Thursday, May 25, 2017

Can't Get My Motor to Start

At what point does a slow start become a lost season? Is there a definitive, predictable date or place in the schedule  where a team playing .400 ball, or .300 ball, or worse, knows, absolutely if reluctantly knows, that it's not going to turn around, no matter what? Have the 2017 Giants reached that point, have they already passed it, or is there still time to make a run at the postseason? What do past seasons, and past slow starts, tell us about the Giants' chances today?

Coming off a once-encouraging road trip that began with two wins out of three in St Louis, the club continued its short trek across the midwest by dropping three of four in Chicago, finishing the seven-game swing at 3-4, and losing ground both in and out of the NL West division. After a 5-2 homestand that saw the Giants bookend a couple of tough losses with a five-game winning streak, it was possible to hope they'd return home within five games of the .500 mark and get a little payback for last October at Wrigley Field. Now, after three straight losses, clearly outplayed by the Cubs in all three of them, the Giants sit at 20-29. They'll need to go 25-16 over the next six weeks to reach .500 at the All-Star Break, which automatically puts a team in contention these days. Does anyone who follows this team closely think they're equipped, let alone likely, to do that? Another five-game win streak at home will do little to reverse the trend, if the team can't play .500 ball on the road.

How does this rank with the worst starts in Giants team history? Has any San Francisco ballclub ever shaken off a .400 (or worse) mark one-third into the season and won anything, or even come close?   Does history tell us it's already time to give up and find out who can play and who can't, or is Bruce Bochy's continuing stubborn optimism based on something more than, well, stubbornness?

We started thinking about this back on May 9, when the Giants sat at 11-23 (.324), the worst record in all baseball.  The statistical mavens who came up with "Wins Above Replacement (WAR)" typically peg "replacement level" in a given season somewhere in the .290-to-.310 range; that is, a player who's contributing no more than a 30% chance of winning to his team is a candidate for the metaphorical glue factory. A winning percentage even a little worse than the Giants' on May 9 would indicate, at least in theory, that the team would do just about as well if they simply released the entire roster and repopulated it with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats.

An ugly thought, that one, even as hyperbole. Since that day the Giants are 9-6, not exactly a ball of fire, but a short step in the right direction. Today we're not here to review whether the current cast of characters on the roster is capable of turning it around and making a postseason run at this point. We're looking over 59 seasons of San Francisco baseball, identifying the worst starts in that period, and determining whether the record shows it can even be done.

A few exceptionally bad seasons need no analysis or exegis here. The back-to-back nightmares of 1984 and 1985, the nadir of San Francisco Giants baseball, will not be covered, for example, nor will those mid-Seventies train wrecks (1972, 1974, 1976) or the rebuilding years of a decade ago. We'll focus on the Giants since the 1986 renaissance, with emphasis on the "Sabean years" from 1997-2004 and the return to quality form beginning in 2009.

We've always held the start of the 1991 season up as the worst of the worst. A team expected to contend instead began the year 12-29, an execrable .293, true replacement level and five games worse than this year's model. At the time, manager Roger Craig was defiant: "We're gonna turn this thing around yet," he promised. "You all will be back here in a couple of months asking us how we did it."

Well, they didn't, and indeed it would surprise us if any team, in any league in any year, ever overcame a sub-.300 start after one-fourth of the season. But that Giants team did go 63-58 the rest of the year, and even reached .500 in August. Sadly, good ol' Roger had already managed his last winning team in San Francisco, he just didn't know it.

That would be the previous year's team, 1990, which combined a bad start (11-20) with a terrific start by the division-rival Cincinnati Reds (22-8) to fall out of contention before school even let out. Amazingly, that '90 team, led by two rookie pitchers and the "Pacific Coast Sock Exchange" (remember?) went on a 47-28 tear and got within four games of the lead in late July before settling back and finishing at a more tepid, but respectable, 85-77. This year's team had the same record 31 games in; we're sure many of you would eagerly take a 85-77 finish now. (Then again, that benighted 1980 squad opened at 11-20 too, and may as well have gone no further.)

