Friday, February 15, 2019


It’s no knock on Frank Robinson, who passed away last week at the age of 83, to note that from a San Francisco perspective he probably hurt the Giants a lot more as a player from 1956 to 1965 then he ever helped them as the team’s manager from 1981 to 1984.  Sure, he was a pretty good manager. He was a great, great baseball player. And, to paraphrase Muddy Waters, he was a man—spelled M-A-N. There’s never been anyone else quite like him.

In just about any other era, Frank Robinson would have been hands-down regarded as the best of his generation at his position. But it was his lot to play right field alongside three other magnificent Hall of Famers—Henry Aaron, Al Kaline, and Roberto Clemente—all of whom were active at the same time at the same position. Inevitably, at times Frank Robinson, great as he was, may have gotten lost in the mix during his nine years in Cincinnati. Even today, his career totals are phenomenal, but they are also short of Henry Aaron’s.  What sets Frank Robinson apart from everyone else are two things—his epochal MVP and world championship season in 1966 after one if the most controversial trades of all time, and  his pioneering career as the first black man to manage a major league baseball team.

Frank Robinson is still the only player in history to win the MVP award in both leagues. That he followed the big trade by leading his new team to their first world championship while winning that MVP award and the Triple Crown— well, that’s never been done by anybody else. Baltimore won 316 games in three seasons from 1969 through 1971, and so for a few years there Frank Robinson, a towering presence, an on-field leader of that great team, was not only respected by everyone in the game, but right in the middle of any discussion regarding baseball’s best player.

Then came Aaron again, beginning his heroic pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record in earnest in 1969, and ultimately taking the spotlight back. While the two were similar ballplayers in many respects, they were different in others. Aaron was quietly intimidating, studious, focused.  In Cincinnati “Robby” had a fearsome reputation at the plate and on the basepaths; he was a challenging, intimidating opponent, standing in against “brushback” pitchers—his battles with Don Drysdale, whom he hit like a “cousin” despite frequent spills in the dirt, are legendary—and barreling into bases like the second coming of Ty Cobb. Due to this he lost some time to injury while with the Reds, and that may have led the team’s management to conclude he’d have a shortened career, and hence the trade that changed everything.

His hiring as the Cleveland Indians’ manager in 1975 was historic-- and, as he himself said at the time, so was his firing in 1977. Any hint of tokenism was banished at that moment; he was subject to the same merciless expectations as any other manager.  And then, so too with his second hiring, by the Giants three years later. If baseball teams in general have been known, and often criticized, for regularly hiring “retread” managers, Frank Robinson’s re-hiring sent a pointed message across every ballpark in the land. As a black man fully aware of his situation in a country that had, until recently, embraced legal racial segregation, the lesson could not be more plain, or blunt: don’t look at my color, look at my achievements—and my failures—as you would any other manager.    

There was a Miller Lite television commercial from the late 1970s featuring Frank and his longtime teammate Brooks Robinson, the “bookends,” if you will, of one of the greatest baseball teams ever assembled. Since retired, the two took turns making the usual pitch for the product; then Brooks, commenting on how much he and Frank had in common, felt obliged to remind the audience that they were not, in fact, identical twins. “Naw,” Frank agreed, with a snort of laughter, “I’m at least two inches taller than he is!“

Would such a silly, yet thoroughly humanizing and, yes, brotherly example such as this be well-received in today’s hostile, race-obsessed climate? I think we all know the answer. What, exactly, has happened to us since the 1970s—for that matter, since the 2000s?

Robinson’s hiring as manager of the Giants was met with great fanfare locally. After two dismal seasons the team needed a jolt, and his fierce, demanding attitude provided it. The ballclub “broke even”— an improvement by itself-- during the strike season, then exceeded all expectations by launching themselves into a pennant race in 1982. Robinson told young players such as Chili Davis and Jeffrey Leonard and Al Holland and Fred Breining he believed in them, and he expected them to perform, and they did. He batted the erratic, error-prone Johnnie LeMaster, a career .222 hitter, leadoff-- not a brilliant tactical move at all, but a way of telling his starting shortstop he believed in him, too. He took a completely remade starting rotation—all four starting pitchers from 1981 were swapped out for new ones—and made it work, backed up by the game’s deepest bullpen. The Giants took on the perennial Dodgers and the rich, free-agent-fattened Braves, and played them dead even up until the final weekend.   

It didn’t last. In 1983, Robinson may have felt he was being undercut by the front office; several players on whom he depended, such as Joe Morgan and Reggie Smith, were traded or released. Darrell Evans was moved off third base.  LeMaster regressed back to unreliable form. Reports of alleged conflict between Robby and GM Tom Haller surfaced, and local newspapers, one hack sportswriter in particular, fanned the flames of discontent with cynical, leading, innuendo-based articles. It got ugly. His players knew Robinson was not the villain, and when he was fired a year or so later-- yep, just like any other manager whose team is on a downhill slide—several remained outspokenly loyal to him. Jeffrey Leonard adopted his number 20. In the aftermath it’s worth remembering that some of those young players Robinson believed in—Leonard, Davis, Bob Brenly—were key figures in the Giants’ 1986 resurgence and gave that team much of its confrontational, in-your-face spirit.

He went on to manage his beloved Orioles for four years, winning AL Manager of the Year for a dramatic if short-lived 1989 turnaround. At age 67 he took over the thankless job of managing the Montreal Expos in their final years. He got two winning seasons out of that team before moving with them to Washington and becoming the Nationals in 2005. A decade later his old friend Dusty Baker took the same job; by then nobody was looking at the color of a manager’s skin, just the number of games he won.

Frank Robinson, by the way, won 1065.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Peter Magowan

Peter Magowan, who passed away earlier this week at the age of 76, saved the Giants for San Francisco not once, but twice. Yes, we know other men were involved, and it was, especially from a financial perspective, a group effort throughout. But from the start Magowan was the man. He was Ayn Rand's "prime mover," the pioneer who had the vision and was willing to risk his money and his name and his reputation to champion two game- and City-transforming projects, neither of which seemed like anything but a sure thing when he started them. And he delivered.

Oracle Park (or The Ballpark Formerly Known as the 'Bell) stands as a visible monument of that vision and accomplishment, and soon Magowan's likeness will adorn the Wall of Fame alongside such worthies as Mays, McCovey, and Marichal.  It's a most fitting tribute and memorial to the man who, like the team he loved, started out in New York and made the move to San Francisco and fell in love with it-- and then did something about it when that team and that city needed him. In the pantheon of Giants ownership, only Jim Mutrie, who named the team in a moment of exuberance in the 1880s, and Charles Stoneham, whose family name was synonymous with the club for 50 years, loom as large. But if you're talkin' San Francisco, Peter Magowan is your man.

It's one of life's many delightful eccentricities that we, as politically conservative as it is possible to be these days, swear, and have sworn for 54 years, our allegiance to the team representing perhaps the most leftward city in America. Rarely has this been a concern of ours, but in 1992 it came bubbling to the surface as the City, which then was only a few miles away instead of today's 2700, seemed utterly indifferent to the impending loss of its major-league baseball team. It's not simply that "voters refused to spend their money on a plaything for the rich" (or however the boilerplate is etched); many of those voters had good reason for their refusal. It went deeper than that, to a pervasive attitude of "who cares, anyway?"  (And many of those voters had, whether they knew it or not, spent their money to upgrade Candlestick Park for the football 49ers.)

