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.

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