Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Postseason Fatigue

We remember the 1964 World Series. A back-and-forth battle between the last remnant of the 40-year Yankee dynasty and a well-built well-balanced Cardinal ballclub. Mickey Mantle's last World Series homer (it won  Game Three) and Whitey Ford's last World Series appearance (he lost Game One). The emergence of Hall-of-Famers Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. Four close games out of seven, with Gibson barely surviving the complete-game finale and sending the Bronx Bombers into a decade of darkness.

It was great. It was memorable. And it was over on October 15.

We awoke this morning here in Virginia to a crisp, beautiful 43-degree day, and as we set out on our daily constitutional, dog in tow (or towing, depending on the circumstances) we wondered what the air temperature and wind-chill factor (wind-chill factor?) in Boston might be at about 9 PM tonight, or whatever time the player/coach/groundskeeper introductions complete and the automobile/ED/beer commercials pause long enough for Jon Lester to throw the first pitch to Matt Carpenter and kick off this year's Fall Classic.

Pardon us, please, if we sound just a tad jaded. Since the regular season concluded on September 29, there have already been a total of  32 postseason games played over three weeks: the two wild-card showdowns, eighteen in the division series, and twelve in the league championship series. If the World Series goes the full seven, the 2013 baseball season will wrap up sometime around one o'clock n the morning of November 1.

All things considered, by today's standards it's a fairly short postseason.

Other than the participation of the Cardinals, the 2013 World Series has little in common with the '64 Classic. Then, the games were played in the daytime, in accordance with baseball tradition, and the television and radio networks contracted to broadcast the games covered them in a manner similar to news coverage: wherever and whenever the event may be, we'll be there and we'll bring it to you. Nowadays the games are scheduled according to the wishes of advertisers, whose dictates are carried out by network executives.

The mindset has changed, perhaps irrevocably. It's no longer considered a privilege for FOX to carry the World Series and for Toyota to advertise during the games; instead, it's deemed a privilege for baseball to have its championship games branded by FOX and affirmed by Toyota. Lord knows, we're not curmudgeonly enough to blame advertisers or TV networks; it's baseball's executive leadership (or lack of same) which has slavishly prostituted its unique product as just another form of entertainment, the equivalent of "Dancing With the Stars" or "The Voice."

So we can whine all we want about games starting in prime-time and ending on raw, icy midnights in Boston or Detroit or New York, at a time when two-thirds of the kids on America (you know, the kids that will grow up to be baseball fans, or not) are fast asleep. It's been this way for all sports since "Monday Night Football" and it's unlikely to be reversed.

But if the genie of homogeneity can't be put back in the bottle, perhaps he can be fooled a bit. Is there a better way to handle baseball's crowded postseason derby? Stay tuned; we're sure to come up with a proposal that will infuriate millions.

Jim Leyland stepped down as manager of the Detroit Tigers yesterday. He's about to turn 69, he's managed three different teams to the postseason, reached the World Series three times, and won it once. If there is one thing we've come to recognize over 50 years of baseball fandom, it's that success tends to follow certain managers wherever they go, and that trend seems even more pronounced in these days of thirty major-league teams and the expanded postseason. We wish Jim Leyland all the best, including a Cooperstown honor during his lifetime... By contrast, the Dodgers' Don Mattingly has no reason to step down, and it would be a major blunder for the Blue Meanies' ownership not to rehire him. He did a great job... As you all know, Dusty Baker was let go by the Reds after their late-season stumble. While Dusty's tactical decisions tended to be maddening, his ability to motivate players remains unquestioned. Success followed him not only in San Francisco and in Cincinnati, but in Chicago as well, however briefly. Yet when you never win "The Big One," it seems your career is marked by your close calls; in Dusty's case, those would be "Felix Rodriguez" and "Steve Bartman." Twenty years with only two certifiably bad seasons; that's a mighty good record. Vaya con Dios, Johnnie B... Speaking of stepping down, Tim McCarver is retiring as a broadcaster after this series. Annoying to many, his love for and knowledge of the game always shine though even in his most extreme attacks of logorrhea. Three years older than Jim Leyland, Tim McCarver was the catcher for that '64 Cardinals championship team and hit the game-winning homer in Game Five of that Series. We wish him well, and we wish his former team all the success over the next week.

Monday, September 30, 2013

End of the Regular Season

                W  L PCT   GB
LA           92 70 .568    -       Pythagorean has 'em 9 games behind Atlanta
Arizona 81 81 .500 11.0     Division's best record in one-run games
GIANTS 76 86 .469 16.0     28-22 on Memorial Day; .429 afterward
San Diego76 86 .469 16.0     Give 'em credit: they got out of last place
Colorado 74 88 .457 18.0     Only Houston in the AL allowed more runs

'Twas a happy ending to an unhappy season yesterday, wa'ant it? Our new Ambassador of Goodwill, Hunter Pence, kicked off his brand-new five-year contract with a game-winning RBI base hit, capping a four-run rally over the final three innings and sending everyone off into the sunset with the team's 12th walk-off win of the year and a 15-11 September that ended with 10-5 burst. Not exactly Cleveland Indians material--  did y'all see the Tribe won ten straight games at season's end to grab the AL wild-card edge? But hey, 15-11 over a full season comes out to 93-69, one game better than the division winners above. Grasping at straws, we are.

The tying and winning runs were scored by relative newcomers Tony Abreu and Francisco Peguero, but before we get too giddy here, let's note Abreu is 29 and Peguero's on the cusp at 25. Over fifteen years of minor-league ball between them they've totaled 98 homers. The Giants' offseason search for position players-- in left field (or possibly first base) certainly, at second or third base possibly--  will have to be made across a rather tepid free-agent market. Fodder for another day.

