By Nathan Desai
The Bay Area is no stranger to baseball success. From Reggie Jackson to Buster Posey, the Giants and the A’s have seen numerous superstars lead their teams to championships. Since the A’s moved in across the bay from the Giants in 1968, the two teams have combined for six World Series titles, with A’s winning three championships in their first decade in Oakland, and the Giants notching two titles in the last four years. Finally, there is, of course, the famous 1989 Bay Bridge World Series won by the A’s.
With the A’s holding the best record in baseball, and the Giants showing enormous early potential, having gone 42-21 through their first 63 games, there is a possibility that the Battle of the Bay will have an October sequel 25 years later.
However, winning the World Series is obviously difficult and certainly requires a lot of luck. For example, even though he did it once in the 2012 World Series, Pablo Sandoval is not going to hit two home runs off of Justin Verlander every time he faces the Tigers’ ace (although it would be fantastic if he would). Speaking of the Tigers, Verlander himself has said that the A’s trade with the Cubs for pitchers Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija was completed specifically to boost Oakland’s postseason chances in a potential matchup against Detroit.
Both the A’s and the Giants will obviously have to continue to make improvements down the stretch if they want a shot at the title. Although they got off to a hot start, the Giants have won just 10 of their last 32 games. In turn, on the other side of the bay, the A’s have won over 90 games and the AL West in the past two seasons, but have been eliminated by the Tigers in the ALDS both times.
As Verlander said, the A’s already have the playoffs — and a matchup with the Tigers — on their minds. In turning to those acquisitions for the Athletics, Samardzija and Hammel have so far combined for a couple of starts since they both arrived for the north side of Chicago on July 4.
Hammel’s first start was sluggish, as he was charged with a loss against the Giants on July 9. Although he allowed a season-high three walks in that game, Hammel’s strongest attribute throughout the season has been his control, as he has only allowed 26 walks in his 18 starts this year. When one factors his 107 strikeouts into the equation, Hammel’s 4.12 K/BB (strikeouts to walks) ratio is 18th best in all of baseball. Hammel’s incredible control also keeps him from conceding many hits, as he has only allowed 94 hits so far this season, tied for 12th best amongst qualified pitchers. This brings his WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) to 1.06, which is the 11th best among qualifying pitchers.
The other asset the A’s received in that trade with the Cubs was Jeff Samardzija. Much like the Giants, Samardzija had an incredible start to the season, as his ERA was at an astounding 1.68 at the end of May. However, his record at the time was 1-4 due to the Cubs’ struggles to find run support. Now that the ace is in Oakland with emerging sluggers like Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss, who both have over 20 home runs so far this season, the victories should start rolling in. Samardzija notched his third win of the season in his first start for the A’s, as he pitched seven innings and allowed just four hits against the Blue Jays on July 6. Although Samardzija followed that performance with another quality start against the Mariners on July 11, he was defeated by the lights out Felix Hernandez.
Despite being eight games behind the A’s, the Mariners actually have more wins in the head-to-head matchup against Oakland so far this year. The only other American League team that leads its season series with the A’s is the Tigers. As such, if these teams continue performing the way they have thus far, the A’s will need to find a way to overcome Seattle and/or Detroit in the postseason.
The Hammel/Samardzija trade was certainly meant to boost the A’s starting rotation. Between those two and All-Star Scott Kazmir, the A’s may be able to hold off the powerful bats of Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler, as well as others in the Tigers’ lineup.
In contrast, the Mariners’ biggest strength is their pitching. Led by Felix Hernandez, Seattle’s pitching staff is third in the majors in ERA and first in WHIP. In order to combat the M’s strong pitching, the A’s will need Hammel, Samardzija and Kazmir to step up to slow down Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and the rest of the Mariners’ lineup, while also relying on Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Moss and the rest of the A’s hitters to crank out a couple of runs off of the almost unhittable Seattle rotation.
San Francisco Giants
Another team that has been relying on their pitching quite a bit is the A’s neighbor from across the bay. It seems that every year the Giants find a new ace. In 2011, it was Tim Lincecum. In 2012, it was Matt Cain. In 2013, it was Madison Bumgarner. And now, in 2014, it is Tim Hudson, although the team is starting to see some consistent production from all four pitchers.
All four of the aforementioned players have an average Game Score of at least 50 this season. A “perfect score” is 114, and would be achieved if a pitcher were to consecutively strike out all 27 batters he faced.