The thought of the "St Petersburg Giants" taking the field on Opening Day 1993 was so galling, so unacceptable, so-- so wrong, on every level, that it prompted our last use of the "F-Bomb" in print (and as we recall, we also referred to then-Senator Connie Mack II, who threatened to revoke baseball's antitrust exemption if the Giants didn't move, as a "two-legged disgrace to his family name"). National League president Bill White, the former Giants first baseman who went on to a great career in Philadelphia and St Louis because the team already had Cepeda and McCovey, convinced 9 of 13 NL owners to-- temporarily, mind you-- reject the St Petersburg sale. He then made the call: "Who among you in San Francisco will stand up?"

"Nobody," we groused.  "Nobody's coming. It's over."

Peter Magowan stood up. The San Francisco Giants took the field on Opening Day 1993.

Seven years later, Peter Magowan and his group of investors opened Pacific Bell Park, the stadium everyone-- and we do mean "everyone"--said couldn't and wouldn't be built. The 'Bell wasn't just the most beautiful ballpark in the land, it was also the lifeline that kept, and, God willing, will keep, the Giants in San Francisco for as long as the game is played.  Peter Magowan knew that his and his investors' money, which prevented the Giants from leaving San Francisco, would not be enough to save the Giants for San Francisco unless this ballpark could be built, and built within a decade. He, and they, did it.

Seventy-six is not old these days. Peter Magowan's family's loss is our loss, too. He was blessed, as we have been blessed, to see the team he'd loved since childhood-- his team, now-- win three world championships after decades of disappointment. He had his mountaintop moment. But he still left us too soon.

Goodbye and Godspeed to a true Giant among men.  Peter Magowan, your legacy is secure. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Big Guy

The official address of the San Francisco Giants baseball club is well and formally known as 24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco, California 94107. It's an address and an honorarium chosen, with great public fanfare, by the club itself to honor the greatest of all Giants, if not the greatest all-around baseball player of all time. A fitting and official tribute.

The small inlet off San Francisco Bay leading into the China Basin estuary, roughly bounded by the Third Street bridge, the South Beach harbor, and AT&T Park's right-field wall, is well and informally known as McCovey Cove. No official designation accompanies this name; it was chosen by Giants fans, in more or less spontaneous manner shortly after the park opened, to honor San Francisco's favorite baseball son, the great Willie McCovey, who passed away last week at the age of 80. And that really tells you all you need to know about Willie McCovey and the San Francisco Giants.

"Mac," or "Stretch," or the "Big Dipper" (that one never caught on) was an overnight sensation, and peculiarly and intimately a San Francisco overnight sensation, from the moment he stepped to the plate at Seals Stadium on July 30, 1959, and went 4-for-4 with two triples and two RBI. Yes, San Franciscans knew how great Willie Mays was; they could hardly know otherwise, given the ceaseless New York-based media barrage they'd received as soon as the Giants arrived in the City. They knew, but San Franciscans tend to be a contrarian lot, and provincial, too-- in fact the only major city we've ever visited that's even more provincial than San Francisco is, you guessed it, New York City. Willie McCovey, 21 years old, six feet four inches tall, with those long arms and that instantly memorable and lovely sweeping left-handed swing, was San Francisco's Own, and nobody who ever wore the orange and black generated more affection among the fans.  The venerable Charles McCabe, himself a transplanted New Yorker, recalled the reaction of a City cab driver the day McCovey made his first  splash: "Sure, an' it's about time they brought 'em in an Irishman!" Even to those a little unclear on the concept, Willie Mac was an instant hit.

The photograph above was taken at RFK Stadium in 1969, the night Willie hit two home runs in the All-Star Game on his way to an MVP season: 45 homers, 126 RBI, .320/.453/.656, and 8.1 WAR. All told he played 2,256 games for the San Francisco Giants in his four-decade career from 1959 to 1980, with a short, weird hiatus in San Diego and then in Oakland in between. He led the league in homers three times, in 1963 and 1968 as well as 1969. In the "Year of the Pitcher," 1968, Willie Mac was a one-man opposing force, leading the league in homers, RBI, and OPS. His six-year run from 1965-1970, during which he gradually and quietly took over from Mays as the team's greatest offensive threat-- "I could hardly believe it," he told a reporter in '68, "They walked me, to get to Mays"--  is one of the greatest any player of our lifetime has ever put up. He hit 226 home runs in those six years and averaged 106 RBI; he also scored 531 runs and slugged over .500 each season. Add in his 44-homer total in 1963 and his 29 in 1973 at age 35, one of his several "bounce-back" years, and you get an idea of what it was like to face this guy in those days. The Mays remark above shows becoming modesty; on another occasion, he revealed a more honest evaluation of his own talent. Asked "How would you pitch to you?" he responded, "I'd walk me."

Though opportunities were few, Mac could and did turn it up in the postseason, too. Everyone remembers the rocket line drive that ended the 1962 World Series, but consider that McCovey had already tripled off Ralph Terry that day (and been stranded) and he had homered off Terry in Game Two. Willie started four of the seven games, facing only right-handers. In 1971, after an injury-plagued season in which he missed 57 games, Willie was at his Hall-of_Fame best in the NLCS against Pittsburgh-- two big home runs, 6-for-14 with 6 RBI in 4 games and an OPS of 1.413. Giants lost that series too, of course.

Had Mac not been the Giants' Slugger-Without-Portfolio for three years, there is no telling how many home runs he may have hit. Six hundred is not an unreasonable guess. Those "bounce-back" years were wrapped around seasons-- 1964, 1971, 1972-- in which Willie was plagued by nagging leg, ankle, and foot injuries that got worse, as most do, with age.  He got those because in 1959, his rookie year, the Giants were blessed with one of the greatest-ever concentrations of talent at one position at one time-- Orlando Cepeda, Bill White, and McCovey, all great players, all first basemen, all 25 years old or less. Cepeda was the incumbent, and wildly popular. Mac was the newcomer, and even more popular, and they were back-to-back NL Rookies of the Year, so White became the odd man out, traded to St Louis for pitching. But that still left two men on first base, and ultimately, after a year of unhappy back-and-forth maneuvering, the job went to Cepeda and McCovey became an outfielder. Sort of.

How great is Willie McCovey? Consider that after 61 years he is still the third-greatest left fielder in San Francisco history, behind only a couple of guys named Bonds and Mitchell. His 1963 season, full time in the outfield, ranks with their MVP years. Defensively he was more Mitch than Barry, and he really had no business out there, but with the bat in his hand he was still Mac as only Mac could be. In a part-time role in 1962, platooning in left with Harvey Kuenn and facing mostly right-handers, he hit 20 homers in 229 at-bats, a Barry-Bonds-in-2001 pace, slugging .590 and putting up 2 WAR in what amounted to a third of a season. They had to find a place for him, and they sure tried.

But running around in the outfield, with his odd, tapered build, long slender legs, thin ankles and feet-- a physique born to play first base-- hurt him badly in 1964, and in later years it cost him a lot more. There's no question in our mind it should have been Cepeda in left, not Willie, but Cepeda's obstinate refusal to play anywhere other than first base has been well-documented elsewhere and need not be rehashed here, even though it indirectly cost the team a manager who won 366 games in 4 years.  Deep breath, and onward we go.

