Wednesday, October 7, 2015

End of the Regular Season.

W L GB
LA 92 70 - Pressure's on in the postseason.
GIANTS 84 78 8 Did well considering everything.
Arizona 79 83 13 Goldschmidt's our MVP choice.
San Diego 74 88 18 Big off-season moves fizzled.
Colorado 68 94 24 Seems they're always rebuilding.


Considering the concussions, the bad backs, the concussions, the deteriorating hips, the concussions, the broken legs and wrists, the concussions, the strained obliques... yada, yada, yada, and every team's got 'em, but boy, does our team sure got 'em.  That the Giants won 84 games and made an issue of it into the second week of September while missing almost the entire season from Hunter Pence and Angel Pagan and Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum and Jeremy Affeldt, and missing significant time from Joe Panik and Nori Aoki and Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson, and noting that most, if not all, those injuries overlapped one another for a good part of the time-- well, the accummulated pain and suffering is almost equal to that of having to read this sentence. No excuses, but on the other hand no reason to despair. With a few exceptions, mostly due to age, this Giants team ends the season looking like a serious contender for 2016. Even years, every other season, and all that. Yes, immediate improvements must be made at specific spots, but if this team can win 84 games like this, it can sure win 94 with a reasonable ration of injuries. 

Bright moments: the emergence of Kelby "Clark Kent" Tomlinson as a gotta-get-you-into-my-lineup star-in-the-making; Matt Duffy not only winning the third-base job but turning in a boderline All-Star and Rookie of the Year-candidate season while outperforming the guy he replaced at bargain-basement cost; Marlon Byrd's loud and timely arrival at AT&T Park; Nori Aoki's All-Star first half; Hunter Pence driving in 40 runs and scoring 30 runs in 52 games; Hunter Strickland and George Kontos' combined 0.90 WHIP and 22 walks over 124 innings; Madison Bumgarner's .468 slugging average, higher than all but two Giants regulars; Madison Bumgarner's 6/1 strikeout/walk ratio; Duffy's twelve stolen bases without being caught; Alejandro deAza drawing 12 walks in 61 at-bats (.387 OBP); Brandon Crawford driving in 84 runs while maintaining a Gold-candidate Glove.

Pitching, pitching, pitching. The Giants head into 2016 with a bonafide front-line ace starter and two, maybe three back-of-the-rotation guys (Peavy, Chris Heston, and Cain, if he recovers fully). Likely the first decision to be made is whether Mike Leake showed enough to deserve a "real" free-agent offer, and the second decision will be what to do about him when some yokel from Kanokel offers him 'way too much for 'way too long. Lord knows we gushed about Leake (gushed? Leake? Call a plumber, somebody) when he arrived as a free agent, figuring he was the "sleeper" in the midseason free-agent scramble and would thrive at the 'Bell like an orchid in a hothouse. Well, his last start was a strong one, albeit against a team that had just clinched the division, but his overall Giants record was a rocky one, leavened somewhat by good numbers at the home park. If we do keep him, he's a number three, not a number two, and yes, you do need a few of those guys, and at 27 Leake is younger than all our starters except "Bum." 

That means you go out and get one guy to be Bum's counterpart, and it is a lot easier to find one guy than two. So signing Leake, at a reasonable price and terms (which would be about what he's making now, for maybe three years) is a defensible strategy, because it narrows the eligible field to one. One guy to pair with Bumgarner, the way Cain complemented Timmy in 2010 and Bum complemented Cain in 2012. There's a big list of free-agent pitchers out there, and sometime after the World Series ends we'll go out and study it, but for now it says here the Giants need to add two strong starters, and Leake can be one of them if it's understood he's the junior partner.

We're not especially worried about the bullpen unless and until Bruce Bochy himself openly admits he's worried about it. There may never have been a manager who has handled relief pitching with "Boch's" acumen. If he says George Kontos and Hunter Strickland are essentially the two new components of the "Core Four," we'll believe him, and we'll believe he'll choose right when it comes to the other two (likely Javy Lopez and Somebody Else).

