On June 8, the Giants swept a three-game home series from the Mets. They were 42-21, with a 9½ lead in the NL West.
Since then ...
The happy-fun times were replaced with the discovery of Uncle Owen, smoldering in the middle of June. They're 4-12 since the Mets series, and the Dodgers have shaved 7½ games off the divisional lead. The Giants, once on pace to win well over 100 games, are now struggling to win against below-.500 teams. I've been tasked with answering why they've collapsed, just like I was tasked last month with explaining their ludicrous start. Fair enough:
- They probably weren't that good
- They probably aren't this bad
There you have it. Baseball sure is a funny sport.
Edit: Okay, this was just sent back to me by my editor, with notes for me to elaborate. Also, there were notes that I used this exact same dichotomy last time. Huh. Let's see what we can find.
The Giants probably weren't that good
Actually, let me change that. They certainly weren't that good. No one is. This wasn't a team that reminded anyone of the '98 Yankees. You didn't think that; I didn't think that; the guy with 59 pins on his hat in section 138 didn't think that. If you believed the Giants were really one of the best teams in the majors over the last couple decades, you believed that Tim Hudson was always going to be a Cy Young contender, that Brandon Hicks was always going to have Dan Uggla's prime with a better glove, that their penchant for two-out RBI was a function of something they could control, rather than something that just happened.
The problem for the Giants last year was their starting pitching. Matt Cain had a miserable first half, and Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong, and Barry Zito had a miserable everything. This year, the Giants have the same group, except for a major improvement from Zito to Hudson. The rest is almost predictable. Cain is having an even worse first half. Lincecum, no-hitter aside, has been erratic --- predictably erratic, as this has been going on for the last two seasons. Vogelsong has been okay, with an 86 ERA+, but his best peripherals as a Giant.
Or, more succinctly, if you asked someone to project how the Giants were going to pitch in 2014, you might have received an answer like ...
Let's see, Bumgarner's awesome. Hudson's okay, but he's certainly an upgrade on Zito. Lincecum's sketchy. Vogelsong's sketchy. And I guess Cain's sketchy now. Could be okay. Could be as bad as they were last year.
Look at that. For once, baseball is kind of predictable. Once Hudson moved back from a Cy Young contender to a solid pitcher, the Giants were who we thought they were. Let's see if the Dodgers let them off the hook.
The Giants probably aren't this bad
The Closer As Proof Theory: You can't use a closer's struggles to prove anything about the overall quality of a team. The Giants had three late leads at home against the Rockies, a team that usually hits like a pack of drunken Neifis away from Coors Field, and the bullpen blew all three games in spectacular fashion. There were hard-hit balls, there were soft-hit balls. There were bad defensive plays, and then there were really bad defensive plays. There was an inside-the-park home run that should have been a single.
If the Giants convert all three saves -- their win probability was at least 95 percent in all three games -- this awful stretch turns into a 7-9 downtick. You're not reading this. No one wants to read an article titled "Why is (team) playing kinda bad over their last 16 games?"
At the same time, the answer to why the Giants are bad isn't "Sergio Romo and the bullpen." That's a reason why the Giants have been good this year. The bad just came all at once, like a property tax bill. If you're looking to find meaning in the Giants' miserable two weeks, you'll have to suggest the bullpen is a problem. I'm not ready to do that. Sometimes, bullpens blow games. Sometimes, they blow every single game in one weekend against the same team. That doesn't tell you about the team -- it tells you about the bullpen in one weekend.
For all the handwringing over the rotation, the rest of the team is sound. Even with Brandon Belt, Marco Scutaro, and Angel Pagan out, the Giants have a solid lineup, with Hunter Pence, Michael Morse, Buster Posey, and Brandon Crawford hitting at All-Star levels. The bullpen has been a strength all year, Colorado series aside. The reserves forced into action have played well enough.
If the bullpen sprinkles those games three weeks apart, if Cain distributed his lousy stretch more equitably, if the Giants took some of those two-out hits away, turning May wins into May losses and June losses into June wins, no one notices. Instead, the Giants were rude enough to pretend that the Gambler's Fallacy -- that five tails are likely to be followed by five heads -- was a provable scientific theory. So we notice.
Strip away the context, the ups and the downs, and you have a flawed Giants team that's good enough to contend. That's a dog-licks-man story. The only real story has been the freakish way they've arrived here.