Thursday, September 29, 2011

End of the Regular Season

Final National League West Standings

Arizona      94-68     …          Face Milwaukee in opening round.
GIANTS     86-76      8 GB   Respectable, if futile, championship defense.
LA              82-79    12 GB    Kershaw a Cy Young candidate.
Colorado    73-89     21 GB   Shedding star players and starting over.
San Diego   71-91     23 GB   A year ago they were one game from title.

We have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: if you want to settle the argument over just how much of baseball is pitching (75%, 90%, 50% have all been bandied about over time) take a look at the San Francisco Giants' winning percentage. Based on this formula, baseball is 53% pitching.

The Giants scored 570 runs in 162 games this year, an average of 3.5 per game, worst in the National League. Yes, even the execrable, .346-winning-percentage Houston Astros scored more runs. More than half the major-league teams scored over 700 runs; all but three scored more than 600. Balanced against that, the Giants were one of only two teams (Philadelphia the other) to allow less than 600 runs; exactly half the ballclubs allowed over 700. If there was a "mirror image" team to the Giants this year, it was probably the Toronto Blue Jays. They scored 743 runs, sixth in all baseball, but also allowed 761, sixth-most as well. Not quite as extreme a split, but close; and Toronto finished at exactly .500, not .469. The Giants, ten games over at the finish line despite being outscored, probably should have wound up at .500 too, so credit those extra five wins to a handful of guys named Bumgarner, Lincecum, Cain, Vogelsong, Romo, Lopez, Ramirez, Casilla, and Wilson.

Add Jeremy Affeldt, Jonathan Sanchez, and (probably) Barry Zito to the above list, and you've got the Giants' 2012 pitching staff. Well, we all know it won't be that simple; a couple of these guys are likely to be siphoned off by other teams promising 'closer' roles (and 'closer' dollars), but you get the idea. The pitching staff is what holds this team up. With Madison Bumgarner now joining the ranks of the league's top starters, the Giants open the off-season with three aces plus two wild cards (Vogelsong: can he do it again? Sanchez: can he bounce back?) fronting a bullpen that will still be solid.

Beyond that, the only people who can count on a starting job next year are Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval. Freddy Sanchez says he'll be ready, but as we've noted many times before, second base is an injury magnet-- and lately Freddy's been wearing cast-iron underwear. To keep his bat in the lineup, the Giants ought to consider moving him to the outfield, especially with Conor Gillaspie looking ready for prime-time over these last few weeks.

If, and it's a big if, the Giants sign Carlos Beltran, he'll be guaranteed a starting job too. This is a tough call. Beltran hit .323 and slugged .551 in 44 games with the team; his K-W was a manageable 2-1 and he still has decent range in the outfield (though it's unlikely he'd do well in center). Without Beltran, the club has one legitimate outfielder, Nate Schierholz, and while we love Nate, he's still never played a full major-league season as an everyday starter. The rest of the Giants outfielders are valuable part-timers at this point in their careers, but nothing more, and it's critical the ballclub realize this.

The Beltran decision may, at least in part, hinge on whether the Giants intend to pursue Albert Pujols. The last time a free agent of his stature approached the open market was 1993, with Barry Bonds, and we all know how that turned out. If Pujols walks, there will be a mob of contenders for big Albert, all of them waving suitcases full of cash, and it's improbable to think the Giants would risk breaking the bank for both Beltran and Pujols. And now, with the Cardinals slipping into the playoffs just under the wire on the last day of the season, there's always the chance they might catch fire, win it all, and completely change the situation. It would be doubly hard to imagine the big guy walking away from St Louis after winning a second championship. Dare the Giants risk waiting on the Beltran situation until after the World Series is over, a month from now?

Looking over the Giants' batting leaders, we see small sample sizes at the top and a great deal of lead weight near the bottom. Brett Pill, Darren Ford, the eternal Mark DeRosa, and the aforementioned Gillaspie dominate the leaderboard, though they had less than 200 at bats-- combined-- on the season. The other heavyweights are Beltran, Sandoval, Posey, Sanchez, and Schierholz, only one of whom had even 340 at-bats in a Giants uniform. (A small shout-out to oft-injured Pat Burrell: 21 walks and seven homers in 200 plate appearances.) How much of this train wreck may be blamed on the ballpark? The Giants scored less than three runs per game at home: 236 in 81 games. Allowing a league-fewest 251, they somehow fashioned a 46- 35 home record. On the road, the balance was almost identical: scoring 334 (4.1 per game, eighteenth in the majors), they allowed 327-- but finished 40-41 in those games.

The Giants played 56 one-run games, winning 35, and of those, 25 were won at home, against just 8 losses. Six of those home wins were in extra innings, and 21 of those games drew a quality start from the Giants pitcher du jour. The more we look at these game stats, the more amazed we are that the team was even in the race at all in September. Truly, Toronto's fate should have been ours as well.

Giants starters delivered 111 quality starts this year; Bumgarner and Lincecum both had Game Scores of 87, best on the club (Lincecum, a three-hitter in May against the Oakland A's (!) and "Bum" against the Cubs on the last day of August. Both day games, interestingly). The Giants' top five starts were all at AT&T Park, which comes as no surprise. The worst start of the year was also Bumgarner's, a nightmare outing at the 'Bell against Minnesota in June (Game Score: 2). All told, "Bum" had three of the team's best starts, and also five of their worst.

Quality starts: Cain 25, Lincecum 23, Bumgarner 23, Vogelsong 21, Sanchez 13, Zito 4, Surkamp 2. "Cheap" wins: Vogelsong 3, Cain 2, Surkamp 2, Sanchez. "Tough" losses: Lincecum 7, Bumgarner 6, Cain 5, Vogelsong 5, Sanchez 3. Says a lot, don't it?

Bright moments: Madison Bumgarner opening the season 0-6 (15 runs scored in 8 starts) and going 13-7 the rest of the way.... Sandoval bouncing back to lead the Giants in every meaningful batting category (.997 OPS on the road, .817 at home) despite missing 45 games... The five-headed monster in the bullpen-- Romo, Casilla, Ramirez, Affeldt, and Lopez-- averaging 63 appearances, 57 innings, a 2.29 ERA, and making us forget about Brian Wilson's injury 99% of the time... Brandon Belt, despite his rookie struggles, drawing 20 walks in 200 plate appearances and outslugging all but three regulars... Ryan Vogelsong's entire season, capped by winning the 'Willie Mac Award'.