We have an All-Star catcher in Buster Posey (he won't win it, but he'll get some votes), an outstanding infield with two fine second baseman (for the nonce), and a whole lotta uncertainty in the outfield. Hunter Pence is the right fielder unless and until he can't play, and he and everyone else says he'll play, so there you go. Angel Pagan-- does anyone remember he was hitting, like, .350 before the injury?-- has one year to go on his contract and will certainly start the season in center field if ready. But he's had one-- one-- full season in his four-year tenure here, and if he gets hurt again, it's 'adios, amigo.' Gregor Blanco has proved he may be the best fourth outfielder in baseball, and Jarrett Parker deserves, at last, his one and only shot to make a major-league roster at 27.    

Whither Marlon Byrd and Nori Aoki? Byrd is 38 and his defense is so shaky he really ought to DH somewhere-- but he hasn't played well at all in the other league. We'd like to see him return; no other Giant has his latent home-run power. He's worth a one-year deal with lots of incentives; the question is whether he sees it that way. Aoki will be 34 in January. He has never had serious injury issues before, he appears to be fanatical about staying in shape, and he just fits well on this team and in this lineup. The Giants have a team option for five and a half million on him. They should take it.

So that's "If" out there in center and "If" and "If" on the corners.  There was late-season talk about young Tomlinson, who has real speed, working on outfield skills to expand his potential. Certainly if there's an injury-induced hole at any of the spots, he deserves a shot. But we wonder, in this context, about Joe Panik, who turns 25 in three weeks and is already dealing with the nagging back injuries that sideline most second basemen before they get old. We remember the Giants resting Robbie Thompson one game out of a series when they played on artifical turf, while Robbie was still in his late twenties. He was done at 32. We remember Freddy Sanchez and Marco Scutaro, prematurely and permanently sidelined by back and hip issues, at 33 and 38, respectively. Second base, like no other position, requires a great deal of pivot motion and throwing back against one's body; it's been an injury magnet since the game began. To see a brilliant young player like Panik already dealing with veteran-type debilitating injuries at a young age makes us wonder if he shouldn't be groomed for the outfield instead of Tomlinson, who certainly can play second. Craig Biggio and Ray Durham, no slouches they, made a similar move at different points in their careers.

All of which means we don't think the Giants will break the bank for a slugging outfielder this offseason. Okay, enough with the tomatoes already. 

Finally, and parenthetically, we'll note that two years ago we sat at PNC Park in Pittsburgh as Nick Noonan belted his first major-league home run-- only to see it taken away by the vagaries of instant replay. We were notably happy to hear of Nick finally clearing the barrier during the last week of the season, and we'd like to see him  take over the backup infielder/utilityman slot next year.    
  

Mister October

Jeremy Affeldt announced his retirement during the Giants' final homestand, and officially "told it goodbye" on Sunday, moving on to the next phase of his life, which we know will be as successful, as good-humored, and as modestly handled as was his baseball career. Proving President Reagan's dictum that there's no limit to what men can accomplish if they don't care who gets the credit, Affeldt worked almost anonymously, yet so importantly, during the "hinge moments" of important baseball games, getting those two, three, or four critical outs needed to keep a game close, hold a tie, or protect a lead. No saves, few wins, dozens, not hundreds, of innings pitched-- what few stats tell the story live on the margins, sometimes not even counted. Things like coming in with two men on and one man out, and leaving the game one pitch later, the runners still stranded. Sometimes coming in merely to force a move by the opposition; to get a dangerous left-handed hitter out of the game, or to turn a switch-hitter over to his less dangerous side. 

Affeldt pitched for thirteen years, the last half of that time with the Giants. He's a big guy-- six-four, 220, same size as Willie McCovey-- and was eminently durable until this year. The Royals, who originally signed him, wanted him to be a starter; he made 42 starts and then they traded him to Colorado. After one awful year and one good year there, and one more in Cincinnati, the Giants signed him in time for the Season of Promise, 2009. He posted a 1.74 in 62 innings, got no saves-- and finished 28th in the MVP voting. Somebody was paying attention.

In Game One of the 2010 World Series against Texas, Affeldt entered the game in the ninth to face Josh Hamilton with two on, one out, and the Giants coasting, 11-4. Affeldt immediately uncorked a wild pitch, the runners moving up to second and third, then walked Hamilton on a full count to load the bases. Bochy brought in Brian Wilson to end it; he gave up a sac fly and then a sky-high fly ball that dropped untouched for a two-run double,  Hamilton crossing the plate with a run that was charged to Affeldt.

