The six pitchers who have started a game this season for the San Francisco Giants have combined for three Cy Young Awards and 10 All-Star Game selections in their respective careers. When looking at the names in the rotation, it makes sense why. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are two of the best young pitchers in Major League Baseball. Barry Zito used to excel across the bay with the Oakland Athletics before he signed with San Francisco. Neither Madison Bumgarner nor Jonathan Sanchez has a Cy Young Award or been selected to an All-Star Game, but Bumgarner, a 22-year old lefthander pitching in his first full big league season, is following in Lincecum and Cain’s footsteps while Sanchez certainly has All-Star ability, but has never been able to pitch with consistency in his career.
That is why it is so surprising that a 34-year old journeyman who last pitched in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2006 has been the Giants’ best starter this season. In 120 career major league games (33 starts) before this season, Ryan Vogelsong’s career record was 10-22 with a 5.86 ERA. He had allowed 347 hits while walking 154 batters and striking out 216 in 315 innings (1.590 WHIP). This season, after pitching 2007 through 2009 in Japan and spending 2010 in the minors, he has pitched in 20 games, 18 of them starts, to go along with a 9-1 record, 2.19 ERA (best in the National League among qualifying pitchers), 1.243 WHIP, 103 hits allowed, 40 walks, 86 strikeouts and one shutout in 115 innings, earning his first trip to the All-Star Game in the process. Vogelsong has been a revelation in San Francisco’s rotation and has kept getting better as the season has gone along.
Vogelsong has allowed more than three earned runs in a game just once this season, a May 3 start in New York against the Mets in which he allowed five runs on five hits while walking four in four innings. That was just his second start and fourth appearance of the year. Since that game, he has made 16 appearances, all of them starts, with a 1.88 ERA and 73 strikeouts while walking 34 and allowing 91 hits in 100.2 innings. Opponents are posting just a .242/.309/.338 batting line against him and he has gone fewer than six innings in a start just three times during that time.
Some of Vogelsong’s success may be due to luck. He is striking out only 6.73 batters per nine innings and opponents’ batting average on balls in play is .274, below the league average of around .300. However, after four straight years of not pitching in the majors, Vogelsong has also seemed to learn how to become a better pitcher. He is throwing his fastball less (58.1 percent in 2011 compared to his career total of 68 percent) while eliminating his slider from his repertoire and instead throwing a cutter (12.3 percent in 2011 compared to 5.8 percent over his career), curveball (19.3 percent this year compared to a career average of 14.2 percent) and changeup (10.3 percent this season compared to 8.6 percent over his career) more. By relying less on his fastball and more on his secondary pitches, Vogelsong is inducing more groundouts than ever in his career, getting hitters to hit the ball on the ground 1.34 times for every flyball hit, well above his career average of 1.05.
He is also showing more control on the mound than he had in his first stint in the big leagues. In his first seven major league seasons with the Giants and Pirates from 2000 through 2006, Vogelsong struck out 6.2 hitters per nine innings and walked 4.4 per nine (1.40 K/BB ratio). His strikeout rate this year, 6.7 batters per nine, is relatively similar to his career average, but Vogelsong is walking hitters at a much lower rate in 2011, 3.1 per nine (2.15 K/BB ratio). This has been crucial to helping keep extra runners off the bases and preventing runs.
The San Francisco Giants’ rotation is filled with pitchers who have the ability to dominate just about anytime they trot out to the mound. However, it is a 34-year old journeyman, who last pitched in the major leagues in 2006, who has been the Giants’ best starting pitcher this season. Ryan Vogelsong has relied on his secondary pitches to gain more command of the plate and induce a greater amount of groundballs on the mound, leading the NL in ERA among qualifying pitchers. Even better for San Francisco, which holds a slim lead in the NL West over the Arizona Diamondbacks, Vogelsong has been improving as the season goes along. In a rotation filled with bright stars and promising young pitchers, it has been Ryan Vogelsong who has outperformed everybody for the San Francisco Giants in 2011.
The San Francisco Giants have scored 373 runs this season, the third-fewest in the major leagues. They rank 24th in hits (849) and slugging percentage (.360), 26th in batting average (.241) and 27th in on-base percentage (.306). They have scored only 15 more runs than they have allowed. In comparison, the Boston Red Sox have scored 136 more runs than they have allowed. While the Philadelphia Phillies’ vaunted rotation gets more publicity, the Giants pitching staff has baseball’s lowest team ERA (3.09), batting average against (.228) and on-base plus slugging percentage against (.639). Knowing that he can put his pitching staff up against anyone’s in the majors, San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean needed to address one of the gaping holes in the Giants’ lineup to defend their World Series crown and fend off the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are three games behind them in the National League West. With the acquisition of Carlos Beltran, who will bat third in the order, Sabean did just that, immediately upgrading a weak order and making the Giants the favorites to win the NL pennant.