Barry Zito made his last appearance in orange and black yesterday, to the deafening cheers of the assembled multitude, many of whom probably booed his every breath just a few years ago. Zito struck out his old Oakland teammate, Mark Kotsay, in a spot-relief role in the eighth ("That was more adrenaline than the World Series," Zito said; "It was difficult to control myself"), and walked off to a standing O. Who knows what the future holds for Barry-- though any left-handed pitcher with a pulse retains a chance at gainful employment--  but regardless, he leaves with more than enough goodwill to outweigh the cynicism that greeted his arrival in 2007. His glorious redemption in the midst of last season's world-championship charge (it's not hyperbole to suggest that without Barry Z, the Giants would not have won), his consummate professionalism throughout this difficult tenure, his off-field work with veterans and military families, and most of all his quiet, personal blend of courage and modesty are what will be remembered by Giants fans. In a sea of self-serving, hyper-sensitive professional athletes, Barry Zito is and always has been that rarity, a true sportsman in the best sense of the word.

Bright moments: Bryan Stow, the Giants fan attacked and left for dead outside Dodger Stadium nearly three years ago, waving to the throng from a luxury box we hope was paid for by the team... Brandon Belt, 2-for-3 with two doubles and two RBI, finishing at .289/.360/.481... 24-year-old Heath Hembree's ninth appearance without allowing a run. He struck out twelve over his seven and two-thirds innings this month ... Giants taking 11 of 19 from San Diego and finishing with a 44-32 mark against the West, by far the division's best intramural record.

Well, Now What?
Worst case, we see potential trouble at six important spots (and make that seven if the club fails to re-sign Javier Lopez): left field/first base, third base, second base, and three starting pitchers. Best case? Giants re-sign Tim Lincecum, who successfully completes his transition to a crafty, hits-his-spots veteran; Yusmeiro Petit, the only local candidate under 30, emerges as a starting pitcher; Marco Scutaro heals up completely after a winter of rest; Pablo Sandoval once again takes his conditioning seriously; of course, the club signs a right-handed power hitter to play left field or first base (presuming Brandon Belt remains capable of making the switch to LF if needed); and a fifth starter emerges from somewhere (hey, remember, Mark Gardner was signed off the street a week before the season started back in 1996).  None of this takes into account a truly off-the-wall plan, such as making Hector Sanchez the everyday catcher, moving Buster Posey to first and Belt to left, and not signing anybody. Please don't blame us if that turns out to be exactly what they do.

The Postseason Parade
Texas rallied to beat the Los Angeles Angels (who had a mighty disappointing season of their own, Giants fans) yesterday and force a one-game playoff this evening with the Tampa Bay Rays, who hung on to defeat Toronto. As we never tire of saying, tonight's is actually the 163rd game of the regular season for both those teams, and not technically a postseason game.  Cleveland awaits the winner Wednesday....  The NL wild-card showdown takes place at PNC Park tomorrow night as Dusty Baker and the Cincinnati Reds face Clint Hurdle's engaging young Pirates. We're not shy about admitting we favor Pittsburgh, making their first postseason appearance since 1992, to go all the way... The NL division winners get underway Thursday. The inevitable St Louis Cardinals await the wild-card winner, while LA travels to Atlanta. In the American League, it kicks off Friday with defending champion Detroit playing at Oakland while the wild-card team is expected to show up at Fenway Park to welcome the Red Sox back into the October fest... If you're an inveterate baseball fan, you get the most bang for your buck Friday as all four division series games will be played-- two on the East Coast, one in the Midwest, one in the West. The TV people are still trying to put the schedule in order....  Yes, we remember, and long for, those bygone days when TV networks covered baseball the way they used to cover news: "Don't worry, you guys play the game when you're ready, and we'll be there."  Today, it's "Whoa, hold up there. We'll let you know when you can start the game, thanks very much."  What made the difference? We say it was Monday Night Football. Fodder for another day on another blog.

The Giants' slow meltdown from four, to three, to two, and finally to one reliable starting pitcher has to be viewed, at least for the moment, as an aberration. Following the world championship it was reasonable to expect that Barry Zito was more likely to repeat 2011 than 2012, and that Ryan Vogelsong, after two amazing seasons, was on borrowed time at age 36. But it looked for all the world as though Tim Lincecum had turned it around in the postseason, and nobody expected Matt Cain to carry a five-plus ERA into the summer. We believe Cain's four starts after his first-time career stint on the DL, in which he brought his ERA down to a respectable 4.00, are still indicative of his caliber. No reason not to expect a strong 2014... Lincecum actually pitched more innings than dd Cain this year, and we do expect him to re-sign. Given all the grief he's endured over the past two years, Timmy must want another ring badly, and he has to know he won't have any chance of getting one in Seattle...  Of course we didn't expect Albert Pujols to leave St Louis after earning two rings either, and we believe the New York Yankees will take a long look at Lincecum. The question is whether he'll look back...  Cain's 4.00 ERA matched the Giants' team mark, good enough for twelfth in the league, as bad as the execrable Cubs and better than only the Phillies and the unspeakable Rockies... The league average was 3.74, and the five postseason teams were top-five in team ERA... The Giants' unearned run total, 46, was a little better than average... On the hitting front, the Giants were fourth in average and seventh in OBP, but only twelfth in slugging and therefore tenth in runs scored, not nearly good enough with this year's pitching staff... . Unlike Giants teams of the past, the 2013 squad did well on the basepaths, stealing at a 72% success rate. This is entirely due to Hunter Pence, who stole 22 of 25, a far better success rate than all but one of the eight guys who stole more...  We're used to the Giants finishing last or near last in homers, given the cavernous dimensions of AT&T Park, but last year they led the league in homers on the road. This year? Twelfth, and 14th overall by a wide margin. Only the Marlins hit fewer... The Giants struck out less than any team in the league, but this wasn't the curse we usually claim it to be. They were tenth in the league in number of pitches against, which is pretty good for this free-swinging bunch; opposing pitchers aren't breezing through the lineup as frequently as they've done in seasons past...  Our Boys are high on the list in GIDP, sac flies, and sac hits; tops in the last category are, no surprise, the Cincinnati Reds. Dusty's affection for small-ball has not abated over the decades.