And that was it. Over two more postseasons, six postseason series, 22 postseason innings, 78 postseason batters, some of the most critical situations imaginable, Jeremy Affeldt gave up zero runs. Zip, zilch, nada. ERA: 0.00.  The 2012 NLDS and NLCS, Giants down to their last chance in both series? Eight appearances, no runs. Most memorably, of course, there was Game Five of the NLCS and Game Seven of the World Series in 2014.  

Here are a few of the remarks we made about Affeldt over the last couple of championship seasons:

(Game Four, 2012 World Series) "Jeremy Affeldt, one of four southpaws in the Giants' bullpen, doesn't get a lot if ink, but anyone who strikes out five men over two innings late in a tied World Series game, as Affeldt did in the eighth and ninth last night, deserves his own sentence, don't you think?"

(Game Five, 2014 NLCS) "In came Jeremy Affeldt. Bumgarner won the series MVP award, and no one can say he didn't deserve it. But over three postseasons, making appearances like this, there needs to be some sort of Jeremy Affeldt Award. Four games this series, three games against Washington, a long string of zeroes in the scoring line: Affeldt got Taveras on a comebacker. Threat over, they left 'em loaded."

(Game Seven, 2014 World Series) "Affeldt remarked after the game that he couldn't remember ever pitching in the second inning before. But over the second, the third, and the fourth, he kept his zero Series ERA intact and was rewarded with the most important 'W' of his career." 

You have go to back to Mariano Rivera in is heyday with the Yankee dynasty at the turn of the millennium to find such implacable, almost numbing consistency. And while we respect Rivera and all the great closers absolutely, we've always believed there is just as much, if not more, pressure on a reliever coming in mid-game, cold, with men already on base and his team's fortunes twisting in the wind, than there is coming in to start the last inning of a ballgame, fresh, with lead in hand.    

If somehow you missed any of Affeldt's press conferences over the last few days of the season (they're available on the Giants' website), you need only visit his page at baseball-reference.com to see what kind of man he is. There's a link there to "Generation Alive", Affeldt's nonprofit foundation, which not only empowers youth to follow Christ, but feeds the hungry, shelters the orphans, and aids materially in the battle against child slavery.

Jeremy Affeldt is a true sportsman, a beloved brother in Christ, and one of those rare individuals who makes those around him better people. The Giants will miss him, and so will we, but the world at large will be further enriched.


The Perils of the Postseason

"Be careful what you wish for, you may get it." That old adage may apply to those despised rivals of ours, the Dodgers, who enter the postseason with a monkey-- heck, a freakin' gorilla-- on their collective back. Nothing less than a World Series will do, we believe; after two seasons of being pantsed by the Cardinals, a third straight shortfall will be intolerable. All of this must weigh upon certified Good Guy Don Mattingly, who has done a great job by any estimation.  LA opens this week against the New York Mets, led by Terry Collins, who never played in the major leagues but has previously managed in Houston and Anaheim.  

Won't be no Subway Series this year; the Yankees were excused from the proceedings last night courtesy of Houston's fine lefthander, Dallas Keuchel, who shut 'em out 3-0. Joe Girardi's bunch landed back in the postseason for the first time since 2012 as a wild-card team, and it's no coincidence their resurgence coincided with that of Alex Rodriguez. Nor is it coincidence that A-Rod went 0-for-4 last night and his team went 0-for 9 (innings, that is).


The Four Freshmen

The Mets are one of four teams reaching the postseason for the first time in a long time, especially how time is reckoned in major-league baseball these days. With five postseason spots available in each league now, we might expect that everyone would have an equal shot. The fans of these four teams woud likely argue the point, and win, most seasons, but not this one.

Glory be! The Toronto Blue Jays had not made the postseason in 22 years and had never made the postseason in the wild-card era, until a week or so ago when they clinched the AL East. Toronto has been well-known as a run-scoring machine in recent years; with Josh Donaldson joining Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and more recently Troy Tulowitzki, the Canadians certainly can bring the wood, and they have: 891 big ones crossed the plate this year, over 100 more than any other team. What's changed, and moved them from a .500 club to a pending juggernaut, is decent pitching: David Price, Mark Buehrle, R.L. Dickey, and the missing ingredient, Marco Estrada (3.13 in 28 starts in the AL).  The "simple rating system" tool, which we've blogged about on our Niner page, attempts to measure a team's strength relative to the league by their performance against the best clubs. By the SRS method, the Blue Jays are far and away baseball's most impressive team. 

