On June 8th, the San Francisco Giants were 42-21 and in first game by 9.5 games. They appeared to be running away with the National League west leaving, among others, a highly touted and very expensive Dodger team far behind. Since that time they have won only six games while losing 18, and are now in second place. With the season only half over, the Giants still could end up with a playoff spot, but if they continue their losing ways for another week or two, even that will be unlikely.
The Giants were not going to play .667 baseball for the whole season, as they had through their first 63 games, but they certainly looked like a team that was too good to play .250 ball for a month. The easiest way to explain a collapse of this kind is to attribute it, in one for or another, to a change of luck and injuries. Luck and injuries certainly have played a role, but that is only part of the story.
One of the main reasons the Giants were winning in the first part of the season was because they were getting extraordinary contributions from their second tier hitters. Stars like Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt were playing at or under expectations -- Belt went on the disabled list long before the Giants started to fade. However, Michael Morse and Brandon Hicks were exceeding expectations. Morse, for example, posted OPS of over .900 through the end of May, but had on OPS of .612 in June. Similarly, Hicks has had an OPS of under .450 since June 1, but was well over .600 when the Giants were winning.
The combination of injuries to Belt and Angel Pagan, the latter of whom was perhaps the only Giants star who was having a genuinely great year through June 8th, put stress on the team as part time players like Gregor Blanco and Tyler Colvin were more or less thrust into full time positions. If Morse and Hicks had continued hitting after the injuries, the Giants would have probably played closer to .500 ball during this stretch, but the injuries and cooling off of the secondary talent proved too much. By the end of June, a typical Giant lineup included Blanco, light hitting prospect Joe Panik and some combination of Colvin and Adam Duvall, as well as usually Brandon Crawford and Morse, who were no longer delivering the big hits. The other part of the puzzle was Sergio Romo suddenly being seemingly unable to close out a save. Because of this, the Giants bullpen rapidly went from being an asset to being a problem.
All of these problems would be manageable for a team that had a deeper farm system than the Giants. With Belt and Blanco out, the Giants lack of strong hitting prospects was exposed. The Giants seem to have a lot of good fielding, fast fourth outfielder types in the like Blanco, Juan Perez and Gary Brown, but the absence of any legitimate power hitter in the high minors who could play either first base or the outfield, something that most teams have, cost the Giants. The best they could do was Colvin, who has rarely been an impact hitter in his six big league seasons and Duvall.
The problems of the Giants farm system was made worse by the Giants inexplicably slow reaction to the injuries and slumps. They made almost no effort to pick up a bat when Pagan and Belt went down and Morse stopped hitting. Again, they did not need to add a legitimate big league slugger, just somebody who could hit a little bit with some power. That kind of 4A player is usually available somewhere, but it is not clear they even looked.
Romo's recent failures were also allowed to go on too long before he was finally removed from the closer role. Replacing Romo does not require going outside the organization; and the Giants have wisely avoided doing this. However, Romo's popularity with the fans and perceived centrality to the team may have made it easy for the organization to overlook his struggles for too long. Romo's like many closers, peaked as a setup man in 2011. Every year since then, his ERA, FIP and walks per nine innings have gone up while his strikeouts per nine innings have declined.
In some regards the Giants downturn was predictable, and should have been predicted, by the organization. Assuming the team will keep winning because everybody will stay healthy and continue to hit is not a strategy appropriate for a 162-game season, but this appears to be what the Giants were doing. Making moves in the beginning of the slump would have been hard to do and would have made the Giants vulnerable to accusations of panicking. Nobody could have known how badly, for example, Morse and Hicks were going to slump. However, the failure to have some options within the organization before the season began, and the failure to recognize the real possibility that Romo was not going to remain a dominant closer were mistakes that could have been avoided.
Follow Lincoln Mitchell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LincolnMitchell