None of the Giants' three World Championship teams had to overcome a wretched start like this, and the winning teams of 1997-2003 didn't either. The 2001 squad opened 15-15, then reeled off seven wins in eight games and was in the thick of the race the rest of the way. The 2012 champions also started 15-15 but by this point were 26-23 and on a steady climb. The 2013 team started 18-12, same as the 2010 squad, but didn't deliver the goods, though they stayed in contention most of the way. The Sabean era, as a whole, has seen a few .500 starts, many above-.500 starts, and a few .600 starts, the best years being 2002 and 2014 (19-11), and 1999, 2010, 2013, and 2014 (18-12).

It's not really in anyone's best interest to remember 2004, a season that ended as rudely as one can end. But the Giants did overcome a bad start to get within one game at the finale. They opened 13-18, which is barely .400, and on May 19 were still slouching along at 16-24, similar to this years' mark-- and they had just endured a ten-inning walk-off loss at Wrigley Field, too.

Then they came home and won ten straight. Three awful losses in Arizona dropped them one game below .500, after which they went 17-6, took over first place, extended their lead to three games, and stayed in the fight the rest of the way, finishing at 91-71, two games back in both the division and wild-card races. After that rotten opening quarter, they went 75-47 (.620) and came within one out of the postseason.

So the good news is, yes, it can be done, and a Giants team has done it. The bad news is, in 59 years of baseball, one Giants team has done it.

Stay strong, people.
 

 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Heaven in Seventeen

Well, any win when you're playing .351 ball is kinda heavenly. Goodness knows, last night's exhaust-o-thon brought out the best, sort of, in two beleaguered bullpens. Cincinnati's six-man contingent allowed only four hits and didn't walk a batter over nine full innings; Robert Stephenson was working on his third frame when Buster Posey launched that ball into the seats and launched the remaining faithful into delirium.   The Giants' first four relievers barely covered two innings between them, but then the Whipping Boys-- Kontos, Morris, and Gearrin (or Manny, Moe, and Jack, for those of you scoring at home), worked nearly seven total. Oh, they were in and out of jams in every frame, it seemed, but "out" is the key word here. The key stat? Two leadoff singles, but no leadoff walks.

Our friend Cory Gearrin had to make it interesting, though, didn't he? In the 16th, with a man on second and two out, he intentionally walked Tucker Barnhart to set up a force, then promptly wild-pitched himself out of the force. Second and third, two out, he hits the next batter to load 'em up. Up comes Giant-killer Billy Hamilton, who strikes out on ball four-- a pitch, so we're told, that might have been a foot outside. Blind pigs, acorns, and all that. Next inning, Gearrin gets two quick outs, then gives up a single to the opposing pitcher and hits another man with a pitch before getting the third out. Blessedly, Posey ended it moments later. So that's two hits, a walk (albeit intentional) and two HBP in two innings for a tidy 2.5 WHIP.  But hey-- a 1.23 ERA, and, for a change, Gearrin was on his own hook for all five of those potential runs. The Reds stranded 16 on the night, the Giants six.


High-wire-act wins like these do nothing to dampen the unenthusiasm of the most pessimistic among us. On the Giants' website this morning, we read:

Resistance is futile. The Giant's offense is futile. Sir Hensley is futile. Bochy is best when he does nothing. Time to right the ship and replace the manager, hitting coach and pitching coach. 

Span is hot. Trade him before he falls back asleep.

Pence did not play at all today. Trade him before he gets injured.

Since Ruggiano is actually hitting, The Giants can DFA Gorky. Bring up Slater.

Post Melancon on the internet and take the highest bid. He will bring at least two quality top 100 prospects.

Let it be known that Posey is available and collect three top 100 prospects.

Getting very close to that time when Nunez become most valuable. Possible top 100 prospect in return.

Gillaspie needs to be moved to make room for Hwang. Trade him for mid level prospects.

Belt needs to be moved, His contract is club friendly. Again we have Hwang and Shaw ready.

Ask Crawford if he wants to stay during the rebuild. He will probably waive his no trade. Easy two top 100 prospects.

Cueto was superb again today. He is finally stretched out from not having a spring training. Send him to the Yankees for two of their top 100 prospects in the outfield. 

Once Bumgarner has recovered, if he does, send him packing for two top 100 prospects.

