Saturday, January 13, 2018

Whoa, Nellie!

Well, folks, we've lost another one. Lon Simmons, Dick Enberg, and now the great Keith Jackson, who just passed away at age 89.  Known as the "Voice of College Football," he also called baseball (Chris Chambliss' epic home run in the 1976 ALCS comes to mind), the Olympics, and of course, the first year of ABC's "Monday Night Football" alongside Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.

Jackson's rich, penetrating baritone was one of the signature sounds of the sporting world. Many of us who've worked in radio and other speaking engagements have secretly, or perhaps not so secretly, sought to emulate the effortless-sounding timbre of that voice, which placed the listener squarely into the middle of the action but comfortably so, as if we and Keith were sitting in rocking chairs in the same living room, he providing the narrative, we the attention. It sounded so natural. Maybe it was.

If you were following our old '66 Le Mans down Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in San Anselmo on New Year's Day some 39 years ago, you might have seen the thing swerve abruptly right, then left. That was the moment Keith Jackson's stentorian voice bellowed "He didn't make it!" as Alabama's defense stopped Penn State on fourth-and-goal in the 1979 Sugar Bowl and snatched the then-mythical national championship away from the Nittany Lions. That's one of a couple of dozen memories, many of them New Year's Day memories, that the name conjures up now.

His last broadcast was the Rose Bowl of 2006, the Texas-USC spectacular capped by Vince Young's touchdown. We saw and heard him briefly when he appeared as a guest in the booth of another fantastic Rose Bowl, just over a year ago, and the thrilling game on the field momentarily gave way to sadness as we realized that great voice and that friendly face were not long for this world.

Keith Jackson wasn't the first to say, "Whoa, Nellie!" but he made the phrase his own, and every time we've appropriated it for our own use, it's his voice we've heard as we proofread the piece. To make a Bay Area connection here, we'll wager that if the late, great Bill King (another loss) were still around, he'd confirm his "Holy Toledo!" was modeled after Keith Jackson's signature. Everybody needs one, don't they?

Far better than meagre words are samples of the legacy Keith Jackson has left us. Here's a few:

Lon Simmons. Dick Enberg. Keith Jackson.  Considering Vin Scully and Verne Lundquist also retired this past year, the American airwaves are downright impoverished at the moment. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Movin' On Up

First of all, we congratulate the Houston Astros on their world championship. What a fun team to watch!  The first team to represent both leagues in the World Series did their beleaguered city, their long-suffering fans, and all of baseball proud. They beat a fine team, maybe a great team, by exploiting that team's weaknesses-- an over-reliance on matchup-focused relief pitching, for one. By contrast, A.J. Hinch went with the hot hand in relief-- even letting Charlie Morton bat in the ninth inning of Game Seven-- and was rewarded for it. Some of our own favorite team's decision-makers, we hope, were taking notice. 

There's a fine article about how the championship Astros were built over several years of 100-loss seasons at    We won't call them the "anti-Giants," exactly, but there is a major difference between the way this champion-- and, to some extent, last year's champion Cubs team, too-- was built, and the Giants' organizational strategy (we hesitate to say "philosophy").

And so much for all that. Rather than focus on the forgettable 2017 season, or speculate on the immediate future, today we take the long look, in our curmudgeonly old-school fashion, and turn our attention to those current Giants who are slowly moving up the ladder of the franchise's all-time greats. That is to say, we've updated the "Greatest Players in San Francisco Giants History" page to your right, and we'll take this opportunity to share what's changed.

No Giant had a MVP or Cy Young season, or close to it, in 2017. But a few-- Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, and Joe Panik--  continue to write their names among the greatest players in San Francisco's 60-year Giants history.

Posey is already the greatest catcher in the history of the Giants franchise, and that goes all the way back to New York. He took over that spot some time ago, perhaps as long ago as 2013, but now with eight seasons in the league he has the longevity, and by any other measure he's far ahead. Buster, 30 years old, already ranks as the fifth-greatest San Francisco Giant of all time, behind only Mays, Bonds, Marichal, and McCovey; even with a non-MVP-level season he passed Bobby Bonds and Will Clark this year. If he plays out his career with the Giants, he will probably pass Willie Mac, too. He's also the 19th-greatest Giant of all time, going back 120 years, and will likely crack the top ten there before he's done. Most, if not all, the guys ahead of him are already in the Hall of Fame; we'll visit that subject another day.

Brandon Crawford moved into the top-20 list of San Francisco Giants this year, despite a season he'd probably like to forget.  He displaced Jimmy Davenport and now ranks just behind Jim Barr. Crawford passed Chris Speier a year ago as the best shortstop in San Francisco history.

Madison Bumgarner, dirt-bike wreck and all, still put up enough WAR to ease past the just-retired Matt Cain into fourth place among San Francisco pitchers, and is now tied with Orlando Cepeda as the 11th-greatest San Francisco Giant. Remember, he's still only 28 years old. And as we noted when commenting on his retirement, Cain remains essentially where he was four years ago.