We welcome now the Houston Astros, who never should have moved to the American League but are certianly making the best of it. Baseball's "joke" team as recently as 2013, when they lost 111 games, the 'Stros are riding the arms of Keuchel and Collin McHugh, who've won 39 games between them, and a lineup that strikes out like mad but almost matched Toronto with 230 home runs. We earlier mentioned Chris Carter as perhaps the archetypal Astro: .199 average but .307 OBP and 24 homers in 391 ABs. Houston doesn't have a big run or RBI man, they just have seven or eight guys who all score and drive in 60-80 runs. They'll face the Kansas City Royals, who like the Dodgers have plenty of unfinished business but likely aren't feeling the same pressure.  The Astros' first AL postseason appearance is also their first postseason bid since 2005, when they lost four close World Series games to the Chicago White Sox.

Now we have the Mets, back in it for the first time since 2006, when Carlos Beltran took a called third strike to end Game 7 of the NLCS against St Louis. (Beltran, by the way, is now with the Yankees. He went 1-for-4 against Houston.) Collins, the Mets' helmsman since 2011, has never won much before, and his charges are kinda the "Rodney Dangerfields" of the NL field. They don't have a .300 hitter, a 30-homer guy or a 100-RBI guy. They finished a respectable seventh in the league in runs, but it's all about pitching with these fellows. The ageless, ever-expanding Bartolo Colon and his four young sidekicks-- Jacob DeGroom, Noah Syndergaard, Jon Niese, and Matt Harvey, will be expected to carry the load against LA, considering the team's only true slugger, Yoenis Cespedes, is iffy for the NLDS with a sore left hand after being hit by a pitch last week.

And the Chicago Cubs, in the postseason for the first time since 2007, just defeated the good old Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park to move into the division series against the Cardinals. 22-game-winner Jake Arrieta was the whole story, pitching a 4-0 shutout to essentially match Keuchel last night. We all know the Cubs have won exactly one postseason series since 1908 (the 2003 NLDS) and we don't think they'll survive the incredibly well-balanced, 100-win Redbirds, but heck, we didn't think they'd win this game either. And the Bucs, after 98 wins this year, second-best in all of baseball, once again have let down the home folks without scoring a run, just as happened against Bumgarner a year ago. 

While the Texas Rangers haven't waited as long as these other guys-- they were in it as recently as 2012-- this is a completely remade club from the Ron Washington-led team we remember from those days. Like no other AL team, the Rangers are among the league leaders in both batting and pitching. Josh Hamilton, whose life story is certainly the most bizarre in the game today, is back and hitting again, alongside familiar faces such as Prince Fielder and Delino DeShields-- familiar, that is, to fans of other teams. But the ineffable Elvis Andrus and the eternal Adrian Beltre are also very much present. Meanwhile, good old Colby Lewis (answer to a Giants trivia question: who was the only Ranger pitcher to win a game in the 2010 Series?) is joined by Cole Hamels and Yovani Gallardo to form a pretty good postseason trio of starters.

Then there are the 2014 returnees-- the Cardinals, the Royals, the Dodgers, and the now-departed Pirates. We Giants fans are all too familiar with all of them.   

So now we await the Cardinals-Pirates, Dodgers-Mets, Royals-Astros, and Blue Jays-Rangers series. In our opinion, that last matchup will bear some serious attention.


Still With Us?

