MLB Season Preview: San Francisco Giants

By Matt Johnson on Tuesday, January 23rd 2018
MLB Season Preview: San Francisco Giants

2017 Recap

San Francisco entered the 2017 offseason with dreams of being in the October hunt for a World Series. Instead, the proverbial nail drove into the Giants' coffin on April 22. On a day that will live in infamy for San Francisco fans, ace Madison Bumgarner suffered a Grade 2 AC joint sprain in a dirt bike accident.

The team sat at 6-12, but Bumgarner returned to a 35-57 record. It summed up a Giants' season that seemed to be snake bit throughout with injuries to starters in the rotation, lineup and unforeseen struggles by the likes of Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, Johnny Cueto and injuries to Bumgarner, Mark Melancon, Will Smith, Hunter Pence and Jarrett Parker.

By the time the season came to a merciful end, the Giants finished with the second worst record in baseball. San Francisco secured the second-overall selection in June's 2018 MLB Amateur Draft and entered the offseason determined to address multiple holes in the lineup.

2018 Preview

Lineup

Pos: Name: '17 Stats:
C: Buster Posey .320 BA, .366 wOBA, 128 wRC+, 4.3 fWAR, 12 HR
1B: Brandon Belt .241 BA, .353 wOBA, 119 wRC+, 2.3 fWAR, 18 HR
2B: Joe Panik .288 BA, .329 wOBA, 104 wRC+, 2.0 fWAR, 10 HR
3B:: Evan Longoria .261 BA, .312 wOBA, 96 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR, 20 HR
SS: Brandon Crawford .253 BA, .301 wOBA, 86 wRC+, 2.0 fWAR, 14 HR
LF: Hunter Pence .260 BA, .303 wOBA, 87 wRC+, 0.7 fWAR, 13 HR
CF: Austin Jackson .318 BA, .371 wOBA, 131 wRC+, 1.8 fWAR, 7 HR
RF: Andrew McCutchen .279 BA, .360 wOBA, 122 wRC+, 3.7 fWAR, 28 HR

Buster Posey

Despite the struggles of his teammates, Posey posted some of the best numbers in his career last season. He finished with the fourth-best wOBA in his career, third-highest OPS (.861) and the second-best walk percentage (10.7 percent).

Even as we enter a time when many now consider Gary Sanchez to be the best catcher in baseball, Posey is entrenched as one of the elites in the game and could find greater success in the 2018 season thanks to the additions of Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria.

After a '17 season where the Giants finished with the worst wRC+ (83), wOBA (.298) and OPS+ (83), San Francisco's lineup should see a significant boost this coming season. The additions of McCutchen, who posted a 121 OPS+ and 122 wRC+, paired with Longoria's career 123 wRC+ and 125 OPS+, gives San Francisco greater depth throughout the lineup.

Posey projects for another outstanding season, though his batting average may be tough to match given his .347 BABIP and 2.8 percent infield-fly ball percentage are unlikely to repeat given his career averages (.325 BABIP and four percent IFFB%).

Even with a hit to the batting average, Posey can crack an .850-plus OPS, .380-plus OBP and surpass his RBI (67) and run totals (62) from last season. Pair that with his skills behind the plate and the 30-year-old catcher should be in the MVP conversation once again if the Giants find themselves back in the hunt for a playoff spot.

 

Brandon Belt

Belt's reputation amongst a large section of San Francisco fans would lead many from the outside to believe first base is a disaster spot for the Giants. While the 29-year-old's 2017 season proved to be one of the worst in his seven seasons with San Francisco, even Belt's 119 wRC+ and.352 wOBA still rated in the top half amongst first basemen last season.

Since Belt's first season with 500-plus plate appearances in 2013, Belt's bat alone made him one of the best first basemen in baseball. Over the five-season span, Belt ranked eighth in wRC+ (131), wOBA (.363) and seventh in fWAR (10.9). Additionally, Belt boasts a career 126 OPS+ in his seven-year career. Belt is also consistently one of the best players in baseball at working the counts demonstrated by his ranks in the top 25 in the majors each of the past three seasons.

Belt's defense over the years draws positive marks with the third-highest Defensive Runs Saved (28) and the best range runs (15.6) since 2015. To top it all off, Belt converted every single one of 194 routine defensive play last season. Simply put, Bell is one of the game's better all-around first basemen and even a letdown of a season by his own standards.

