can keep doing what it's doing, too."