Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dee-fense! Dee-fense!

They say that chant originated in the bleachers of old Yankee Stadium during chill Sunday afternoons in the 1950s, when men were men and men like Sam Huff and Andy Robustelli were tearing opposing quarterbacks limb from limb. By the time we were old enough to watch football, it had spread like kudzu to every corner of the land. Soon enough it even infected the NBA, where we've been told that some fans are known to chant it even when the home team has the ball. (Which actually makes sense, when you consider the history of, say, the Golden State Warriors, but-- nevermind.)

In San Francisco, at a particular time which some of you may remember with a certain fondness, it was pronounced "DEAN-fense." (Bless you, Fred Dean.) Meanwhile, language mavens everywhere cringed at what they considered the widespread mispronunciation of the word. Seriously, though-- consider how it would  sound, a stadium full of people intoning, "De-FENSE. De-FENSE."  Conjures up the image of a cold wind whipping through a lonely graveyard at dusk. Might be enough to put a good scare into the opponent. Okay, you Niner season ticket holders, you know what to do come September! 

Anyway, the chant hasn't caught on in baseball. Perhaps it's because, as the pundits like to remind us, baseball is the only major sport in which the team that has the ball is already on defense.  Maybe the spread-out formation of fielders in baseball simply doesn't summon up that martial spirit. Whatever. It ain't gonna be us that starts it, we'll tell you that. One legendary crowd chant innovation in a lifetime is enough for us, thank you.

(We now pause to dismiss the vision of a pint-sized batboy jumping up and down, pointing to center field, and shouting, Herve Villechaize-style, "De FENCE, boss! De FENCE!" forcibly from our mind.)

All this tomfoolery is our special way of introducing today's topic du jour, which we gleaned from one of our irregular visits to the stats page.  Here are our Giants and their fine pitchers, we see with puffed-up pride, ranking fourth in the league in ERA and fourth in the league in WHIP, though distressingly only ninth in strikeouts and tenth in fewest walks. But, though the club ranks fourth in ERA, they're only eighth in fewest runs allowed. How'd that happen?

Well, the Giants have allowed 26 unearned runs this year in 44 games, by far the most in the National League, 30% more than any other team. (The team we just played, the Brewers, rank second with 20. Meanwhile, the defending champion Cardinals have allowed but nine unearned runs all year, also in 44 games.)  No question the Giants are allowing 'way too many of the relatively few men who get on base against them to score. 

It will therefore come as no surprise to you, dear readers, that Our Boys lead the league with 46 errors and rank dead last with a .973 fielding percentage. Oh, they're gettin' to the ball, all right-- fourth in total chances, or range, if you prefer-- but the ball ain't always gettin' back to the base, if you know what we mean and we think you do. Leading the league, if you want to call it that, is Brandon Crawford, who lately has been going by his Indian name, "Chief Buttafinga." Ten errors in 201 chances usually leaves a man stranded somewhere south of the MLB border. But, we must also point out that this young man makes more plays than any shortstop in the business. Yes, we know .950 is unacceptable-- for a season. But five plays per nine innings is eminently acceptable, and it's still only May, so let's shelve the pitchforks and douse the torches for now. 

Meanwhile, though he doesn't show up among the "leaders" because he's been hurt, Pablo Sandoval also has kicked more than his share of grounders-- five errors in 71 chances, .930. Ouch.  His range, though, is also quite good for a third baseman. So, we can rag on the left side of our beleaguered infield all we want, but folks, errors are coachable. Range isn't. We all know Pablo won't be going anywhere once he's healthy, but we believe Crawford also deserves to stay out there for a while yet. Whoever his replacement would be will let a lot more base hits through into left, you can count on that.

Okay! There is better news from the statistical front. Rare is it for any Giant to rank among the top fifty qualifiers in the league when it comes to drawing a walk. Yet we currently have three fine fellows in that rank-- say hello to Gregor Blanco, Brandon Belt, and Melky Cabrera! Both Blanco and Belt average about a walk a game, or every five AB's, which is great. Despite his .244 average, Blanco's OBP is .371, better than Dan Uggla, Justin Upton, or Jose Reyes. He ranks 19th in the league despite only 86 at-bats, and he's on pace to score over 100 runs if he keeps starting. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a leadoff man! 

Belt, 27th in the NL, boosts his weak .226 BA with a .350 OBP, though he has no power. He should bat second. As for Cabrera, well, he's hitting .356/.404/.506. Need we say more?  And while Buster Posey could probably walk a little more (14 in 140 ABs), he's back up to .300/.365/.486 after his recent slump, and he's been hitting some monster shots over the last week.  Pushing this out to a team level, the Giants are tenth in the league in runs scored and slugging average, and a cheery eighth in OBP. With 2010-level pitching, that's a deep-in-the-playoffs team. With 2012 pitching, well, we just can't tell yet.