Those three are the only active players among the top 20 all-time San Francisco Giants. Two other members of the active roster moved up relative to their positions. Joe Panik took over fifth place among Giants second basemen, displacing one of our old favorites, Ron Hunt. Brandon Belt now ranks fourth among Giants first basemen. He has little or no chance to catch the Big Three, of course, but he has now outpointed J.T. Snow. (We trust you will forgive us if we confess we'd rather have the Jater anyway, thankyaverymuch.)  Meanwhile, Hunter Pence did nothing in 2017 to improve his standing as the fourth-best San Francisco right fielder, and it's even money or less whether he ever will now. 

Time marches on. Will Giancarlo Stanton ever get on this list, or even become a candidate for it?  We await the word.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Sold Out

So here we are, perusing the site and reading up, or trying to, on the various observations of, lessons learned from, and wild guesses about the current League Championship Series, which, both of 'em, are providing America with some mighty entertaining baseball. I mean, there isn't a bad story in the bunch.

The Yankees? With very few exceptions, they're a team of unknowns and kids. The Plucky Underdogs wearing pinstripes? The last time that happened was, what, 95 years ago when the wise old men of baseball thought Babe Ruth and his homers were a passing fad. Enjoy 'em now, before these guys are in your face and in the tabloids every week.

And who doesn't like the Houston Astros, even if they are in the wrong league? Justin Verlander is one of the class acts in the game, on and off the field, and is Jose Altuve the second coming of Joe Morgan or what? Their once-ridiculed little ballpark has now picked up some seasoned charm, and we still think they're the better team, assuming they remember how to hit this weekend.

Even our designated Evil Empire, the Dodgers, the Blue Meanies of LA-- you don't have to like them, but you sure have to admire a team this good, this complete. Dave Roberts as managerial genius-- who saw that coming? And considering these guys haven't been in the Series since 1988, we Giants fans can continue to feel a bit smug even if they wind up winning the whole thing. They had their dynasty, from the late forties to the Eighties. This decade was ours.They still gotta catch up.

And the Cubs are a lot more likable now that they're struggling to stay alive and no longer the Anointed Ones of last year. (Yes, we contrarians were pulling for Cleveland.) Joe Maddon gets thrown out twice in two games? How can you not like that-- the Dumbledore of the Dugout gets angry and dirty in the umpires' face, arguing two of the most inexplicable calls we've seen in, like, ever.

Oh, it's four great stories, all right, no matter who moves on.

But speaking of stories, we were reading two of them this evening, one on the ALCS by the veteran scribe Richard Justice, and another on the Kershaw-Quintana matchup looming tonight, this one by Doug Miller.

Quoting Justice: "After winning 101 regular-season games and then getting past the Red Sox in the American League Division Series presented by Doosan, the Astros are playing a potential elimination game."

And a few clicks down, here's Miller: "(I)n this National League Championship Series presented by Camping World..." and, a little later, he brings up the Dodgers' "three-game sweep of Arizona in the NL Division Series presented by T-Mobile."

What in the name of Red Smith is goin' on here?

Are these veteran sportswriters (some of who have been around for years) now really, and truly,  actually contractually obligated to add the name of the TV sponsor whenever they mention the Division or League Championship Series by name?

Is somebody gonna get sued if they don't?

Is there nothing or no one these owners and the MLBPA won't sell for a sponsorship buck?

Look, advertisements have been all over the game since the 1800s. Big signs on the outfield walls.  "Hit this target, win a suit!"  Airplanes trailing banners circling over the ballpark:: " E A T  A T  J O E S ". Cheesy middle-inning promotions for this, that, or the other. Multimedia scoreboards with an unending parade of commercials. More recently, corporate sponsorship of stadiums. The constant on-air sponsorship of every "offical MLB product," from jockstraps to beer to laptop computers and tablets.  "This first pitch sponsored by the Ginsu Knife Company, or whatever." We're used to hearing it.

But-- seeing this in print-- casually inserted, like a throwaway line in a play-- it's jarring. It's unsettling. It's bizarre, and weird, in a thousand ways that the other intrusions aren't.   Somehow it just seems wrong; that print, that the written word, is especially defiled by this in ways that the other media aren't. You know? It's like... well, it's like going to see your favorite band play. The big sponsorship placard behind the stage-- Black Death Malt Liquor Presents the Simpletones!-- well, that's one thing. But then in the middle of your favorite song, the band artfully, or artlessly, what does it matter, the band works a well-known advertising jingle into the third verse, repeats it a few times during the coda to drive home the message, and then carries on the rest of the show without a hitch. Ya know?

                    "Please," I said, holding up my hands, "no more."

                    "Lemme tell you the weird part." He was pleading.

                    "Weird part?" I yelled. "Weird part?"