So, is the Giants' greatest first baseman the greatest of National League first basemen? Among predecessors, he ranks behind Dan Brouthers, Cap Anson, and Roger Connor; a more recent predecessor, Johnny Mize, is an excellent comp and is very close in National League career WAR. More recently, Albert Pujols and Jeff Bagwell have clearly surpassed him (Pujols is 20 WAR ahead based only on his Cardinals seasons).  He was the greatest when he retired; he may not be the greatest now.

But that retirement, and the three-year career coda that preceded it, is what cemented his legacy as the most beloved of San Francisco Giants. Horace Stoneham, acting, disastrously, as his own GM, had traded McCovey after a strong 1973, for reasons's we'd rather not explore. Willie had two reasonably good seasons with the San Diego Padres, playing in 250 games and looking wildly out of place in those chocolate-cake-with-frosting uniforms. He then sat on the bench for part of a year in Oakland, looking wildly out of place in those green-and gold softball uniforms. But as it turned out, that period of relative rest was just what the doctor ordered.

With nothing to lose (except maybe 88 games again) and everything to gain in terms of goodwill, the 1977 Giants invited 39-year-old McCovey to spring training. He arrived with a smile on his face, a rested and toned body, and a swing that looked years younger. Not only did he make the club, he started at first base. And not only did he start at first base, he was the team's best player in 1977, the only Giant to slug .500, leading the club in total bases, homers, and OBP. A whole generation of new Giants fans, who had only heard about those great players from the '60s, joined the rest of us in marveling over our very own living legend who still had plenty of game after years of obscurity and exile. The Comeback Player of the Year award was a foregone conclusion. "Number 44 on the field, Number One in our hearts," was, too.

It was never that good again, we have to admit, as Mac closed in on his career goal of playing across four decades. He was the untouchable San Francisco Giant and he knew it, and while it would be unfair to say he exploited that situation, he knew his value to the club, its fans, its attendance figures, its very core, extended far beyond the field. His numbers in 1978 and 1979 are not very good, and the team was trying to figure out how to gracefully ease Willie aside and let Mike Ivie take over the full-time job. Platooning was out of the question, of course; first-ballot Hall of Famers, even in their dotage, do not platoon.  He was 42 in 1980 and the front office finally reached an accomodation; Mac would gracefully and publicly retire at mid-season after two series against the Dodgers, home and away. That these plans went grotesquely awry afterward does not mar Willie McCovey's legacy; it was his duty, as it has been for so many others, to spend his final years paying for a badly mismanaged team.

In his last appearance at Candlestick Park on July 3, 1980, batting fourth as always, Mac drove in the game's first run in his first at bat, and the Giants held on to that run to beat Cincinnati, 4-3. He may have very badly wanted a Ted Williams moment when he came up in the seventh, but Doug Bair got him to ground out in his final home at-bat. Three days later, on July 6, Willie McCovey strode to the plate at Dodger Stadium amid a standing ovation from enemy fans who had witnessed some of his greatest moments. We remember still a monster home run in 1966 off what must have been a slightly awed rookie, Don Sutton: "That one's hit forty miles!" chortled Russ Hodges. "Tell it bye-bye, baby!"  Now it was the top of the eighth, tie game, one out, first and third, and another young Dodger, Rick Sutcliffe, on the mound. We all wanted Willie to turn on one and yank it into the Dodger bullpen, Ted Williams after all. Instead he skied it to center field, out where they go to die, but it was a trademark McCovey drive all the same-- full swing, good contact, high and deep, and deep enough to score what turned out to be the winning run.

"Gods do not answer letters," pontificated John Updike after Williams' walk-away-forever home run. Good men like Willie McCovey, though, do answer them, and they sign autographs, listen patiently and pleasantly to overawed fans savoring the moment of a lifetime, wave to the crowd even when they have to lean on crutches or ride in a wheelchair to do so, and they never forget the people that showed them love and affection during good times and bad. Willie McCovey made the good times great and the bad times better, and there has never been a San Francisco Giant who wore the colors with such greatness and class.

Goodbye and Godspeed. Big man. Giant.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


“H” is for Hank,
‘Mister Greenwald’, to you;
A finer sportscaster,
No fan ever knew.

Eerie coincidences and the swift, almost instantaneous travel of information these days generated a jarring, and then saddening, emotional response yesterday. One moment we were surfing the ‘Net, looking for some reference to a Bay Area radio station that’s gone through more name changes than did Elizabeth Taylor. The next we found ourselves at the short Wikipedia bio of Hank Greenwald, the Giants broadcaster we remember most fondly. And we noted that both birth and death dates had been posted for Hank. Momentary surprise-- He’s passed away? Why hadn’t we heard?—gave way to sudden astonishment: October 22, 2018? Why, that’s—that’s—that’s today!

And so, the witty, erudite, and always engaging Hank Greenwald has passed on after 83 years. If you’re a fan of a certain age, there’s a Giant-sized hole where your heart should be this morning.

Hank—he borrowed the name from his boyhood hero, Hank Greenberg, out of love and because it sounded more euphonious than “Howard”-- started with the Giants in 1979, took over the lead broadcast duties in 1982, left briefly after five years to do New York Yankees games, then returned in 1989 and was the voice of the Giants until his retirement in 1996. He called the “Will Clark Game” that clinched the pennant in the 1989 NLCS, the World Series earthquake that shook Candlestick Park a week later, commiserated with us fans after the Giants won 103 games in 1993 but missed the postseason, and made a place for himself among the many great Bay Area sportscasters past and present. The Giants knew they needed a great one to succeed Hank—no one could replace him—and that’s how we got Jon Miller. And we know his heart aches this morning along with ours.

If you weren’t around then, you maybe can’t imagine the shock Giants fans felt when, after the false-hope 1978 season, the team announced it was terminating its contract with good old KSFO, which had held the broadcast rights since the team came to town, in favor of something called KNBR. And worse, that we would no longer hear the friendly baritone of Lon Simmons calling the games. Like KSFO, Lon was family, a link to those glory days. He’d taken over as lead voice after his legendary partner, Russ Hodges, retired in 1970, and in recent years he’d worked with the young Al Michaels and with Joe Angel.  Now all that was changing. Lindsey Nelson, whom we know only for his loud sports jackets and his Notre Dame affiliation, would be doing the games. (A stranger?) And his new sidekick would be some guy named Greenwald.

In perhaps his first interview with the San Francisco press before starting his new job, Hank tried to assuage the concerns of Giants fans. Allowing that Nelson could be a tad homerish when it came to the Fighting Irish, Hank said Lindsey was an outstanding baseball announcer and knew the game well. As it turned out, he was right, but still, Lindsey Nelson was never really “ours.” Taking over in 1982, New York native and Syracuse grad Hank became ours, and right quickly. 

“Lindsey told me, ‘Don’t ever get caught up with wins and losses. If you do, and you’re announcing a bad team, you’ll sound like they play,’” Hank said, and that was put to the test early as he announced for some b-a-d teams in the mid-1980s. While never an overt homer, Hank could affect a bemused, affectionate tone in those days, speaking of the Giants as you would your erring but still-lovable second cousin. As one fan observed awhile back, “The worse the Giants were, the more entertaining Hank became.”  Some classic Greenwald-isms from those lean years:

“Herndon seems to be bothered by insects at the plate. I don’t know what species it is. (Pause) Maybe it’s an infield fly.”

