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Can Giants Beat the Odds in 2015?

Giants Dodgers Spring BaseballThe Giants’ magic number for 2015 is 88. That’s the minimum win total they are likely to need to earn a spot in the wild-card playoff game. And is there anybody out there who would bet against the Giants in post season? Now, there are probably about 88 reasons why the Giants might not join the post-season party this year. A few that come to mind are questions about every starting pitcher not named Madison Bumgarner, the loss of power from the Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse departures, Angel Pagan’s unreliable back, and a month without injured Hunter Pence. So let’s not even break a sweat worrying about whether the Giants can win the NL West crown, which will probably require more than 90 wins. This year, it’s wild card or bust. In fact, the Giants shouldn’t even care if the Dodgers clinch the division title at AT&T in the last week of the season, and celebrate by jumping into McCovey Cove in a repeat of their uncool victory plunge at the Diamondbacks swimming hole in 2013.

The Giants won a third ring in five years with only 88 regular season wins in 2014. The fifth-best win totals in the previous four years were 90 in 2010 (Padres), 89 in 2011 (Braves), 88 in 2012 (Cardinals) and 90 in 2013 (Reds). So 88 looks like the bare minimum needed to qualify for that wild-card play-in game. Working against the Giants is a horrendous schedule period where they play 27 of 39 games on the road from July 31 through Sept. 9. Many might concede that a 20-19 record during that stretch would be considered a success. That would mean, however, that to reach 88 wins, the Giants would have to go 68-55 in all other games. This makes April and early May critical, and something for Giants fans to watch carefully. The Giants play 20 of 26 games at home from April 13 to Mother’s Day on May 10. The club needs to take advantage of AT&T’s friendly confines to be around five games above .500 (19-14) by that date, and then maybe moving to at least seven games above .500 before facing the Mother of All Road Schedules. This would put them on pace for 88 wins, and at least have them in the running for a wild-card berth in the final three weeks of the season. Wise men have said that a team doesn’t win a title in April, but the Giants could deal their repeat hopes a serious blow if they don’t get off to a decent start.

Other thoughts about 2015:

EVEN VS. ODD: The Giants’ three recent even-year championships have raised the question of whether the club can win in an odd year. So here is analysis you’ll find nowhere else. Since arriving in San Francisco in 1958, the Giants have a .516 regular season winning mark in even years. They have a .521 winning percentage in the odd years. The New York Giants won the first two franchise World Series titles in the odd years of 1905 and 1921. But five of the last six Giants championships came in even years, starting with a repeat in 1922. They finished 96-56 in 1906 after winning the title in 1905, but were dethroned when the Cubs won 116 games that year. They were 93-60 in 1934 after winning it all in 1933, but finished two games out. Of course, there was no wild card then, so who knows whether those formidable squads might have accomplished more repeat titles if they had a shot at post season.

SPRING BACKWARD: During spring training of 1977, the Giants Randy Elliott — with just 27 major league games under his belt — made the big squad with sky-high hopes by batting .547 and driving in 16 runs. He went on to hit just .240 in 73 regular season games before being released. He would only play 39 big league games after that in 1980 when he hit .128 for Oakland. So the story of Randy Elliott adds some perspective to the statistical insignificance of spring training. This is a relevant issue because the Giants (11-20 in the Cactus League) are having their worst spring training since going 9-23 in 2008.

Does this poor spring training record mean the Giants don’t have a chance to get off to the good start that is vital to their season? No. The club is coming back with basically the same strong bullpen, and Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmeiro Petit provide extra support for the uncertain rotation. The Giants aren’t going to outslug anyone, as usual, but the offense might be enough if the staff depth can keep the games low scoring. Still, the starters are going to have to go deeper than five innings consistently to keep the bullpen from tiring out or the season will eventually slip away.