Roll the statistical parade... Hunter Pence finished fourth in the league with 67 extra-base hits, seventh in RBI with 99 and ninth in runs scored with 91... Brandon Belt's .841 OPS was best on the team and 14th in the NL; his 39 doubles were sixth...  Pence and Buster Posey finished 19-20 in OPS... Posey led the team with 60 walks and .371 OBP, 18th and 12th in the league respectively. His power numbers were 'way down from 2012, hence the sub-900 OPS... Gregor Blanco had the same number of walks-- 52-- as did Belt, and in 50 fewer at-bats, which raised his OBP to .360. We've revised our opinion of Blanco: yes, he has a leadoff hitter's skills, but he's not consistent enough to be an everyday starter. We do like him as a fourth outfielder, and hope he stays, in that role... Other than Belt, Pence, and Posey, no Giant was anywhere near the league leaders, though Pablo Sandoval did draw 47 walks in 525 at-bats, which is a big improvement... Angel Pagan's numbers over 71 games do not impress, though he did score 44 runs, which projects out to 93 for a full season. At .282, he can hold the leadoff role, if barely, and there's just no denying the team plays better with him than without... Marco Scutaro's numbers fell off late in the year with his injury issues, though he finished at .297/.357 with no power. We hate to be pessimists here, but we remember Freddy Sanchez well... Along with Sandoval, Brandon Crawford counts a disappointment at the plate, slumping to .248 with a depressing .363 SLG... In the field, Crawford's range dropped to tenth in the league, below even Pete Kozma, and all his other numbers are middle-of-the-pack. After last year, we expected a lot more... Truth told, no Giant defender really stood out this year, good or bad... Our lone pitching ace, Madison Bumgarner, was fifth in the league in ERA, seventh in strikeouts, and fifth in WHIP. He was the only Giant to pitch 200 innings... Lincecum, despite it all, finished tenth in strikeouts with his reduced velocity while Matt Cain was 'way down at 24th... Lincecum also tied for fourth in bases on balls, which is no new revelation, and eighth in total pitches... Sergio Romo, bless his heart, tied for third in the NL with 38 saves; he blew five, which seems about average... Petit, in eight starts, had a 3.56 with a 1.19 WHIP and 47 Ks in 46 innings. Not bad for a third or fourth starter assuming he can do this over a full season, which is assuming a lot... After that it's a train wreck: the league hit .299 against Vogelsong, .318 (!) against Zito.

Looking across the leagues, we see Matt Carpenter and Matt Holliday of the Cardinals, Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates, and the remarkable Joey  (925 OPS) Votto of the Reds leading the MVP parade in the National League. Yes, Paul Goldschmidt and Troy Tulowitzki were terrific as well, but the trend seems to be toward rewarding winners...  Carpenter's 11 homers aren't much, but 55 doubles and 126 runs scored? We love this guy...  When was the last time 36 homers (the Pirates' Pedro Alvarez) led the league? He should get some MVP votes despite hitting .233. We saw him in June and the guy is a presence at the plate... LA's big guy, Adrian Gonzalez, should get a few votes too, helping to justify that blockbuster deal from a year ago...  A third Cardinal candidate is Yadier Molina, by anybody's measure the best catcher in the game right now. So he hit no triples? Neither did Gonzalez or Tulowitzki... As you all must know, we love statistical outliers and anomalies. Today's belongs to Norichika Aoki, the pint-sized Milwaukee outfielder. We're not sure what we would do with Aoki if we had him; he has no power, scored only 80 runs in 155 games while batting leadoff almost all the time, and was caught 12 times while stealing 20 bases, which is significantly worse than just staying put. But Aoki wins the "Joe Sewell Award" for 2013 as the only NL qualifier with more walks (54) than strikeouts (40)...  Clayton Kershaw looks a lock to win the Cy Young Award, leading in ERA with 1.83 (the only qualifier under 2), strikeouts (235) and WHIP (0.92), and second in innings pitched while winning sixteen games...  Teammates Zach Grienke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, St Louis' Adam Wainwright, the perpetual Cliff Lee, and our own Madison Bumgarner should get a few votes apiece... Good to see A.J. Burnett reviving his career in Pittsburgh, with 209 K in 191 innings. He kept his wild-pitch count down to 12, too...  In the American League, our old October buddy Max (21-3) Scherzer of Detroit may succeed Justin Verlander as the Tigers' CYA winner du jour... C.J. Wilson's fine season (17-7, 3.39) only underscores the utter catastrophe that was the rest of the Angels' starting rotation... Bartolo Colon, who's listed at a svelte 265 pounds, once toiled for those same Angels and just turned in a fine season for Oakland at age 40... Nice to see Ubaldo Jimenez emerging from the rubble of Colorado and turning in a good campaign with those red-hot Indians... Chris Davis' monster season (53 homers, 138 RBI) in Baltimore was enough to prevent Miguel Cabrera from winning an unprecedented second straight Triple Crown, not that .348, 44, 137 is a disappointment or anything. Guy's incredible...   Young Mike Trout just gets better and better; add a league-leading 110 walks to his 27 homers, 109 runs, and 988 OPS... If Detroit winds up playing Boston in the ALCS, compare the swings of David Ortiz and Prince Fielder... Sometimes it really is that simple: the Boston Red Sox, with the best record in baseball, scored nearly 200 more runs than they allowed, while the 111-loss Houston Astros were outscored by 238...  If the Pythagorean principle reveals a postseason dark horse, it's the Detroit Tigers, who played well enough to win 99 games but actually won "only" 93. Other teams whose factor was off by 5 or more games include both the Reds and Pirates: Pittsburgh finished one game ahead but their expected W-L was five games behind. (Will that matter tomorrow night?) The Yankees and Phillies finished six and seven games, respectively, better than expected, while the Cubs and, surprisingly, those awful Astros finished six games worse than they actually played-- but regardless, both still would've finished dead last.

