Your 2006 Giants: Niekro Just Fine, Maybe Better Than Fine
He had a nice start to his MLB career in 2005 but he ended the season on a very poor note, bad enough that the Giants have qualified their support for him as starter. In addition, there is his long history of injury which struck him again last season, and happen to strike right when his stats started declining, so it was not clear whether the injury caused it or if the league happened to finally figure things out around that time. Normally, this bad second half is an indicator that pitchers had figured him out but the injury muddles the analysis enough to make it not clear what happened.
Not Quite Day and Night
Like Finley, there are signs either way that he's bad or good. He was hitting .308/.336/.564/.900 with 7 HR in 117 AB when he got injured. After that he hit only .211/.266/.385/.651 with 5 HR in 161 AB. And that does seem abnormal because his minor league stats translated into him being a .250-.270 hitter in the majors. So he did really well early in the season before his injury seemed to put a cramp into his hitting style plus he wouldn't be able to hit .300 in the minors if he couldn't hit RHP to some extent, so perhaps it was a flukey thing in the latter half of 2005.
Also like Finley, his injury appeared to affect his hitting vs. the opposite thrower. While his hitting vs. RHP did suffer initially, he was able to hit to his normal level for much of the season until the last month when perhaps fatigue set in since it was his first full MLB season, which is longer than what he did in the minors. Whereas his LHP hitting slowly sunk from the point of the injury. Conversely, however, he starting striking out a lot more, off the charts, against RHP at the end of the season, after being in the good zone most of the season. And he was able to stay pretty good vs. LHP, particularly his ISO, until, again, late in the season.
Again like Finley, Niekro's home park did him in. His great start was almost entirely driven by his road numbers. Possibly because he had to leave hitter's havens like Colorado and Arizona, his road numbers fell like a rock. And I don't know if it was a coincident or not but once he had his injury, his road numbers dropped off the clift whereas his numbers at home stayed in the same crappy range. And his strikeout rate just exploded after that on the road, whereas at home it was relatively consistent. He was in the "good" range on the road until around August, same with his ISO.
And while he had problems at home, his ISO at home rose from average to good as the season progressed, suggesting that he slowly figured out how to hit at home. This is similar to the struggles that Grissom, Durham, and Alfonzo ran into their first season in SF, there was an interview with Grissom where he talked about the trio's difficulties figuring out SBC/AT&T. So his power stayed, only he couldn't buy a hit, but he started figuring out how to get walks.
Other factors that affected his hitting was three things related to his injury. One was that because he started less, it was harder for him to get into a groove and, at the same time, harder to get out of slumps because he wasn't playing as regularly. Problems at the plate tends to weight on players longer that way. In addition, by being on the bench, he had to pinch hit a lot, about 30-35 times after his injury. The pinch-hitting after the injury killed his numbers and masked his adequate peripherals. Spliting it out (I took his game stats and I assumed 3 PA or higher was a start, else PH), I got this (plus I threw in his before numbers too so one can see how much he dropped):
his role - OPS - BB% - Contact% - BB/SO - AB/HR
Start - .667 - 7.7% - 80.3% - 42.3% - 26.4 AB
PHing - .578 - 3.3% - 58.6% - 8.3% - no HR
(Before - .900 - 4.1% - 87.2% - 33.3% - 16.7 AB)
As you can see his peripherals as a starter were OK, BB% was about average, Contact% was about average, his BB/SO was a little low (50% is min for acceptable major leaguer). Plus his HR rate was still good, 20+ homer pace. But his hitting performance did not truly reflect his OK peripherals. And pinch-hitting just totally killed his numbers in the second half and for the season.
Third is that his ISO showed that he had power when he connected, but as his sky-high strikeouts showed, his contact rate went way down, resulting in a huge drop in his fly ball rate. But the good news there is that his fly ball rate returned in the last weeks of the season. And recent research has shown that a batter's HR rate is related to the number of fly balls he hits.
