Friday, October 5, 2012

End of the Regular Season

Final National League West Standings

GIANTS       94-68    ...          Cincinnati arrives Saturday to kick it off.
Los Angeles   86-76     8 GB   Last-week hot streak fell just short.
Arizona          81-81   13 GB   Never mounted a serious challenge.
San Diego      76-86   18 GB   Haven't seen postseason play since 2006.
Colorado       64-98   30 GB   They've been rebuilding for what, 3 years?

Giants fans with a little bit of age on 'em may be feeling some trepidation right about now. Only three times before has the team coasted into the postseason like this-- in 1987, 2000, and 2003-- and we all know how those campaigns turned out, don't we? Still, it's hard not to like this ballclub as the October festivities begin, even if we weren't hopelessly biased from the start. The same sort of tough, underrated, git-'er-done players (hello there, Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro) we saw in 2010 (Pat Burrell and Cody Ross come to mind) have become fixtures in a lineup to which they didn't even belong a few months ago. A triumvirate of outstanding starting pitchers ranks with any in the game, though one of the names on the list has changed. And this year we have a guy whose new nickname could only be "MVP", that being Buster Posey, your new National League batting champion who also drove in 102 runs. Yes, there are some solid teams going into this postseason derby-- the Atlanta Braves, in particular, have the look of a club in the right place at the right time-- but we don't see a one who ought to be rated a better-than-even shot to defeat Our Boys.

And so it will be Matt Cain opening the division series at AT&T Park on Saturday night against the Cincinnati Reds, who are managed by our old friend Johnnie B. Baker. The Reds ran away with the Central division this year, led by a quintet of pitchers that ranks with anybody's-- including the Giants. Madison Bumgarner has been tabbed as the starter for Sunday's Game Two, also at the 'Bell. Then it's off to Cincinnati for the rest of the series, and our old friend Mat Latos awaits to start Game Three for the Reds. Without risking too much strain, we'll give ourselves a light pat on the back for predicting Latos' resurgence in Cincinnati.

It'd be most helpful to face him with a two-game edge already in place. We're unclear why the division series format has been changed. Since 2000 the first two games have been played in the higher-seeded team's ballpark, the next two (if necessary) at the lower seed's home field, and if a Game Five was needed, it was back to the higher seed's home. Now, things have reverted to the 1995-1999 format, which actually gives early advantage to the lower seed. The Giants themselves experienced this in 1997, when they lost the first two at the wild-card Marlins' Miami home, then were eliminated back at Candlestick. We doubt the Cincinnati Reds consider this assignation much of a home-field "advantage" given their better record, and of course we hope the Giants can do to the Reds exactly as was done to them fifteen years ago.

The Reds won the season series by 4-3 this year; they were 2-1 at the Great American Ballpark and earned a split at the 'Bell. Johnny Cueto's lone appearance saw him outdone by Bumgarner's one-hitter on June 28, while as mentioned earlier Latos was superb in two starts. Though the Reds have one of the game's best hitters in Joey (1.041 OPS) Votto, they are even more pitching-dependent than the Giants, and their "ace" may actually be closer Aroldis Chapman, with his 100-MPH heat and his 38 saves. Certainly Baker's fondness for giving lots of at-bats to speedy players who can't hit hasn't cost his team a lot of wins-- yet-- but it has placed a lot more pressure on his pitchers. Cincinnati was ninth in the league in runs scored, twelfth in runs scored on the road. Center fielder Drew Stubbs, who struck out over 200 times last year while batting leadoff, cut his K's down to 166 and was indeed moved down in the lineup-- all the way to second, where he managed a .277 OBP, almost as good as the man who replaced him in the leadoff spot, Zack (.288 OBP) Cozart. With these two gobbling up the most at-bats, Giants starters ought to be able to avoid the big innings.

Unknowns at this point are the identity of the Giants' Game Three starter, or the team's postseason pitcher/player ratio. We always like to see 10 pitchers and three catchers, but given Bruce Bochy's affection for the deep bullpen, the best we can hope for is probably 11 pitchers instead of the dreaded 12. On the cusp may be Aubrey Huff, whose left-handed bat off the bench could be valuable, but who at this point has almost no defensive value. Ryan Theriot, Xavier Nady, and Joaquin Arias already are assured of roster spots as backups, and Pablo Sandoval is likely the emergency-catcher candidate behind Posey and Hector Sanchez. We'd like to see both Huff and Emmanuel Burriss make the squad; that'd be 14 position players.