                                                                       -- Peter Gent, North Dallas Forty

Here's the weird part. I've been reading Richard Justice for years. He may not be Roger Angell, but he doesn't need to be. He's pretty good.  There is no way on earth Richard Justice, or Dan Jenkins, or Paul Zimmerman, or anyone who carries or has carried a legitimate byline, would voluntarily insert this-- this tripe into his column. 

But, at the end of each article, after the byline, comes the familiar disclaimer: "This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs."

Well... then who? If it wasn't MLB, the clubs, or the union, then who in tarnation is demanding these odious little promotions be inserted into what's supposed to be a writer's own story?

Who indeed? Do we even want to know the answer?

Well, we've once again gone off our policy of not discussing off-field matters. Sorry about that. This one shook us up, far more than perhaps it should have, or maybe not. These are uncertain days. Sometimes you don't know how to respond... is it really The Latest Outrage, or are we just being extra-curmudgeonly this evening?

But we can't help it this time.

This stinks.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

End of the Regular Season

  W L GB
LA 104 58 - Team's most wins since Brooklyn '53.
Arizona 93 6911 NL's sleeper team in playoffs?
Colorado 87 75 17 League-record fourth wild-card bid.
San Diego 71 91 33 Beat Giants 12-7 on year to earn spot.
GIANTS 64 98 40 "Badness comes in waves."

As this train wreck of a season wound down and we glanced only intermittently at the daily scores, the tendency to sum things up oozed forward like an oil slick, enveloping all it reached. We opined to a family member at one point that it was as if all the good breaks-- the shattered-bat doubles, the opposing runners sliding into first and killing rallies, the career .170 hitters driving in key runs, the defensive replacements that turned certain hits into inning-ending outs, the uncanny ability to choose the right relief pitcher for the right moment, the pinch-runners and pinch-hitters and 25th men that turned games around, all the things that built the Giants' marvelous and improbable dynasty of success over five incredible seasons-- all of them turned, malevolently, as in a horror movie, into the opposites of themselves, and all of them descended upon the San Francisco Giants at once like locusts, not over five years but over five-plus months that seemed as though they'd never end.

Or maybe we just want to believe this was a one-year meltdown, and things will perk up again next year and we'll be back in the hunt a year after that. It is baseball, after all, the sport of spring, and hope springs eternal, and all that, even when a fan's natural reaction more closely resembles that which initially greeted the "Rite of Spring" than that which anticipates next year's spring fantasy camp.

How bad were the 2017 Giants? Let's see. They nosed out the Padres for next-to-last in runs scored (639, or just under 4 per game). They allowed 776, good for ninth in the league, and were about average in unearned-to-earned-run ratio. They finished three games worse than their Pythagorean projection. Their defense was about average: pretty good in errors, not so hot in range. Their defensive efficiency record was awful, 14th in the NL, but that's because their pitchers gave up more hits than any other team's except the Mets.

Looking at one of our favorite stats, "Wins Above Average By Position," we see the Giants were below league average at every position except catcher. The outfield was an aggregate nine wins below average, which all by itself is enough to drop the team to a 72-90 mark. Perhaps most disappointing of all is that at two key positions where this team has shined brightly-- shortstop and second base-- Joe Panik and Brandon Crawford were below average, slightly below to be sure, but still below average. Team pitching, by contrast, was right about average-- the starters a little bit below, the bullpen slightly above, which will no doubt surprise you as it did us. Then again, this team is not used to having an "average" bullpen. And, just to drive the point home, the Giants had the worst pinch-hitters in the league, too-- three wins to the bad.  All told, the Giants were thirteen wins below average, which would leave them right about at their Pythagorean mark of 67-95. It is no comfort to note that the Padres, who finished seven games ahead and kicked the Giants' collective butt in the season series, were minus 17.  

Buster Posey, of course, is the most valuable Giant, earning 3.7 WAR with his .320/.400/.462 marks. Brandon Belt, everybody's favorite whipping boy, earned 2.8 despite missing the last two months; not all of it was on defense, either (.823 OPS).  Crawford's 1.8 was by far the lowest of his career and he earned most of it with the glove. Panik earned one WAR with his .768; it's not comforting to note that his fine 2015 season is the one that stands out, and that his 2017 numbers essentially reprise last year's.  And that's it for position players, gang; everyone else is down in the statistical noise.

Though he made only 17 starts, Madison "Enduro Class" Bumgarner was far and away the most valuable Giants pitcher with 2.8 WAR. This is well off his annual 4-to-5 level, but still tops on the team, as is his 3.32 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. Those who fear he's "lost it" because he finished 4-9 may note the numbers don't support that; what "Bum" lost this year, aside from time, was any kind of offense to back him up.  By any measure the hardest-working pitcher was Jeff Samardzija, who led the team in innings, starts, strikeouts, wins, and, yes, losses. We like "Shark" because he doesn't walk people (32 BB in 207 innings) and he and Bumgarner were the only starters to average less than one hit per nine IP.  How does a 1.14 WHIP yield a 4.42 ERA? Homers-- 30 of them. 