Friday, September 20, 2013

U-G-L-Y -- You ain't got no alibi!

Can we now say the Los Angeles Dodgers are the "Miley Cyrus" of baseball? Clueless and classless in victory, taking one of the game's greatest comebacks and tarnishing it in the most juvenile fashion, the Dodgers manage to leave a sour taste in one's mouth even as that mouth was set to give well-deserved congratulations to a fantastic stretch drive and a runaway division championship. Unable to comprehend the difference between success and excess, they've provided yet another example of the graceless, narcissistic modern athlete, unable to comprehend exactly why the 'little people' look at him askance.

What makes the above grotesquerie so, well, grotesque is its appropriation of the opponents' ballpark as a personal playground (for the benefit of the cameras, of course). The Mets fans who raced onto the Shea Stadium field back in 1969 and tore up the turf-- twice-- in celebration of baseball's unlikeliest victory were positively restrained and tradition-bound compared to this. You just don't desecrate the other guy's home field. If anyone thought T.O. spiking the ball on the Cowboy star was excessive, well-- where's Emmitt Smith when we need him (preferably with a firehose)?

Now, had the Dodgers managed to clinch the division this past weekend (against the Giants) on their own home field, they'd have had every right to climb atop whatever superstructures they could reach and wave their jocks at the sky. But there's no excuse for this. When you clinch on the road, you make the obligatory group hug-and-dance on the infield, and then you race into the clubhouse to begin your riotous celebration together, as a team, us against the world. What we saw the other night was a motley collection of individuals who placed personal notoriety and gratification ahead of team spirit.  Dodger fans, you can have 'em.

For the rest of you, if you want to see how a real ballclub celebrates a world championship in the opponents' ballpark, check out the San Francisco Giants:

Tim Lincecum squares off at The Stadium tonight against CC Sabathia in a battle between Cy Young winners who've since come to intimate acquaintance with hard times... The Giants' week-long stay in New York covers six games, the three just completed in Queens and the three upcoming at the New Yankee Stadium. Not since they were the New York Giants back in '57 has the club spent so much time in the big city...  We wonder if these six-game layovers will become more common for all teams now that interleague play is a season-long event... Add to bucket list: attend a game, preferably a Giants game, at the House that Steinbrenner Built. Back in 1967 we saw a game at the old, old, Yankee Stadium, the 1923 House that Ruth Built with its white latticework upper decks and the elevated trains running past, and later we made occasional visits to the remodeled Yankee...  Lincecum, struggles and all, has reached 10 or more wins for the sixth straight year, which is every year he's been in the major leagues....  If Timmy pitches exceptionally well tonight, how likely do you think the Yankees will be to offer him an attractive free-agent package after season's end?... Madison Bumgarner just keeps rollin' along, with 200 innings pitched, 200 strikeouts sure to follow, and a 2.77 ERA...  Short memo to front office: Sign Hunter Pence, please... LA's worst-to-first mid-season transition is one of only four extant in major league history, the most famous being that of the 1914 Boston Braves... We can't help but be pleased to see the Pittsburgh Pirates hangin' fire and all but certain to make the postseason for the first time since 1992. They're only a game out of first place and a division series date with the Dodgers, and can there be any doubt about who the Good Guys would be in that series?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Down the Line

The Giants opened their final Eastern road trip of the year last night with a victory over the Mets at Citi Field in Queens, and before the week is through they'll play their first game at the new, third-generation Yankee Stadium, against another team whose bright 2013 expectations didn't work out. Then it's home for the last six meaningless games of the season.

Now, it was a fine weekend previous down in LA, where the Giants took three of four from the Dodgers and ensured there'd be no National League West-clinching celebration on their watch.  Of course, the Dodgers themselves don't much care if they clinch at home or, say, at Arizona tonight, but we know their fans do, very much-- and as any seasoned Giants fan will tell you, it's not always the Dodgers themselves that are so annoying, it's their front-running, celebrity-sotted, eternally clueless fans. So there!

Well, unless the Giants manage to go undefeated the rest of the way, they'll endure their first losing season since 2008, since Tim Lincecum emerged as a star, since the club committed its post-Barry Bonds fortunes to "pitching, pitching, pitching."  That 2008 team finished with a  worse record than this one will, but it was also a team suffused with youth, optimism, and a sense of urgency. We've been basking in the glow of the flame first lit that year ever since. Now things are different.

We'll paw through the stats looking for clues during our annual post-mortem, once the season's final out has been recorded, but it don't take a weatherman to know that the winds of change are blowing once again through Candlest-- excuse us, AT&T Park.  (Did you all know that Candlestick is set to be imploded next spring? We're already planning our first trip West since 2006 to be in attendance when the venerable old bowl makes her final bow. Will y'all be there?)   The Giants have only two reliables left in our once-populous stable of starting pitchers, there's a big hole in the outfield, there's age and conditioning-related concerns around the infield, and most of all there's a sense of common identity that's beginning to fray around the edges.

Is this the last gasp of the two-time championship team that was born five years ago and flourished so brilliantly so recently? Or is this just a typical dip in the road that all successful clubs endure, to be quickly addressed and corrected as we get back on track next year? Eleven months ago, we used the "D-word" in reference to the Giants for the first time in our 47 years of fandom. Whether that was a giddy moment of delusion or an accurate depiction may be decided this offseason. =

We'll see what the numbers say in a couple of weeks, and something tells us we won't wait long after that to see what the San Francisco Giants say.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Deep Thoughts, Cheap Shots, and Bon Mots

(With apologies to Scott Ostler, who coined the title phrase, and to the great Jimmy Cannon, who popularized the style.)