But most important, Bochy, Muelens, Righetti have to go first.


Now, a few of these points make sense, that's about it. Meulens does not seem to be helping anyone, and he can go anytime, but nobody is firing Bochy or Righetti mid-season. If the Giants lose 90+ games, expect Bochy to "step down" (voluntarily or not) after the season. Righetti might move on as well. We do not expect him to take a manager's job, here or anywhere.

Trading Posey or Bumgarner is a certifiably insane move. These are franchise players, the type you build a team around.

DFA Gorky, bring up Slater? Sure.

Now, if we are sub-.500 at the ASB, trading Cueto to a contender makes sense, if we get top prospects.  Same with Melancon, though he's harder to move with a bigger price tag.

We're fine with trading Nunez for good value.

We love Gillaspie as we loved Ishikawa, but yes, he's on the bubble. Fetch a mid-level prospect? Hmmm...

Pence is owed $37M yet, this year and next. A contending team might make a play for him. It might make sense to do it if real value ensues, but if the Giants do this, the fallout will make last year's Duffy trade look like a tempest in a teapot by comparison.

Span has no trade value. He makes $11M this year, $11M next, with a $4M buyout after that. $26 million? Giants would have to pay much of it. Better be a #1 in return. LOL. We do think Span has value, just not as a everyday starter (and we'd sure like him to make us eat those words).

Belt has $70M remaining over 4 years with no club option. What's club-friendly about that? Who's gonna pay that, let alone hand us prospects in return?  How's Hwang's or Shaw's defense? Belt has one of the best gloves in the game, and he's a big reason our infield defense is still excellent. If he were tradeable, that would be one thing. But no GM is going to give up top prospects and pay that kind of money based on Belt's stats. People think first basemen have to be RBI men, and Belt isn't.

Odd they haven't mentioned the most "DFA-able" area of the team-- the bullpen. Even after last night, the inconsistency there is most troubling.


Bottom line from where we sit: the Giants are not yet in panic mode, and certainly not in fire-sale mode. This homestand, with one win in the bank and six games remaining, is the crucible. One-fourth of the season will be complete when the Giants leave for St Louis next Thursday. Winning five of six right here, against Cincinnati and LA, would put the Giants at 18-25 and over .400.  Is that necessary? Will anything short of that doom the season? That's our next subject.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

... Into A Lot More Wreckage

On the heels of a brutal, 13-5 shellacking in LA three nights ago, the Giants were hammered again, by a count of 13-3, last night in Cincinnati. Pitchers' park, hitters' park, this time zone, that time zone, rain delay, no delay... none of it seems to matter when you're on the downward spiral.

The numbers from this latest debacle are.. well.. kinda amazing. Consider this: The Reds banged out 16 hits, received a positively ungodly 12 walks, with one hit batsman and one reaching on an error. Given 30 baserunners, they scored 13 runs, had two thrown out on the bases, and left fifteen men on base.

Heaven knows how many runs they might've scored if they'd hit with a little more efficiency!

Matt Cain's Game Score of 3 was the lowest of any Giant starter this season. The previous mark, 8, was set by Matt Moore-- two days ago. Yep, we're turnin' it around, all right...

Who needs the long ball? The Reds scored 13 runs without benefit of a homer. Who needs the big inning? They never scored more than 3 in any inning-- but they scored in 7 out of 9 innings.

Billy Hamilton, whose average and OBP were barely north of Gorky Hernandez' coming into the game, gave a one-day "Leadoff Man" clinic: 3-for-4 with 2 walks, 4 stolen bases, 4 runs scored. We still don't think he'll be a real leadoff man until he learns to take a walk every 5 AB or so, but at age 26 we sure do like him as a player.

Over on the Giants website comments page, one known as OAKMAN refers unfailingly to Hunter Strickland as "The Arsonist Formerly Known as Strickland." We'll now petition OAKMAN to come up with an appropriate nickname for Cory Gearrin. Has a 1.54 ERA ever been so deceiving? Gearrin kept his one-walk-per-inning ratio steady-- he now has 12 BB in 11.2 IP-- and once again allowed all 3 of his inherited runners to score, thus inflating Matt Cain's already-bruised ERA by several decimal points. If Hunter Strickland is "The Arsonist", what does that make Gearrin? "The Inflater?" "The Doormat?" "The Turnstile?" (We kinda like that last one.)