Johnny Cueto will likely blame his forgettable season (8-8, 4.52, fewer WAR than Cory Gearrin) on the blisters that pestered him much of the way; that frailty also may have cost him a handsome payday had he exercised his opt-out provision. Now he's staying, and we're fine with that. Cueto will be 32 next year and should still have one or two "ace"-level seasons left. As for Matt Moore-- well, we're reminded of Terry Mulholland's ill-fated return to the Giants back in 1995. If there was a starting pitcher in the league worse than Moore, we didn't see him. But, you don't just give up on a left-hander who won't be 29 until next June, and the Giants didn't, so we'll see Moore start 2018 in the rotation. As for the number-five guy, Ty Blach was good early, and Chris Stratton good late. They're essentially the same age; Blach, being a left-hander, will likely get a longer look.

Gearrin, who walked "only" 25 men in 58 innings after a terrible start, and Hunter Strickland were the best in the bullpen this year, and if you believe that says more about the bullpen than anything else, we won't argue.  They all seem to average about a walk every other inning, which ain't good. The humongous Mark Melancon contract is beginning to look like the whitest of white elephants; does anyone even know when and whether he'll pitch again? Sam Dyson was OK-- not fine, just OK-- in the closer role. Even with Will Smith expected to return, this is a group that needs a lot of work. But let's hope the lesson about paying big bucks for big-name closers has been learned; in the last 20 years the Giants have done it thrice, and only the first one, Robb Nen, paid off. And if you'll remember, when Nen, who saved 43 games in 2002, went down with injury in 2003, little-known Tim Worrell, obtained in trade, took over and saved 38 games. Yes, you need a closer. No, they're not as rare as their agents think they are, and past performance is no indicator of future success. 

Roll the statistical parade... Posey was fifth in the league in batting, eighth in OBP-- and 31st in slugging and 20th in OPS...  Any doubt that he lacked a reliable supporting cast is shown in his run and RBI totals, minuscule by comparison to the other .300 hitters... If you think Posey's low RBI count is because he "can't hit in the clutch," we've already sent a virus to infect your electronic devices... Crawford led the club with 34 doubles (12th in the NL) and 77 RBI... Denard Span, with 73 runs (43rd) led the Giants... Gone are the days when we hit a lot of triples. Crawford managed only one, with Panik and Hunter Pence leading with five... Bumgarner hit 3 homers in 34 at-bats and slugged .471, better than any Giants regular... Matt Moore's ERA, worst in the league, was three-quarters of a run higher than the "runner-up," San Diego's Clayton Richard, another lefty. It was also the worst ERA in all major-league baseball, eclipsing five American Leaguers, none of whose teams made the postseason, either... The league hit .283 against Moore and Ty Blach; only Richard and teammate Luis Perdomo were worse... Moore issued a lot of walks, too, but no other Giant was near the top... Samardzija's 30 homers were fifth-worst in the NL... We got a league leader! "Shark" was tops in the NL in innings pitched, and also sixth in strikeouts and fifth in WHIP... As usual, Clayton Kershaw dominated the leaderboard, and though his numbers were not spectacular this time, they're mighty good, especially that 0.95 WHIP. He was "only" eighth in strikeouts; Max Scherzer led with 268 in 200 innings and also led with a 0.90 WHIP... Zach Greinke (17-7, 3.20, 215 K, 1.07 WHIP) had a fine year... Watch out for Arizona. In addition to Greinke, here's Paul Goldschmidt, as good a player as there is in the game today: .297/.404/.563, fifth in the league in OPS, with 120 RBI and 117 runs scored... For a team that lost 94 games, the Reds have some good players-- like Joey Votto, who added 36 homers, 100 RBI, and 106 runs to his league-leading 1.032 OPS, and like Billy Hamilton, who stole 59 bases while being caught only 13 times (82%) and hit 11 triples. If he'd just learn to take a walk, he'd be a great player, score 105 runs instead of 85, and his team would win a few more games. The same can be said for Miami's Dee Gordon, who led the NL with 60 steals at a 79% rate... Charlie "Colorado" Blackmon led the league with 387 total bases while winning the batting title, just ahead of Giancarlo Stanton, whose 91 extra-base hits (59 homers and 32 doubles, no triples) was tied for best in all of baseball with Cleveland's amazing Jose Ramirez and his 56 doubles....  Another interesting Red, former Giant Adam Duvall, led the league with 11 sacrifice flies; he is one of the most extreme fly-ball hitters in the game (11 GIDP in 587 AB for a slow guy). He slugged .480 with 31 homers; do you suppose the Giants could have used him? He learns to take a few more walks, his OPS could leap a hundred points... Votto was walked intentionally 20 times, and the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo was hit by the pitch 24 times... Because he is the greatest player in the game, we have to include Mike Trout's numbers: .306/.442/.629 for a best-in-baseball 1.071 OPS. He stole 22 out of 26 bases, too, but his run and RBI numbers were way down. We were pulling for the Angels to overtake Minnesota for the wild-card just because of Trout, though let's not deny the Twins have some real players too... No twenty-game winners this year. Cleveland's Corey Kluber (0..87 WHIP), teammate Carlos (1.10) Carrasco, Kershaw, and 34-year-old Jason Vargas of Kansas City are your 18-game-winners... A year after his lights-out, perfect-save-record season, Baltimore's Zach Britton saved fewer than our own Sam Dyson and was eclipsed by teammate Brad Brach... What did we say about past performance and closers? Not that we wouldn't take a chance on Britton-- for the right price... LA's Kenley Jansen approached perfection with 41 out of 42, and the Cubs' Wade Davis was 32-for-33. Where's the man he replaced, Aroldis Chapman? Still effective, with 22 saves for the wild-card Yankees, and still striking out 12 men per 9 innings, but his departure didn't seem to hurt Chicago a lot... The Red Sox' Chris Sale struck out 12.93 per 9 and 308 overall, just two of his many impressive stats... Toronto's young Marcus Stroman induces ground balls at a higher rate than any other pitcher, and led everyone with 34 double-play balls, more than one per start... The Royals' Trevor Cahill, whom we remember from his NL West days, uncorked 16 wild pitches, a petty number compared to some we've seen in past years, but more than anyone in 2017... Oriole lefthander Wade Miley is the game's wildest pitcher: 93 walks in 157 innings earns him a Matt-Moore-like 8-15 record... Moore himself was tied for 15th, behind such worthies as Justin Verlander, Gio Gonzalez, and Robbie Ray...  Our own Jeff Samardzija tops the list of fewest walks per 9 innings pitched, in the company of Kershaw, Kluber, Sale, and Greinke. We've always believed that pitchers who give up a lot of solo homers are preferable to pitchers who walk a lot of guys, but we'll admit "Shark" puts that theory to the test.