Well, Johnny Vander Meer, wherever you are, your place in history is safe again...  Lincecum's train wreck last night was the worst start of his career; was it the worst start ever to follow a no-hitter? Somebody check, please; we've got work to do...  Single-admission doubleheader today, the old-school way. How long's it been since we had one? Somebody check, please; we've got work to do...  Don't get us wrong, we love "real" doubleheaders. If every team in the major leagues scheduled just one doubleheader each month, we could shorten the regular season by two weeks without losing any games, and there'd be no danger of a World Series 'ice delay' come November...  Today's nightcap is a make-up of a game rained out in Cincinnati. Accordingly, the Reds will bat last in the game and wear their home whites, while the Giants don the greys...  Has this ever happened before? Somebody check, please; we've got work to do...  Sodden thought  (we stole that one from the great Herb Caen): will the teams switch dugouts, too? Somehow we doubt it...  According to the Giants' website, despite the odd logistics this one still counts as a home game...  We'd wager the last time the Giants played a "road" game in their own ballpark was Game Four of the 1922 World Series at the Polo Grounds against their old "tenants," the Yankees...   No, we don't need y'all to check that one, we're pretty sure of it... "Blackbeard's Return?" No, it's not a Johnny Depp blockbuster; it's Brian Wilson, quietly working out under the watchful visage of Dave Righetti at the USF ballfield Monday, quoth the grapevine...  Speaking of guys who've had Tommy John surgery, erstwhile lefty Eric Surkamp's been called up to make the first-game start... Speaking of callups, the Reds send rookie Greg Reynolds, late of Louisville, against Barry Zito in the nightcap... Speaking of Louisville, we'll be visiting the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary there in August... Zito's home-road splits this year are amazing, or appalling, depending on your point of view; he's 4-1, 2.45 at the 'Bell and 0-6, 9.89 on the road...  We remember Shawn Estes having some crazy home-road splits back in the '90s, but this takes the cake...  Maybe the Giants should leave Zito at home and take Surkamp or somebody on the road; silly as it sounds, it couldn't possibly hurt...  What's the worst home-road split for any regular starting pitcher in history, anyway? Somebody check, please; we've got work to do.  #30  

Monday, July 22, 2013

"Well, shake it up Bochy--"

Not that anyone's gonna notice or anything, but this morning, after seeing Madison Bumgarner's fine effort wasted due to a severe case of hole-in-the-bat (0-for-6 with RISP, 8 LOB), we'll take one more shot at revisiting, revising, and recommending changes to the lineup that ain't gittin' 'er done.

First, it appears Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres' primary qualifications for batting leadoff at the moment are:

  • Angel Pagan's injured;
  • They play center field (Boch, are you channeling Dusty Baker?);
  • They're Latino; and
  • They're relatively fast.

Certainly there aren't any statistical justifications for it. Torres is never going to be the Torres of 2010 again, and Blanco, while we've touted him in the past, has enough career ABs under his belt now to show that he's really a fourth outfielder, a back-'em-up and plug-him-in type-- valuable, but miscast as an everyday starter. And yes, we've seen this all before (hence the above reference), and it is with leaden heart we proclaim that  Gregor Blanco is looking like the new Marvin Benard, with a much better glove but a lot less power.

Given the similar platoon crater in left field (our latest acquisition, Jeff Francoeur, over his 1200-game career has averaged about 27 walks per 500 at-bats), it's clear there are too many outs in this lineup. When that happens, we contend it makes more sense to cluster your best bats together at the top, for the simple reason that one big inning is easier to muster up than three small innings. Also, everyone's average goes up with men on base, and if the top five do their jobs, it's bound to help the bottom three.

So, we would identify that top five as Marco Scutaro, Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, and Hunter Pence, in that order.

Without question, Scutaro (.368) should be leading off. (If you're going to argue that one stolen base all year disqualifies him, please leave this site NOW.) The man can hit, and while he's not a walks machine, when you do get on it becomes less important how you get on. Simply put, he makes things happen.

Belt's .340 is not great, but he averages about one walk for every ten ABs, which is standard for a good hitter and stratospheric for this team. He has some pop and hits better with men on base, and in that context his high strikeout total is not as deadly as it may seem at first, since he usually hits the ball in the air and thus avoids the double plays.

The middle three stay where they are; the team is committed to these guys because Posey is fantastic, Pence is still slugging .451, and Sandoval has shown he can do it in the past, even though his present is pretty weak. If anyone is gonna "snap out of it" this year, our money's on the Panda.

The bottom three begins with Brandon Crawford, who's kind of the swing-man here. He's hit for average and for some power before, and he did so earlier this year, and he's another who has shown he's capable of turning it around. Crawford at .280 or above gives us a top six and a bottom two.

And at that bottom, we'd hide the Tanaka/Francoeur tag team in the seven spot, with Blanco/Torres eighth, since their speed might give us a few infield hits and the occasional gap double ahead of the pitcher's spot.

Something tells us the Giants are not going to make a big move at the trade deadline. Given the hand we're dealt, we believe this would be the best way to play 'em the rest of the season.  If our starting pitching strings some consistent starts together, the patchwork top-heavy lineup we've outlined above might just score enough runs to keep everyone interested past the 49ers' home opener this September.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

LinCYcum Revisited

Along about the bottom of the fourth inning last night, after Tim Lincecum had disposed of the middle of the San Diego Padres' lineup the way some of us dispose of used Kleenex, we had a strong jolt of precognition (we used to call this presque vu but found out that's inaccurate).  Sure as you're reading this now, we saw the final line for the Padres-- no runs, no hits-- and expressed it colloquially as, "He's gonna do it, Timmy's gonna throw one."

Bless his heart, that he did, and he did so in classic Lincecum fashion-- lots of pitches, lots of strikeouts, thirteen in all.