Note that since April 10, the home opener, the Giants still haven't matched their longest winning streak of the season-- two.

And on a positive note, it appears it won't take much for the 49ers to have a better season than the Giants in 2017!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Crawling From the Wreckage

The revolving door that is the Giants' 2017 bullpen continues to spin. Out goes Chris Stratton, he of the 27.00 ERA, and in comes Josh Osich, he of the 7.71 ERA. At Triple-A, that is. A 7.71 ERA at Sacramento, even allowing that the PCL is a hitters' league-- just how valuable is that "MLB experience" when you can't get anyone out?  While a decent ERA can sometimes mask a lousy relief pitcher-- hello there, Cory Gearrin-- a lousy ERA rarely lies.

Overall the Giants' bullpen has a 1.4 WHIP. They've walked 33 men in 76 innings. Gearrin has walked 10 men in 10 innings!  Hunter Strickland (10 IP, 11K, 1.0 WHIP) and Steven Okert (7 IP, 0.86 WHIP)  are doing their jobs. Derek Law may be coming around after an awful start.  Mark "Big-Bucks" Melancon has blown 2 saves in 7 chances, which puts him in Santiago Casilla territory if it goes on all year. It probably won't, and he's not going anywhere anyway. That's 4 guys worth keeping. The rest--- ?

After last night's full meltdown, Matt Moore in six starts has two great ones, two lousy ones, and two train wrecks. Jeff Samardzija, who starts tonight's series finale at LA, has actually pitched a little better than that. In two of his losses his issue was a couple of early runs allowed, followed by good pitching but zero support.  He will always give up more than his share of home runs, but that by itself isn't reason to dump him. (Walking guys ahead of those home runs would be.) And Johnny Cueto's had only one truly bad start so far. With Ty Blach and Matt Cain holding down their ends, the rotation is just a tad more encouraging than the bullpen, even with Madison Bumgarner on the shelf.

What is Gorkys Hernandez doing leading off? Or, more to the point, what is Gorkys Hernandez doing in the major leagues? Doesn't the Mendoza Line exist anymore?

We understand Bruce Bochy batting Joe Panik 7th instead of leadoff against a lefty-- sort of. But when you're 10-17, why are you playing lefty-righty percentages instead of simply putting your best players where they can make the most impact?  At the least, lead off Hunter Pence against left-handers, and if you must play Hernandez, bat him 8th. Maybe he can outrun a 30-foot dribbler and keep the pitcher from leading off the next inning.

The Giants allowed nine walks (!) yesterday and walked only once themselves. Nick Hundley drew the lonely base on balls-- his first of the season, in 55 AB's. It is to weep.  

Eduardo Nunez' average is settling toward the .250 mark. He can't steal bases if he ain't on base. With Brandon Crawford out, why not try Conor Gillaspie at third and Christian Arroyo at short?

Crawford, Buster Posey, Panik, Arroyo, Pence, and Brandon Belt are the obvious keepers at six starting positions. But that only highlights the total lack of production from left field and center field. We fear Bochy is counting on Denard Span "turning it all around" when he returns from the DL. That's an awfully chancy horse to bet your paycheck on.  Meanwhile, Austin Slater, 24, is hitting .291 at Sacramento. Like almost all the Giants' prospects, including Arroyo, he's shown little power, but he bats-right-handed, has good speed, and given our concentration of young talent at other positions, he looks awfully attractive at the moment. We know Belt can't stay in left because he anchors our solid infield defense (the one constant in this circus). Mike Morse, even if he was hitting (and he probably would if playing regularly) evidently can't start in left every day. Could Kelby Tomlinson, even out of position, really do any worse?