“Coming to bat for the Phillies is a pinch-hitter, Dave Shipanoff. Let me spell that for you: D-A-V-E."   

“(Pitcher) Andy McGaffigan is batting .068. He’s got one of those Bingo averages.”

“Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, a doubleheader, was rained out. (Pause) They’ll play four tomorrow.”

Regarding would-be slugger Hector Villanueva, listed at 6-1 and 220: "Even if he hit .300 he wouldn't be hitting his weight."

In those days Hank lived in Glen Park, perhaps the balmiest neighborhood in San Francisco and one that, in the 1980s, was still family-friendly. When we first started looking at houses in the City, in 1986, that’s the neighborhood we chose, and it was painful to find that we were close, but not close enough, to affordability (affordability, in those days, meaning $159,900. For a house. But we digress.)  As with so many transplants, Hank loved the City, and he loved its idiosyncratic weather. “In the winter,” he remarked, “the good news it’s always somewhere around 58 to 62 degrees. The bad news is, it’s exactly the same way in the summer.”  And like a lot of San Franciscans, he was decidedly, well, ambivalent about his workplace, Candlestick Park. Hank was close enough to the tragedy and heroism of the 1989 earthquake to be permanently affected by it, but his inimitable dry humor emerged intact.  “The fact that Candlestick survived,” he noted, “was a bit of a disappointment.”

The “Greenwald-isms” above and others for which he is remembered were usually delivered in a casual, offhand manner, like Shakespearean asides, and that made them twice as funny when you heard them. On paper, without his trademark timing and pauses, they may not come across, but still—

                Ron Fairly: The Giants should try to trade for (Mark) Portugal.

                Hank: While they’re at it, they can trade for Spain.

Or his most-quoted line, regarding ace relief pitcher Bruce Sutter. "Three more saves and he ties John the Baptist."

In our post awhile back about the late Lon Simmons, we noted how blessed Bay Area fans have been with Hall-of-Fame-quality sports announcers. Hank knew them all. His close friend was Bill King, about whom he said, “He was the essence of what a sportscaster should be. He had the ability to capture what was happening and enable listeners to see it as vividly as if they were in the arena themselves.”  And while few would include his 1980s partner Ron Fairly in that group, Hank had a real affection for the former Dodger, and said, “Fairly would get emotional about baseball and its significance. Ron knew it was a generational game.”  Our opinion was then, and is now, that the Greenwald-Fairly team was one of the best we ever heard.

Hank retired at 61, after the 1996 season, a long, dreary, injury-marred affair that saw the Giants finish dead last, losing 94 games, with Candlestick having been renamed “3Com Park.”  Ground had yet to break on the new ballpark. It must have seemed like a good time to get out. Hank observed that he wasn’t getting any younger:  “I don’t mind turning 50,” he said. “It’s just at the beginning of the season I was 43.”

In later years, Hank went through his share of health challenges but retained his love of baseball and of books; his passion for reading, for the written word, couldn’t help but inform and sharpen his erudite but immediately relatable commentary and speaking style. Of late he took up using a cane fashioned from a Louisville Slugger; “I burned ‘Hank Greenwald’ onto the bat,” he said, “in case I forget my name.”

Hank Greenwald epitomized the old saying, “If you love what you do for a living, you’ll never work a day in your life.”  We Giants fans were and are blessed that such a bright and generous soul shared that love with us for too short a time. He deserves consideration for the broadcaster’s wing at Cooperstown, but we’ll let Hank have the last word on that, too:  “I like to tell people that I finally found something I'm really good at, and that's retirement.”

So long, Hank. It’s been good to know you.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

End of the Regular Season

Final National League West Standings
LA 92 71 -- Won sixth straight NL West title.
Colorado 91 72 -- Wild-card game at Wrigley Field today. 
Arizona 82 80 9 Lost 19 of 27 games in September.
GIANTS 73 89 18 Lost 21 of 26 games in September.
San Diego 66 96 25 This is getting to be an annual event. 

With victories yesterday in the back-to-back playoff games, Milwaukee and the Dodgers now can prepare to host the wild-card winner and the Atlanta Braves, respectively, starting on Wednesday. The Rockies and Cubs will play the loser-goes-home game tonight.

We've rarely seen two players so transform a team as have Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain with the Brewers. Some of you may remember that both names were bandied about in the offseason as possible Giant acquisitions-- Yelich in a proposed trade with Miami and Cain as a free agent. Cain's age-- he turned 32 two weeks after Opening Day-- scared some people off: oh, no, not another veteran outfielder on the decline. Meanwhile, the estimated price to pay for a superstar-in-the-making like Yelich scared a lot of others: oh, no, let's not sell the farm. We're left to wonder if  Christian Arroyo, Denard Span, and two minor-leaguers (the price eventually paid for Evan Longoria) would have pried Yelich loose from the Marlins, or perhaps if adding Kyle Crick, another prospect, and some cash (the eventual price paid for Andrew McCutchen) would have made the nut. Hard to dispute that Yelich (7.6 WAR) brought a great deal more value than Cutch and Longo combined (3.9), even if that meant Pablo Sandoval and Alen Hanson starting at third base all year.

Cain signed with Milwaukee for 5 years and $80 million; the Giants took on Longoria for 5 years and $68 million (with Tampa kicking in money as well); the club can buy out Longoria after 2022 for $5 million or take a $13 million club option. Bottom line: if Cain is "too old" at 32, then Longoria, six months older, is certainly too old as well. Is anyone getting the message that, despite all the hype about teams getting younger, age is not the primary factor in player value?

Both Yelich and Cain are MVP candidates, but Yelich, who came as close to the Triple Crown as any National Leaguer in recent memory-- he's first in average, OPS, and slugging, second in runs and RBI, third in homers and OBP, plus he stole 22 bases in 26 attempts-- has our vote.

The Dodgers, who already send Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Alex Wood, and Ross Stripling to the mound on a regular basis, got a one-hitter from rookie Walker Buehler yesterday in a rather important playoff game. We like our young pitchers, too, but where do you find these 21-year-olds who hold Nolan Arenado & Co. to one hit over seven innings? The Dodgers seem to grow them like hothouse tomatoes.  

In case we haven't sufficiently tipped our hand, we see the NLCS coming down to these two teams. In the AL, we're pulling for Bob Melvin's late-inning wonders, the Oakland A's, to upset the Yankees-- but we see the winner of the Cleveland-Houston matchup in the upcoming ALDS as the eventual American League champions.

Roll the Statistical Parade

As we previously indicated, no Giant is among the league leaders in any batting category, and in several no Giant even cracks the top 50. Andrew McCutchen is tied for tenth in caught stealing, which is not exactly what we're looking for; he led the team with 13 steals but being caught 6 times indicates he'd have been better off  staying put. Alen Hanson is tied for 19th with 5 triples; McCutchen and Brandon Crawford are 34th with 28 doubles each. Had Buster Posey managed to qualify, his .359 OBP would have nudged last year's batting champion, Charlie Blackmon, out of 16th place. That's about it.