Roll the statistical parade: Beltran is twelfth in the league in batting and slugging, seventh in OBP, ninth in OPS, second in doubles, and his Giants numbers across the board are proportionately superior to his New York totals... Sandoval, at .315, would be fourth in the league if he had enough ABs to qualify... Cody Ross drew 49 walks in 454 appearances, which is 46th in the league but great for the Giants, who were 14th in the league in bases on balls... Given the current lineup, the team ought to have abandoned the stolen base altogether back around May. 85 steals (13th) against 51 caught (3rd) is significantly worse then just staying put... The ol' "get deep in the count" mantra again had little effect on the Giants. They were 29th among the 30 big-league teams in most pitches seen. Only the Milwaukee Brewers are a more free-swinging bunch (and we gotta admit, they did OK with it)... Conversely, the hard- workin' SF pitchers are third in the league in walks and second in strikeouts, though "only" 4th in total pitch count.... Looking around the league, we see Drew Stubbs of the Cincinnati Reds struck out an appalling 205 times in 604 at-bats while drawing 63 walks. He hit only .243 with little power for a .686 OPS and made 467 outs. Naturally, because he is a center fielder, Dusty Baker batted him leadoff two-thirds of the time. Any other questions as to why the Reds finished 17 games out?.... For those of you thinking along with us, no, we're not aware of his contract status and no, we've not heard one peep about the Giants trying to get him. Mind you, Stubbs can play. He's a fine center fielder with decent range and a very good arm (third in the NL in assists), and 63 walks isn't bad. He just needs to bat about seventh or eighth... Tim Lincecum was the second-hardest-working pitcher in the NL, throwing 3606 pitches in his 33 starts. He was fourth in the league in strikeouts, behind Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay. Pretty fast company.... We're not seeing too many eye-popping individual stats this year (well, other than those 205 Ks). AJ Burnett of the Yankees uncorked 25 wild pitches in 32 starts, which is kind of interesting.... The AL hit .306 against former Giant Brad Penny, but hey, he's in the playoffs with Detroit, alongside the remarkable Justin Verlander (24-5, 250 Ks, 0.92 WHIP).

The Playoff Picture

Both the Cardinals and the AL Tampa Bay Rays overtook the wild-card leaders (Atlanta and Boston) and snatched the postseason away from them last night; therefore, there will be no do- or-die one-game playoffs today.

St Louis opens at Philadelphia Saturday; Roy Halladay starts for the Phillies, who won 102 games this year, best in the business. Arizona and Milwaukee also start Saturday, at Miller Park. Game times have not been set.

The American League kicks off tomorrow night, with Verlander and the Tigers facing the Yankees and CC Sabathia at the 'Stadium. A must-see. Tampa opens the playoffs against the defending AL champion Rangers tomorrow afternoon.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Arizona    84-61   …               Will likely open playoffs against Philadelphia.
GIANTS  75-69   8 1/2 GB    Turn out the lights; the party's over.

Giants lost to LA, 2-1.
Arizona defeated San Diego, 3-2. They also won the series opener Thursday.

Giants face LA again; Ryan Vogelsong, winner of the "Willie Mac Award" as the most inspirational Giant according to his teammates, will get the start. There may never have been a more deserving recipient of the award.

Last Night's Game
The anticipated pitchers' duel between Tim Linceum and the Dodgers' ace, Clayton Kershaw, lived up to its advance billing. As has been their habit of late, the Giants scored early and then took a long snooze. Their first-inning unearned run (error, stolen base, single) held up for seven innings, as Lincecum struck out six while allowing only three hits. But in the eighth, with two out and nobody on, the Giants' ace weakened just enough to allow LA to tie it in similar manner (bunt single, stolen base, RBI single). Since the Giants themselves managed only three hits again, the issue was not whether, but rather when the Dodgers would score the winner. As it happened, it was the top of the ninth, with Santiago Casilla the victim-- single, sacrifice bunt, and wild pitch, followed by a ground ball to second. Jeff Keppinger's throw to the plate was late, and ironically it was former Giant utilityman Eugenio Velez who scored the run that effectively ended the Giants' season.

Yes, folks, it really is over. This team is not good enough to win this year.

Where Do We Go From Here?
To the NFL, of course!

All kidding aside, we'll take some time off and then return to wrap up the season once the playoff schedule is set.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Arizona    82-61   …        Two-of-three is plenty good..
GIANTS  75-68  7 GB    Two-of-three ain't good enough..

Giants lost to San Diego, 3-1, failing to sweep the series.
Arizona beat Colorado, 5-3, taking two out of three on the road.

Giants defeated San Diego, 6-4, while Arizona lost at Colorado, 8-3.

Giants have the day off; they return home to open a three-game series against Los Angeles Friday. The third-place Dodgers are now closer to the Giants than the Giants are to Arizona.
Arizona returns home to open a four-game stand against San Diego.

Last Night's Game
Matt Cain pitched his usual outstanding ballgame, but Aaron Harang was just as good, and by now most of us know what that means. Hang another tough loss--his 10th-- on Cain, who allowed five hits and struck out seven. Long balls were the order of the day: the Giants' entire offense was rookie Brett Pill's second homer in two games, while San Diego knitted two Cameron Maybin hits and a Will Venable homer into three runs. Venable also threw out Pill at the plate on an inning-ending double play in the seventh that started as a potential sac fly from Pat Burrell. So it goes in these declining days of September.

