Giants on right side of imbalance
Given choice, elite pitching is preferable to hitting
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants may be the least balanced team in the Major Leagues. But there is a dramatic plus side to that imbalance, the side with the extraordinarily good pitching.The Giants have some of the very best pitching in baseball, although this quality has not been front-and-center against the Dodgers this weekend. The Giants are second in the Majors in team ERA. And they could remain among the best for years to come, built as this staff is around brilliant young starters Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. But as good as the Giants are in stopping the opposition from scoring, that is how bad they are in the other half of the game, scoring runs themselves. After 141 games they were 14th in the National League in runs scored and 27th in the Majors. This combination beats the alternative. If you can only be strong in either pitching or offense, pick pitching every time, each time, all the time, world without end, amen. If you can keep the other team from scoring, the worst thing that will happen is extra innings. The Giants, long on pitching, short on offense, have surprised many and have stayed afloat in the chase for a postseason berth. Check the flip side, a team with really good hitting and inadequate pitching, such as the Milwaukee Brewers. They're in fourth place in a division, the NL Central, with only one worthwhile team. In the contemporary game, in which frontline pitching can be grossly overpriced, the Giants are well positioned, having drafted and developed some of baseball's best starters. But the distance between a contender and, for instance, a division winner, is probably covered by the 8 1/2-game lead the Dodgers now have over the Giants in the NL West. This has been a dispiriting weekend to date for the Giants. The Dodgers have taken the first two games of a three-game series, winning Saturday night, 9-1, outscoring the Giants, 19-4, over the two games. These results were a long way from the Giants' best work. "We let these two get out of hand," manager Bruce Bochy said. "I can't remember when we've had back-to-back games like this." The Dodgers, who lead the Majors in team ERA, have pitching statistics that are very similar to those of the Giants. The Dodgers have had some recent drawbacks with their offense, too, but they are fifth in the NL in runs scored. This is the essential difference between the two teams. Pitching has given the Giants a chance to win. But the lack of offense is severe enough that the Giants do not seem capable of taking the final step from here -- a winning record -- to there -- October. Even the superb pitching can be compromised. The Giants are second worst in the Majors in run support for starters. With better run support, Cain would have 20 victories by now. With better run support, he and Lincecum, last year's NL Cy Young Award winner, could be even with or ahead of the leaders in victories this season, the superb St. Louis starters, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. It is a nightly contest for the Giants to find out whether their strength can withstand their weakness. The pitching has both quality and quantity. The San Francisco bullpen has the league's second best ERA, behind, naturally, the Dodgers. Nobody in baseball has a young and supremely talented starting duo like Lincecum and Cain. But there is much more talent in the rotation. Jonathan Sanchez took the loss on Saturday night, but the quality of his stuff is not disputed. He turned around his season with a no-hitter in July. Barry Zito is back to being at least capable. He has not been really roughed up in a start since July 12. And Brad Penny has given evidence that he can revive his career, back in the more pitching-friendly circumstances of the National League. On the other side of the issue, the offense needs help of several sorts. The Giants are 15th in the NL in home runs. They're short on game-changers. Then again, they're 16th in walks and 16th in on-base percentage. If you don't have power, you probably could use patience. But here both components are missing. The corner outfield positions provide precious little pop. This would be all right if the Giants had Hanley Ramirez at shortstop and Ian Kinsler at second base. But that is not quite the case. In the infield, Pablo Sandoval has been a pleasant revelation. That takes care of one corner infield position, but somebody has to produce some serious runs at the other corner. In the absence of a slugging savior, or two, at Triple-A, how do the Giants get those two run producers for 2010? You recall earlier in the year when there were rumors that Cain would be traded to Milwaukee for first baseman Prince Fielder? It does not matter now if Fielder leads the world in RBIs, the Giants could not, should not and would not trade Cain for him. Pitching is the rare gem, the precious substance in Baseball, 2009. The supply does not come close to equaling the demand. Pitching prices have never been higher. It is possible that the Giants, if they were to trade pitching for hitting, could get more value than they gave. And it is often possible to get a genuine, fully formed player from the Pittsburgh Pirates at a relatively low cost. The Giants, with plenty of pitching, without enough hitting, are more than 50 percent of the way to where they want to go. They have the harder part of personnel development in hand. They have the single most important component that a baseball team can have. Now to beef up the offensive portion of their game; a task easier said than done, but still a task easier than finding enough pitching.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.