Beltran instantly becomes the Giants’ most dangerous bat in the lineup. The switch-hitting outfielder is a genuine star, a five-time All-Star who has won three Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers in his career. He has enjoyed four seasons with at least 25 homers and 25 steals. He had a 40-home run year in 2006. In 22 career postseason games, he is a career .366/.485/.817 hitter with 11 home runs and 19 runs batted in, including his .435/.536/1.022 batting line with eight homers, 14 RBIs and six stolen bases in 12 games with the Astros in the 2004 playoffs. Beltran adds an air of legitimacy to the San Francisco lineup, a potential Hall of Famer with a postseason resume that can only help the Giants in October.
At 34 years old, Beltran is quietly having another good season. He leads the NL with 30 doubles and is batting .289/.391/.513. No Giant has reached 10 home runs yet this season, and as a team, San Francisco has hit only 66 round-trippers. Beltran has hit 15 this year, playing in spacious Citi Field for the Mets. Only one Giant, Aubrey Huff, has driven in at least 40 runs this season. Beltran has 66 RBIs of his own. Beltran should help ease the burden on Pablo Sandoval (.298/.344/.485, nine HRs, 36 RBIs), Nate Schierholtz (.283/.325/.439, seven HRs, 37 RBIs), Cody Ross (.252/.341/.367, seven HRs, 30 RBIs) and Huff (.239/.294/.362, nine HRs, 47 RBIs) in the middle of San Francisco lineup immediately.
The San Francisco Giants’ starting rotation and bullpen forms the deepest and most dominating pitching staff in the majors. However, a porous offense made a repeat trip to the playoffs, let alone a second consecutive World Series championship, a question. The Giants have found the answer to some of their offensive woes in Carlos Beltran. Beltran’s talent as a hitter and his postseason pedigree should immediately pay dividends for San Francisco. While he cannot transform the Giants offense overnight, he becomes the San Francisco’s most dangerous hitter, a power threat in the middle of the order who should help ease the pressure on the rest of the Giants offense. Now that the San Francisco lineup finally has a dynamic bat in the middle of the order, the Giants have to be considered the favorites to repeat as NL Champions. Carlos Beltran will have a massive impact on the San Francisco lineup, one that may just well push the Giants over the top again towards a World Series championship.
No one in their lineup is hitting over .300. The most wins in a season any of their starting pitchers has ever had is 12. Their closer never had more than nine saves in a single season until this year. Yet, somehow the Pittsburgh Pirates are 45-41, just 1.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central as the calendar turns to July. After 18 consecutive losing seasons, including four straight last place finishes in the NL Central, is this the year the Pirates finally enter back into respectability, and possibly even the playoffs?
The 2010 Pirates had baseball’s worst pitching staff, finishing dead last in the majors with a .282 batting average against, .798 on-base plus slugging percentage against and a 5.00 ERA. Pirates starters threw just 871.2 innings, allowing opponents to hit .297 while posting a 5.28 ERA, all of which were last in baseball. As a whole, Pittsburgh’s staff has not ranked in the top half of the majors in either ERA or BAA since 2004, when they finished 15th in ERA (4.68) and 12th in BAA (.267).
However, the 2011 Pirates staff has been much more effective. Pirates pitchers rank eighth in ERA (3.39), tied for 15th in BAA (.254) and 12th in OPS (.703). Pittsburgh has no dominant starting pitchers, but Paul Maholm (18 starts, 5-9, 3.08 ERA, 1.129 WHIP in 114 innings), Kevin Correia (18 starts, 11-6, 3.74 ERA, 1.230 WHIP in 113 innings), James McDonald (17 starts, 5-4, 4.40 ERA in 92 innings), Charlie Morton (15 starts, 7-4, 3.63 ERA in 91.2 innings) and Jeff Karstens (15 starts, 7-4, 2.55 ERA, 1.074 WHIP in 98.2 innings) have given the Pirates many quality outings to form a solid one-through-five in the rotation.
The Pirates’ bullpen has been one of the best in baseball. Ranking seventh in ERA (3.15), 11th in innings pitched (252.1) and 14th in opposing OPS (.679), manager Clint Hurdle has done a very good job of placing his relievers in situations that play to their strengths. Jose Veras (43 games, 2-2, 2.50 ERA, 1.034 WHIP, 40 strikeouts in 39.2 innings), Chris Resop (42 games, 3-2, 3.46 ERA, 1.205 WHIP, 50 strikeouts in 39 innings), Daniel McCutchen (35 games, 2-1, 2.09 ERA, 1.233 WHIP in 43 innings) and rookie lefthander Danny Moskos (20 games, 1-0, 2.30 ERA in 15.2 innings) have all set-up save situations well for All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan (39 games, 0-1, 1.37 ERA, 0.941 WHIP, 33 strikeouts in 39.1 innings). Hanrahan has relied on his slider much less in 2011, throwing it 14.9 percent of the time this season compared to 38.7 percent of the time in 2010. Instead, he is using his blazing fastball almost exclusively, throwing it on 85.1 percent of his pitches with an average speed of 97 MPH this season compared to 61 percent last year. The new formula is working, as Hanrahan has recorded 26 saves this year, more than he had in his first four seasons combined in the big leagues.