GIANTS VS. A’S: Here are some fascinating numbers. In the last five years, the Giants are only three games better than the A’s in the regular season (SF 436-374, Oak 433-377), yet they hold a 3-0 lead in championships. The A’s have a 14-12 record against the Giants during this time.

MORE PABLO: Panda hats are now available for as low as $3.99 on Amazon. One Bay Area couple felt obliged to explained their purchase: “We gave this as a gift to our son who lives in Boston.” Giants fans who already own Panda hats but have nowhere to wear them should mark down May 11-13 on their calendar when Pablo Sandoval and the Red Sox come to Oakland. It’s guaranteed that Sandoval will be asked about his rocky breakup with the Giants during that visit. He’ll need to either say nothing or find some calming words to neutralize the controversy. Carrying this grudge around is really becoming a sad story and it threatens to diminish all the grand memories from his days with the Giants. It’s also not going to help his chances for a place on the Wall of Fame at AT&T, where he should end up at some point. There is still time, just ask Jeff Kent. The former Giant great, who ended up a Dodger, burned some bridges himself with shots at the Giants. Kent has since mellowed, and when he shows up at the park now, he gets a rousing ovation. The Giants won’t hold a grudge, Panda. The ball is in your court.

PUIG AS MVP: Dodgers star Yasiel Puig might be turning the corner from his well-earned reputation for gaffes and irritating displays that have made him a villain at AT&T and just about every other ballpark. Here’s what I saw: During a game early in the spring, Puig stepped out of the box after every pitch for a glove and uniform adjustment, a bat examination, and a little stretching as if the new speed-up rule didn’t apply to him. I saw him a couple of weeks later, and after the first pitch went by, he instinctively started to step out. When he realized what he had done, he almost sheepishly hopped back into the box ready for the next pitch. One small step for Puig, one giant leap for Dodger-kind. Veteran additions such as infielders Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick, coupled with returning vet teammates Adrian Gonzalez and Juan Uribe might be getting Puig to exchange flamboyance for focus. I’m Ok with his dramatics to a degree — this is a game after all — but the scary part for opponents is that a more focused Puig could raise his game to a new level. Puig’s offensive and defensive skills put him among baseball’s elite, and make him a potential MVP candidate in 2015. If that were to happen, the Dodgers could be playing ball very deep into October.

STICK’S FINAL DAYS: I haven’t been caught up like others who have been weeping over the slow piece-by-piece demolition of Candlestick Park. I attended the first baseball game there in 1960, saw hundreds of games over the years, and was there in 1999 for the Giants-Dodgers finale. I stayed for the closing ceremony and gave my final goodbye at that time. I had a chance to go to some 49ers games since then, but I never wanted to return. Fifteen years later, my memories of The Stick are not about a structure, but about the names and the games that I saw there.

TIP FOR THE COMMISH: New baseball commissioner Rob Manfred seems open to making changes, even floating a trial balloon about banning defensive shifts. But here is one change he should make right now. The end-of-the season awards, such as the MVP and Cy Young, should include what happens in the post season. Does anybody think that Clayton Kershaw was more valuable than Madison Bumgarner last year when you consider what happened after the regular season?

DON’T BET ON IT: Manfred is not going to be putting Pete Rose into the Hall of Fame anytime soon, despite the hit king’s request. Manfred would be slapping former boss Bud Selig in the face if he suddenly opened the doors for Rose, who was banned for betting on baseball as a manager. In fact, I think that Will Ferrell has a better shot at making the Hall of Fame than Pete.

BOOM! By the way, what got into football coaching legend John Madden bellowing over how Will Ferrell’s day when he played all nine positions showed disrespect for baseball? I was a bit skeptical at first, but the comic actor didn’t make a mockery of it. His clever deadpan humor and decent baseball skills provided entertainment on what would have been just another day of routine exhibition baseball. If Madden wants to get incensed about something, how about asking Roger Goodell why the NFL can’t resolve Deflate-gate by opening day of baseball. C’mon, commissioner, you’re on the clock.

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