Angel Pagan and Hunter Pence warming up. Photo by Denise Walos.
The San Francisco Giants have begun the 2014 season with an offensive burst of firepower, surpassing anything fans might have hoped for. In hitting nine home runs in their first six games, they not only lead the major leagues, but it took them nineteen games last year to reach the same plateau. The question is, are we seeing an anomaly to start off the year, and things will return to “normal,” or is this the real deal?
I see five reasons why the Giants’ hitting success, no matter what form it takes, will continue as long as injuries do not rear their ugly head. The Giants are currently on a pace to hit 243 homers for the year, six off the all-time National League record of 249, set by the 2000 Houston Astros. OK, that’s never going to happen, so let’s back the truck up and suggest, strongly, that hitting home runs is not the goal. Hitting the ball hard is the idea and some of those balls go out. Here are my five reasons:
Number one is Michael Morse, whose first home run of the season in yesterday’s 7-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, was the fourth consecutive game in which he has knocked in at least one run. Brian Sabean had on his winter wish list, the acquisition of a left fielder who could provide some offensive power consistently, for the first time since Barry Bonds left the building. Morse went about the business of preparing for the season during spring training, with a specific goal in mind: to return to the player he was in 2011, when he played in 146 games, hitting .303 with 31 homers and 95 RBI’s. He has begun the season on track.
May 1, 2013; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Mariners right fielder Michael Morse (38) hits a two run home run against the Baltimore Orioles during the 4th inning at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
Second is the fact that persistent injuries last season kept many of the Giants’ players from attaining that level of consistency, needed to get the whole team offensively firing on all cylinders. Those injuries included Angel Pagan’s hamstring, Pablo Sandoval’s ongoing issues with hand and foot bones, Brandon Crawford’s sprained right middle/index fingers, and Hector Sanchez’ right shoulder. With nagging injuries off the slate, the Giants are in a position to maintain their excellent hitting.
The third reason the Giants are the real deal is because they are engaged in an intramural competition, formerly used only during spring training or during a period of struggle to try and get back on track. I watched a Mindy Bach telecast, in which she described how Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval had been selected as captains of the two squads-within-a-squad, to see which could accrue more points in their hitting competition.
The way it works is that each player earns points by his performance at the plate, particularly when there are two outs. Being patient is the most important element, but all of the fundamentals come into play, such as bunting, advancing the runner(s), two-strike counts, et al. I find it typical that the Giants would employ this kind of device, because it emphasizes that element of chemistry, which elevates the game to a higher level, than a team that plays together, but does not share that bond of emotional closeness.
Fourth there is Brandon Belt’s readjustment of his hands on the bat, which did not take place until August of last season. In August, the changes were particularly helpful in allowing those long arms of his to reach outside pitches more effectively. Through July 31st, he hit .191/.321/ .267 on outside pitches. From August 1st onward, he hit .373/.424 /.542 on outside pitches. In the first six games of this season, Belt is bating .296, with a .630 slugging percentage. He has taken what he learned last season and applied it early in a successful manner, leading the team with three home runs.
Brandon Belt at Yankee Stadium on 9/21/13. Photo by Denise Walos
Finally, leadership plays a huge role in the form of Brian Sabean, who is the longest tenured general manager in the big leagues. This means he’s good at what he does, and that consists of scouring baseball for the individual players who can best help his team. His acquisition of Michael Morse is only the latest in a series of telling moves, which have enhanced the Giants’ playoff plans. Sabean’s ability to pull off last minute deals before the trade deadline, like the Hunter Pence deal, is something the Giants rely on, in the case of injury.
So for these five reasons, and others that I have not factored in, such as Brandon Hicks and Ehire Andrianza emerging as offensive threats, the Giants will continue to swing healthy bats. That doesn’t mean they will break any home run records, though you never know. Hunter Pence, who led the team last year with 27, has yet to hit his first, so we still have nowhere to go but up.
Sitting atop the standings right now, the Giants are not as up as they need to be in order to ensure that the Dodgers get the message: San Francisco is a force with which to reckon. Get used to it.
Beat LA. It has a nice ring to it.