Who has the best infield in the National League? Is it the Dodgers, with Cody Bellinger at first, Corey Seager at short, and Justin Turner at third?> How about Washington-- Zimmermann, Murphy, and Rendon? The Cubs bring Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant to the sward, and Colorado goes around the horn with Mark Reynolds, D.J. LeMahieu, Nolen Arenado, and Trevor Story. Arizona has Goldschmidt at first and Jake Lamb at third, but are less settled up the middle. When you consider Bellinger and Seager are 22 and 23, respectively, it's hard to deny LA, but they're still searching for a quality second baseman. Let's see which group does the best in the postseason, which starts tonight with Colorado visiting Arizona. Oh, how we love these wild-card elimination games, which reinforce the value of winning the division title at all costs. It's good for baseball that the wild-card remain a "settle-for" proposition, which was not always the case prior to 2012.

Five of the top six spots in  NL runs scored are occupied by the playoff teams; the 77-85 Miami Marlins nosed out the Dodgers for fifth place. Surprisingly, nine teams, led by the Brewers and Mets, hit more home runs than did the Rockies in this homer-happy season. Colorado was also 9th in team ERA; their postseason foes finished 1-2-3-4, as in Dodgers-Diamondbacks-Nationals-Cubs, with about half a run separating first-place LA from number-four Chicago. In other words, no real surprises here, except to note that Milwaukee was right up there on both charts, and that the Mets' once-vaunted young pitching staff finished with a 5.01 ERA, far worse than even the Giants. As they say in social media, "SMH". We didn't see that one coming.

Just as in the NL, in the AL the five postseason qualifiers were among the top six in runs, with Houston leading the pack. Texas outscored Boston for fifth place, but finishing 11th in ERA helps explain that 78-84 record. Four teams with losing records-- the Rays, Angels, Blue Jays, and Mariners-- finished ahead of wild-card Minnesota in ERA. Cleveland, as may be expected, was tops at 3.30, the best in all baseball, better even than LA, and the DH be damned.   

The Indians' sensational 22-game winning streak, perfectly timed as August rolled into September, is the longest in American League  history and second-longest in baseball history. (Who owns the longest? Need you ask?) They outscored the opposition 139-35 while posting a team ERA of 1.70 during that streak.  But then we have the Dodgers, who from June through August were on an incredible roll, pushing their record to 90-36 at one point. Had they continued at that pace they'd have won 120 games. Of course they didn't; LA then endured a brief tailspin and finished out 14-22 to end up at "only" 104-58.

Will those two teams and their historic achievements collide in the World Series? Can either the Dodgers or the Nationals, perennial playoff disappointments over the past five years, get over the hump at all? Would an Indians-Astros series be potentially the most interesting ALCS in decades? We have no idea about any of this, but speculating in this manner sure beats speculating over what will happen this offseason for our team, the San Francisco Giants. 