As he heads into the 2018 season, there's room for optimism. After two consecutive seasons with a .340-plus and a career .333 batting average on balls in play, Belt's rate fell to .2874 in 2017. The 29-year-old also saw some unfortunate luck with his infield-fly ball rate that nearly doubled from six percent in 2016 to 11.7 percent last season. Given infield fly balls are next to strikeouts as the biggest automatic out in baseball, it's easy to identify where Belt's statistical drops at the plate came from.

Belt's ability to generate great contact still remained at his career levels. His 11.1 barreled balls per batted ball event (Brls/BBE) compared favorably to his 11.3 Brls/BBE in 2016 and an improvement over his 10.0 Brls/BBE in '15. Paired with his consistent hard-hit contact rate of 38.4 percent along with his career 35 percent Hard%, it's clear his skills aren't in decline.

Given the numbers and the talent around him in the lineup, Belt projects for a bounce back in 2018. He can return to his '15-'16 form when he contributed 70-plus runs, a 130-plus wRC+, .270-plus batting average, 125-plus OPS+ and another 3.5-plus fWAR season. If he can pull it off, San Francisco regains a top-10 first baseman and it further adds to an improved lineup.

 

Joe Panik

A breakthrough player in 2015, Panik's career since left something to be desired at the plate. A 17.9 offensive rating and 129 OPS+ in '15 followed by two below average plates in his past two seasons, it leaves a bad impression of Panik given the recent improvements made by his peers.

 It's true he performed drastically below average in every offensive category in '16 with an 88 wRC+, .300 wOBA and -5.8 Off in 526 plate appearances. Last season, we saw a different side of Panik. Upon a closer examination of Panik's numbers in 2017 tell the story of a player who fills a specific role and can be relied upon by a contending club.

Firstly, Panik showed the consistent ability to get on base and set up the hitters behind him to drive in runs. He served his role as a table setter in San Francisco's lineup, demonstrated by a .328 wOBA that ranked 13th amongst qualified second basemen.

San Francisco relies on Panik for his defense and ability to set the table for the team's best hitters behind him. He demonstrates a tremendous eye at the plate, knowing precisely which pitches to let go and go after.  

In 2017, Panik led all second basemen with a 96 percent zone contact rate and registered the fifth-lowest outside-zone swing percentage (24.5 percent) amongst qualified players.

An even brighter reason for optimism as San Francisco heads into spring training is Panik's hot stretch to end the 2017 season.

When many players start to struggle and give up after being eliminated from contention before August hits, Panik went the opposite way. Across 174 plate appearances, he posted a .344/.409/.490 slash line, .382 wOBA, 139 wRC+ and his walk rate (9.8 percent) more than double his strikeout rate (four percent).

Looking ahead to 2018, Panik could become a three-win WAR player. Hitting in the two hole with Longoria, Posey and Belt behind him, he should see a better selection of pitches to hit from and can raise his OBP beyond .345 with 70-plus runs scored.

 

Evan Longoria

The first of San Francisco's blockbuster additions this offseason, Longoria finds himself in a new organization for the first time. His move to San Francisco will prove to be a transition, but it should provide a jolt for a veteran who turned in one of the worst competitive seasons in his career. It's San Francisco's hope a competitive environment and better talent around him can invigorate the 32-year-old.

via GIPHY

Longoria's 2017 season resulted in some of the worst marks of his career, including career-lows in wOBA (.312), wRC+ (96), OPS+ and Off (-2.0). The only aspect to keep Longoria as an above average player and earned him a 2.5 fWAR, his defense at the hot corner.

Even if Longoria is unable to return near his career .270/.340/.483 slash line, 123 wRC+ and 125 OPS+, he will provide a momentous upgrade defensively at third base. Last season, San Francisco's third basemen ranked 18th in Defensive Runs Saved (-2), 20th in RngR (0.0), 27th in routine plays made (94.4 percent) and 20th in likely plays (69.1 percent), made 60-90 percent of time.

Now compare those marks to Longoria. He finished with 11 Defensive Runs Saved, 2.5 RngR, converted 97.1 percent of his routine plays and 84.6 percent of likely plays. For a pitching staff that allowed the fourth-highest line drive percentage (21.5 percent), a player with Longoria's instincts and glove is a substantial addition.