On the 40-man roster, we see two guys at Richmond putting up numbers. Reyes Moronta, 24, is a right-handed relief pitcher who has struck out 15 men in 8 innings of relief, walking only two and picking up 4 saves in 8 games. He's chunky, like a smaller Johnny Cueto-- 6' and a lot more than the listed 175-- and maybe those numbers won't last, but when you have big-league relievers who walk ten men in ten innings, a young fellow like this looks awfully attractive.  Moronta has a teammate, Miguel Gomez, also 24, who is listed as a third baseman and has never hit below .300 at any level of pro ball. He's a switch hitter who makes contact (only 12 K's in 81 AB) and, like most guys off the island, he won't take a walk. Maybe he can't hit major-league pitching, but when you have leadoff hitters who are batting .155,  a young fellow like this looks awfully attractive. And, for that matter, where in the world is Mac Williamson, now that he's off the DL?

When you're 10-18, there is no such thing as a viable status quo. We figure the Giants have about two weeks to pull out of this nosedive and save the season. That'll be the topic next time.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Bulletin'

Being fans of baseball, firearms, and old-school journalism, we were surprised today to discover that the typesetting term "bullet" (examples of which appear below) derives not from "bulletin," as we'd figured, but the other way around. Always learning, we are.


  • The Giants' first game against the Kansas City Royals since Game 7 of the 2014 World Series was a lot like that Series: close, evenly-matched, and well-pitched, with another memorable play by Salvador Perez to boot. None of those seven went into extra innings like this one, but the tense vibe brought back memories, even if only 20,000-plus attended.
  • It was the first extra-inning game of the year for the Giants, and their first one-run win after five one-run losses. Years ago Bill James studied the old claim that a good record in one-run games is prima facie evidence that "great teams win the close ones," and found it to be nonsense: great teams tend to win many more one-sided games than they lose, with one-run records trending toward .500 for good teams and bad. We see no reason to dispute this, though we'll allow that winning a lot of close games may prepare a team for success in the extended postseason.
  • Kudos to Matt Cain, who over 12 years has gone from workhorse to ace to reclamation project. After seven strong innings last night-- four hits, two walks, a solo homer-- he leads the Giants' starters with a 3.31 ERA and has gotten better with each succeeding start. He was only in trouble once last night, when the Royals put two on in the first. His best innings were the sixth and seventh, after the Giants had tied it up; he set down six in a row through the heart of the order, giving KC no chance to answer back. Cain forced a key DP grounder in the fourth and picked off a runner in the fifth. It's still very early, but we'd love to see the big guy put together the kind of season Ryan Vogelsong had under similar circumstances in 2011.
  • Admittedly, the Royals are dead last in all of MLB in runs scored: a paltry 39 in 13 games. By contrast the Giants have scored a full run more per game, 61 in 15. Our Boys have also allowed 61; they're playing about a game better than their record. Those one-run losses will even out before long. KC's 6-7 mark is due to their fine pitching: eighth in ERA among all MLB clubs.
  • The Royals have not allowed a single unearned run so far this year. Then again, neither have the Toronto Blue Jays, who have started the season 2-11, worst in the game. The Tampa Bay Rays, already four games ahead of Toronto, have allowed an appalling 12 already, nearly one per game. (Get Matt Duffy in there as soon as possible!) Does all this mean good defense doesn't count? Of course not, but "defense" is a whole lot more than just avoiding errors, and a team ERA over 5 tends to render the earned/unearned distinction irrelevant.
  • Take heart, Giants fans: the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies may both be 10-5, best in baseball, but only Arizona is playing like it (78 runs in 15 games).  The "Rockettes" have been outscored 58-52 despite their gaudy record, they are an astonishing 22nd in runs scored and only 15th in ERA. They project out to about the same record as the Giants. It's early, it's early, it's....
  • Just sayin': Nick Hundley looks like a smart offseason pickup so far, though we sure wish he'd learn to take a walk; Denard Span has no business at all in the leadoff spot; Joe Panik will be back in the All-Star Game if he keeps this up.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Age Before Duty?

One thing we hear a lot lately, and especially with the Giants off to a stumbling 5-9 start, is that it's about time the team started jettisoning veterans and letting "the kids" play:

"The problem is the Giants idea of building a winner is to pursue older "proven" players while sacrificing younger players. Most teams see the handwriting on the wall and trade good players to build up their minor league systems."