At least for another month or so.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Goodbye, Old Paint

It seemed somehow wholly appropriate that when Matt Cain walked off the mound for the last time yesterday after pitching five scoreless innings, that he did so with a fragile 1-0 lead. No doubt many among the  40,394 fans who gave him a heartfelt standing ovation remembered all too well how many close games the retiring Giant veteran lost over the course of his 13-year career despite outstanding efforts such as this one.  Whether or not it's appropriate that this Giants team, true to form, managed to lose yesterday's game as well is one we'll leave to the court jesters among us. For one day, it was all about one man and what he's meant to a team, to a following, to a community, and to a city. The City. The Giants. And us.

Matt Cain won, or started and pitched well in, five of the biggest victories in Giants history, and that's History as in "All the way back to New York history."  None of them were easy. Even Game Two of the 2010 World Series, in the books as a 9-0 blowout win for Matt Cain, was a tight, 2-0 game when he left; the Giants obliged his successors with a late-inning seven-run outburst. We remember Matt baffling a great Philadelphia team in the 2010 NLCS, Game Three; battling for his life and winning the 2012 NLDS clincher at Cincinnati; taking the mound, cool and calm and collected, and pitching the Giants to a Game 7 win in a 2012 NLCS they really ought to have lost; and pitching seven strong innings in the last game of that long, long, season, a game the Giants eventually won, of course.

Chris Haft, who often shows a real appreciation for the fans' point of view, posted a fine tribute to Matt, and his impending retirement, a few days ago on the Giants' website. We urge anyone who hasn't read it to do so:

We were fortunate enough to see Matt Cain pitch as a rookie in 2005, and several times since. We like Dave Righetti’s "foundation" metaphor, as Matt’s career spanned the team's complete overhaul from Barry Bonds-and-a-supporting-cast to a pitching-focused championship club. His stellar postseason record and the June 2012 perfect game are testament to his capabilities that were often hidden year after difficult year. The clear perspective and maturity in his comments here speak to the man's character, as do his teammates' remarks. Matt Cain has left his baseball heart in San Francisco, he’s as true a Giant as can be, and we're grateful to the Giants' management that he got one last start before the home crowd, so he could walk off with the applause and dignity he so richly deserves.

Just going by the numbers, Matt Cain ranks as the fourth-greatest pitcher, and twelfth-greatest overall player, in San Francisco Giants history. And that doesn't take into account his brilliance in the 2010 postseason (one earned run in three starts, two wins), his fine starts in each of the three 2012 postseason clinchers (two wins), the perfect game, and all those one-hit and two-hit losses back in the early days.

Cain accumulated 32 wins above replacement between 2005 and 2013. And, sadly, he retires with the same count. The four years since his surgery have been rough ones for him, and for us all. He got his third  ring in 2014 after spending most of the season on the DL, unable to contribute. He endured this cruel final season with a good number of fans openly calling for his outright release.

Well, that's all behind us, and behind him, now. He's one of the good guys. The real good guys.

Will number 18 go up on the wall five years from now? Maybe so, maybe not. At the moment it's nice to think about.

Goodbye and Godspeed, Matt Cain.  You've nothing left to prove, big guy. Be there for your family now, as you were there for your teammates and we fans during your time with our Giants.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

People, Get Ready

Principal Park, home of the Iowa Cubs AAA ballclub, sits at the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers in downtown Des Moines, Iowa.  Under the big midwestern sky, with the golden dome of the State Capitol building dominating the skyline to the east, surrounded by winding riverside hiking and biking trails, easily accessible in any number of ways, it's not only a fine place to watch a ballgame, it's one of many genuine landmark destinations in this surprisingly vibrant small city-- surprisingly, that is, to outsiders and newcomers, anyway.

And to Giants fans, which number in the high single digits here. The world champion Chicago Cubs' Triple-A affiliate is, like almost all Iowans, welcoming, pleasant, and unassuming. It's something of a shame, then, that this piece will focus not so much on the hometown Cubs and their heroics, but mostly on the Oklahoma City Dodgers, today's visitors, the Triple-A affiliate of the hottest team in baseball. This decision is made not from choice, but from necessity. Friends and Giants fans, it's with a heavy heart we tell you that, from all appearances, our arch-rival's AAA team is loaded for bear-- which means the major-league franchise looks to be stocked with outstanding players for years to come.

Consider 21-year-old Alex Verdugo, OKC's center fielder and leadoff man. The stat line will show you that he went 1-for-4 with a run scored, hardly the gaudiest entry on a day when his team scored nine runs. What it doesn't show you is that he walked twice, hit the ball hard two other times, and that at age 21 he is playing with, and out-performing, teammates and rivals who've played in the big leagues, and playing with a mature player's skill. He was 20 when the season began, he carries a .347/.423/.518 slash line, and he's walked 41 times in 331 at-bats with only 35 strikeouts. We'll bet half our fingers and all our firewood that this young man, barring some catastrophe, will be starting in the major leagues before this decade is out.