Tuesday night, Brett Pill made the most of his first major-league at-bat, belting a two-run homer off Wade LeBlanc to highlight the Giants' win. Shades of Will Clark? Well, let's not get too excited here. 26-year-old rookies aren't exactly the hottest prospects in the game, and while Pill has been tearing it up in Fresno all year and sure deserved the callup, lots of guys have brought gaudy-looking PCL stats to the majors and never made it. Still, when you look at the five solid innings pitched by rookie starter Eric Surkamp, who won his first big-league game, and 31- year-old rookie Justin Christian's fine night in center field and the leadoff spot, you wonder if maybe the Giants shouldn't have entertained the notion of a youth movement some time ago. It's hard to believe these guys could average less than 3.4 runs per game!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Arizona    81-60    …      Maybe mile-high air will make them dizzy.
GIANTS  74-67   7 GB  Where was all that power Sunday?

Giants defeated San Diego, 7-2.
Arizona held on to beat Colorado, 10-7.

Giants at San Diego; 7:05 PDT (10:05 EDT). Rookie southpaw Eric Surkamp, who pitched well to a no-decision in his first start last week, will get another shot tonight. Lefty Wade LeBlanc opposes.
Arizona's at Colorado again.

Yesterday's Game
Now, that the pressure's off, everyone's playing well. We know, we know, that's not fair, but at least for one day the brief road trip down the coast seems a positive tonic for the Giants. Madison Bumgarner was the big story yesterday. Rapidly emerging as one of the top lefthanders in the league, Bumgarner struck out thirteen Padres as he worked into the ninth, finishing two outs short of a complete game and improving his record to 10-12. He got plenty of run support for a change; Pablo Sandoval, with two homers, and Cody Ross, with two doubles, accounted for five runs, five hits,and four RBI between them. Under the radar, but still a pleasant development: six different Giants (including the free-swinging Sandoval) drew walks in this game.

With a lefthander on the mound, we'll see whether Pat Burrell is well enough to start tonight... We certainly hope Carlos Beltran will be. A late scratch yesterday with the stomach 'flu', Beltran has been on fire lately. And with 297 career homers, he has a shot at reaching 300 before the year is out... Whether or not he remains in center field, the Giants must get Andres (.309 OBP) Torres out of the leadoff spot posthaste. Even Burrell (.351) would be a much better option... Looking around, we see that only one real pennant race remains. That's the AL West, where the Los Angeles Angels are chasing the defending league champion Texas Rangers and trailing by only two and a half games. Elsewhere, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia have sewed up their division races, Atlanta will be the NL wild card, and once again the Yankees and Boston are playing hot-potato with the AL East, knowing that both will make the playoffs anyway.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Arizona    80-60   …        Four-run eighth-inning rallies win pennants.
GIANTS  73-67   7 GB   The 'fat lady' is warmin' up.

Giants lost to Arizona, 4-1, blowing a 1-0 lead in the eighth.

Giants are off to San Diego to open a three-game road trip. Madison Bumgarner starts against Tim Stouffer today at 1:05 local time (4:05 PM EDT).

Yesterday's Game
The stat sheet will show another loss, the fourth in a row, for Ryan Vogelsong, who was once 9-1 and is now 10-6, and perhaps some will view that declining record as metaphor for the Giants' once-bright but now almost-gone 2011 prospects. But from here we see a valiant pitcher on a staff of valiant pitchers, asked to do the near-impossible once again: shut out a hard-hitting opponent while sustaining himself on a diet of three hits. Yes, it can be done. Yes, it was done, more often than anyone thought possible, by the Giants a year ago. But it can't be done over and over again, month after month and year after year, as a winning formula. The Giants of 2011 will likely wear it as their epitaph.

Vogelsong carried a three-hit shutout into the eighth; the Giants' only run had come on Cody Ross' homer in the first. Considering the circumstances, it was one of Vogelsong's finest starts of the year: he'd thrown only 87 pitches through seven and appeared to still be going strong. With one out, Ryan Roberts homered to tie the game and Gerardo Parra reached on an infield single. In came Jeremy Affeldt, who lost pinch-hitter Geoff Blum to a walk, and that brought in Ramon Ramirez, who gave up the two big hits that settled the outcome. It makes about as much sense to blame Ramirez and Affeldt for the loss as it does to blame Pablo Sandoval or Eli Whiteside, both of whom left runners in scoring position. The problem is endemic. We saw the same thing happen down the stretch in 2009. The Giants do not score enough runs to function as a pennant-contending team.

Do the Math
The only reason we can say "It ain't over" is because the Giants still have three games left against Arizona-- a weekend series at Chase Field beginning September 23. A yawning gulf of 16 games stands between now and then, plenty enough games for Arizona to salt this thing away for good. Should the 'Snakes' play .500 ball over that stretch, the Giants would need to go 12-4 just to whittle that lead down to a reachable three games. Of course, having won 11of their last 12, Arizona looks nothing like a team ready to settle for .500. After last night, they can smell it, as surely as the Giants could a year ago. Unlike the Giants, they have a series outside the division (Pittsburgh, at home in two weeks). The Giants have six each, home and away, against LA and San Diego, plus four at Colorado, before the 23rd. That Arizona series will be a culmination of a ten-game road trip.

The antidote to a brutal road trip is a good homestand, and the Giants have nobody but themselves to blame for how this most recent 12-game abomination turned out. They went 4-5 against three of the weakest teams in the league, before Arizona even showed up. With a chance to fatten their record at home against the Padres, Astros, and Cubs, and to enter the weekend trailing by two games, instead the Giants put themselves into a desperate situation from which they will not, absent a near-miraculous turn of events, recover.

And for those of you who care (yes, both of you!) we'll keep this thing going for now, perhaps even hangin' in until the bitter, mathematical end.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Arizona     79-60  …        Kennedy makes case for Cy Young Award.
GIANTS   73-66  6 GB   Everything right is wrong again.

Giants lost to Arizona, 7-2.

Giants finish up with Arizona; 1:05 PDT (4:05 EDT) at the 'Bell. Needless to say, the Giants must win this game if their pennant hopes (and this daily log) are to stay alive. Ryan Vogelsong (10-5) faces Daniel Hudson (14-9). The Giants are familiar with Hudson; they've faced him thrice and beaten him twice this year. Those two wins were back in April and May; the loss was barely a month ago. Vogelsong, for his part, has two strong starts against the 'Snakes' this season. Overall, though, he's lost his last three decisions as his record has declined from 10-2 to 10-5.

