Thursday, May 26, 2016

Oh Yes, They Call Him "The Streak"

With apologies to Ray Stevens, patron saint of scenery-chewers everywhere, we take this opportunity to celebrate the Giants' current run of success, which has seen Our Ballclub win 13 of their last 14-- first eight in a row and now five straight as we pause on this off-day before beginning a weekend series in Denver. Leading the division by four and a half games, we are. In all of baseball, only the Chicago Cubs, who lead Pittsburgh by five, have a bigger cushion-- and the Giants just took two of three from those Cubbies last weekend. So there!

For those looking for clues to all this success, we need but note that the Giants' five starters have racked up, yep, exactly thirteen quality starts in those 14 games, the lone stinkeroo being Jake Peavy's extremely limited outing against those selfsame Cubs six days ago. Peavy, whom most fans have been readying for the glue factory this spring, has sandwiched two solid starts around that train wreck, most recently yesterday's fine effort which the Giants reclaimed in ten innings-- too late to give the Jakester a "W," but right on time according to Hoyle. Six of the thirteen wins have been one-run affairs, including back-to-back 1-0 games against the Cubs, who are a playoff-worthy team, and the just-departed Padres, who ain't.

It all began in the thirteenth inning of the final game in a most unsatisfying homestand, where the Giants followed an unhappy four-game split with the Rockies by losing two to the American League Toronto Blue Jays. The Colorado series had opened with Matt Cain hammered unmercifully in a 17-7 wipeout, followed by the obverse-- three straight games where Our Heroes scored 0, 1, and 0 runs, wasting good starts by Jeff Samardzija and, yes, Peavy. The run-scoring drought blessedly relieved in the last game of the Toronto series, the Giants' bullpen then appallingly choked away a 4-0 lead and plunged into extra innings, with yet another home sweep by a visiting ballclub looming over the proceedings.  Then in the 13th, it was a hit batsman, a fumbled bunt, a wild pitch, and two walks-- one intentional, the next decidedly unintentional-- and in came the winning run. The Giants have been lights-out ever since.

The jewel in the 14-game crown was Madison Bumgarner's nationally-televised tour-de-force last Sunday night against the Cubs. He shut out that powerful lineup on three hits, struck out six, drove in the game's only run himself with a  double that he absolutely ripped over the left fielder's head, and lasted into the eighth, yielding to Bruce Bochy and the bullpen only after a two-out walk. There have been four starts during the streak with higher Game Scores-- two by Johnny Cueto, one by Samardzija, and one by Bum himself-- but beating the league's top team in a 1-0 classic in prime time sets the tone. It's been all about pitching, and the airtight defense we've come to expect, over the last fourteen: the aggregate score has been 49-30, Giants.

And that is indeed a good thing, because the "deadly lineup" we touted at the start of the season has lately been anything but.  No Giants starter is over .300, few are even close, and while we all know batting average isn't the whole story, there's no question the runs have declined as the averages have settled into the .250 range. Hunter Pence (.292) and Brandon Belt (.276) have been carrying most of the water, leading the team in runs and OBP. Brandon Crawford has weighed in with 27 RBI, but Buster Posey sits at a mild .265/.328/.426, with just 18 RBI in 43 games. The Castor and Pollux of the infield, Joe Panik and Matt Duffy, are both floating around. 250 with no power, while Denard Span has kept his OBP above .350 by dint of 24 walks in 181 AB, just qualifying as a bona fide leadoff man.

With the perennially-fragile Angel Pagan now on the DL with hamstring issues, the outfield is suddenly looking kinda thin. Jarrett Parker, recently called up from Sacramento, homered in his first game, but it's difficult right now to slot him ahead of Kelby Tomlinson, who is hitting .344 in 61 at-bats and has made the most of his two starts in left field. Pagan was doing well, as is his wont, until the first injuries intervened; his recent history has shown that each trip to, and return from, the DL results in a less effective player. There's simply no way the Giants can rely on him to produce day-in-day-out any more; anything he contributes has to be considered a bonus. Gregor Blanco has hit 4 triples in  86 at-bats, which is cool, but we can't expect 2014 to repeat itself. There's a hole in left field, and someone will have to fill it. Right now the job's there for the taking.