And yet if  "classic Lincecum fashion" is a term that will carry significance going forward, it's also going to mean what Jedd Gyorko, one of those "disposable" Padres, talked about after the masterpiece: "He was throwing three or four pitches for strikes, and when you're able to do that, you keep guys off-balance."  Lincecum himself said, "I have to pitch with what I've got. That might be more changeups and sliders." 

Indeed, there were several strikeouts last night which Timmy achieved without use of a single fastball. He was dumping some nasty curveballs inside and out, and when he finally did get around to throwing the four-seamer, a few times the batter simply let it go by for called strike three.  

Is Timmy going to make the adjustment that has overwhelmed so many ultra-talented pitchers before him, when raw "stuff" is no longer enough and pitching becomes more about strategy and less about power? Catfish Hunter, so smooth where Lincecum is so angular, famously made it. Could Sandy Koufax, Lincecum's mirror image in some ways, have handled that transition had he chosen to do so at age 31? Lincecum is 29. He's thrown a lot of pitches. He's won every significant award that can be won. He's already shown that while he may be "The Freak", his career has been no freak occurrence. Now, just perhaps, his given the first telling indicator of what's to come.

But for today, for last night, for right now, he bears the self-evident nickname we coined back in 2008: "LinCYcum."

Congratulations, Timmy! You've earned it.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rock Bottom

Well, that's a fine kettle of fish, all right-- checking in before bedtime only to see the Giants have now lost ten of twelve, have claimed last place as their very own, and, to top it off, were no-hit by Homer Bailey last night as some sort of gruesome coup-de-grace.  Not that we're making reservations at Panic Beach just yet or anything, but we're at the point where things have to improve if this ballclub is going to go anywhere, even in this eminently winnable division.

The Giants' mantra since 2007 has been "pitching, pitching, and more pitching"-- particularly starting pitching. As we have seen, this year's model simply isn't able to live up to that expectation. Thus the 2013 Giants have had to hit to win. And, up until about two weeks ago, they were hitting enough to be contenders. Averaging 4.4 runs per game through the beginning of the Atlanta series, the Giants have since scored a paltry 41 runs in 17 games, two full runs per game fewer, and are 4-13 over that span. The pitching is the same it's always been, but the guys who were drilling the ball a month ago-- Hunter Pence and Brandon Crawford, particularly, plus Pablo Sandoval, who hasn't hit a lick since returning from the DL-- aren't doing so right now, and until they do, the current state of affairs is unlikely to change.

The Giants are eighth in the league in runs scored, which isn't bad, just average. Problem is, average ain't good enough for these guys. Yes, scoring is down all across the league this year, but three weeks ago the Giants were up around where Cincinnati and Atlanta are right now. And when your pitching staff is still allowing 4.4 runs per game but your scoring has dropped to 4.0 and is still dropping-- well, you're probably going to lose, like, four out of every five games. Which is precisely where we are.   

Yet another annoying thing is that the Dodgers, at whom we were chuckling indulgently a few weeks ago as they floundered chest-deep in a division cellar filled with wasted money, have sailed blithely past us and are still on the rise. In terms of raw baseball talent, no team in the division can match the Blue Meanies, and more experiences like that nightmarish three-game set in LA ten days ago are not what we had in mind. 

Given the current numbers, the Giants would be best served leading off Marco Scutaro, with Brandon Belt in the two-spot. (Nobody else save Buster Posey seems willing to take even a pitch, let alone a walk.) Neither Gregor Blanco nor Andres Torres is getting on base enough to hold the leadoff spot, and it's tempting to conclude that one or the other ought to be in the lineup every day for the rest of the year, but not both. No other outfielder has leaped up and shown much, either; so with Angel Pagan now likely out for the season, how motivated might the front office be to make a trade for someone who can hit at least as well as, say, Hunter Pence?  It depends on many things, including how winnable this season appears to be. The wild-card is almost out of reach already, but a five-team division dogfight looks plausible. The Giants are unlikely to sink so far so fast that they turn sellers rather than buyers at the trade deadline; the decision point will be whether to make a move or merely stand pat and hope for the best.

As for what the Giants might have to offer in trade-- well, we'll review the state of the pitching staff in our next missive.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Seen What I Saw

What's the old saw? "Go to the ballpark and you'll see something you never saw before." Well, on Thursday night at beautiful, underpopulated PNC Park in Pittsburgh, we saw several things we'd never seen before, and all of them added up to a most entertaining 10-0 win for the Giants.  It was a good win for Matt Cain, whose 2013 road wars have featured more than a few defeats. It was a fine win for this depleted lineup, with Gregor Blanco, Brandon Crawford, and Hunter Pence leading the highlight parade.  And it was a most welcome win for the sturdy band of Giants loyalists who came to the park hoping to contribute in any way to a sweep-avoidance maneuver.

In a matter of minutes we saw three events we'd never witnessed before in person. First was an obstruction call which resulted in an awarded run, next was a runner struck by a batted ball to end an inning, and third was a line drive which caromed off Matt Cain's glove into Nick Noonan's for a bang-bang putout-and-assist.

Memo to several unnamed but oughta-know-better sportswriters: it's "obstruction," not "interference" or "defensive interference." Interference is when the runner interferes with the fielder's attempt to get to the ball. Obstruction is what third baseman Pedro Alvarez did between third and home on Thursday night as Brandon Crawford tried to get out of his way during the rundown. We were a little surprised to see the umpires award the run to Crawford, as he was ducking back toward third when the error occurred. The rule states the umpires will award the obstructed runner the base he would have, in their judgment, reached absent the obstruction. However, we did not know the obstructed runner is entitled to advance at least one base. So, thanks to the men in blue for sending us back to the rule book. (Anyone else remember the obstruction call with Benito Santiago in the 2002 NLCS against St Louis, when he was awarded third instead of home? Good-- congratulations to both of you!)