Last Night's Game
In stark contrast to last September, this September did not bring out any Tim Lincecum 'mojo'-- well, at least not last night. Throwing strong and striking out seven, the Giants' ace was also eminently hittable from the git-go, and after he issued back-to-back two-out walks in the fifth, a sense of impending doom hung implacably over the 'Bell like a cloud. Less than an inning later, he was gone after giving up back-to-back doubles, and the team that rarely plays catch-up once again didn't. Adding injury to insult, Pat Burrell limped off in the fourth after re-injuring the same foot that kept him on the DL for so long; he's listed as day-to-day. Positives were positively miniscule: Carlos Beltran continued his hot hand and is now 7-for-7 in the series, and Lincecum's last strikeout was his 200th. "The Freak" joins Amos "The Hoosier Thunderbolt" Rusie and Juan "The Dominican Dandy" Marichal as the only Giants pitchers to fan 200 or more four straight seasons.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


One year ago today, the San Francisco Giants found themselves in essentially the same position they occupy right now. Following a disastrous month of August, the 2010 Giants trailed the San Diego Padres by several games with a month to play... and we all know how that turned out, don't we?

Well, optimism is the preferred mode for any baseball fan, even a Giants fan, but we needn't get too carried away here. The 2010 Giants turned into playoff monsters, thanks to their great pitching, but the bony truth of it is that had not the Padres staged an epic collapse worthy of the '64 Phillies, most likely the Giants wouldn't even have made the playoffs. It is, therefore, not especially reassuring to note that Our Boys' prospects for this year may depend on a similar face-plant by the Arizona Diamondbacks, who as the sun rises this morning lead the Giants by five games with 24 left to play.

After a wretched, 11-18 August turned their four-game division lead into a six-game deficit, the Giants bounced back big-time last night. Opening a three-game homestand against the Diamondbacks that will essentially decide whether or not this stretch-drive screed continues past Monday, the Giants took the first game of the series in grand fashion, with solid pitching from Matt Cain and some much-needed long-ball heroics from Carlos (4-for-4) Beltran and Cody Ross pounding out a 6-2 win.

Beltran, the newest Giant, especially needed to step it up. Though it's hardly his fault, the team's August skid began almost immediately after he was obtained in a trade-deadline deal that cost the Giants top pitching prospect Zach Wheeler. GM Brian Sabean's determination to add a proven major-league slugger to the league's weakest lineup was well-known, and Beltran the best player available. When the move didn't result in an immediate winning surge, the horde of second-guessers boiled out of the woodwork like a flash-mob at a G-8 convention. A solid September from the newest Giant would be most welcome, whether or not Beltran remains in the club's long-term plans.

We ought to count it all blessings that the Giants are even contenders this year. The lineup, which posted a league-average set of offensive numbers during last year's championship run, has reverted to its gawdawful 2009 level. Consider the team's best player, Buster Posey, was lost for the season back in May, and that solid Freddy Sanchez was likewise sidelined soon after. Without these two, the Giants have scored a major-leagues-low 466 runs (a miserable 3.4 per game). Their leader in RBI is Aubrey Huff, with a mere 55, and Huff is having, by any measure, a dreadful season, especially compared to last year. He's also tied for the team lead in runs scored-- 43-- with Pablo Sandoval, who missed six weeks with an injury but otherwise has been solid. The only other Giant regular with an OPS over .750 is Nate Schierholz-- who is on the DL right now. Overall, the Giants have been outscored 485-466 on the year, which translates to a 66-72 Pythagorean mark, seven games behind their actual record of 73-65.

The Giants' runs-allowed total is second-best in the major leagues, behind only mighty Philadelphia, who seem to be putting together a season for the ages. This year the Giants' mound success is truly a reflection of the whole pitching staff-- there isn't a deeper quality group in the game. Consider that the team's leading starter is Ryan Vogelsong (10-5, 2.63), who barely made the roster in April. Tim Lincecum is 12-11 and not getting much Cy Young attention, although his 2.58 ERA and 193 strikeouts rank, as usual, among the league leaders. Matt Cain, now 11-9 with a 2.85, has been solid, though not having the breakout year we predicted. Most encouraging has been the steady rise of Madison Bumgarner: the 22-year-old has pitched in hard luck much of the year, getting little support even by tepid 'Frisco standards, but has won 9 games with 157 K's in 173 innings. The downsiders are lefties Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito, both of whom have battled injury and ineffectiveness all year. Sanchez, had he been healthy, might have gone to the Mets for Beltran; as it is, this has been a wasted year for him so far. Zito, now in the fifth year of his monster contract, hit the DL for the first time in his entire career this season, and his poor performances when off the DL hint that the Giants may be willing to consider "eating" the $36,000,000 still owed to him through 2013. The club has four good starters to use in the playoffs; the issue will be identifying the fifth starter necessary to get us to the playoffs. As for the bullpen, even Brian Wilson's DL stint hasn't been cause for panic, as stalwarts like Santiago Casillas, Ramon Ramirez, Javier Lopez, and Sergio Romo have generally done very well.

One perspective to take is that the Giants, despite all the injuries and misfortune, have honored their championship season by remaining contenders and conducting themselves like defending champs, not "lucky bums." They've made the difficult moves lately, such as releasing boat-anchors Miguel Tejada and Aaron Rowand in favor of promising youngsters like Brandon Belt. Veteran pickups such as Jeff Keppinger and Orlando Cabrera have the opportunity to be this year's "Cody Ross" or "Edgar Renteria." Pat Burrell, injured almost all year, has returned with his power and batting eye intact. There is enough pitching here to win the division. All 24 of the Giants' remaining games are against the NL West, including five against 'Zona. A sweep this weekend throws the race wide open; thanks to last night's win, a split still carries us into next week.

So off we go, in a cloud of confusion.

Arizona    78-60   …       Nine-game winning streak snapped.
GIANTS 73-65   5 GB   The season will continue past this weekend.

Giants beat Arizona, 6-2, getting off first and preventing any chance of a sweep.