As Longoria heads into the 2018 season, he'll need to hope his ugly trend from last season reverses. Longoria's groundball rate skyrocketed from 31.9 percent in 2016 to 43.4 percent in 2017 and it came at the cost of drops in his line drive and fly ball rate. He'll also need to reverse a drop of four miles per hour in his average exit velocity.

If the trends continue and Longoria's power output drops from 30-plus home run, 30-plus double seasons turns into a contact hitter whose career-high 80.9 contact rate is a sign of things to come. In that case, he is a .265/.320/.455 player with 18-20 home runs who provides solid defense.

It would still make him a potential 3.0 fWAR player and if he keeps it up for two more seasons, it marks a notable upgrade over what San Francisco projected to receive at the hot corner when they entered the offseason. It came at the cost of further depth in the farm system and paying Longoria into his mid-30s, but it should be worth it for the next two seasons as the team's window to compete starts to close.

 

Brandon Crawford

Even in a season where Crawford posted some of his worst numbers with the bat, his defense at shortstop once again made him one of the 10 best shortstops in baseball. He fell short of his 4.5 fWAR and 5.7 fWAR seasons in 2015 and '15, Crawford still finished with a 2.0 fWAR in 2017.

While Crawford isn't in the same stratosphere defensively as Andrelton Simmons, Crawford shows season after season why he won three consecutive Gold Gloves. Amongst his peers since 2012, Crawford is second in DRS (70), RngR (39.8), fifth in UZR/150 (9.6), unlikely plays converted (42.4 percent) and remote plays converted (5.8 percent).

Potential concerns over a decline defensively are hard to make a clear decision on. While it's true Crawford didn't convert a single one of his 25 remote plays opportunities and his UZR/150 fell to (8.4), he still finished second amongst shortstops in RngR (4.4), fourth in DRS (nine) and third in Def (13.2).

via GIPHY

Now Crawford's job may get a little easier with Longoria sharing the field with him, giving San Francisco two Gold Glove winners on the left side to pair with Panik and Belt's defense on the right. It's all capped off with Posey at catcher, which could give San Francisco one of the best defensive infields in the National League.

The 31-year-old's statistical drop from 2016's .275/.342/.430 slash line and .327 wOBA to .253/.305/.403 with a .301 wOBA last season shows a statistical regression, but Belt's '17 lines are very similar to his career .252/.317/.395 slash and .306 wOBA.

San Francisco doesn't need Crawford to be phenomenal with the bat. As long as he contributes 70-plus RBIs and comes up clutch with runners on base, it's easily worth it for the Giants. The additional thump in the lineup ahead of him should lead to better pitches for Crawford and improvements statistically paired with his stellar defense easily make him a three-win player in 2018.

 

Hunter Pence

After a decade of patrolling right field in his MLB career, Pence will find himself in transition this coming season. San Francisco's addition of McCutchen and the trade of Denard Span left one vacancy for the 34-year-old corner outfielder, thus he accepted the move to left field.

In terms of expectations for the 2018 season, things should be very low for the former All Star outfielder. After two consecutive season marked by injuries, Pence managed to at least play in 134 games for San Francisco in 2017. Unfortunately, it went poorly for him at the plate and in right field. While he cut down on his strikeout rate, Pence posted career-low marks in wOBA (.303), wRC+ (87), isolated power (.126) and OPS+ (86). 

Pence's skills are in an evident decline, but even last year seems to be an extreme end of a drop in talent. While he may no longer be the 20-plus home run, 90-plus RBI contributor of previous year, Pence's on-base stats are dramatically different from his 2015 and '16 numbers.

While his BABIP dropped from .348 in '16 to .301 last season, his BABIP the two years before 2017 hovered around .319, not a substantial drop from the bounces he saw in '17. Pence also maintained his zone-contact and overall contact percentages from previous seasons. 

He should continue to see fairly regular playing time for San Francisco this season and with the improvements in the lineup will come better pitches to select from. If all goes well, Pence could hit 12-15 home runs and give San Francisco a solid .330 wOBA in the bottom half of its lineup.

