All across MLB front offices, general managers are huddled with their staffs and plotting their teams' courses through the July 31 trade deadline. Columnists and commentators play along, with virtually all discussions revolving around whether teams should be buyers or sellers.
Thanks to their being a perennial contender for a postseason berth since 2010, the San Francisco Giants have for years been identified as buyers. But this year, with the team on pace to lose 100 games and sitting an astounding 27 games out of first place, the Giants are generating discussion about whether they should be sellers. Inevitably, that discussion leads to the trade value of a couple of specific players, but that misses the point entirely. The Giants shouldn’t be buyers or sellers -- they need to be a wrecking crew.
Thanks to the changing nature of the game, the roster philosophy the Giants used in constructing three world championships in five years -- exceptional defense and contact hitting from their everyday players -- is obsolete. Stated more starkly, the Giants could have every player on their roster healthy and playing to expectations, and they’d still have a hard time playing .500 baseball, let alone making it to the postseason. It’s not that the players have gotten old or even that their skills have eroded; it’s that the Giants have no more chance to be a top-tier MLB team than does an NBA team that is exceptional in every aspect of the game except shooting 3-pointers.
I think I can prove that to you with one example. In 2014, when the Giants won their third World Series, San Francisco hit 132 home runs. Last year, it hit 130, and this year, it is on pace to hit 135. Let’s look at what that means in terms of placing the team at a competitive advantage or disadvantage.
In 2014, the average MLB team scored 659 runs. In that environment, 8.9 runs equal a win. In other words, for each 8.9 runs a player generated in excess of the so-called replacement player, he would be credited with 1 WAR. (Thinking about it from a team perspective, a run differential of plus-nine would result in a team expected to win 82 games, plus-18 would equal 83 wins and so on.) Scoring has increased each year since 2014, however, so runs are less scarce, and a team needs to create more of them to generate a win. In 2016, 9.8 runs equaled one win, and so far this season, it takes 10.2 runs to create a win.
Let’s put a pin in those figures and move to some home run math. Baseball is unmistakably turning into a three-outcome game, with at-bats more likely than ever to result in a home run, a strikeout or a walk, and the first two outcomes are growing at a faster pace than walks. As a result, there are fewer baserunners than ever, which means the value of a single home run is slowly decreasing, even as a lot more of them are being hit. Skip a few math steps, and it can be summarized like this:
In 2014, by hitting 130 home runs, the Giants could very credibly say that their low-strikeout offense and exceptional defense combined with solid starting and relief pitching easily made up the win deficit they spotted the league through reduced home runs. But that’s not remotely true anymore, and that's why the Giants have started losing with alarming frequency since the second half of the 2016 season. There is no way, mathematically, to play good enough defense or put enough balls into play to overcome the huge competitive disadvantage they face on offense. The margin of error to make up nearly 14 games just to get to .500 is too small. The Chicago Cubs were the greatest defensive team in the history of modern baseball last year, and they created only eight more wins than the average team with their defense.
I am certain that, for the most part, manager Bruce Bochy and the players don’t feel this way. They’re almost certainly convinced that, if all the regulars are healthy and playing to their peak potential, the team will find itself right back in the 90-win range. Regardless of whether that type of performance is realistic, it doesn’t matter because it’s false hope. The math doesn’t work.
That’s why, if the Giants want to be a postseason threat anytime before the next generation of players comes in the clubhouse during the 2020s, they need to blow up the current roster, sell off any part that returns value and start acquiring players with the skills that can help them win games from 2018 to 2020.