Giants host Arizona; 6:05 PDT at the 'Bell, a special start time for MLB Network. Tim Lincecum seeks his 13th win; Ian Kennedy (17-4, 3.03) opposes. He's been Arizona' s ace this year, and in three starts against the Giants has been outstanding every time. Lincecum has started twice against the 'Snakes and also pitched well. The two faced off at the 'Bell back in May: the Giants won, 1-0, in the ninth.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Ryan Vogelsong, All-Star

There's not an unlikelier story amid the yearly All-Star Game hoopla in Arizona this week, and while the mainstream media seem more interested in who isn't at the Midsummer Classic, we're thrilled by the story of one guy who is. Whether he pitches in the game or not, the incredible story of 33-year-old Ryan Vogelsong--  from blue-chip prospect to trade bait to damaged goods to has-been to never-was to -- whoa, waitaminute-- the unlikeliest of aces on what's supposed to be baseball's best pitching staff-- is and ought to be the story of the moment, because it's 'way too corny for Hollywood yet it's all true.

For Giants fans over the past decade, if we even thought of Vogelsong at all, it was as the indirect butt of some sort of joke: he was the guy Brian Sabean used to flim-flam the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates into giving us Jason Schmidt. At the time the trade was made in 2001 (yes, that's right, ten years ago) it looked like the standard midseason swap. The Giants gave up promising youth (top pitching prospect Vogelsong and young outfielder Armando Rios) to gamble on a up-and-down righty (Schmidt) with a history of both arm trouble and dominating performances, plus rent-an-outfielder veteran John Vander Wal. On one level, the trade didn't work; though Schmidt was good in '01, the Giants finished two games behind Arizona in the race. But over the next three seasons Jason Schmidt established himself as one of the best right-handers in baseball, and he probably should have won the 2004 Cy Young Award (Eric Gagne, indeed). All told, Schmidt was the Giants' rotation anchor for five and a half years, while Vogelsong-- well, Vogelsong essentially fell off the edge of the world.   Over the same span he won exactly ten games for the Buccos, and was summarily released and out of O.B. while Schmidt was still winning games for the Giants. The story was that Sabean had known all along Vogelsong was susceptible to the arm problems that derailed his career, and had essentially swindled the Pirates by trading them "damaged goods." That's baseball for ya, reducing a man's career to a not-very-funny punchline.

Vogelsong, now 33, was a non-roster invitee to spring training this year after playing in Japan for awhile; maybe somebody saw something, or maybe somebody had a soft spot. Seeing his name on the NRI list in March, we offered the tepid hope that perhaps, if unnaturally lucky, he'd catch on as a long reliever and maybe find a way to contribute as the year went by.

Well, a 2.17 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 6-1 mark-- a few of those wins have stopped potential losing streaks-- ranks as a contribution, don't'cha think? And, okay, perhaps if the NL All-Star manager had been someone other than Bruce Bochy, Vogelsong's modest 91 innings in 16 starts might have been entirely overlooked. But when you look at where he was, and then look at where he is--  awwww, c'mon folks, is there a more compelling baseball story anywhere right now?


Admittedly, the past week has not been one of baseball's more enjoyable interludes. The heartbreakingly sad incident in Texas upset us so much we actually shut the TV off during SportsCenter and simply sat there in the dark for a long, long time. Even the kind, thoughtful remarks from class act Josh Hamilton seemed, at the time, wholly inadequate and even insipid, though it's hardly his fault. Prayer helped, but not much at first. Time has helped, a little. Tonight helps a little more (especially considering the NL just went up, 3-1, on a monster shot by Prince Fielder). But what will happen the next time a player tosses a ball toward the upper deck, or even an elevated deck? Should the souvenir tosses be limited to the ground level only?

How many times have we been to a game where, between innings, promotional items were fired out of air cannons into the upper deck? How many guys have leaned 'way, 'way over that rail trying to snag a foul ball? According to USA Today, just this weekend another man in another stadium lost his balance in a similar situation, but was pulled back to safety by his companions. 

That dear six-year-old boy had no chance to pull his dad back, and this seems a good time to take a short break and do a little editing. Or something. Sorry about that, folks.


Well, the absence of Derek Jeter and a handful of other players who seem to prefer resting their weary bodies to playing in the All-Star Game has energized the Usual Suspects in the media, who always seem eager to point out how today's wimpy players just don't measure up to the mighty, mighty men who used to play this game, dagnabbit. A beloved, crusty old veteran (Willie Mays, this time) opines that the modern player seems to have confused the honor of being selected for the All-Star Game with the onus of being selected for jury duty.  Willie, it ought to be remembered, was among those who for several years played in two All-Star Games each season. (By the way, "handful" seems about right; those who are physically able but not playing in the game total five players out of 80-some so honored.)

There's a new rule, adopted at the behest of the players' union we presume, which forbids last Sunday's starting pitchers from appearing in the 'Game on one day's rest.  This year the ineligible list included our own Matt Cain (and what a great game he pitched Sunday, hah?) plus CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander, marquee names all. How often in the future is that likely to happen?

Another development is the exaggerated perceived cost of losing a player to injury in the game. With eight teams now eligible for playoff berths, the relative cost of losing has gone 'way, 'way up. Managers and GMs, and inevitably players as well, start thinking like insurance men in these situations, and risk avoidance becomes paramount. A manager might well think, "If I run Carlos and his gimpy knee out there in an exhibition game and he gets hurt and is lost for the season, we're toast and they're gonna blame me!"  And that kind of thinking can certainly extend to career-minded players as well. Remember, until 1969 only two teams out of sixteen (and later twenty) made the postseason; that is, the World Series. For all but a handful of All-Stars back then, the midsummer classic was it for high-profile games.

Back in "the day", as they say, the reserve clause was binding from year to year and interleague trades were severely restricted. The vast majority of players, even if they didn't stay with one team their whole career, almost always stayed within the same league their whole career. A fine rivalry sprang up between the two leagues, occasionally  spilling over into open distaste, and the players loved putting it over on "those other guys" during the All-Star Game. Nowadays, a player might be playing in the NL this week and in the AL the next; it's hard to keep a healthy rivalry going under those conditions. No wonder Bud Selig came up with the "home-field advantage" carrot for the All-Star winners. (Not that it's necessarily a bad thing, mind you; we seem to remember it worked out just fine for a certain team of which we're fond, last October.)  