Belt, third in the league with 35 walks, ranks ninth with a .407 OBP. No other Giant is in the top ten in any category, except Blanco with his 4 triples, tied for the lead with three guys who have twice his number of at-bats. It's a much happier picture on the pitching side, where the Big Three-- Bumgarner, Cueto, and Samardzija-- are among the top ten in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. They're a combined 20-5 so far, and Cueto's WHIP of 0.99 leads the club, with "Shark" at 1.06 and Bum at 1.12. The  Giants' two big free-agent signings have, so far, paid off admirably. Both have thrived at home, on the road, in the daytime, at night... you name it.  And on the back side, well, Peavy still has the league's worst ERA, but he's brought it down a bit, and Cain, with three strong starts in a row, is barely above 5 and falling. He opens the series at Coors Field tomorrow night.

Injuries to George Kontos and Sergio Romo, and startling ineffectiveness from Javier Lopez and Santiago Casilla, have cast a pall over the Giants' once-bulletproof bullpen. Lopez has begin to settle down lately-- 4.32 is awful but you should have seen it three weeks ago-- and Kontos, who's been in only 11 games, just returned to action. The man he has essentially replaced, Romo, remains uncertain as to a return date. Casilla's numbers-- 1.83, 24 K versus 5 BB in 19 innings-- are good, but he has blown three saves in 15 attempts. We were singing the praises of lefty Josh Osich as recently as last night, until he gave up a game-tying two-run homer in the eighth that cost Peavy the win. We still like him well enough. One thing we hate is when relievers walk people, and that has hurt Hunter Strickland at times, as well as Osich, Casilla, and especially Lopez.

Defensively-- aw, we'll just say it, the Giants' infield is the best. Buster Posey leads all catchers with a .526 stolen-base percentage (the great Yadier Molina is having a terrible time-- .706! What gives? We also have to note that the Met's J.T. Realmuto has turned six double plays). All four infielders are near the top of the league in the major categories, which bears out what we're seeing and hearing every day. And though it doesn't show up in the individual  league-leader stats, the Giants' left-field collective-- Pagan, Blanco, Parker, Tomlinson-- has combined for five assists, at least three of which we remember were outs at the plate. The Giants' defensive efficiency rating (DER)-- the percentage of balls in play converted into outs-- is only tenth in the league, though; perhaps because only Hunter Pence, among the outfielders, ranks high in range.

In the two most important aggregate team stats, the Giants are fifth in the league in ERA, and sixth in runs scored. Their team OBP is not out of whack with their runs scored, so at least statistically, it doesn't appear they are leaving an inordinate amount of men on base, unlike last year.  (If your anecdotal experience seems to tell you otherwise, don't worry; ours does too.)  The Giants have scored 211 runs so far, and allowed 197. That yields an expected won-loss record of 26-23 over 49 games, so at the moment the Giants are four games ahead of where they ought to be. The difference is those one-run games, and the difference-maker, from our perspective, is that the starting pitchers have given the team a chance to win 60% of the time-- 30 quality starts in 49 games. With a league-average offense, that's usually enough to win. Usually. We have 113 games left to find out if it will be enough this year.

Oh Yes, They Call Him "The Freak"

Tim Lincecum signed a contract with the Los Angeles Angels last week, and while he has yet to pitch in a major-league game this season, his progress has been encouraging. There were countless pleas on the Giants' website and Giants-related blogs and forums everywhere for the team to sign Timmy, especially in the wake of Peavy's well-documented struggles. Well, it didn't happen; the Angels are desperate for pitching in a way the Giants can't even imagine, and they'll take help wherever they can get it. A dear family member of ours is an Angels fan, so it's not difficult for us to generally wish them well, and easy for us to hope Tim Lincecum revives his career in Anaheim.

As a Giant, Tim ranks behind only Juan Marichal in career achievements by a pitcher, and no Giants fan will ever forget his four-year run from 2008 to 2011 as the game's best and most exciting pitcher. It was Tim Lincecum's arrival as a Cy Young-worthy talent in 2008 that signaled the beginning of the Giants' current dynasty, and he saw it through in all its glory, from his domination of the 2010 postseason to his short but critical contributions from the bullpen in the 2012 series to his role as spectator in the 2014 run. Best wishes, Tim Lincecum, and if we see you in October, so much the better!