Pence, who hit the grounder that resulted in the obstruction call, was also the guy hit by the batted ball, which is scored a cheap hit for Joaquin Arias and a cheap putout for shortstop Jody Mercer, the fielder closest to the play. Had it happened with less than two out, it would be a dead-ball situation with no runners advancing and no chance for a putout anywhere else.  As for the Cain-to-Noonan lateral, Matty gets an assist, which seems only fair since that ball was destined for center field.

In the top of the ninth, we leaped to our feet in congratulation for Nick Noonan, who had just smacked his first big-league home run-- only to see it followed by a quick, on-field umpire huddle, and then an NFL-style delay while three of the blue men retired to their antechamber and a video review.  (The crew chief remains on the field, we're told, during these interludes to provide some semblance of order and decorum. Presumably the dancing bears and rodeo clowns are kept under wraps for another night.)  In a matter of moments (most certainly not an NFL-style procedure) the umps were back, waving Noonan back to second; the ball had hit, but not cleared, the yellow rail atop the right-center-field grandstand. Like the dancing bears, No. 21's long-ball debut party will have to wait for another night.

It wasn't our first replay experience; that happened the previous night, when the Pirates' Neil Walker clobbered a please-hit-me pitch from the just-departed Ramon Ramirez high and deep to right. It glanced off the facade atop the right-field stands and Walker pulled up at second. After Clint Hurdle made the appeal, the umps retreated to their inner sanctum, then returned with the familiar finger-twirl as Walker pranced around third and scored the run that really seemed to deflate the Giants, who had pulled within 10-6 just moments earlier.

Grim warnings of an impending mega-storm event certainly dampened the turnout Wednesday night as these new, much-improved Buccos laid into Barry Zito with extra relish (not to mention mustard, sauerkraut, and a few other condiments). After walking the leadoff man, Barry Z settled down and threw strikes, many of which ended up in the left- and right-center-field gaps as his harried outfielders chased them down and Pirates merrily circled the bases. Bruce Bochy brought in Ramirez to start the sixth, and the former bullpen standout pitched himself right onto the unemployment line, surrendering four hits, a walk, two homers, and three runs to the six men he faced. Afterward, the club didn't even wait for the road trip to end before announcing Ramirez would be DFA'd and a replacement summoned from Fresno posthaste.

If the season ended today, the Pittsburgh Pirates would qualify as a wild-card team, their first postseason appearance in 21 years. It's easy to see why. Hurdle, who had previous success with a Cinderella-style cub at Colorado in 2007, uses all his players and stacks the top of the order with guys who get on base. His first four on Wednesday-- Marte, Mercer, the redoubtable Andrew McCutchen, and Gaby Sanchez-- combined for thirteen hits and eight runs scored. No, it doesn't always work-- Hurdle switched out four starters Thursday to get the lefties into the lineup, and was rewarded with three measly hits-- but it appears to us the Pirates are about one starting pitcher away from fielding a serious contender, and if they're still in the hunt a month from now perhaps they'll make a move.

Speaking of trades, former Giants Francisco Liriano and Jason Grilli opened and closed Wednesday's game, Liriano getting the start and the win, and Grilli, the NL's saves leader, closing it out in a non-save situation. For those of you scoring at home, Liriano was sent packing, along with Joe Nathan, back in 2004 because the Giants had, just had, to have A.J. Pierzynski as their catcher. Going back five years before that, Grilli, then a minor-league 'phenom' and first-round draft choice, was part of the price we paid to acquire Livan Hernandez. No, the two World Series championships we've won in the past three years don't exactly erase these ignoble moments from our history, though perhaps they do make them more bearable when we take time to reflect.

We've beaten the drum before about Gregor Blanco being our best leadoff man; his Thursday stat line (3-for-5 with a walk, a double, and two runs scored) is not atypical of what he can do. With three starters on the shelf (Angel Pagan and Pablo Sandoval on the DL, Marco Scutaro trying to avoid it), guys like Blanco, Noonan, and Joaquin Arias are going to have to carry more of the load. We'd like to see Blanco get the left-field and leadoff roles for good, with Pagan in center batting fifth when he returns to the lineup.

Hunter Pence's three-run cannon shot to the deepest part of the ballpark Thursday underscored what a terrific season he's having. Slugging over .500, with more homers than Albert Pujols, Pence is thriving in the four-spot-- and for those of you who haven't noticed, our cleanup hitter has stolen thirteen bases and hasn't been caught once.

We know little about Juan Perez, called up in the wake of Pagan's DL stint; he's a 27-year-old rookie, which tend to temper the enthusiasm a tad. But he can sure throw the ball, as evidenced by his center-field relay to third which nailed the aforementioned Mercer trying to advance on a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the first Wednesday night, and thereby prevented a big inning. (Not to worry, Pittsburgh got big innings in the third, fifth, and sixth, thank you very much.)

And it's a shame about Ramirez. Sent to the Mets, along with Torres, in exchange for Pagan after the 2011 campaign, he carried most of the value in that trade and was considered a potential ace reliever or closer. Is Citi Field some kind of giant sinkhole for players' careers or something? Ramirez, released outright before the Giants picked him up a couple weeks ago, seems to have lost everything since the trade. We hope he can regain his form somewhere, because we remember his 2010 contributions most fondly.