Among pitchers, Derek Holland is 10th in ERA, 15th in strikeouts, 21st in WHIP, 23rd in innings pitched. Will Smith and Hunter Strickland both have 14 saves and rank 16th; combine 'em into one guy and they'd be tenth. Crawford remains the best defensive shortstop in the league now that Andrelton Simmons is in Anaheim, and Joe Panik is as good a defensive second baseman as anyone.

That's it for local highlights, gang.  Onward...

The NL Cy Young battle has four contenders from this perspective: the inevitable Max Scherzer (a league leading 300 strikeouts and 221 innings, with a 0.91 WHIP, 2.53 ERA, and a 18-6 mark), the brilliant Jacob DeGrom (1.70 ERA, 269 K, only ten homers allowed in 217 innings), Patrick Corbin of Arizona, the league's top lefthander this year, and the dark horse, Aaron Nola of Philadelphia (2.37, 224 K, 0.97). We'll say this: a win for DeGrom would be a great step forward in understanding pitchers' value apart from won-lost record, which is perhaps the most team-dependent major statistic in the game.  And we have to mention the Nationals' brilliant lefty reliever Sean Doolittle in this conversation. He saved 25 out of 26 opportunities with a brilliant 0.60 WHIP and 60 strikeouts versus just 6 walks in 45 innings pitched.  

Apart from Yelich, MVP candidates would include Cain, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story from the Rockies, and usual suspects like Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Javier Baez, and Freddie Freeman. No one put up a single eye-popping stat in the NL this year. No one reached 40 homers, 200 hits, 50 doubles, or 20 triples, but a lot of guys put up great numbers across the board. Baez, Yelich, and Arenado all scored and drove in more than 100 runs. So did Bryce Harper, who keeps getting mentioned in Giants gossip; he led the league with 130 walks, boosting his .249 average to a .393 OBP to go with his 34 doubles and 34 homers. Yes, he's an outstanding ballplayer by any measure.

Big numbers tend to belong to the American League anyway, don't they? As usual, Mike Trout is off the charts, leading the world in OPS (1.088), though Boston's dynamic duo of young Mookie Betts and veteran free-agent J.D. Martinez are both over 1.000 and right behind Trout. Betts, listed generously at 5-foot-9, ought to team up with last year's MVP Jose (.837) Altuve for a series of confidence-building TV spots aimed at normal-sized kids. Oakland's Khrys Davis led the majors with 48 homers; Martinez and Texas' Joey Gallo also exceeded 40. Trout, who bats second, led everybody with a .460 OBP and stole 24 out of 26 bases, but the Angels didn't hit all that well this year and he scored "only" 101 runs, well behind Betts' 129. Twenty-three-year-old Miguel Andujar teamed up with Giancarlo Stanton to lead the Yankee parade; Andujar slugged .537 with 47 doubles and 27 homers, and all he needs to do is learn to take a walk (25 in 573 AB, which helps explain why he scored 83 runs instead of, say, 103). With Stanton belting 38 homers and driving in and scoring over 100 runs, the Yanks weathered the midseason loss of Aaron Judge (.919 in 112 games) quite well. We can't go on without mentioning a personal favorite, Cleveland's Jose Ramirez, still only 26, who has put up MVP numbers (.939 OPS, 110 runs, 105 RBI, 106 walks, 39 homers) for the third straight year.  

The eternal Corey Kluber and Tampa's fine young lefty, Blake Snell, are the majors' only 20-game winners this year. Kluber walked only 34 in 215 innings; Snell walked 64 in 181 but held hitters to a .178 average. Houston's Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander are 1-2 in strikeouts, won 15 and 16 games respectively, and are first (Verlander) and fourth in WHIP. If they split the Cy Young vote, watch out for Chris Sale (12-4, 2.11, 0.86) who was just short of enough innings to qualify for the ERA title (he'd have finished second to Snell's 1.89). One reason we relish the Indians-Astros series is that between them, the two teams have seven pitchers in the top 13 in WHIP (Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger join Kluber in Cleveland's all-righty array, while Charlie Morton nicely backs up Verlander and Cole). 

It's not a happy sight as we have to go 'way down the list to find the future Hall of Famer, Albert Pujols, who put up just .245/.289/.411 for LA, with 19 homers. Back in St Louis he walked 80 or more times seven straight years, now he hacks at anything-- 28 walks in 465 AB. He's never hit triple-digits in strikeouts and only had 65 this year, but he'd help the Angels more if he took a few more pitches. Adrian Beltre, who might also find his way into Cooperstown someday, put up similar numbers in Texas. He's 39, Albert's 38.

The best base-stealer in the game is Jonathan Villar, of the miserable Orioles, who stole 35 while only being caught 5 times... Baltimore's 47-115 (.290) finish is the worst since the 2003 Detroit Tigers (43-119) and only five wins ahead of the worst in the modern era, the 1962 expansion New York Mets' 42-120. The Orioles ended up 61 games behind Boston, which is second-worst of all time, half a game worse than the '62 Mets and only half a game better than the Boston Braves of 1935, who were 38-115...  Speaking of the Orioles and ignominious records, Manny Machado, the most sought-after player in the midseason trade market, led everyone by grounding into 26 double plays-- 14 with Baltimore, 12 with LA. Hey, an equal opportunity rally-killer... Just kidding. Manny's great. A .909 OPS and 37 homers? He'll help LA big-time in the postseason... One reason the Padres may not be too thrilled with Eric Hosmer is that he's the most extreme ground-ball hitter in the major leagues. He hit almost three times as many grounders as fly balls or line drives, including 18 double-play balls. One the other end of the spectrum we have a preponderance of sluggers like Trout, Ramirez, Washington's Anthony Rendon, and Matt Carpenter, who put nearly twice as many balls into the air as on the ground-- and who, in 564 at-bats, did not ground into one double play!...  Cincinnati second baseman Scooter Gennett has the best range of any position player (excluding, for obvious reasons, catchers and first basemen)... We hate to rag on players, but the Yankees should seriously consider starting Austin Romine, not Gary Sanchez, at catcher tonight and, if necessary, going forward. Sanchez allowed 18 passed balls in just 76 games behind the plate (Romine 5 in 74). Oakland's Jonathan Lucroy, in 125 games, allowed ten...  Zack Godley, one of two Zacks in the Arizona rotation, led the majors with 17 wild pitches, but the Angels' snakebitten Garret Richards, before his injury, heaved 15 to the backstop-- in just 16 starts... Godley was consistently wild as he finished fourth in the majors in walks. The leader was the Cubs' Tyler Chatwood, who had an all-around awful season... Three major-league hitters exceeded 200 strikeouts this year, with the White Sox' Yoan Moncada setting the pace with 217. Incredibly, the Sox let him lead off in 97 games, 449 at-bats, one-third of which ended in K's. They went 62-100 and Rick Renteria should be fired... Stanton fanned 211 times to go with his 38 homers, Joey Gallo had 207 (and 40 homers)...  And oh goodness, what about Chris Davis? Did he typify Baltimore's season from hell? The man who hit 200 homers in a five-year span from 2012-2016 managed only 16 this year while batting .168 in 470 at-bats and striking out 192 times.

Bringing It All Back Home  

In 162 games, Giants starters put up 87 quality starts. The team won only 53 of those games while losing 34, which we would guess is a lot worse than the major-league average. 

