3/7/2013 11:00 A.M. ET
Statistics don't tell the tale of Giants' success
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
If you arrived on this planet recently, shook off the stardust from another galaxy and didn't know the results of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, you might decide to try using raw statistics to nail down the championship team.
Then again, you might have an easier time figuring out balks and the infield-fly rule.
In the sexiest category of all, home runs, your World Series winners of last season, the Giants, were dead last. And, perhaps more surprisingly, in the always-vaunted category of fastball velocity, those same Giants were also 30th of 30.
One can understand how a team of scrappy, situational hitters and opportunistic baserunners could live without the long ball. A title-worthy roster, after all, needs to have a balance of terrific pitching and solid defense to go along with the ability to score runs.
When it comes to the Giants, most observers would point to the pitching stats to show why they overcame six elimination games en route to sweeping the Tigers in the Fall Classic. San Francisco had a 3.68 team ERA, and its bullpen had a 3.56 ERA. Those figures didn't lead the National League, but they were enough to complement the rest of the team's total package.
But in looking through the advanced pitching metrics provided by FanGraphs, one can't help but notice that the Giants' average fastball was an even 90 mph, the slowest in baseball last year, and the Giants only threw fastballs 51.3 percent of the time, which also trailed the Majors.
It makes it seem very likely that you don't need to blow away hitters to win. You just need to know how to pitch.
"There's times where if you could run it up 95 or 96 or whatever, it could benefit you," says the Giants' ace, Matt Cain, who averaged 91.2 mph with his fastball last year and threw it 50.6 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs. "But sometimes, if you're throwing extra-max effort all the time, then maybe your location isn't as good. Sometimes it's better to find a good rhythm at, say, 90 percent speed, whatever that is, but you're making better pitches.
"It's not necessarily anything that's talked about. I think it's something you learn over time. You've got to learn how to pitch that way. For some people, max effort all the time can work. For me, I'm not able to do that, at least as a starter, maybe out of the 'pen. But sometimes it's nice to have a little extra under the hood in case you need it."
Cain, who went 16-5 with a 2.79 ERA and a career-high 191 strikeouts and threw a perfect game, is lucky to have that horsepower. Some guys don't. For example, the other pitchers on San Francisco's starting staff are Madison Bumgarner (91.1), Tim Lincecum (down to 90.4 last year), Barry Zito (83.9) and Ryan Vogelsong (90.8). The man who became their World Series closer, Sergio Romo, was at 87.7.
Pitching coach Dave Righetti had big league experience as a starter and closer and was successful in both roles. He is charged with honing the stuff and the sensibilities of a staff that isn't textbook filthy but is plenty effective.
And the man for whom Righetti works has two World Series titles in the last three years, which means that something's working pretty well.
"Some of it speaks to throwing strikes and being aggressive and letting your defense play behind you," general manager Brian Sabean said. "Some of it is the residue of the parks we play in, starting with our own. But by and large, our staff does a good job of pitching to contact. What's ironic with that is if you look inside those numbers, we're basically a strikeout-, fly-ball-type of pitching staff. We don't throw many ground balls."
And then there's the bullpen. Manager Bruce Bochy is constantly mining the books for matchups. The Giants lost their standout 2010 closer, Brian Wilson, whose average fastball was 95.9 mph that year, to Tommy John surgery, so Bochy turned to Santiago Casilla (93.9 last year) at first, went by committee for a while and stuck with Romo at the end.
"All of those guys going back to 2009 were used to pitching leveraged innings," Sabean said. "They'd basically been in games that were in balance, and we'd played so many one- and two-run games from 2009 through last year, I think that shows that with various looks that you have from the bullpen instead of just power, you can be just as successful."
We'll see how things shake out this year. Lincecum cut his long hair but needs to cut the 4.4 walks per nine innings of last year. That, and his 5.18 ERA, helped turn him into a long reliever during the postseason, and it remains a concern moving forward.
"He occasionally got out of sync. He knows it," Bochy said. "He's worked hard on cleaning it up a little bit."
Lincecum, who is dealing with a blister, said that his approach this spring has been different from that of last year. In 2012, he said, he didn't have enough strength or "mechanical will" to execute proper location on a consistent basis. That has changed.
He says he's regained that confidence, and if he's correct, he'll be ready to rejoin the rest of his staff mates in taking a few weird statistics and turning them all the way around when it counts the most.
The method to the Giants' success, it seems, is pretty easy to define.
"Right now," Lincecum said, "the question isn't whether I'm going to throw strikes. It's where I'm going to throw strikes."