And so, as the NL works to hold its 4-1 lead for two more innings (c'mon Boch, get Wilson up!) we will leave you with one last Vogelsong-related anecdote: in this, the same year Ryan Vogelsong has found his redemption, the sad-sack Pittsburgh Pirates, the team to which he was exiled, the team we regarded as the butt of the joke, the team that has finished with a losing record for 19 straight seasons-- yes, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a winning record at the All-Star break and are only a few games out of first place.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

"That's More Runs Than We Scored All Last Year"

So chortled old Casey Stengel after his New York Mets had pounded the Chicago Cubs, 19-1, one fine afternoon back in 1964. Some Giants fans may be forgiven for drawing any sort of parallel between that game and last night's 15-3 rout of the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park in the Motor City. Clobbering the ball in most un-Giants-like fashion before and after a lengthy rain delay, the "Hitless Wonders" of 2011 rolled up their highest run total since last August 24, though it seems longer.

However, even the most cursory examination shows little in common between the two ballclubs.  First,we doubt any Giants fan felt compelled, upon hearing his team had scored 15 runs, to check the team website or Sports Center to see if the team had actually won the game as well. Second, the Tigers are a first-place ballclub; the '64 Cubs battled the Mets all year for the National League cellar. And finally, of course, the Giants themselves are in first place in the NL West, leading the Arizona Diamondbacks by three games as the All-Star break looms a week from today.

Now, how many Giants fans would have predicted their team would be in first place at this time, given the following situations?
  • Tim Lincecum is 6-6, 14th in the league in ERA, and not leading in strikeouts;     
  • Madison Bumgarner has lost more games already than all but one pitcher in the NL;
  • The Giants' most consistent starter all year barely made the team in spring training;
  • Buster Posey is out for the season and has been since before Memorial Day;
  • Freddy Sanchez hasn't played a game since mid-June and may not return this year;
  • Only one Giants regular has an OPS over .800;
  • Aubrey Huff is slugging .380;
  • The team's fifth starting pitcher has a higher batting average than four starting position players;
  • The Giants are 15th in the league in runs scored, 13th in walks and OBP, and 14th in slugging;
  • They're only fifth in the league in ERA while issuing the third-most walks. 
Bill James posited years ago that the true cost of losing a superstar player is, at most, five or six ganes over the course of a season. Most teams, it turns out, recover reasonably well from such a loss and end up doing almost as well as they would have with the star player in the lineup all along.

The key word here is "almost."  Certainly the Giants have shown they can play winning baseball and contend for the pennant despite losing Posey, and, to a lesser extent, Sanchez. They were 27-21 when Buster went down, and are 21-15 since, which seems to reinforce James' observation. But as we all know, the Giants can play "almost" as well as they did  year ago-- and come up short of the postseason. They won the 2010 pennant by one game. The cost of losing a superstar, while unlikely to lead to collapse, certainly can make the difference in late September between going on and going home.

This morning we remember 1965, when Juan Marichal's bat attack on John Roseboro resulted in a eight-game suspension and a then-hefty $10,000 fine, which was probably about a fifth of his salary. (Memorable quote from Dodgers outfielder and later Giants brodacaster Ron Fairly, who witnessed the attack: "He should've been suspended for 10,000 games and fined $8.")  The point today is, that untimely suspension, in the heat of a pennant race, prevented Marichal from starting two and possibly three games. The 1965 Giants finished two games out of first place.     

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Willie's Timing?

Not that we're a superstitious lot, mind you, but didja notice that since Willie Mays' 80th birthday, which the Giants celebrated by beginning a three-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies, the club is 11-3 overall and 8-0 at home? They've taken over first place in the division, and they have a chance now to sweep the crosstown rival Oakland A's with a win tomorrow.

Such are the pleasing thoughts engendered by Tim Lincecum's latest masterpiece, a complete-game three-hit shutout win this afternoon.  He struck out six without walking anybody, which is a testament to pitching right at your opponent's strength. Billy Beane's A's are famous for plate discipline, deep counts, and walks, with the inevitable strikeouts accumulating on the side. Lincecum was having none of that. He worked hard-- 133 pitches-- but he pitched his game, not theirs. Needless to say, last week's debacle in Denver didn't mean a thing. We've said it before and we'll say it again-- this, folks, is the guy you want on the hill when you have one game you must win. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Could Be Worse-- Could Be Raining

Well, it is raining and has been raining and will be raining for a spell yet here in beautiful lush green Virginia, which is taking on a decidedly Seattle-ish look these days. And it was raining the other night in Chicago, enough to postpone the Giants-Cubs game and push Tim Lincecum's scheduled start back one day, to last night in Colorado, and we can all see how well that worked out, can't we?    

Needless to say, the Temptations' "I Wish It Would Rain" has been shoved to the back of the ol' playlist, while "Sunny Afternoon" by the Kinks is quickly moving up the charts here at Sodden-Death Acres.

Lincecum allowed fifteen baserunners last night while recording seventeen outs, and of the six ghastly walks he issued, only one was intentional. He struck out only three, which is not surprising when you see that his ball-strike ratio was 51-67.  You know how some football coaches will just burn the game film after a particularly ugly and out-of-character loss? Time for Bruce Bochy to fire up the old barbecue pit.

Heaven only knows how many runs the Rockies might have scored if they'd been able to run the bases with some degree of success! They had three runners caught stealing, another picked off base, and a fifth thrown out at the plate trying to score (thankyaverymuch, Andres Torres).  As for our beloved Giants, they grounded into four double plays and were 50-50 on steal attempts, so we can hardly afford any more snide comments.

Bright moments: four total bases, a homer, and the aforementioned assist from the .340-hitting Torres (and a belated welcome back to ya, buddy); Nate Schierholz continuing to hit (two-run shot, two walks, two-eighty-six on the season and batting fifth in another of "Boch's" creative lineups); two hits including a double from Miguel Tejada, who has finally hoisted himself north of the Mendoza Line; the Giants still holding a sliver of a half-game lead over these Rockies even after the loss. And Jonathan Sanchez sallying forth to do battle with Ubaldo Jimenez tonight. Eternally optimistic, we remain.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Happy 80th birthday, Willie Mays!

