Friday, June 26, 2015

Rollin' Around in the Grass

Oh, to be a lazy dog on a summer day...  While manfully trying to avoid thinking about the disastrous news emanating from Washington, D.C., where a group of five justices seems to view themselves as a sort of provisional dictatorship-- but only when it really matters, right?-- we've been traipsing through the midseason statistics, there now being enough numbers on the board to spot some trends, speculate on some outcomes, and generally immerse ourselves in baseball, because-- well, because, thankfully, we can. 

If the season ended today, the Pittsburgh Pirates would be hosting the National League wild-card game for the third consecutive year, and it would be the Chicago Cubs with visitation rights, not our Giants. The Cubs haven't made the postseason since 2008, and at the moment they're a half-game ahead of our heroes. Though playing in the hitters' haven of Wrigley Field, the Cubs are only an unimpressive ninth in the league in runs, and-- check that stat sheet again, Dave-- they're dead last in runs scored at home! Clearly those Wrigley renovations have had a deleterious effect on the home team, at least from plateside. But Chicago is a most respectable fourth in the league in ERA, with similar home/road splits. And it ain't Jon Lester doing it; the team's two top starters, Jason Hammel and Jake Arrieta, both have ERAs below 3.10, and the Cubs have really benefited from 100 or so innings pitched by three relievers-- Pedro Strop, Jason Motte, and closer Hector Rondon-- who are a combined 9-5 with 14 saves and low ERAs. 

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is second only to the Cardinals in ERA, with early-season CYA favorite Gerritt Cole leading the league with 11 wins, and both he and teammate A.J. Burnett are in the top six in ERA (2.01 and 2.16). Like the Cubs, the Bucs are down in the lower middle when it comes to offense. Andrew McCutchen is, as usual, among the league leaders in OBP, and first baseman Anthony Rizzo is the Cubs' heavy hitter, slugging a healthy .586, sixth in the NL and well ahead of the Giants' top slugger, Brandon (.483) Belt. 

So, what do we think of this provisional lineup Bruce Bochy is using while both Nori Aoki and Hunter Pence languish on the DL? It's good that management recognizes Belt has to stay in the lineup against right-handers, at a minimum, even if it means moving him to left field and giving up a little D. Buster Posey does hit a lot better at first base, and Andrew Susac has been tearing the cover off the ball since he started playing regularly, and Gregor Blanco and Justin Maxwell do look better as a right-field platoon than as two corner outfielders... and all of this is temporary-but-necessary while the team is down two starters.  We can't argue with 19 runs scored at home in two games, especially considering what a fallow field the 'Bell has been for us so far. 

So, the Giants are only half a game behind the Cubs and a full game behind Pittsburgh for the wild-card, and also a game behind LA for the division. As we noted awhile back, the Giants lead the league across-the-board in all major batting categories on the road, while remaining tenaciously ordinary in pitching, both home and away (seventh overall, with that previously-discussed run-and-a-half home/road split). 

As they did a year ago, the St Louis Cardinals are winning with pitching, but unlike 2014, they're at least average in runs scored. Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong are both among the top 15 in runs scored, though like the Giants the Cards are not a team of sluggers. Speakin' of which, Jhonny Peralta has moved, we note reluctantly, far enough ahead of Brandon Crawford in RBI and SLG to more than offset Craw's defensive advantage of half a play a game. Both need to be there in Cincinnati, but it looks as though Buster Posey will be our only starter.  

Posey's mercurial past couple of weeks-- two grand slam homers in five days!-- has moved him up to sixth in the league in RBI... Five Giants-- Posey, Joe Panik, Crawford, Belt, and Aoki-- all have scored more than 30 runs; only Washington and the Mets have five players who've done the same...  Paul Goldschmidt's hitting .354 and leading the league in walks, and in OBP with .473... Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper, and Cincinnati's Todd Frazier lead the slugging parade, with Goldschmidt also weighing in because he has so darn many hits... Goldschmidt is one of only three NL regulars who's walked more than he's struck out, the others being two of our guys, Posey and Aoki...  Joe Panik is ninth in the league in batting at .310 and he's leading the team in runs. Yes, he's for real... The aforementioned Rizzo of the Cubs has been hit by the pitch 14 times, which leads the league. Whatever it takes, right?... Casey McGehee, despite only 136 plate appearances, has grounded into 14 double plays, tied for the NL lead with a guy who has 292 PAs.  Were McGehee allowed to play a full season, he'd break Jim Rice's record of 36 by August... Aoki and Howie Kendrick are the two most likely NL starters to hit a ground ball. Meanwhile, Curtis Granderson of the Mets is twice as likely to put the ball in the air... In terms of bang-for-your-buck, nobody's doing better than our own Matt Duffy. The dear departed Pablo Sandoval is having a good year in Boston, right in line with his career numbers: .275/.324/.408, 24 runs, 24 RBI, six homers. Now review Brother Duffy: .288/.338/.439, 23 runs scored and 34 RBI.  Even discounting Fenway Park's decided offensive advantage over AT&T, those are great comps-- and, of course, Pablo's cashing a $17.5 million check from the Sox this year. The Giants are paying Duffy 1/35 of that, or $500,000. 