Pittsburgh needs to keep getting the good pitching it has received this season to stay competitive in the Central. The Pirate lineup has very little pop in it besides the bat of Andrew McCutchen, who is hitting .291/.390/.494 with 22 doubles, three triples, 12 home runs, 46 runs batted in and 15 stolen bases. The Pittsburgh lineup ranks 21st in batting average (.246) and on-base percentage (.314), 22nd in the majors in both hits (702) and runs scored (333), 23rd in home home runs (56) and 26th in slugging percentage (.361). Young and talented players like 25-year old second baseman Neil Walker (.258/.324/.385, 8 homers, 55 RBIs), 24-year old third baseman (currently rehabbing at Triple-A Indianapolis) Pedro Alvarez (.208/.283/.304, 2 home runs, 10 RBIs, 42 strikeouts in 36 games) and 22-year old outfielder Jose Tabata (.265/.351/.354, 3 homers, 14 RBIs, 14 stolen bases) need to start hitting to their potential.
The case of Alvarez, rated the No. 8 prospect by Baseball America before the 2010 season, is particularly perplexing because of the way he hit towards the end of last season. In his last 54 games of the 2010 season, he hit .285/.351/.505 with 15 doubles, 9 home runs and 43 RBIs. The Pirates expected more of the same in 2011, but Alvarez was a major disappointment before injuring his quad on May 19. Once he returns from injury, Pittsburgh will need Alvarez to start to hit towards his potential and continue to progress towards being a potential star.
With their 5-1 victory over the Houston Astros last night, Pittsburgh is four games over .500, the most they have been this entire season. The last time Pittsburgh was this far above .500 this late in the season was on September 19, 2005. In fact, the Pirates have only been four games above .500 just twice since 2005, with the other time being on April 26, 2009.
Their recipe for success has been no secret. Pittsburgh will need to sustain its good pitching throughout the second half of the season to continue to be a threat to the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds in the Central. However, with pitchers who largely pitch to contact, opposing hitters’ batting average on ball in play indicates that the Pirates’ staff has been lucky throughout the first half of the season. Veras (.216), Resop (.290), Hanrahan (.262), McCutchen (.269), Karstens (.240), Correia (.272) and Maholm (.253) all have BABIPs well below the league average of .300. While the Pirates have young talent and their organization is certainly taking a step forward towards respectability this season, it is unlikely that Pittsburgh continues to float above .500 and fight in the Central unless the Pirates either suddenly start hitting better or are able to continue to get lucky on balls hit in play throughout the second half of the season. While they have been a great story up to this point, statistics say it is unlikely that the Pirates will continue to be a postseason threat over the final three months of the season.
We are officially at, or just past (depending on the team), the midway point in the Major League Baseball season. In the sport with the fewest playoff spots, there are so many teams competing for the right to play in October. The lack of playoff spots is one of the many things that makes this sport so special. Just eight of the 30 MLB teams will make the postseason, compared to the 16 playoff teams in both the NBA and NHL and the 12 NFL teams that vie for the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Having such few teams make the playoffs creates a strong emphasis on succeeding in the regular season, and as long as baseball’s regular season is, we have the potential to see some very compelling races in August and September. Twenty teams either lead a division or are within seven games of a playoff spot. There is no division separated by more than a four game lead.
A number of surprise teams remain in the mix for a playoff spot. Behind Andrew McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates sit at 41-39, just two games behind the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central. The Arizona Diamondbacks are two games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West and three games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL Wild Card race with a record of 44-38. The New York Mets and Washington Nationals are 5.5 and 6.5 games behind Atlanta in the Wild Card race, respectively.
In the American League, few thought that the Cleveland Indians would spend 80 days during the first half of the year leading the Central. The Indians have stumbled slightly, but are 0.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers right now. Rookie sensation Michael Pineda has helped the Seattle Mariners come within 3.5 games of the defending AL Champion Texas Rangers in the West, even though the Mariners have been outscored by 13 runs this season and have a record below .500, at 39-42. After losing Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano and their entire 2010 bullpen to free agency and various trades, the Tampa Bay Rays sit just four games behind the New York Yankees in the East and 1.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox for the AL Wild Card. The Rays are 45-36 despite having star third baseman Evan Longoria play in only 53 games during the first half of the season.
The first half of the Major League Baseball season featured many storylines, but none may be more compelling than the playoff races that will determine the fate of the 20 teams who have their eyes on the postseason. There will be teams who falter down the stretch during the second half of the season. However, with so many teams fighting year in and year out for one of the precious few trips to the postseason, baseball’s emphasis on a strong regular season is unrivaled by any sport. With 20 teams in competition for just eight playoff spots, the next three months of the season will feature postseason races that come down to the wire and show just why baseball is so special.