August 16, 1965, Candlestick Park, bottom of the fourth. Against Mets righthander Tom Parsons, Willie hits a line drive to right center that just clears the fence. It's one of 17 homers he hit that month, 52 for that MVP season, and 660 for his matchless career, and we were there, nine years old. What's YOUR best Willie Mays memory?

Another time... same place...  Candlestick, 1970, against the Cincinnati Reds. Bobby Tolan hit what should have been a home run to right center, and 39-year-old Willie, running full speed, leaped OVER Bobby Bonds, caught the ball as it was going over the fence, then tumbled to the ground and was completely still for 5 minutes before getting up and calmly jogging away. We saw it live on TV and couldn't believe what we'd seen. If anyone has a video of this unbelievable catch, please upload it to YouTube! We can't find it anywhere, and every baseball fan should see it.

Says Buster Posey, "Happy 80th birthday to Willie Mays, one of the greatest baseball players of all time and a true ambassador of game. Thank you for helping me understand the honor and privilege it is to play for the Giants."

Class act, that Buster.  Happy birthday, Willie, the Greatest of 'Em All!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Well, it's about time. Last night's stirring double-comeback win over the LA Dodgers was the first game in this young season that really captured the feeling and the spirit of last year's post-season run.  The way the Giants fought off adversity (not to mention a 3-0 deficit) and battled their way back to a necessary win was especially reminiscent of that great Philadelphia series. Once again, we had two ace starters-- Tim Lincecum and Chad Billingsley-- who opened the game strong, but were gone by the sixth. We had balls-out defensive plays, like Pablo Sandoval's heads-up throw home on a risky broken-bat grounder, in time to nail James Loney, or Tim Lincecum pouncing on a nasty little ricochet by Andre Ethier and throwing a bullet of a strike to get the runner at first. We had Aaron Rowand, scoring the tie-breaking run in the fifth and the game-winner in the seventh as he legged out a triple and then scored standing up on a wild pitch. And of course, it had to be Brian Wilson regaining his form, after two lousy post-DL appearances, with a brief, 14-pitch ninth inning save that was over so quick we didn't even have time to worry. As Lincecum said on his Facebook page this afternoon, it was a true "team win", and one the Giants badly needed against this team that has handled them too well thus far. Everybody take a bow! 

Concerns about the Giants' outfield defense continue apace. Pat Burrell has had "issues", shall we say, in left field, but the switch to right field has really been a major problem for Aubrey Huff, especially considering the vast swath requiring coverage at the 'Bell. Now there's talk of moving Brandon Belt out there and returning Huff to first base, which likely means that when Cody Ross comes off the DL, Belt (.158) will be Fresno-bound. The youngster helped his cause with a single and a run scored last night, but also made the team's only charged error...   Lincecum was taken out after he hit Juan Uribe with a pitch just moments after his sparkling defensive play on Ethier. Timmy has faced his jocular former teammate twice this year and hit him in both games.... Jeremy Affeldt "vultured" his first win of the season, being the pitcher of record when Rowand scored in the seventh. His line: 17 pitches, 10 strikes, a walk (intentional), two hits, and a homer. However, he had the good sense to give up the homer before allowing the other baserunners, and thus benefited from the yeoman efforts of Rowand, Sergio Romo,and Wilson.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Well, nobody ever claimed defending a world championship was gonna be easy.

Clayton Kershaw trimmed Tim Lincecum's sails last night and the LA Dodgers won their home opener against the Giants, 2-1. To put the best possible face on it, let's hope this is the start of a season-long dogfight between Our Boys and the Hated Foe. A Giants-Dodgers pennant race is good for baseball. Did anyone else hear the LA fans chanting "Gi-ants suck!" in the ninth inning last night (to the tune of "Beat L-A!") ? And here we thought they didn't care!

Kershaw was outstanding. Most good pitchers have a low-and-away strikeout pitch they work toward in the course of an at-bat, and certainly Kershaw delivered his share of those. But last night he also was busting 'em inside for strikes, and when that happens this guy is going to be tough to beat. Lincecum, for his part, pitched reasonably well and looked stronger over the final two than the first five, though his ball-strike count was 58-45, well below his standard. Take heart, folks; when wild, he was wild high, and he looked plenty strong.

No one who saw the Giants over the course of last season could be too surprised at their inability to hit Kershaw; "recurring lack of offense" was a theme-with-variations throughout the championship campaign. But three-error games (and those were three ugly errors, sports fans) definitely were not, and absent those gaffes it's not unreasonable to suppose that Pat Burrell's homer in the top of the ninth might have broken a scoreless tie and given the game to the visitors. Buster Posey's ill-advised throw to third in the sixth inning, following Burrell's misplay of Matt Kemp's single, resulted in Lincecum's only (unearned) run allowed, and the Giants' studliest player earlier suffered what seemed to be a simple lack of concentration when he let a fastball carom off his glove for a passed ball that, fortunately, did not lead to a score.

Bright moments: the suddenly lithe and agile Pablo Sandoval spearing a wicked line drive off the bat of former Giant Juan Uribe and nearly doubling James Loney off third; Freddy Sanchez hustling past Andres Torres in center on Uribe's single, then turning and throwing out Uribe as he slid past second trying to stretch it-- the defensive play of the game; and rookie Brandon Belt beating out a grounder for his first major-league hit and later drawing the only walk issued by Kershaw.

Tonight Jonathan Sanchez goes out to even things up, with Matt Cain tomorrow and a shaken-but-not stirred Barry Zito scheduled for Sunday evening's nationally-televised series finale, pending results of an MRI following his traffic incident Wednesday night with "one of those crazy LA drivers."