After several of Verdugo's veteran, "AAAA-style" teammates had pushed across four runs in the seventh to take the lead, Iowa battled back to make it 4-3 in the bottom of the frame. Same score, top of the ninth, as 22-year-old second baseman Willie Calhoun-- a native of Vallejo, it grieves us to say-- stepped to the plate with two on and two out. Quiet until that moment, Calhoun launched a no-doubt-about-it missile in the general direction of Marshalltown, Cap Anson's birthplace, to break the game wide open. He's hit 22 bombs in 93 games, 357 at-bats. He's at .300/.351/.584. Of course, minor league numbers need normalizing before you can begin to project them out to major-league equivalents, but this young man can play. He's 5'8", 170, plays second base, hits for average and power... hmmmm. Will he be in a broadcast booth 30 years from now? Just kidding. We think.

Edwin Rios turned 23 in April. He's carrying a .876 OPS and playing mostly third base, which means he is currently blocked by Justin Turner, who's having a MVP-quality season despite missing a lot of playing time with injuries... but then, Rios started in left field for OKC today.

Now, we've done our best to beat the drum for the Giants' youngsters who've played well in spots this season with the big club-- Arroyo and Slater, primarily-- but this is a concentration of talent, all at key positions, that gives LA tremendous leverage in the decisions they have to make over the next few seasons. Doggone it, it just ain't fair, is it?

We won't say "Be afraid," but we will say, "Be concerned, Giants fans. Be very concerned."

It's somewhat rare for a major-league club to carry most of its brightest prospects at Triple-A these days; this is the level where big-leaguers go to 'rehab" their game ( welcome back, Pablo Sandoval!) , and where "AAAA" level players camp out and extend their careers, good enough to help the affiliate win games while waiting-- hoping-- praying for one more shot at the big time. OKC is unusually well-stocked with outstanding youngsters in this context; either because there's even more talent down at AA and A level, or because somebody thinks the fans back at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark-- and ain't that a great name, though?-- deserve a winner. For this outfit, anyway, MiLB's boast-- "The Stars of Tomorrow"-- looks to ring true at the AAA level.  

Catcher Kyle Farmer impressed us early in the game with his speed, alertly stretching a lazy gapper single into a double. Farmer's one of these guys who's 26, has played for six minor-league teams in five years since being drafted by LA in 2013, and has never gotten even a cuppa cawfee in The Show. Evidently the parent club is just fine with Yasmani Grandal and his batman, Austin Barnes. (Well, wouldn't you be, too?) Perhaps Farmer could take a lesson from a former Giant, Bob Brenly, and start working himself in at other positions. No longer a prospect, he can hit a little-- .322/.382/.485 in full-time play. Somebody could use him, you think?

So in the main, both teams today were dominated by minor-league veterans, guys between 27 and 32 who've had their shot at the brass ring and know they'll never be MLB regulars. The best they can hope for now is maybe a season, or half a season, as a utility guy, a fill-in on the big club, and perhaps a chance at October heroics. Yes indeed, we remember you, Travis Ishikawa. These teams were filled with Ishikawas. Here's former Giant Chris Dominguez, now 30, holding down first base for Iowa while Anthony Rizzo, three years younger, has a shot at 30 homers and 100 RBI for the big club. Dominguez had all of 17 AB's for the Giants in 2014 and he's never gotten back upstairs; his .339 average tells Chicago that yes, they've got a fill-in should something drastic happen.  Today's starting pitcher for Iowa, Aaron Brooks, had brief trials with the Royals and the A's a couple years back; he's currently lugging around a 6.11 ERA at age 27. His opposite number, Justin Masterson, you probably remember; in his 7-year MLB career he won 64 games, including a 14-10 campaign for the wild-card Indians in 2013. Almost a decade ago, he won a postseason game in relief for the Red Sox. Now he's 32, two years removed from the Show, and if you wonder why, we'll point mutely to the stat line: 109 IP, 50 BB. Today, he pitched well, though: seven innings without a walk, five shutout innings, one rough inning, and he got the win. He's 9-4. How healthy is the LA pitching staff these days?

Another career minor-leaguer with a tiny MLB resume, Steve Geltz, relieved Masterson, and in the ninth Geltz himself yielded to a pinch-hitter who drew a four-pitch walk... yes, it was Charlie Culberson, the Giant who was traded to Colorado for Marco Scutaro back in 2012. We guess we can still rate that trade an "A"; Culberson's career high in MLB games played is 99. He's hitting .252 in the PCL.

And what a pleasant surprise to see that in the home ballpark of a National League affiliate, there was no trace of the dread DH!  Nor should there be; OKC pitcher Masterson was 2-for-3 and drove in two of his team's nine runs.