To provide some perspective on Game Score, Cain’s perfect game in 2012 earned him a Game Score of 101, and Lincecum’s no-hitter a few weeks ago was a 92. Fifty is considered an average outing, so the fact that Hudson, Lincecum, Bumgarner and Cain all have Game Scores of above 50 in 2014 means that they have all been above-average this season, even though some of them are slumping right now.
All four of these pitchers have shown an ability to succeed, some more recently than others. From May 4 to June 5, Bumgarner went 6-0 with an average Game Score of 68 over that span. Furthermore, from May 25 to June 22, he had five quality starts in six opportunities, with a pitcher earning a quality start if he pitches for at least six innings and allows at most three earned runs. However, Hudson has been in a bit of a slump recently, but perhaps that is due to fatigue, as he’s thrown 2,049 pitches this season, which is the 11th most among all Major League pitchers.
Hudson has been the Giants’ best pitcher this season with a 2.87 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. A month ago, he had a 1.81 ERA and a 7-2 record, but his numbers have slipped a little recently. Much like with Bumgarner, perhaps rest is the answer to Hudson’s recent difficulties.
While Hudson and Bumgarner have struggled recently, Cain and Lincecum have excelled. Although he has a 4.18 ERA for the season, Cain has been steadily improving in his past few starts. He entered the All-Star break with three quality starts in his last three outings, and recorded his first win in almost two months in his last start before the All-Star Break.
Ultimately, the Giants’ biggest surprise over the past few weeks has been none other than two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum. From 2008 to 2011, Lincecum was the Giants’ best pitcher, winning two Cy Youngs and leading the team to a World Series title. However, in 2012, he experienced a rapid decline, and had been in a slump for more than two seasons. He did throw his first no-hitter last season, but continued to struggle for the rest of 2013.
However, after his second no-hitter against the Padres on June 25, Lincecum has noticeably improved as a pitcher in comparison to his earlier performances this year. In his three starts since his no-hitter, Lincecum has recorded three wins, while only giving up 10 hits and allowing just one earned run.
Unfortunately for the Giants, it will be difficult to succeed in the playoffs if only two of their starters pitch well while their other two struggle. Even if the Giants turn to a three-man postseason rotation, they will be shooting themselves in the foot if their third starter cannot deliver decent performances. Therefore, their rotation will have to develop some level of consistency, especially considering that the Giants have been relying on their arms much more than their bats.
On offense, the player with the fourth highest batting average for the Giants is Bumgarner, who trails All-Star outfielder Hunter Pence, injured outfielder Angel Pagan and relief pitcher David Huff. This fact highlights San Francisco’s offensive challenges, as some of the notable players who are hitting below Bumgarner’s .275 average are 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey and 2012 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval. Though they found success earlier on in the season in spite of their offense, the Giants’ struggles at the plate have caught up to them, becoming readily apparent throughout this 10-22 slump. Over the past 30 days, the Giants have scored the second fewest runs and have the second lowest batting average in MLB, with only the Padres trailing San Fran in both categories.
Certainly the return of Pagan and second baseman Marco Scutaro will help. But considering that the Giants’ pitching staff is not as dominant or consistent as it has been in the past, such as when they recorded a 1.50 ERA against the Tigers in the 2012 World Series or when they shut out the Rangers for 18 consecutive innings in the 2010 World Series, the bats are going to have to come alive.
The obvious places to look for additional offense are Posey and Sandoval. Both have actually been playing decently, but certainly not to either player’s potential. Rather than expecting MVP performances from these two, Giants fans could also look to the other players and hope for more well-rounded production. Players like Brandon Crawford and Michael Morse have had their moments of quality, but have also lacked any form of consistency.
Despite these struggles, the Giants are still in line for a Wild Card spot, so a playoff appearance seems to be more than simply a possibility. However, if the Giants cannot elevate both their hitting and their pitching, it is easy to picture them having difficulties against the top teams in the National League, such as the Dodgers and Brewers, who have the pitching to win low-scoring games and the hitting to win high-scoring games.
There obviously is not a recipe for success in baseball. You never know when Pablo Sandoval will hit three home runs in a single game, or when Josh Hamilton will drop a can of corn to hand the A’s the AL West crown. The Giants could continue playing the way they have been for the past month, catch a few breaks and end up lifting the trophy anyway. In turn, the A’s could also have a few unlucky bounces throughout the rest of the season and lose their pole position.
Even the best teams get lucky, but you definitely do not want to be the team that crosses its fingers and hopes for the best. As the A’s make trades and the Giants recover from injuries, both teams are certainly boosting the odds of bringing a seventh title to the Bay Area.
But you should probably put your rally caps on anyway.
*Stats and Records accurate as of July 17th