And while we're generally loathe to praise anything that smacks of Dodgerdom, we heartily congratulate skipper Don Mattingly on his new job. For a few short years in the mid-1980s he was the best player in baseball, and Giants fans would do well to compare and contrast his career with that of Will Clark, who came along a few years later. Both were sweet-swinging left-handed first basemen, and both saw their greatness peak too early. Absent the injuries that ultimately shortened their careers, both Mattingly and Will would be in Cooperstown today. And while we can't exactly wish him a whole lot of success in his new endeavor, we do hope that Mattingly does well enough in LA to build and sustain a long and rewarding career as a major-league manager.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The San Francisco Giants Open the 2011 Season!

Tim Lincecum, R            How will he ever top Game Five of the World Series?
Matt Cain, R                  Predict 2011 will be Matt's finest campaign to date
Jonathan Sanchez, L       Expect this'll be the year he makes it or breaks it
Barry Zito, L                  Staggers into clubhouse after yesterday's car wreck
Madison Bumgarner, L  The poker-faced youngster faces first full season
Sergio Romo, R             May take over closer role with "Blackbeard" on shelf
Ramon Ramirez, R         Throws as hard as anybody on the ballclub
Javier Lopez, L              Was one of many October heroes on this squad
Jeremy Affeldt, L           Giants have two of the best lefty relievers in game
Guillermo Mota, R         Some of these guys aren't gonna get enough work
Santiago Casilla, R         Considerably younger and shorter than Mota
Dan Runzler, L               Right now he's Mr Irrelevant, the 12th pitcher
Brian Wilson, R (DL)     Everyone's telling us not to worry about his injury

Buster Posey, c             By season's end, you can bet it'll be "his" team
Aubrey Huff, of-1b       Moves to the outfield with customary good humor
Freddy Sanchez, 2b      Let's hope he can make it through the year uninjured
Andres Torres, of         Former fifth outfielder comes off a true dream season
Pat Burrell, lf                Earns starting spot due in large part to Ross' injury
Miguel Tejada, ss         Takes over Uribe's role and has something to prove
Pablo Sandoval, 3b      "Panda" reports to camp about 40 pounds lighter
Brandon Belt, 1b          The exciting young rookie wins the starting job
Mark DeRosa, if-of      Not sure where he'll play, but expect he'll get his ABs
Aaron Rowand, cf        Expect Bochy'll keep the outfield in steady rotation
Nate Schierholz, of       With Rowand and Torres, makes up "All-D" outfield
Mike Fontenot, if          Every team needs a backup middle infielder
Eli Whiteside, c            Giants' version of the old "Maytag Repairman"
Cody Ross, of (DL)     Pray they'll send a pitcher down when he returns

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Spring's Hopes Eternal

Well, it's 60 degrees in February here in the Shenandoah Valley, and that's good enough for us. The temperature hasn't dropped below 40, even at night, for nearly a week, we washed the cars yesterday, the football season is safely in the rear-view mirror... and the San Francisco-- ahem, pardon me-- WORLD CHAMPION San Francisco Giants have a ballgame, a real honest-to-goodness ballgame, you know, the kind with bats and gloves and grass and uniforms and umpires and stuff-- yes, a baseball game scheduled for next Friday, six short days from now, in Arizona, against Arizona, not that that matters much.

Spring fever, anyone?

At first glance, a good number of the players arriving in Scottsdale look like pretty much the same bunch that celebrated on the field in north Texas last year. The Missing Man Formation will be flown in memory of Juan Uribe, gone to greener pastures. His putative replacement, in the lineup and in the field, is Miguel Tejada, who certainly ranks as one of the Proven Major League Veterans (PMLV) so especially beloved by our general manager (that's World Champion General Manager, to you) Brian Sabean.  But Tejada seems to be one of those PMLVs who arrive with a chip on his shoulder and Something To Prove, reminiscent of a couple fellows named Huff and Burrell from last year.

Over there is Cody Ross, last year's unlikeliest of heroes, who turned 30 in December and signed a one-year contract (that's ONE year, you Sabean-bashers) in January. The Invisible Man, Mark DeRosa, is back, says he's healthy, and will try to find a place to play. The newcomer we're most excited about is Conor Gillaspie, 12 years DeRosa's junior, who may also agitate the starting-lineup mix this season. And news reports say Pablo Sandoval has reported to camp in something less than an institutional-sized package, though we've yet to see pictures or attend the obligatory weigh-in.

Working stiffs have long tabbed Wednesday as "Hump Day". Well, over here in Zitoland, 2010 was "Hump Year," the fourth year of Barry Z's overly-indulgent seven-year deal. This year will be his fifth in the orange and black, and we retain our guarded optimism that the era of accumulating returns may continue. He was pretty darn good last year, which everyone forgets because he ended the season so poorly and Madison Bumgarner passed him like a greyhound on a molasses track. But let's keep a little perspective here; the Giants, remember, could've passed on Barry and given the same contract to Jason Schmidt!

Anyone else notice that Nick Noonan, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, and Ryan Vogelsong are all among the non-roster invitees to camp? Belt is the big name here; everyone seems to be excited about his chances to be the Giants' latest First Baseman of the Future (tm). Last year he hit at San Jose, hit some more at Double-A Richmond, and he hit at Fresno, too. He's 22 and, well, we all hope he's not the next John Bowker.  As for Noonan, back in 2007 or so we were hearing a lot about him; not so much lately after a .237 campaign in Double-A last year.  He's a year younger than Belt, so there's still time for him to grow. The other half of the "Brandon" tag team, Crawford, is already 24, though he's been in pro ball fewer years than Noonan. On the downside, he was hurt last year which contributed to his lousy numbers; on the up, he came out of the same draft as Gillaspie and Buster Posey, which leaves room for hope. But the name that caught our attention first and actually prompted this portion of the screed was Vogelsong's. Here's a dude who was a Giant prospect back in 1998, and three years later was the key to the Jason Schmidt trade. He never made it in the majors, winning a total of ten games in about seven years, and the story went that Sabean had unloaded him as damaged goods on the unsuspecting Pirates. Now 33, he's been out of the big show since 2006. While we hope all 22 of these NRIs do well and land a job somewhere, it'd be a treat if Vogelsong has enough left to catch on with the Giants and maybe contribute out of the bullpen down the stretch.