Given small samples and extremes, his 2006 numbers will probably end up between the extreme of what he was hitting when he got injured (had a .900 OPS) and of what he was hitting after the injury (had a .667 OPS if you exclude all the pinch-hitting). I know, big whoop, it doesn't take much to say this. The significance of this range is that he will be batting 7th mainly for the Giants in 2006. Even if he hits poorly, while that is bad relative to most team's 1Bman, he would fit right in with the other 7th place hitters across the league. The median OPS was .702 for the NL, which is not far from the .667 OPS he had as a starter after his injury.
Even a minor uptick from recovering from his injury would cover that difference and put him in the middle plus be better than what the Giants got in 2005. If he can either consolidate what he was learning in the second half regarding walks or hit like he did before the injury, he only needs to hit .713 to be 7th in the NL and only needs to hit at least .800 to be in the top 3 in the NL. However, he needs to avoid the injuries, which, unfortunately, he's already got something this spring, hopefully this gets it out of his system and he can be healthy during the season.
And frankly, successful winning teams don't rely on a good hitting 7th place hitter, they are a luxury. The teams with the best 7th place hitters were, for the top half of the NL, were Mets, Brewers, Reds, Cards, San Diego, Florida, Dodgers, and Cubs. Most were .500 or worse teams, only the Cards were much over .500. Out of the other playoff teams, the Braves were 9th, so they were in the bottom half of teams and that was an OPS of .695. And Houston was 16th or last with .610.
People are focused too much on Niekro as a weak link because he's a firstbaseman and not hitting like other firstbasemen. While that is of some concern, the Giants have a pretty good top of the lineup with Winn, Vizquel, Durham, Bonds, and Alou, with Finley as an adequate substitute if he bounces back to his previous hitting performance. And Feliz could make it even stronger if he does breakout like I think the indicators appear to be saying. If the other hitters hit like they are suppose to, we don't need Niekro to hit as well as other firstbasemen, though that would make our lineup even better.
Lastly, and I think very importantly, he seems to be taking very seriously this opportunity to start. He has made adjustments in his hitting that has been evident even in the small sample spring stats. His dad told him it might be his one and only chance to start, which he appears to have taken to heart. He at least is talking the talk by saying he's working hard to earn 1B, not just take it by default, not just take it because he is being given it.
According to this well timed artice on him, he added on 15 pounds of muscle during the offseason. That should help him with hitting with more power and that should help him with lasting deeper into the season, assuming some of his late season decline was related to insufficient conditioning. The article also confirms much of the above paragraph. He noted, "I'm trying to be more selective and find a pitch in the zone." That's straight out of Ted Williams hitting book, which I loved as an instructional for hitting, it tried to make a science of hitting (and coinky-dink enough, that's the title, The Science of Hitting) and helped turn a 90 lb weakling hitter like me into the Pete Rose of our 8-1 intramural college team (FYI: if you just love hitting balls over and over again, I got to do that 25 years ago at Chabot College taking their summer baseball class - there wasn't enough people for a game so the 3-4 of us just fed the hitting machines to each other. Pure joy.)
In addition, it noted that he has made adjustments. He has altered his stance so that he's now staying over the ball better, according to the Giants batting coach, and it's a much quicker path to the ball with a lot of power. The coach feels that since he is stronger now, it has given Niekro confidence plus when you are weaker you have a tendency to lose your mechanics quickly. Hopefully that will keep him out of the funk that he admitted affected him greatly, whether lefty or righty. He noted, "there were a couple of pitches they were getting me out on, even lefties, and once they found that spot they started attacking me." And it showed in his stats, with the huge jump in strikeouts at the end of the season. But now it looks like the pitchers will have to adjust back, so it will be a battle this season
So when I add that all up, even at his worse, he's around the league middle for 7th place hitters. And if you assume he can hit better than he did in the second half, taking out injury and PHing, then he's pushing above the median. And if he can return to his pre-injury hitting, he'll be one of the top 7th place hitters. And if he can hit in the low .800 OPS, he would be in the middle of the pack among firstbasemen. Lastly, his .900 OPS to start last season would have put him 6th and close to the 4th and 5th spots. He should be fine starting at firstbase for the Giants this season and there are a number of signs that he could be better than fine.