Sure, maybe the "Dee-fense" chant will motivate Crawford and the boys to step it up a notch. Try it at your own risk, and don't say we didn't warn you if the men in the white coats haul you away before the seventh-inning stretch.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

April Whine

Well, except for that miserable opening weekend in Arizona, there really isn't a lot for seasoned Giants fans such as we to mope about. April is the month of settling in, waiting for a subset (we hope) of usually-reliable players to get with the program, ignoring-- or, at least, enduring-- odd-looking stats, and generally reminding ourselves that there's still plenty of baseball left and just because those clowns to the south started the season 9-1 there's no reason to panic. Yet.

So.... as our readership waits with bated breath.... granting the small sample size inherent in a 22-game study, what do the numbers tell us about the Giants and this season so far?

Good news. The Giants are right in the middle of the pack-- ninth place-- in runs scored. They're actually third in batting average, but only eighth in OBP, because they're 13th in walks. (Quelle surprise!)   Still, ninth in the league in the game's most important stat, and averaging just over four runs a game, looks more comparable to the 2010 team than to last year's Hitless Wonders-- and, as the song goes, you know that can't be bad.

Much of this improvement may be laid directly at the feet of Buster Posey, or, as we like to call him, ".353- .413- 603." He's one of three NL regulars with an OPS over 1000; the other guys are Matt Kemp and David Wright.  Whatever the lingering effects of last year's frightful injury may have on his defense-- and it does seem to us he's made a few more fielding misplays than usual-- it hasn't affected his bat one bit. He catches a full season and hits like this, he'll find himself squarely in MVP territory. Not too far down the same list are Pablo Sandoval and Nate Schierholz, both over 860.

Meanwhile, the Giants rank a mildly disappointing sixth in the league in ERA, and much of this can also be laid at the feet of one guy-- Tim Lincecum. He compiled an aggregate ERA over 10 (!) in his first three starts, but we'll take heart from his last outing, in which he allowed but three infield singles in a dominating win, albeit at home against the league's worst team. That got him down to 5.74, and we've every reason to believe he'll soon join the rest of the starting crew, who've been generally outstanding. Matt Cain has already pitched two near-perfect games, and Madison Bumgarner, who began last year 0-7, is already 4-1. Even Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong, who both came into the season with some serious questions, have delivered 6 quality starts out of 7 overall.

Looking over the Giants lineup, it seems everything is close to being set. Posey and Sandoval are tops, of course. Melky Cabrera has been an excellent addition; he's at .300- .366- .422. Nate, as mentioned before, is hitting so well he needs to be starting every day. And Angel Pagan, despite that execrable .281 OBP (four walks in a team-leading 92 at-bats!) has shown some decent power (.478 SLG). At first base, Brett Pill and Brandon Belt both are holding their own; combined they're right at .300, though only Pill has shown any power so far. For now these guys ought to be in a platoon combo, though not necessarily a strict lefty-righty pattern. Sad to say, that leaves out Aubrey Huff, who just went on the DL due to stress-related illness. It's hard to say what the future holds for one of the Giants', and baseball's, Really Good Guys.

Then we have Brandon Crawford and Manny Burriss in the middle of the diamond-- for now. Both are barely treading water at the plate. All of Burriss' 13 hits (in 50 AB, .260) are singles. Conversely, half of Crawford's 14 hits have been for extra bases, which almost excuses .203 in 69 at-bats. We're really reaching here for any slender thread to keep from labeling these guys as "automatic outs," but it's doubtful the team can continue into June with this little production from these two spots. Now, we hear Freddy Sanchez is soon to return-- well, we've been hearing that since March-- but if and when he does, we'll have to hold our breath that another injury doesn't sideline him. Second base, particularly its right side, is the most unsafe spot in fair territory, especially for brittle veteran players. Thing is, right now there's nowhere else for him to go, assuming he does return soon.

What about the batting order? Well, Cabrera should be leading off. His OPS is fourth among the regulars and he actually will take a walk (10 in 90 ABs). Nate should follow in the two-hole, then Posey-Sandoval-Pagan and the Pill/Belt combo in the heart of the order. Yes, Pagan really should be hitting fifth or sixth. We're not down on him at all. He's shown he can belt the ball out of the park on occasion; he's just grossly miscast as a leadoff man.  The team's Pythagorean projection has them at 98 runs created; that they've only scored 90 may be an indication this batting order has not been deployed in an effective manner. And for those of you who like stolen bases, fahgeddaboudit. Cabrera leads the bunch with 5 swipes in 7 attempts, which is mediocre; the whole crew would be better off just staying put.

Statistical Weirdness Dept.: The Giants lead the league in homers in away games; they've hit 16 in 13 road games but only 4 at the 'Bell (in nine).

And, of course, we all know by now that whatever the Giants accomplish in 2012 will be done without the aid of Brian Wilson. "Blackbeard" underwent Tommy John surgery recently and is out for the season. This is the second time he's had that surgery, and we don't know if that's a good indicator or a bad one. We do believe, however, the Giants can survive this blow; this is one of the deepest bullpens in baseball. Yes, the "closer" mentality does exist, but there's plenty of evidence that it's not particularly uncommon. See Tim Worrell, 2003 (or Armando Benitez, 2005, for a counter-example). If there's anything to be learned from recent history, it's that odds are Santiago Casilla is going to work out just fine here.