I know some of you may not believe this considering the recent history of the San Francisco Giants and what they just did to the Atlanta Braves, but the first thing to know about the 2014 Giants is that this is a team built around its offense, not its starting rotation.
The second thing to know is related to the first: Some of the Giants’ statistics are skewed by playing in a park that heavily helps pitchers, leading to a somewhat popular misconception that this is still a team built around its rotation.
The third thing to know is that this a team of stars and big names -- Buster Posey, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval -- but also a team with two of the more underrated players in the game in Angel Pagan and Brandon Crawford.
The fourth thing to know is the offense hasn’t necessarily kicked it into high gear.
The fifth thing to know is the Giants are 20-11, have won five in a row and nine of 10, suddenly have the second-best record in the majors, and that rotation that I just said is perhaps a bit overrated just helped the Giants sweep the Braves in Atlanta by allowing one run in each of the three games.
Madison Bumgarner helped complete the impressive road sweep on Sunday with maybe his best outing of the season, allowing three hits and an unearned run in six innings while recording nine strikeouts and one walk. Bumgarner had been giving hits at a high rate -- he’d allowed more hits than innings in each of his previous six starts -- so this game was a refreshing return to dominance. Eighty of the 95 pitches he threw were fastballs and sliders.
"I still felt like I got behind a lot of times when I wanted to get ahead, but it’s a big step forward," Bumgarner said.
He was able to put away the strikeout-prone Braves with high fastballs -- six of his nine strikeouts came on fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone or out of the zone. His average fastball velocity in 2014 has been 91.5 mph, but those high fastballs were 93, 94, 93, 93, 92 and 92. The final one was use to to strike out Evan Gattis swinging in the sixth inning with a runner on third and the Giants up 2-1.
Sunday’s other big hero was shortstop Brandon Crawford, who homered twice -- one off lefty Alex Wood (a rarity for Crawford) and then a two-run shot of off Jordan Walden in the eighth. That home run came off a 2-1 fastball after Crawford’s checked-swing on a 2-0 pitch was ruled a swing. When things are going well, a checked-swing strike can even turn into a good thing.
"I guess I’m kind of glad I went around though,” Crawford told MLB.com. “It would have been a 3-0 count and I probably would have had the take sign."
Crawford is sort of the unsung glue to the Giants. He’s a plus defender -- you saw him at his best in the 2012 postseason when he made several spectacular plays -- with just enough pop at the plate to go beyond automatic out status. He hit .248/.311/.363 last season, but in this new era of impaired offense that made him nearly a league average hitter once you adjust for AT&T Park.
In 2014, he’s off to a .264/.361/.473 start, including a .438 average against left-handers in 39 plate appearances with seven of his 11 extra-base hits coming against southpwas. He hit just .199 against lefties in 2013, so if real improvement is happening here, Crawford is going to be better than the 2.1 WAR he provided last year.
The other unheralded guy on the Giants is center fielder Angel Pagan, off to a .327/.364/.469 start with 15 RBIs from the leadoff spot. While the Giants were relatively healthy in 2013, Pagan’s hamstring injury was the one major injury the team suffered as he played just 71 games. While he’s not a big home run hitter, he does provide extra-base power from the leadoff spot -- he had 38 doubles and 15 triples in 2012 -- and seems to be the energizer guy. When he’s going well, it seems the Giants follow suit.
OK, about those home runs from the rest of the lineup: The Giants haven’t been known for their home run hitting since Barry Bonds was cranking long balls into McCovey Cove -- they were sixth in the NL in 2010, but 11th in 2011, last in 2012 and next-to-last in 2013.
This year? They’re second in the majors behind only the Coors-inflated Rockies. With 41 home runs, the Giants have as many as NL rest rivals Arizona and San Diego combined. The team is hitting only .238, but that’s maybe why the rest of the NL West should be worried about this 20-11 start. Yes, Crawford and Pagan are playing well, Michael Morse has been in full beast mode and Tim Hudson has been doing his best Greg Maddux impersonation (4-1, 2.17, two walks in 45 2/3 innings) but Sandoval is hitting .170, Brandon Belt has a .279 OBP, Hunter Pence is slugging just .400 and Posey was hitting .224 a week ago. There is room for this offense improve, given good health.
I didn’t know what to make of the Giants heading into the season. They were pretty bad in 2013, winning 76 games and getting outscored by 62 runs, a total significant enough to suggest you couldn’t write the season of to some bad breaks here and there. Yes, they were World Series champs in 2012, but that was a team of marginal quality for a World Series winner, a team that got hot at the right time and faced adversity with poise and confidence.
I saw a team that had brought back Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong to the rotation and while Barry Zito was punted to the curb, Hudson was coming off a broken ankle and was 38 years old. The addition of Hudson and the minor addition of the injury-prone Morse, coming off a horrible 2013, didn’t seem like enough. The rotation was 24th in the majors in rotation ERA in 2013 and 27th in FanGraphs WAR; would it really be much better in 2014? Were there reasons to expect a big comeback season from Lincecum or Vogelsong to pitch like he did in October of 2013?
Maybe the rotation doesn't have to be the dominant force it once was. The rotation entered Sunday’s games once again ranked 27th in FanGraphs WAR, and while the bullpen has been lights out (1.86 ERA), the Giants have jumped out to a great start for reasons other than those named Cain or Lincecum.
The Giants are the best team in the NL West. Just maybe not for the reasons you think.