Roll the statistical parade...  Buster Posey was fourth in the league in average, sixth in OBP, and ninth in RBI... Brandon Crawford led all NL shortstops in HR (21) and RBI (84), and was second only to the Braves' phenomenal Andrelton Simmons in range at short... Simmons, amazingly, made only 8 errors out of 687 chances...  No Giant was in the top twenty in runs. Matt Duffy led the team with 77. He also drove in 77. We love this guy... Crawford and Brandon Belt tied for 13th with 33 doubles... Belt's .356 OBP and .478 SLG were almost an exact match for his LA counterpart, Adrian Gonzalez... Yes, Belt will strike out (147 in 137 games). Marlon Byrd was right behind him with 135... Belt led the team in walks with 56. He goes deep in the count-- 21st in the league in number of pitches, but those ahead of him had 50-100 more ABs...   The paucity of names recited here reminds us that Posey, Belt, Duffy, and Crawford were the only "regulars" we had this year... Fourth in wins and strikeouts, fifth in innings pitched, sixth in WHIP, ninth in ERA: that's Madison Bumgarner... Nobody else clocked in; Chris Heston kept his ERA under 4, and Mike Leake's overall numbers were good enough for the top 30 in most positive stats... When you review the league's top starters in ERA and IP, you see Shelby Miller of the Braves right up there. What stands out is his W-L, which is 6-17! Absolutely appalling, and reminiscent of Nolan Ryan's 8-16 1987 campaign in Houston. A year ago Miller was in St Louis, but after the Heyward trade Atlanta's gotta feel like puragtory. Miller's only 24. He stays healthy, he's going to be just fine. Let's hope the Braves' management realizes this... Matt Scherzer, though he kept his ERA under 3 and his WHIP under 1, kinda melted away in the second half, as did his team. Is Matt Williams' job in jeopardy? Everyone seems skittish around MVP-candidate Bryce Harper in that dugout, and that can't be good when you realize he's only 22... Harper's numbers really are fantastic. One of three guys with OPS over a thousand-- Paul Goldschmidt  and the inevitable Joey Votto are the others. Votto, as usual, was tops with 143 walks, while Harper had 124 and Goldschmidt 118. Next was Andrew McCutchen-- with 98...   Add in his 42 homers and league-leading 118 runs scored, and Harper's the top, all right; but will those dugout scuffles affect the vote?... You wanna talk stolen bases and their value, compare Dee Gordon, the league leader, with the number-two man, Cincy's Billy Hamilton. Gordon swiped 58 but was nailed 20 times-- that's a net loss. Hamilton stole one fewer base but was caught only 8 times. Any debate as to who's better?... That's better as a base stealer, not as a player. Gordon is the better player by any measure: .333 average and 88 runs scored to Hamilton's .226 and 56. At least Hamilton's been moved from the leadoff to the ninth spot. (That's how you know Dusty Baker is retired!) Gordon is a leadoff man, and he should be at .333, but if he'd run less and walk more (25 BB in 615 AB!) he'd score 110 runs a year even with the Marlins' tepid offense behind him... Matt Duffy shares one thing with the man he replaced, Casey McGehee. The youngster grounded into 22 double plays, fourth in the league. McGehee, who landed in Miami, batted only 237 times but managed 18 GIDP, still 13th in the league in about one-third of the at-bats of those ahead of him... If we remember correctly, 14 of those 18 were in a Giants uniform... Not a whole lot of outliers in 2015. Goldschmidt had 29 intentional walks, double the total of the next guy (Harper)... Clayton Kershaw picked off 9 batters, while old warhorse John Lackey (13-10 with a 2.77 in St Louis) induced 29 double-play grounders. Our own Chris Heston was second with 26. Hey, we like him better already... Aroldis Chapman was nowhere near the league leaders in wild pitches this year, and not just because he pitches fewer innings. David Hale, of the Rockies, and Justin Grimm of the Cubs both were among the leaders despite being relievers with low IP totals... The Angels' Garrett Richards, who had a pretty good season and stayed healthy all year, led all baseball with 17 errant throws... Mike Trout, as usual, had his own private party atop the AL leaderboard: tops in OPS  and SLG, second in OBP, 41 homers and 104 runs scored. His average was down and his strikeouts up, though... Albert Pujols, at 35, had a solid bounce-back season with 40 homers. He averaged just .244, though; one thing the Angels fans haven't seen from big Albert are those .320 seasons he churned out with the Cardinals.... Baltimore's Chris Davis led the AL with 47 homers and with 208 strikeouts.

Beofre we go we have to mention the incredible back-from-the-dead rally in Texas by the Angels last Saturday. Facing elimination and down 10-6 in the Rangers' ballpark, LA exploded for five runs in the top of the ninth to win it. Going into that inning they looked as downcast as a team can be. Josh Hamilton, whom they still are paying millions of dollars from that ruinous contract, had already hit two big home runs for Texas (and think, people: when was the last time a ballclub actually paid a guy to beat them?) Then came two monster leadoff home runs, both solo shots; Texas was still in control. But after big Albert's popup down the right-field line was misplayed into a double, the wheels came off in earnest with three RBI singles to win the game 11-10. One of our dear family members has the burden of being an Angels fan; the sky-high emotion of Saturday became leaden depression the next as they crumbled in a six-run seventh and were excused from the postseason, for which they'd won 16 games of their last 23. Baseball is a harsh mistress. 

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