Defensively, San Francisco will purely rely on Pence to make the routine (98.7 percent in '17) and likely plays (100 percent) in left field. It's about all they can ask for out of a player who turns 25 in April and whose body really started to break down in the last few seasons.

 

Austin Jackson

Signed to a two-year, $6 million deal in late January, Jackson gives San Francisco added depth in the outfield. He projects as the team's starting center fielder right now, but executive Brian Sabean told reporters Jackson will serve as the fourth outfielder for the Giants this season.

It's a role that fits the veteran well. Jackson signed a minor-league deal with the Cleveland Indians last season and made his way back up to the majors and earned a role as the team's fourth outfielder with time spent in all three positions. Jackson's versatility in the outfield allowed him to play 254 2/3 innings in left, 282 2/3 innings in center and 113 2/3 innings in right field last season.

Once of the game's best defensive center fielders with 38 DRS in his first two years as a member of the Detroit Tigers, Jackson's defensive decline came quickly. He finished three of the past four seasons with a UZR/150 below -10 and finished with a negative RngR in three of four seasons as well. Even a move to the corner outfield didn't help completely erase Jackson's defensive woes. He finished last season with a -6.3 UZR/150, -0.3 RngR and made just 75 percent of 'likely' plays in left field with Cleveland, his numbers in right field were largely the same.

Jackson serves as a decently priced fourth outfielder who San Francisco will ask to give off days to McCutchen and Pence, but this could be even more about a potential platoon with prospect Steven Duggar. Jackson's .291/.360/.453 slash line and .813 OPS in 333 at bats versus southpaws since 2015 could be enough to convince the Giants to deploy a platoon in 2018.

 

Andrew McCutchen

When the Pittsburgh Pirates entered 2017, they planned to move McCutchen to the corner outfield after he finished 2016 as one of the worst defensive center fielders in baseball (-16.5 Def) and posted career-worst marks at the plate with a 105 wRC+, .329 wOBA and (.430) slugging percentage. Once a hot trade candidate, Pittsburgh sought some way for the veteran to rebuild his value and potentially help them net more pieces for the farm system in a future deal

Fortunately, he bounced back last season and returned much closer to the form fans became used to throughout his career. He even slid back into center field after MLB suspended center fielder Starling Marte, then McCutchen's bat and improved defense (-3.3 Def) allowed him to stick in center upon Marte's return.

Now in San Francisco, McCutchen will find himself back in right field and this time it will stick. It should actually prove to be a good fit for the veteran outfielder even with his limited experienced in right field. Of the 11,621 career innings in McCutchen's MLB career, he spent only 115 1/3 innings in the corner outfield. That came last season in Pittsburgh earlier in the season. During that time, McCutchen finished with a 1.4 UZR/150 and accounted for two Defensive Runs Saved.

McCutchen's bat is the biggest addition for San Francisco this offseason. His 28 home runs, 94 runs scored and 88 RBIs would have led all Giants' hitters last season and he would be only the second player on the team with a 120-plus wRC+.

Many project McCutchen to lead off for San Francisco in 2018 and given his ability to get on base, demonstrated by a career .272 wOBA and 11.8 walk percentage, he will serve as an excellent set up to Longoria, Posey and Belt. The move to right field should aid some of his defensive metrics and if he can score 90-plus runs and hit 20-22 home runs, McCutchen's ceiling is a 3.0-plus fWAR player in 2018.

 

Rotation

Name: '17 Stats
Madison Bumgarner 111 IP, 3.32 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 22.4 K%, 4.4 BB%
Johnny Cueto 147 1/3 IP,4.52 ERA, 4.49 FIP, 21 K%, 8.2 BB%
Jeff Samardzija 207 2/3 IP, 4.42 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 23.2 K%, 3.8 BB%
Chris Stratton 51 1/3 IP, 2.98 ERA, 4.23 FIP, 19.8 K%, 11.3 BB%
Ty Blach 149 2/3 IP, 4.81 ERA, 4.40 FIP, 11.1 K%, 5.5 BB%

Madison Bumgarner

Johnny Cueto

Jeff Samardzija

 

Ty Blach and Chris Stratton

 

2018 Projection

Record: 86-76

MVP: Buster Posey

Bounceback Player: Brandon Belt

Best Rookie: Steven Duggar

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