The sidelines were teeming with former Giants, sort of. There's Matt Herges, now 47, coaching the pitchers for OKC to a team ERA of 4.13, second-best in this hit-happy league and three-quarters of a run better than league average. (We never knew ya had it in ya!)  On the Iowa side, Ryne Sandberg used to manage this club; it's now headed by Marty Pevey, who batted 41 times for the Montreal Expos in 1989 and can thus relate to many of his players. His hitting coach is 6-foot 7-inch Desi Wilson, who spent his entire big league career with the San Francisco Giants-- all 41 games of it, in 1996, compiling a 271/.338/.339.  This gets you a hitting coach's job? We may have missed our calling.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Three For the Road (and Beyond?)

YOUR NEW GIANTS are, from left to right, Christian Arroyo (22, just turned), Austin Slater, 24, and Orlando Calixte, 25.  It's been three years since the Giants added a young position player to the starting lineup who's still with the team, and that means it's about time. Of these three worthies, Arroyo has the highest upside. Yes, we know he's hitting only .192 at the moment. Remember, Matt Williams hit .220 in his rookie season. This doesn't mean we think Arroyo is the next Matt Williams; it means any 21-year-old kid who can play in the major leagues without looking ridiculous is a rare commodity. Let's hope the Giants recognize this and hold on to him until he's had time to show what he really can do.

Slater is known more for his defense and throwing arm than for his bat; his numbers at Sacramento look pretty good in a major-league context, and he's had those numbers for a couple of years now, but the PCL is a hitters' league and in that context they don't stand out much. Still, Slater is 24, three years younger than the man he replaced, Mac Williamson, who will be 27 next month and has already shown what he can do. (It ain't enough. And stop with the Adam Duvall comparisons; at 27, Duvall was on his way to a 33-homer season, not being sent down to the minors for the umpteenth time.) Bottom line: at 24, Slater is already more valuable than any outfielder we have not named Pence, Span, or Nunez. (Hello there, Gorkys Hernandez.)

Calixte is the longshot of the bunch. He has no fixed position, and he hits just a little better than does Gorkys Hernandez-- but that means he hits a lot better than Aaron Hill, who has to be on the bubble if and when Mike Morse or Conor Gillaspie return. The good news for Calixte is he can play the outfield as well as the infield, and teams that carry twelve pitchers needs that kind of versatility.

Anyway, the youth movement of the past few weeks has renewed discussion on whom the Giants might be peddling at the trade deadline (and trust us, they'll be peddlin'. That "turnaround" post from a week or so ago? That ship has done sailed, folks. The needed winning streak did not arrive, and yes, it's now too late. Teams simply do not rise from 23-34 and jump into contention. They just don't. Sorry.) as well as the usual "It's about time!" cries from those looking to jettison the flotsam, if not the entire roster, and move on (presumably to football season).

Today, we responded to some shared opinions on those subjects after the Giants' dreary, bullpen-induced loss to the Phillies, which has begged the question, "Hey, Strickland. Why din'cha just serve the suspension and get it over with? Mighta saved us a game today, bucko."

"Arroyo was tearing it up at triple A, but I did think he needed longer there, and I'm sure as more of the original roster gets healthy they'll end up sending him down (unless he gets on a roll).

"Slater already had 16 in AAA and had a great year, was having another this season as well as a solid spring training. Hopefully they give him a real chance unlike what they gave Duvall."

No sir, Arroyo is right where he needs to be. We're not sure who could return to the roster that would justify sending him down. Especially with Hill and Hernandez still on the team. They should be the ones on the bubble.

Slater's AAA numbers were nowhere near Arroyo's, and he's two years older, but we're glad to see him up.  Better he than Parker or Williamson.

Calixte is 25. Tomlinson is almost 27, but he's the more valuable player. We're happy to see them both on the 25-man for now, and both bring more value than either Hill or Hernandez.

"FINALLY, Bochy is willing to give some AAA STANDOUTS a chance over OLD VETS who have had many chances ... I think it's great to have three home grown youngsters on the current roster - that's why we have a farm system! I was getting tired of signing VETERANS from a bunch of other teams for one more chance with the Giants over the past few years." 

Actually, "Boch" took plenty of chances on youngsters in his first three years here, when he had a bad-but-improving team.

But since the Giants began winning big, he has become veteran-friendly.

He remembers Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell, Cody Ross, Freddy Sanchez, Edgar Renteria, Juan Uribe, Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro--  all veterans, all guys he gave a chance, all guys who helped the Giants go over the top. Hunter Pence is a visible reminder of that kind of guy, the last one left.

So he looks at Aaron Hill or Justin Ruggiano or Chris Marrero and he thinks, "Why not? Those kind of guys have done it for us before." He looks at Jimmy Rollins, for heaven's sakes, and he says, "Yeah. They all though Aubrey Huff was washed up after 2009, too." He thinks, "We had the world champions on the ropes last year until the bullpen blew it. Well, we fixed that by getting a closer. So we're close to the top again-- we just need one or two hungry guys with something to prove."

The thing is, it's not Bochy's job to see the obvious-- that Aaron Hill is not Marco Scutaro, that Justin Ruggiano is not Pat Burrell, etc, etc.

That's Bobby Evans' job.