That this has been any sort of "problem" for the Giants of late is just not consistent with the facts. With the sole exception of the 2010 starting rotation (Jonathan Sanchez, 27, Tim Lincecum, 26, Matt Cain 25, and Madison Bumgarner, 21) all the Giants World Series champions have been built predominantly around veterans, and in no case did one of those champion teams get younger than the year before.

The 2010 team replaced 6 starters during the season and only one, Buster Posey, replaced an older player. He was the only regular in the postseason under 30. Juan Uribe, 31, got more ABs than Pablo Sandoval, 24. Andres Torres (32), Pat Burrell (34), and Cody Ross (30) replaced younger or same-age players; Edgar Renteria, Aubrey Huff, and Freddy Sanchez were 34, 34, and 33 respectively.

The team got younger in 2012 at first (Brandon Belt) and short (Brandon Crawford)-- and older at 2B (Ryan Theriot, 33, and Marco Scutaro, 35), RF (Nate Schierholtz, 28, replaced by Hunter Pence, 29), and LF (Gregor Blanco 29, for Melky Cabrera, 28). The rotation got a whole lot older with Barry Zito, 34, and Ryan Vogelsong, 33, replacing Sanchez and Lincecum. The "Core Four" in the bullpen were two years older, plus Santiago Casilla, 32, replaced Brian Wilson (28 in 2010).

In 2014 they added Mike Morse, 32, Tim Hudson, 39, and Jake Peavy, 33, as well as one youngster-- Joe Panik, 23-- to a veteran team. The Core Four were 37, 35, 34, and 31.

Now, it may be that the Giants have played out this string as  far as they can. That's certainly possible. But while other teams may build, and may have built, championship teams with primarily young players, the San Francisco Giants, to date, have not.



Much of this talk was occasioned by a Giants website interview with GM Bobby Evans, Brian Sabean's star pupil who took over the reins after the 2014 championship. Apparently the original headline, "Evans talks about building a SF winner," was quickly amended to the less hyperbolic "Evans talks about building SF squad," which awakened the throw-in-the-towel contingent to full agitation.

Certainly the spring-training invites to the likes of Jimmy Rollins and Justin Ruggiano, the recent signings of Drew Stubbs and Melvin Upton  to minor-league deals, and the decision to keep Aaron Hill, 35, instead of Kelby Tomlinson on the 25-man has inflamed this discussion about aging veterans "blocking" youngsters. But we'd rather see Tomlinson playing every day in Sacramento than sitting on the bench as Hill does. 

A legitimate criticism of Evans is his decision to play the hand he was dealt in left field, which meant Chris Marrero and Jarrett Parker, both 28-year-old minor-league veterans, in a platoon. With Parker, who wasn't hitting anyway, now out 8-10 weeks after colliding with the outfield fence, evidently Marrero, who isn't hitting at all either, has the job full-time since a 13th pitcher, Steven Okert, was called up to replace Parker and the only other outfielder, Gorkys Hernandez, has been dreadful so far at bat and in the field. We doubt if the youth-movement crusaders would howl too loudly if 35-year-old Mike Morse, now on the DL, made a miraculous recovery and took the job-- or, for that matter, if the club could convince Angel Pagan, also 35, to take a big pay cut and come out of semi-retirement. 

Evans has been adamant that his single offseason priority was to sign the best "closer" available, that being Mark Melancon. He did that. Whether he believes he'll have any stock to trade for a top outfielder at the deadline is difficult to fathom. 

His recent minor-league trade-- Frandy De La Rosa from the Texas Rangers for Clayton Blackburn-- has generated a fair amount of heat, even ridicule, from some parts. Evidently these critics have not been introduced to the youth-movement folks. Yes, De La Rosa is a middle infielder and yes, we already have a lot of those. He's also just 21 and has been in pro ball since age 17. Blackburn was 24 and stuck on repeat for the past 3 years. It may not work out, but it was not a stupid move, especially if the kid can bring value in trade later.

By trading for Eduardo Nunez and then trading away Matt Duffy last year, Evans "aged" the third-base position by four years, but it's hard to fault him for this one. Duffy, after off-season surgery, is just now starting to run again; the most optimistic forecasts have him back on Tampa's roster a month from now. Meanwhile Nunez is batting .313 with a .346 OBP, which means he's the best option for a leadoff man in a lineup that really doesn't have one.