It breaks down like this:  Holland 17, Rodriguez 15, Suarez 15, Bumgarner 14, Stratton 12, Cueto 5, Blach 5, Samardzija 3 (no, really!), Kelly 1. 

Cheap wins: Stratton 4, Holland 3, Bumgarner, Suarez. Team total 9.

Tough losses: Bumgarner 4, Stratton 4, Holland 3, Rodriguez 2, Stratton 2, Kelly. Team total 16.

We get the feeling if we counted team cheap wins and tough losses the numbers would be even more lopsided.

The best start was by Chris Stratton, on September 14 at home, against the playoff-bound Rockies, in the midst of that horrific mid-September free-fall. In fact, it was the game that broke the Giants' all-time franchise record 11-game losing streak.  Complete-game two-hit shutout, two walks, seven strikeouts. Game Score 93.

The worst start was also by Stratton, on August 3 at Arizona: three innings, ten hits including two homers, four walks, six earned runs allowed. Game Score 4.

As a group, the Giants relievers pitched better coming in in the middle of an inning, often with runners already on base (1.04 WHIP, 1.79 ERA), than they did starting off an inning fresh (1.32 WHIP, 3.18 ERA).  Having never done a league-wide study, we have no idea if this is normal or abnormal, though it seems to generally go against the grain of what we think we know about relief pitching. 

Giants middle-inning relievers inherited 232 runners and allowed 71 of them to score, about 30%. Again-- normal or unusual?  Until MLB starts keeping track of this essential stat-- perhaps the single most important stat for relievers-- and ideally as both a count and a percentage, we will have no control group to average against, and we haven't the time to count them individually for each team, for heaven sakes. It was tough enough just doing the Giants, from box scores. 

They opened an inning a total of 444 times, facing 2061 batters and recording 1427 outs. Mid-inning totaled 148 appearances, 348 batters, 266 outs. Strikeout-to-walk ratio and K-per-9 ratio were about the same. 

Counting only those who made the majority of appearances-- Watson, Dyson, Moronta, Smith, Strickland, Melancon, Blach, Johnson, and Black-- we get this:

Watson and Smith were equally outstanding in both roles. Dyson also did well in both, though not to the same degree.  Neither Blach nor Black showed much difference either, though their mid-inning appearances were few and may not be large enough to represent. 

Strickland and Melancon did much better starting off an inning fresh.

Moronta and, surprisingly, Johnson did better coming in and working out of a jam. Moronta especially showed a large differential. Starting off an inning he had a 1.27 WHIP and 2.59 ERA, with 31 walks in 49 apperances. Mid-inning he was lights-out: 0.82 WHIP and 0.42 ERA with only 7 walks in 28 appearances.  Moronta stranded 32 of the 41 runners he inherited. Johnson also did much better in those situations; he was lit up opening innings, allowing 50 runners in 30 appearances. Mid-inning he allowed 8 in 13, though he did allow 7 of 17 runners he inherited to score.

We have no idea if Bruce Bochy, or any manager in the game, makes these distinctions when evaluating his bullpen. We'd all like our relievers to be able to handle any situation with aplomb. But the facts tend to suggest they don't, and long ago we decided it was better to live in the world of "is" than in the world of "should."

A few Giants fell off the radar this year; guys we'd been keeping track of, who had made recent contributions, but who ultimately did not show enough staying power. Chris Heston, Nori Aoki, Eduardo Nunez, and Cory Gearrin are hereby dismissed.

Chris Stratton's ten wins earn him a reprieve for now. Sam Dyson and Mark Melancon are still on the list.

New Giants coming on board, welcome:  Tony Watson, Reyes Moronta, Evan Longoria, Steven Duggar, and Austin Slater.

So long, Bobby Evans. You gave it a shot, and you fell short. We'll see who comes next, and what happens next, on another day.

And finally, happy trails, Hunter Pence. As did Matt Cain, Pence as much as anyone exemplified the spirit of the three-time World Champion San Francisco Giants. When we were great, he was great, and we won't forget that any time soon. His farewell to the fans on the season's last day was generous, funny, and above all, one of  a kind, as is he. Hunter Pence will be a San Francisco Giant forever.

Monday, October 1, 2018

End of the Regular Season-- Almost

National League West Standings
Colorado 91 71 -- Can win first-ever NL West title today.
LA 91 71 -- Can win 6th straight NL West title today.
Arizona 82 80 9 Lost 19 of 27 games in September.
GIANTS 73 89 18 Lost 21 of 26 games in September.
San Diego 66 96 25 This is getting to be an annual event. 

A month ago, we wrote off the Giants' chances to make the postseason. We take no pleasure in being right about that, but there's no possible way we, or anyone, could have expected what a dreadful, nightmarish month was about to follow. Standing at a respectable, if overmatched, 68-68 at the end of August, the Giants went 5-21 in September, averaging less than three runs per game, and ended up closer to last place than to third. We certainly claim no predictive power for this, the most unpredictable of sports, but a few statements we made at that time bear revisiting at this time.

Regarding the Giants' division-title chances, we wrote, "Sure, one team might collapse, but three won't. "  Indeed, one team did collapse-- the Arizona Diamondbacks, who were seven games ahead on September 1 and, as we see above, lost 16 games in the standings, going a Giants-like 8-19 as both the Dodgers and Rockies heated up and roared down the stretch to a photo-finish that will be decided by a one-game playoff this afternoon, to determine who gets the division title and who has to play in the wild-card elimination game tomorrow. 

The Diamondbacks are a better team than their record; their Pythagorean record is 86-76 and was no doubt skewed a couple games further as their late-season depression set in. So too with the Giants, who estimate out at 70-92. Well, a .192 winning percentage in the season's last month will do that. Which leads us to our next comment from a month ago: "They're a .500 team now, and that is unlikely to change over the final month. They won't win, but they aren't embarrassing themselves either."  

Ho ho. It sure did change, big time, and they sure did embarrass themselves, with yesterday's season finale ending in almost poetic fashion, a 15-0 blowout loss to the arch-rival Dodgers. The only saving grace on the afternoon was LA's inability to celebrate anything on the Giants' home field. (Well, there was also Hunter Pence's farewell to the fans, but we'll get to that later.)

We still think that, when reasonably healthy, this is a .500 team. The shattering extent of the Giants' injury parade will be documented later, but even with an abnormally large amount of DL time, the Giants were 68-68. Then it became off-the-charts ridiculous. Suffice to say that, at season's end, only one Giants starting pitcher, and two Giants position players, have played enough innings to qualify in the league statistical rankings. We ain't gonna count 'em all, but we'll all but guarantee that no other team in the major leagues is so under-represented due to injury.  We said the 2018 Giants were a major improvement over the 2017 train wreck, and while nine more wins is not "major," we'll hold to that statement and stubbornly claim that, all things considered, this team is better than its record and its Pythagorean projection. Throw all the tomatoes you want.  

Andrew McCutchen, whose Giants tenure lasted seven months and sixteen days, remains the team's most valuable position player, leading the club in runs, RBI, walks, stolen bases, and OPS despite spending the last month with the Yankees. That last-minute trade happened moments after we referred to him as "Andrew McCutchen, who could be traded tonight." Indeed he was, and we wish him every success in the postseason with New York, though we doubt they can get past either Houston or Cleveland and reach the World Series. But we digress. Again.

