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How Many Runs is Enough?

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We're all chomping at the bit -- nyom nyom nyom -- to get these Giants fixed up right for next year.

The conventional wisdom says all this team needs to compete is an average offense, instead of an historically bad one. If you want to talk averages, how about this: The Giants averaged 749 runs a year this decade, right about middle of the pack. To get back to that mediocre mark in 2010, the Giants would need to add nearly 100 runs. They scored 657 in 2009, fifth worst in MLB.

Round it up: Will 750 be enough to win a pennant?  It depends how many runs they allow, of course. Let's say, just for fun, the Giants maintain their MLB-leading ability to prevent runs. (They tied with the Dodgers for fewest allowed in 2009: 611.) That would give them 750 runs for (mediocre), 611 against (awesome!). Plug that into Bill James' pythagorean expectation formula* and you get a predicted record of 97 wins, plenty to win the NL West or at least the Wild Card.

(The average numbers of wins for NL West division winners the past five years is 89. The average number of wins for NL wild card winners past five years is 91.)

Wait a second. Ninety-seven wins would be fine and dandy, but seeing how they probably need at least 90 wins for a good shot at a playoff berth, let's revise our runs scored/allowed totals to reflect more realism.

Before we get to the reality check on the Giants adding 100 runs to their season total -- i.e., no way in hell it's going to happen -- let's check the other side of the ledger, runs allowed. Gut feeling says the Giants won't repeat the astounding pitching/defense they displayed this year.

Just this decade, which has flaws as a sample size that we'll ignore for now, four teams have allowed fewer than 611 runs: Toronto in 2008 (610), Houston in 2005 (609), the Dodgers in 2003 (556), and Atlanta in 2002 (565). We might as well throw the 2002 Giants in the group, too, with 616 runs allowed. Add this year's Giants and Dodgers, and seven teams in ten years have managed the feat. That's 2.3% percent of all major-league teams.

Repeatable? I could be pollyannish (Best! Pitching! Staff! Ever!) but I prefer to be slightly pessimistic and say they give up 650 runs next year, 39 more than this year. That's about one extra run every fourth game. (Six-hundred fifty, by the way, would have put them fifth in the majors this year.)

Let's be even more pessimistic and say they give up an extra run every two games, or 692 runs. That's still good for sixth-best in the majors this year, by the way, and it's just a smidge under their seasonal average for the decade, 714 runs allowed.

It's not hard to imagine the starters being as good collectively in 2010 as they were this year, and the Giants have enough interesting young arms to fashion a pretty good bullpen, with some luck and freedom from injury, every year. With the expected turnover at a few positions, defense is hard to project.  

So let's take two different runs-allowed figures. First, 650. To get to 90 wins, they would have to score about 725. That's 68 more than 2009, or about two extra runs every 5 games.

Now let's pretend they allow 690 runs. To get to 90 wins, they would need about 770 runs. That's 113 more than 2009, or nearly two extra runs every three games.

I can't see the team adding 100+ runs, but 68..... Start with a full year of a healthy Freddy Sanchez (perhaps a pipe dream). Even if he's not at his peak, he should be worth 30 or 35 runs, at a position where Emmanuel Burriss in 200 at-bats actually subtracted 8 runs from the ledger (I'm using the "Runs Above Replacement" statistic on Fangraphs, which includes contributions on offense and defense). Uribe was better, though I don't know how much of his offense came while playing second base. Sanchez himself was practically invisible once a Giant, so let's take a rough guess that a 35-RAR season from Sanchez would be a 25-run improvement over what the Giants got from their second basemen in 2009.

Now let's pretend they sign Matt Holliday (57 RAR in 2009) or Jason Bay (35 RAR). Simply adding one of them and subtracting Randy Winn (17 RAR in '09) would make up quite a bit more. (Remember, this is rough -- I'm not trying to project what they're likely to do in 2010, I'm just comparing '09 to '09 seasons and assuming they won't suffer a serious decline).

Of course, the Giants aren't likely to sign Holliday or Bay. One name that's surfaced in rumors is Johnny Damon (30 RAR). One who hasn't but is intriguing is Mike Cameron (43 RAR). So perhaps we can assume 15 or 20 more runs. 

On the infield, it's rumored the Giants are pursuing a trade for Dan Uggla (29 RAR), who would either play third base, likely eroding his suspect defense even further, or bumping Sanchez to third. That would move Pablo Sandoval to first, where he would replace the Aurilia/Ishikawa/Garko trio from last year that on offense barely registered a blip. (Ishikawa however was  valuable for his glove.) Call it a 20-run bump -- Uggla over last year's first basemen.

Sanchez, New Outfielder, Uggla: 60 more runs? Then Renteria does something, anything to improve upon his 2-RAR season, Posey is a pleasant surprise and beats Molina's 18 RAR from last year, and Nate Schierholtz shows steady improvement. Bit by bit, the team could climb above that 68-run mark.

Again, it's all rough, but you get the picture. The Giants likely can't afford to give up 690 runs next year. But if the pitching staff (and defense, don't forget) fare slightly worse and allow an extra run every few games, the necessary offensive improvement of 68 more runs to get to a theoretical 90-win mark isn't impossible to imagine. It would have to come from a few positions. Not even Matt Holliday could close the gap by himself. But you don't have to twist yourself into self-delusional pretzels to get there.

* There are more refined versions of the Pythagorean formula, but I'm keeping it crude tonight.

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