The inspired notion of adding a second wild-card team, thus devaluing the wild-card berth by half as opposed to the division title, means the top-seeded Washington Nationals await the winner of today's one-game playoff between the Atlanta Braves and the St Louis Cardinals. The Nats' amazing rise from perennial losers to sudden winners under the tutelage of 70-year-old Davey Johnson has been dampened a bit by their tepid September play, which may or may not be related to management's controversial decision to bench youthful ace Stephen Strasburg. Certainly the combination of Strasburg's age, his tremendous potential, and his recent Tommy John surgery made the choice a difficult one, but for the first time in memory we are seeing a team concede its best chance to win now in exchange for a future no one can predict. We can't help but think this will cost them in the end, but for now let's congratulate the Nationals, who have brought postseason baseball to Washington fans for the first time since 1933. (Shall we remind everybody who beat the Washington Senators in that '33 World Series? Naaah.)

The mid-Atlantic area is abuzz with baseball as never before, with the long-dormant Baltimore Orioles also rising from the mat and rewarding their long-suffering fans with the team's first postseason appearance since 1997. The O's almost beat out the perennial New York Yankees for the AL East pennant; the Bombers clinched it on the last day of the season. Baltimore thus faces the Texas Rangers, on the road, for a one-game chance to advance. While it's great to see both Washington and Baltimore in the postseason for the first time ever, we doubt either will make it to the World Series.

A similar buzz permeates the Bay Area, where the Oakland A's concluded a fantastic stretch drive by first catching, and then beating, the two-time AL West defending champion Rangers for the pennant. The darkest of dark horses in this playoff derby, Oakland will play the Detroit Tigers who, in similar manner but with considerably less national fanfare, caught and then passed the Chicago White Sox over the final weeks for AL Central flag. To keep it in perspective, the A's and Giants both qualified for October ball in 1971, 1989 (when they met in that forgettable World Series), 2000, and 2003, so it's not quite as big a kick as the D.C./Baltimore two-step.

Roll the statistical parade... Giants finished fifth in the league in runs scored, and first in runs scored in away games. Since Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro came aboard, they've averaged 5.2 per game... Their 718 runs scored is a 25% increase over last year's league-lowest total.... The "Woild Cham-peens" of 2010 had a NL-best 3.36 team ERA, this year's model sits at 3.68. Postseason qualifiers Washington, Atlanta, and Cincinnati all rank higher, with St Louis just behind... The aforementioned Aroldis Chapman has struck out 122 in 72 innings while walking 23! That's gotta be worth some Cy Young votes... Washington's Gio Gonzalez won 21 games, with R.A. Dickey winning 20. Cueto, St Louis' Lance Lynn, and Philly's Cole Hamels also won more than Cain and Bumgarner's 16... Nobody set the world on fire with a sub-2 ERA; Clayton Kershaw was best at 2.53, but Cain's 2.79 is right there... Cain and Bumgarner were 8-9 in strikeouts; tenth, despite his struggles, was Tim Lincecum. He was also second in most walks allowed with 90; the next Giant, Barry Zito, is well down the list.... Santiago Casilla is tenth in saves, despite fewer opportunities than his competitors... Along with his batting title, Buster Posey is fourth in slugging, second in OPS, sixth in RBI... Votto is off the charts in OBP with .474; though he missed 50 games, he still drew 94 walks... Angel Pagan's team-leading 95 runs rank seventh in the league; Jimmie Rollins managed to score 102 despite a .316 OBP, and there's a hint of Philadelphia's problems right there... Pagan led the league in triples with 15, but missed double-digits in all three extra-base categories. Five made it, including Melky Cabrera, who needed only 113 games to pull it off before his suspension... Marco Scutaro finished at .306, seventh in the league. He hit .362 with the Giants. We love this guy, though we wish he'd walk more... Though he hit 32 homers and the Cardinals made the postseason, Carlos Beltran did not have a good year by his standards. His OBP is barely north of Angel Pagan's... Pablo Sandoval finished at .283, though he drew more walks than ever before, which kept his OBP at .347... Memo to Clint Hurdle, manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates: Keep Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata at first base. Together, they stole 28 bases and were caught 24 times, which is significantly worse than just staying put... . The Giants finished seventh in walks and second in fewest strikeouts, a dramatic departure from recent history... The Giants also finished in the middle of the pack defensively; slightly below average in errors, slightly above average in range, exactly eighth in defensive-efficiency rating (DER)... Brandon Crawford was third in range among shortstops and fifth in errors, which is about right, and which proves Bochy's wisdom leaving him in there despite his poor stats back in May.

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