The Giants' only other qualifiers are Brandon Crawford, who led the team in hits, and Evan Longoria, who led the team in homers with 16 (tied for 56th in the league). Buster Posey, top Giant in OBP and average, just missed the cut thanks to his hip surgery, as did Brandon Belt, who gave it up and had knee surgery during the September free-fall. Alen Hanson, the super-sub who played half a dozen positions and hustled everywhere he went, slugged .425 and hit a team-leading 5 triples in 110 games. Gorkys Hernandez, who was a regular in the outfield through the All-Star break, hit a career-best 15 homers, most of them in the first half, before tailing off badly in the last two months. Nick Hundley hit ten home runs in just 284 at-bats, slugging .408, and his September backup, Aramis Garcia, was .308/.492/.800 in 19 games, the only Giant player to reach .800 in OPS. (Well, there was Ryder Jones, who belted two homers in five games before landing on-- all together now-- the DL. For the rest of the season.)

That's about it for the Giants' next-to-last-in-the-league offense. Along with the Marlins and Padres-- not at all coincidentally, two of the three teams to lose more games than the Giants-- they averaged less than four runs per game. They were next-to-last in homers, too, and dead last in walks. (That must change, management!) To cap the climax, they struck out more than anyone except the Padres and the Phillies, who took a similar September nosedive, from 72-62 and in contention on August 31 to 80-82 and ten games out at the wire.    

Giants pitching was more or less league-average across the board: seventh in ERA, eighth in WHIP. They were fourth in fewest hits allowed, but only ninth in fewest walks, and 13th in strikeouts.   Giants pitchers led the league in one category-- most double plays generated-- and were tenth in number of pitches. Compared with the playoff qualifiers, their pitching was consistently ahead of Colorado's and about even with that of the Chicago Cubs. 

The one Giants starter who pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title is Derek Holland, who came aboard as a reliever, was pressed into starting duty, and ended up leading the team in starts (30), innings pitched (171.1), and strikeouts (169). Holland's ERA (3.57) was 15th in the league, and his 1.29 WHIP was 22nd, same as Jake Arrieta. At $1.75 million, "Dutch Oven" may be the most valuable starting pitcher in the league. He compares almost exactly to a much more celebrated lefthander, Chicago's Jon Lester. The two are almost identical in IP and ERA (slight advantage to Lester), and WHIP and strikeouts (advantage Holland). Of course, Lester had a team behind him that scored 760 runs, a full run per game better than the Giants, and he finished 18-6 to Holland's 7-9. Lester also made $27.5 million this year, fifteen times Holland's rate. 

Rookie Andrew Suarez (1.30 WHIP, 130 K, a team-leading 13 losses) was one inning short of making the cut. For the second straight year Madison Bumgarner did not qualify due to injury, his numbers (3.26, 1.24, 109 K in 130 innings) are right in line with his career levels.  And certainly the brightest light in the darkness is Dereck Rodriguez. He made his first of 21 starts on June 3, and finished with a 2.81 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and .223 batting average against, all tops for Giants starters. His K/W ratio is similar to Bumgarner's (good if not exceptional), as is his 7.5 K per IP ("Bum" is at 8.4).  The team leader in wins, Chris Stratton with 10, has much more worrisome numbers-- 5.09 ERA, 1.43 WHIP. We can't help but think "Chris Heston 2.0".

Three new pitchers transformed the Giants' bullpen this year-- Will Smith, who came aboard in 2016 in deposed GM Bobby Evans' most (only?) successful trade and recovered from Tommy John surgery, free agent and fellow lefthander Tony Watson, and rookie Reyes Moronta. Smith, who took over as closer midseason following Hunter Strickland's latest emotional outburst, posted a 0.98 WHIP, better than a lot of guys-- Wade Davis, Brad Boxberger, Felipe Vazquez-- who had more saves than he; adjusted for appearances, his numbers were a lot like Kenley Jansen's, whose WHIP was also 0.98. Smith did blow 4 saves in 18 opportunities (Jansen blew 4 in 42), but we wonder how many times Jansen or, say, Davis, were able to give up a run or even two and still get the save, while Smith likely had a one-run lead almost every time.

Watson (1.03), Moronta (1.09), and holdover Sam Dyson (1.08) had WHIP numbers similar to Smith's, and the four had almost identical ERAs (2.49, 2.55, 2.59, 2.69).  Moronta struck out 79 men in 65 innings and held hitters to a .154 average, but he also walked 37 men (more than 5 per nine innings). He showed great capability to come in cold with men on base and get out of the situation, but starting an inning fresh he had a disturbing tendency to open with a walk, with predictably unhappy results.   

One of our favorite stats is "Wins Above Average By Position", which is compiled by the good folks at  The Giants' bullpen, in the aggregate, stands at -1.7 wins below average, which is not all that awful in context. The Dodgers, with Jansen, for instance, are at minus 3.3, and only three teams (Cubs, Phillies, Nationals) are above zero. Looking at individuals, we see Watson (1), Moronta (0.9), Dyson (0.7) and Smith (0.5) combine for 3 wins above average in 254 innings; the problem is the other guys, including bit players like Pierce Johnson, Roberto Gomez, Derek Law, and D.J. Snelten, who in comparatively few innings manage to drag the aggregate way, way down.  The Giants have a decent "Core Four." Filling the other spots should not be too much of a chore. 

Overall the Giants' WAABP is ten wins below .500, or 71-91, right about where their Pythagorean number stands. They are above average (barely) at catcher, first base, and shortstop; below average everywhere else. The outfield is minus-4, which is not good, though far from last year's crater. Starting pitchers are about average, bullpen a little below, as noted, and position players almost seven wins to the bad. Again, take these numbers with a long, long look at the disabled list:  Buster Posey, Steven Duggar, Joe Panik, Brandon Belt, Evan Longoria,  Pablo Sandoval,  Ryder Jones, Mac Williamson, Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija. That's five starters and three starting pitchers. Of these eleven injuries, seven were season-ending, three are career-threatening, and all were major, costing each player at least a month on the DL.  This simply can't be ignored when evaluating this ballclub.

Defensively, the Giants were league average, except in double plays turned, where they were second in the NL, one behind Colorado. Buster Posey, despite starting only 88 games, remains one of the best catchers in the league in fielding average and stolen base percentage, and especially in fewest passed balls and wild pitches. At first, Brandon Belt's errors were up and fielding percentage down, though he continues to rank high in assists and range. Joe Panik's issues with the bat have not affected him in the field. His range and DP count were among the highest and his errors among the lowest, as usual, though he started only 94 games. Brandon Crawford, of course, outranks everyone in range at shortstop and was the only one to turn 100 double plays, though his errors were up (16). But Evan Longoria fielded only .950, was tied for second in errors despite missing 40 games, and his range was no better than average. The good news? Giants outfielders-- Duggar, Hernandez, Slater, and McCutchen-- were all above average in range. The outfield that couldn't get to balls in 2017 got to a lot more of them in 2018. Giants pitchers still gave up too many hits, but the team's DER was league average instead of league worst.

