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.