Da Burgh

It goes without saying that PNC Park is one of the most charming and idyllic baseball fields in the land. With the appealing Pittsburgh skyline as a backdrop, the historic Monongahela river flowing past right field, its idiosyncratic dimensions, and its superb sight lines, we rate it equal in every respect to Pacific Bell Park (yes, yes, we know, we know).  We first came here in 2002, back when Pittsburgh was still the nearest National League city to western Virginia, and we have revisited several times since. In years past we stayed up in the Oakland section of town, with its colorful restaurants and shops, while braving downtown traffic to park in the garage right across the Roberto Clemente Bridge from the ballpark. (They close the bridge to auto traffic on game days so fans can walk across the "Mon" from downtown to the park.) More recently we've been bunking out in the Greentree section and driving through historic West End Village to Station Square, where a ferryboat will carry you past the Fort Duquesne fountain and Heinz Field right up to a berth below PNC's right-field entrance. It's a great town, and it's great to see the Pirate fans enthused about their ballclub after a whole generation of steady losing. Maybe we'll see a Giants-Buccos rematch come postseason.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The San Francisco Giants Open the 2013 Season!

Matt Cain, R  
Ace of the staff earns the Opening Day start
Madison Bumgarner, L 
At 23, already one of game's top lefthanders
Tim Lincecum, R  
Will balance of his career go as this season goes?
Ryan Vogelsong, R    
He's 35, and Giants hope he's got another winning campaign left
Barry Zito, L  
The final season of that legendary seven-year contract  
Sergio Romo, R    
Takes over the closer role he earned late last year
Javier Lopez, L            
One of the most effective lefty relievers in baseball
Jeremy Affeldt, L  
Several of these guys comprise Giants' not-so-secret weapon
Santiago Casilla, R  
Could inherit setup role-- if Bochy decides to fill it  
Jose Mijares, L            
Nobody really needs a third southpaw in the 'pen
George Kontos, R  
Few noticed, but his post-season numbers were good
Chad Gaudin, R  
SF tradition of NRIs making the squad continues here

Buster Posey, c            
From team MVP to league MVP to 8 years and $167 million
Pablo Sandoval, 3b  
Now 27, has been with organization for ten years aready  
Angel Pagan, cf      
Let's all hope new-found leadoff skills carry over from 2012
Brandon Belt, 1b  
Looks to have answered all questions and settled in  
Marco Scutaro, 2b  
Postseason hero takes the 'Freddy Sanchez' role 
Brandon Crawford, ss 
Developing into one of NL's top defensive players
Hunter Pence, rf  
Sixth spot the best spot for dedicated free-swinger 
Gregor Blanco, of  
Will open season in left against right-handers
Andres Torres, of  
Welcome back-- for now, he starts in left against lefties 
Joaquin Arias, if  
Showed his versatility and value in last year's NLCS
Nick Noonan, if  
Finally makes big-league roster and hey, he's still only 23 
Hector Sanchez, c  
Expect more playing time as there's no backup first baseman   
Guillermo Quiroz, c    
At 31, has 257 major-league at-bats to his name, all in AL

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Earl Weaver 1930-2013

All you really need to know about the "Earl of Baltimore" is this:

  • His teams averaged 94 wins per 162 games managed over his career;
  • His teams won 318 games over a three-year span from 1969 through 1971; and
  • He influenced more managers and coaches than any of his contemporaries.

For those of us who grew up watching Earl Weaver's teams play, it's always been a high compliment to say a team is playing "Earl Weaver" baseball; or, as it was known at the time, "Oriole baseball."

Great starting pitching, a balanced lineup that includes many role players, defensive strength up the middle, and a tendency to hit timely, game-changing home runs-- that's the "Oriole Way," as Earl called it. Today we'll call it "Earl's Way," and to those who've been following the two-time World Champion San Francisco Giants lately, we'll leave it up to you as to whether you recognize the style of play we just described.

RIP Earl Weaver.    

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Same Time, Next Year

The original title of this screed, as conceived earlier in the week, was "Dethrone the BBWAA", an idea we still believe has merit.  The voting process for the Hall of Fame is hopelessly skewed in favor of self-righteous media types who never played the game, but who use their vote as a club to "get even" with everyone who ever "done them wrong" over the course of their stunted, alcohol-saturated lives. Bill James had a better idea, and outlined it in his least-known book, "The Politics of Glory" (reprinted as "Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?"). Anyone who cares about the Hall of Fame ought to read it.

Anyway, after considering some comments by Curt Schilling and a few others who seem to have actually taken the time to think about these things, we've backed off on our blanket condemnation. For now. For a year. One year, to let the Crusader Rabbits of the media make their point about the Steroid Era.  One year, as a blanket punishment for everyone who played from 1995-2005 or thereabouts. One year, to get the bile, if not the Beam, out of their systems and then get back to business, which is supposed to be recognizing the best ever to play this game-- warts, steroids, and all.

Schilling said, "I think as a player, a group, this is one of the first times that we've been publicly called out. I think it's fitting. ... If there was ever a ballot and a year to make a statement about what we didn't do as players -- which is we didn't actively push to get the game clean -- this is it."

We're willing to make peace with Schilling's comments.

The point has been made. One ballot. One year.

How about you, BBWAA?  See you next year. In Cooperstown.

* * *

As for the non-politically-motivated Hall of Fame voting, we're truly sorry to see Dale Murphy drop off the list after fifteen years.  Murphy wasn't an under-the-radar sabermetric favorite like Darrell Evans; he was one of the best and best-known players in baseball during his career, and this outcome is truly puzzling.  We trust the Veterans' Committee will set it right before Mr Murphy passes on... Jack Morris' omission is also a head-scratcher. These guys do realize that a 3.90 ERA has to be considered in context, don't they? And 254 wins is awfully hard to hide. Plus Morris was the top pitcher on two World Championship teams seven years apart. Thankfully, there's time left to rectify this one... The third case is that of Tim Raines. We'll presume nobody is holding a brief, decades-old drug issue against him and just figure they're still overlooking him, as was the case during his career when everything he did was done a little bit better by Rickey Henderson. Call it 'second-banana syndrome'...  Actually, if the BBWAA inquisitors had any real credibility left, they would have elected Murphy, Morris, and Raines only, thereby "sending a message" to the Steroid Era and showing they can still recognize a great ballplayer when they see one. Yeah, we know, we're askin' way too much.