Saturday, February 6, 2010

Schierholtz the Man in Right for the Giants Now, but Don't Count Out Bowker

I expected it anyway, but now I'm making it official: I'm accepting the fact that Nate Schierholtz will be the starting right fielder for the San Francisco Giants on Opening Day. Yes, I have questioned Schierholtz's ability to play right field every day for the Giants, but for the most part I'm fine with the decision by manager Bruce Bochy. Randy Winn is gone, and Schierholtz is the best defensive and offensive replacement. He has no minor league options on his contract left either, and thus, deserves his shot to play every day at the Major League level.

However, should Schierholtz falter to start off the 2010 season, Giants fans should immediately be looking at one guy to replace him: John Bowker.

Now, I understand Bowker had a terrible 2009 with the Giants and that he cooled off in 2008 after putting up solid numbers to start off his Major League career. Furthermore, even though Bowker wasn't terrible defensively for the Giants in the outfield in 2009 (he had a 3.3 UZR in the outfield last season), he certainly can't compare with Schierholtz with the glove (he had a 5.1 UZR last season).

Offensively though, Bowker could provide more upside than Schierholtz next season. And, considering the team is in need of players to step up around Pablo Sandoval, that aspect of Bowker's game should be greatly considered by Bochy next season.

First off, if you look at the projections, Bowker surprisingly fares much better than Schierholtz in 2010. According to CHONE projections (which was deemed competitive in comparison to Bill James projections by some), Bowker is expected to do better in Schierholtz in nearly every category. CHONE projects him to hit more home runs (15 to Schierholtz's 11), more RBI (62 to 49), score more runs (57 to 50), draw more walks (43 to 19), have a higher OPS (.805 to .782), and accumulate more runs above average based on wOBA (8.3 to 3.8).

Now, I understand projections are only projections (after all, CHONE did expect Sandoval to hit under 20 home runs next season). That being said, I think there are a couple of factors that could make Bowker's projections a reality next season, should he be given a chance to play regularly.

1.) Hensley Meulens was named the Giants' hitting coach this off-season.

For those who don't know "Bam-Bam," he was the hitting coach in Fresno last season. Why is that such a big deal? Well, Bowker put up unbelievable stats at the plate last season in 104 games with the Grizzlies. Bowker hit .342 with 21 home runs, 83 RBI, and scored 82 runs, had a 1.047 OPS, a .447 wOBA (weighted on-base average) and accumulated 41.3 runs above average based on wOBA in 2009 at Triple-A.

Yet the biggest stats of importance in Bowker's case last year in Fresno? A 16.4 percent walk rate, a 17.5 strikeout rate and a 1.16 BB/K rate. He never had a BB/K rate over 0.40 at any level until last year in Fresno.

And who was the guy that helped Bowker become a more selective and better hitter at the dish (not to mention earn "Triple-A Player of the Year" honors)? That honor belongs to Meulens. To make things better, chances are he will continue to work with and help Bowker transition that Triple-A success to the Major Leagues, now that he's the Giants' hitting coach in 2010.

Granted, those numbers are at Triple-A, and if anybody remembers, Todd Linden hit 30 home runs and posted a 1.120 OPS in 2005 at the Triple-A level.

That being said, even in his best season at Triple-A in 2008, Schierholtz only posted a 0.41 BB/K ratio. Thus, though Schierholtz could hit for power at the Triple-A level (he hit 18 homers in 2008 and had an OPS of .958), his free-hacking approach certainly doesn't bode well for success at the MLB level, especially after 2009 where he posted a pedestrian 0.28 BB/K ratio and .702 OPS.

There is also one more reason why Bowker could prove to be a valuable asset to the Giants outfield in 2010 over Schierholtz:

2.) Bowker's HR/FB percentage

Now, Bowker's HR/FB (home run to flyball ratio) was nothing special at 9.1 percent, but it looks really good in comparison to Schierholtz, who had a HR/FB ratio of 6.2 percent in 2009.

To put it in perspective, Schierholtz had a lower HR/FB percentage than Eugenio Velez and Fred Lewis (that's right, Giants fans' favorite whipping boy).

What does this mean? It means that Bowker has a better potential to hit with more power than Schierholtz (as did Velez and Lewis in 2009), and with a team devoid of "power hitters" around Sandoval (unless you consider Bengie Molina and Aubrey Huff to be decent power hitters), the Giants need all the offensive production they can get. With Bowker, the Giants' lineup has a home-run potential. With Schierholtz, chances are they will just get groundballs (as evidenced by his 44.6 groundball percentage and 1.28 GB/FB ratio in 2009).

Now, I know everyone will say "that's just one season" in terms of comparing the HR/FB ratios between Bowker and Schierholtz. However, if you look at 2008, the numbers are even more in Bowker's favor. In 2008, Bowker had a 10.5 percent HR/FB percentage. Schierholtz? He only had a 6.3 percent HR/FB percentage.

Just to make it known, I'm not hoping for Schierholtz to fail as the Giants right fielder. There is a lot to like about Schierholtz: he's incredible defensively, and he's a gamer. The latter quality probably isn't so important (since Aaron Rowand is technically a "gamer" too), but the former definitely is. If there's anything Giants fans took for granted in 2009, it was Randy Winn's defense. AT&T Park's right field is a killer position to play, and Winn made it look easy (his 9.6 UZR and 16.5 fielding runs above average based on UZR proved that in 2009). Schierholtz not only is capable of handling the position as well as Winn, but he might do better because he has a better arm than Winn.

That being said, aside from his defense, I do feel Schierholtz is a limited player with the bat. He doesn't provide power and he doesn't have enough plate patience to make up for his lack of power. On the flip side, Bowker provides so much more upside with his bat, and with a new hitting coach for the Giants (one that knows Bowker's strengths and weaknesses inside and out) and a better opportunity for regular playing time in 2010, it isn't impossible think that Bowker can put up numbers closer to his 2009 in Fresno rather than his 2009 with the Giants.

Sure, Schierholtz is the fan-favorite for now, but if the Giants really want to improve their offense in 2010, Bowker may prove to be the better option overall. If Bowker has a solid Spring Training, don't be surprised to see Schierholtz feel the heat if he struggles out of the gate next season.

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