Clayton Kershaw still leads the league in strikeouts, he's tenth in WHIP (right there with Madison Bumgarner) and his 3.33 ERA is still in the top twenty, but the two-time reigning Cy Young winner is only 5-5 on the year and that's what they look at first... Teammate Zack Greinke is "only" 5-2, but at 1.70 he leads the Nats' Max Scherzer by a run or so. Scherzer, who has to rate as the offseason's top pickup, has 123 strikeouts already and an ungodly WHIP of .080. How in the devil has he lost five games already?... Look, there's the Cards' Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez in order at 2.84, 2.85, and 2.89, with a combined 22-10 mark... Though he's pitched only 32 innings, Cincy's amazing Aroldis Chapman is second in the league with five wild pitches. Of course, when you consider he's struck out 56 men in those 32 innings and held opponents to a .193 average, a few slingshots to the backstop are worth the price... Still, having a closer who's already walked as many men as Zack Grienke is sure to give you a few sleepless nights... Cole "Trade Bait" Hamels is the hardest-workin' pitcher in the league, having faced more batters and thrown more pitches than anyone. James Shields, whom the Giants avidly pursued during the offseason and then beat up on yesterday, is another who's puttin' in the labor, as are Kershaw and Bumgarner... Shields is 7-2 with a 4.24 ERA while Hamels is a run lower at 3.26 but sports a 5-6 mark. Both are among the league leaders in strikeouts. No wonder the Phillies are asking so much for Hamels, and we have to figure he will go somewhere within the next thirty days.

New York is always a possibility, and we don't mean the Mets. Tampa Bay has taken the AL East lead for now, Baltimore is hot, Toronto was hot, Boston is in the cellar again, and all this means that division remains wide open. The Yankees are scoring a lot of runs but are 12th in the league in ERA. Get out the checkbook-- no, the big one... The Oakland A's are baseball's most mystifying team. They're third in the league in runs scored and second in ERA, and until last week they were languishing in the AL West cellar, barely above .400. Now they've won eight of ten and are making a move. Leading that division are, of course, the astonishing Houston Astros, who have hit more home runs than any other major-league team, with five guys over 10 already. What are we to make of Luis Valbuena, whose 19 homers represent half his hit total, and who is slugging .455 while batting .199? He does strike out a lot, though not at a record pace...  You want a record pace, keep an eye on teammate Chris Carter. He's already fanned 99 times in 242 ABs, which projects out to about 212 or so-- which was his total in 2013 and is only a few off the all-time record... This record has really taken off since the millennium, with the top 16 whiffers all active since then. We've come a long way from Bobby Bonds' record of 189 in 1970, which had some proclaiming the imminent end of the world... Anyway, in addition to all the homers, the 'Stros are fourth in the AL in ERA, mostly thanks to ace southpaw Dallas Keuchel, a big Oklahoma boy of 25 who is 9-3 with a 2.17, 95 K's and a 0.96 WHIP in a league-leading 116 innings... Hey, how about Keuchel facing Madison Bumgarner in the All-Star Game, hah?

Brian Sabean was in Cincinnati a few days ago, with rumor run rampant that he was scouting Johnny (2.98 ERA, 0.95 WHIP) Cueto and Mike Leake, who has a better W-L despite allowing one more run per game. At 34-37, are the Reds already midseason sellers? Both players are making about ten million and will be free agents after this year, Cueto is two years older but has shown more upside-- and both figure to be mighty expensive in terms of value given if the Reds do decide to move either one or both... There's little chance the Giants will do anything until Matt Cain and Jake Peavy both get a shot to rejoin the starting rotation. The two Tims, Lincecum and Hudson, appear most likely to be replaced at this time. Even without the no-hitter, Chris Heston is pitching 'way too well to even consider replacing. He is second to Bumgarner in all meaningful pitching stats and he leads the team with eight wins. Yes, Lincecum has seven himself -- like Bum, he is 7-4-- but he has also walked 36 men, second in the league, which is especially disturbing since he averages about one fewer inning pitched per game than his competitors. The league is hitting .286 against Hudson (5-6), and he's at 4.52, though he still doesn't walk people.  Ryan Vogelsong is the other candidate, but he's cut his ERA down by half a run with two good starts back-to-back. We'd argue "Vogey" has actually pitched even better than his record; in 13 starts he has three certifiable turkeys in which he was shelled. Two of those were in April; the third as two weeks ago and even then, he only gave up four runs (though it could have been worse and perhaps should have been). Still, if you're looking at numbers, he clearly outranks Hudson, though his 33 walks in 80 innings are troubling. 

What we can expect from Cain and Peavy is unknown, of course. Cain was bringin' it at 95 in his last Sacramento tuneup, and considering he's 30, with high mileage, and coming off two elbow surgeries, that is most encouraging. Peavy, three years older, is trying to overcome back issues, and most of us know how frustratingly difficult back problems can be.  Trying to be sanguine about this, we figure one of these guys will come back and make a contribution in the second half, and perhaps keep the brain trust from making a costly trade. For both to stay in the rotation-- well, that would be a blessing indeed, despite the difficult personnel decisions such an outcome would demand.  

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