Bruce Bochy calls the last two weeks for the Giants a “bump in the road.”
After yesterday’s historic, no-hit win over San Diego, the Giants still sport the second-best record (46-32) in the NL and cling to a 3-game lead in the West over the fast-charging Dodgers.
But lately, Bochy’s team has been, um, shaky. The Giants have lost four of their last five series and 11-of-15 games. After starting 22-9 at AT&T Park, they have lost 8-of-10. Injuries, inconsistent pitching and the Golden Dragon of luck (h/t Richard Fitch) have taken a toll.
So when the manager says it’s just a bump in the road, keep in mind his team plays in this city.
Three weeks ago, the Reds lost 2-of-3 to San Francisco in Cincinnati. Bryan Price’s boys punched Goliath in the mouth 8-3 in the first game. They lost the second 3-2 when Tony Cingrani gave up three runs in the blink of Cyclops’ eye. Worth noting: Joey Votto was on the DL and missed that series. Almost completely unrelated fact: The Giants have the seventh highest payroll ($154 million) in MLB. The Reds are twelfth ($112 million).
When healthy and lucky, the Giants produced a top five offense in the NL. They still rank fourth in wRC+ (Reds 10th), fifth in runs scored (Reds 9th), third in ISO power (Reds seventh) and 9th in on base percentage (Reds 10th). But June has been a different story. For the Reds, with Jay Bruce’s health returning, Joey Votto coming off the DL, and Devin and Todd mashing (go vote for them, right now), the Reds’ offense has surged. Meanwhile, injuries have devastated the Giants lineup.
Regular first baseman Brandon Belt continues to recover from thumb surgery that has sidelined him since mid-May. His target return date is July 4. Michael Morse has shifted from LF to play 1B. Morse himself has been fighting a sore back as a result of a hard swing against Arizona.
The Giants are yet to find a satisfactory replacement for second baseman Marco Scutaro, who remains on the 60-day DL with back problems. Last week, they called up top prospect Joe Panik. Panik has gotten off to a slow start at the plate (other than taking a couple walks) and committed two errors Tuesday night.
Centerfielder and leadoff hitter Angel Pagan has been out since June 15 with back stiffness. The Giants finally placed him on the disabled list yesterday — ten days later. So he’s out for this series. That leaves this likely lineup:
Michael Morse hit two mammoth home runs against the Reds in early June. And he’s been doing that to plenty of other teams this year (.287/.342/.522) with 13 total homers. Morse came up through the Chicago White Sox and Seattle Mariners’ system but spent most of his major league career playing for the Washington Nationals. He hit 31 home runs for the Nats in 2011. But since then, he’s been traded from Washington back to Seattle and then to Baltimore. He became a free agent at the end of 2013 and was signed to a one-year, $6 million contract by the Giants. He’s having his best year since 2011.
The Giants starters have an ERA well north of five over the past two weeks, and that includes their two top pitchers and yesterday’s shutout. The statistic ERA is kind of awful at forecasting the future of giving up runs, but it does a perfect job describing the misadventures of the Giants rotation lately.
The Reds do have a large advantage in defense. The Giants are 9th in team defense (FanGraphs) in the NL (Reds are 3rd).
Mind-bending Pitching Fact The average strikeout percent for National League starters is 19.6. Aroldis Chapman’s rate is 55.1 percent. More than 10 percent higher than the second best. Before you say, “Sure, but that’s in comparison to starters…” consider this. The MLB average for relief pitchers is 22.1 percent. Yet, Chapman has only pitched 21.1 innings this season. More innings for him, please.
Probable Pitching Match-ups
It’s a four-game series, so that means almost the entire rotation pitches. The Reds miss Padres-slayer Tim Lincecum, who they blazed in early June, and face Matt Cain and Tim Hudson for the first time this year. The Giants miss nemesis Mat Latos but do stand in against Johnny Cueto this series. (Aroldis Chapman pitched one inning against the Giants in early June, it was the ninth in the game the Giants were ahead 6-1.)
The charts below offer a few statistics for the probable starters:
- ERA (average number of earned runs given up over nine innings)
- FIP (fielding independent pitching, normalize BABIP, scaled to ERA)
- SIERA (skill-interactive ERA; normalize BABIP and HR/FB, accounts for ground-ball %, weights Ks)
- FB Vel (fastball velocity)
- SwStr% (percentage of total pitches the batter swings and misses)
- K% and BB% (percentage of strikeouts and walks per plate appearance)
Thursday, 10:15 p.m. ET
Ryan Vogelsong faced Tony Cingrani in the only close game of the first series. Vogelsong allowed two runs (one on a Todd Frazier home run) over 6.1 innings. He struck out nine and walked one. Vogelsong is in the midst of a decent bounce-back year after struggling in 2013. His swinging strike and strikeout rates have returned to their pre-2013 levels. Like the rest of his teammates, Vogelsong hasn’t performed that well in his last three starts.
After four mediocre starts, Mike Leake is coming off one of his strongest, 8 innings and 1 run against the powerful Blue Jays. Following the bullpen-obliterating 14-9 loss to Toronto the night before, Leake’s outing sure felt like the most important start of the season for any Reds pitcher. Overall, the 26-year-old continues to have his best season for the Reds. Leake has improved his fastball velocity and control. His ground ball and strikeout rates continue to climb, while his walk-rate, which has always been outstanding, is at a career low. Leake did give up five runs in five innings against the Giants a few weeks ago.
Friday, 10:15 p.m. ET
This is the can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it pitching match-up.
Madison Bumgarner has become the young ace of the Giants staff. In fact, the 24-year-old lefty has pitched just about as well as Johnny Cueto. In his previous start against the Reds, he gave up one run (first-inning homer by, who else, Super Todd) in eight innings, allowing three hits and a walk while striking out five. Bumgarner has pitched at least seven innings in his last six starts. And he’s just getting better. His K% and BB% are career bests, as are his swinging-strike rate and fastball velocity.
Meanwhile, Johnny Cueto has made it to seven innings only twice in his last seven starts. Cueto has kept his strikeout and walk numbers in line, but the luck dragon is finally – albeit with a long way to go – getting paid. His BABIP and LOB% for June have been around his career averages, so his ERA for the month has been 2.52. That’s still really good. Cueto didn’t face the Giants in the previous series.
Saturday, 10:05 p.m. ET
Based off their 2014 ERAs, this pairing would seem to be a decided edge for the Reds. And it’s true that Matt Cain hasn’t really been himself since 2012. This season has continued the decline of he K% and rise in his BB% for the second consecutive year. Yet, looking at the underlying metrics, the best predictor (SIERA) shows this to be a close match. Cain has been tremendously unlucky with home runs (his HR/FB is double his career rate) and stranded runners. He’s also pitched better at home throughout his career.
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET
The Reds didn’t face Tim Hudson earlier this month. Hudson, at 38, is having a wonderful season for the Giants. Prior to his last two bad starts, he was challenging Johnny Cueto for the NL lead in ERA. Hudson has always been a ground ball pitcher, but now he’s taken it to the extreme (99th percentile). Hudson throws a variety of pitches although his bread-and-butter is a cutter. He’s gradually moved from a splitter to a straight change-up since his Tommy John surgery in 2008.
Homer Bailey pitched a no-hitter against the Giants last July 3.
The Giants closer, Sergio Romo, has gone through a rough stretch the past few weeks. He blew back-to-back saves against the Rockies. But overall, he’s still pretty much league average in save conversions, like most closers not named Rivera. In Romo’s one appearance against the Reds in early June, he retired the side in order.
If you’re worried about the momentum effects of Lincecum’s no-hitter yesterday, consider these two data points. Last year, the Reds dropped the two series immediately following Homer Bailey’s no-hitter. And after Homer’s 2012 no-no, they lost the one remaining regular season series and, of course, the NLDS.
As was amply demonstrated when the Reds recovered from The Horror of 14-9 to win the Toronto series, momentum schmomentum.
That’s not to say this will be an easy trip to San Francisco. But the Reds are catching the Giants at an opportune time. [Insert cliché about not who you play but when you play.]
Health status and consistent quality pitching trump momentum every time.