The Giants' WAR rankings: Posey 2.9, Belt 2.7. Crawford 2.6, Bumgarner 2.5, Rodriguez 2.3, McCutchen and Longoria 2.0, Watson and Holland 1.8, Moronta 1.5, Dyson 1.3, Cueto 1.2 (in nine starts!), Duggar 1.1, Smith 1.0, Suarez 0.5, Hanson, Hernandez, and Williamson (!) also 0.5, Slater 0.2, Hundley 0.1.  The worst contributors were Samardzija (-0.7 in only ten games), Strickland and Johnson -0.4, Pence, sadly, at -0.9, and the winnah, Austin Jackson at -1.2 in a lot fewer at-bats than Pence.  Overall, the Giants project to finish 20 wins above the Sacramento River Cats. 

The Playoff Picture

As we type, the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs are tied 1-1 in the sixth inning of their one-game division playoff at Wrigley Field. The winner will host the wild-card elimination game winner later this week, which means the same two teams could certainly meet in that division series. Coming up in a bit  is a similar clash between the Dodgers and Rockies at Chavez Ravine for the NL West title, with the loser taking the second wild-card spot and playing the NL Central playoff loser on the road. Keep in mind these are not postseason games; they are the 163rd game of the regular season for each team. The yearly statistical roll we post this time every year will wait until tomorrow to make sure all totals are final. 

The Atlanta Braves are above all this special-playoff fuss; having won the NL East going away, the new-look Braves, under third-year manager Brian Snitker, already know they will play the NL West winner.

Over in the American League the Boston Red Sox left the competition in the dust about four months ago; they finished 108-54, eight wins ahead of the 100-game-winning wild-card Yankees. The defending world champion Houston Astros won 103 games and beat out a late surge by Oakland; this means the A's will play at New York Wednesday for the wild-card elimination game, with the winner going to Boston. The Cleveland Indians ran away with the AL Central and their upcoming ALDS against the 'Stros is by far the most intriguing matchup of this postseason.

What do the numbers show? Good ol' Pythagoras maintains Houston is the team to beat; their projection is for 109 wins, six ahead of their actual total, while Boston comes in at a still-impressive 103, five games off their finish. The Yankees, Indians, and A's follow in step, at 99, 98, and 95. In the National League the Dodgers, whether or not they end up the wild-card, are top dog with 101 projected wins, ten ahead of their total. The Cubs, Braves, and Brewers are clustered eight, nine, and ten games back, right about at their actual win totals, while the Rockies, the stat suggests, are playing over their head. They are six games better than their projection of 85-77. This 16-game statistical disparity between the Dodgers and Rockies is striking, and will be ever so much more so if Colorado wins their first-ever NL West division title today.

Pitching, pitching, pitching. Four of the five NL playoff teams are in the top five in team ERA; the Diamondbacks are fourth while the Rockies are 12th, well behind even the Giants, as we noted. It's just as pronounced in the American League, where the Tampa Bay Rays join the Playoff Five as the only teams with ERA below 4. The DH be damned: note that Houston is the best in all MLB at 3.11, more than half a run lower than their nearest AL competitor. 

When it comes to scoring runs, the Red Sox and Yankees are 'way ahead of everyone else, while the Dodgers and Rockies lead the NL postseason qualifiers. The Yankees hit 267 home runs this year-- it seems like that team record gets broken every season now. The highest-scoring "bad" team looks to be the Texas Rangers, who put up 737 runs to go with a team ERA of 4.92 and 95 losses. The long-suffering Seattle Mariners, by contrast, scored 60 fewer runs but won 22 more games, with a team ERA of 4.13, seventh in the AL. Also on the outside looking in are the Tampa Bay Rays, who won as many games as did the NL East champion Braves (90), but got no closer than 7 games to the last AL wild-card spot. Tampa was second in the league in ERA.

We'll have more, a lot more, to say about all this tomorrow once the postseason schedule is set and the final statistics are in.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Remember That? This Isn't It

IN years past, at about this time, we've gathered here in this virtual space to kick off the final month of the season, assess the Giants' chances of reaching the postseason, and begin a day-by-day countdown to destiny or some such.  Well, not this time.

Though the 2018 Giants have shown more than the requisite amount of heart, or pluck, or intestinal fortitude, or whatever it is that enables a team to overcome obstacles and make a pennant run, those wonderful "intangibles" aren't going to make up for the simple and unavoidable lack of capability relative to the situation. After last night's loss to Arizona, the Giants are seven games behind the division-leading Diamondbacks, six and a half games behind second-place Colorado, and six behind the LA Dodgers. It's crowded at the top, all right, but there simply isn't room for one more, not with 27 games to play. Sure, one team might collapse, but three won't. And the wild-card picture is even more bleak. The Giants are seventh, seven and a half games behind the current qualifiers. It ain't gonna happen.

This conclusion has been percolatin' around the old cranium for some time now,  thanks mainly to an ongoing slew of injuries that would overwhelm a MASH unit. The latest-- rookie Steven Duggar's torn left labrum, which will sideline one of the league's brighter young players for the duration, feels like the last straw, the final nail. Duggar was coming off back-to-back star turns against those Diamondbacks, playing great center field, tearing up the basepaths, and driving in and/or scoring the winning run in each of the last two games. This, plus a streak of six straight quality starts by the Giants' rotation, allowed hope to surface as the team walked off in celebration Tuesday night. Then came the news that Duggar was out, and Dereck Rodriguez proved he was only human by allowing three runs in five innings, and the Giants' offense reverted to its all-too-frequent punchless form, and that was that. Seven back, turn off the lights, strike the tent.

Buster Posey, the heart and soul of the franchise, is finished for the year, having had hip surgery three days ago. Johnny Cueto just had Tommy John surgery and won't be seen again until 2020. Jeff Samardzija may be done, as in forever. The entire infield has been on the DL at one time or another. The Giants will be starting career backup players at catcher and in the outfield the rest of the way.

So what has this team accomplished and where does this team stand?

First, the Giants have unquestionably bounced back from last year's disaster. This team does not resemble that one. The bullpen is much stronger-- this is definitely the most noticeable upgrade. The starting pitching is younger and better and has more depth on the back end, though injuries have limited what could have been a significant step forward. The outfield is improved, especially as Duggar and Austin Slater have gotten more playing time later in the season. The infield, though, has not improved, and at catcher Posey, while still as good as any in the league, took a step down, for him, even before the surgery. Still, overall this team has shown it can, at times, play with anybody, and there hasn't once been the sense of utter futility that accompanied 2017's 98 losses.

A year ago the Giants, disastrously, stood pat with the 2016 team, adding only Mark Melancon to the mix. They assumed Angel Pagan would come around and take a pay cut to return, and did not at all prepare for the possibility he might not. They assumed Hunter Pence and Denard Span were immune to the aging process. They supplemented the lineup with a motley collection of has-beens and never-wases. And they paid dearly for that inaction.

This year, the Giants added veterans Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria, and Tony Watson, and promoted rookies Reyes Moronta, Andrew Suarez, Dereck Rodriguez, and Alen Hanson. How have those moves paid off?

McCutchen gave the Giants stability as a reliable starting outfielder, past his prime but still a fine ballplayer. And moving him to the leadoff spot was Bruce Bochy's best move of the year. Adding Watson, with Will Smith returning to health and form, along with the emergence of Moronta, turned the Giants' bullpen from one of the league's worst to one of the best. No one expected young Rodriguez to suddenly discover the form that has made him the best rookie starting pitcher in the league, and while Suarez has had his ups and downs, the Giants have stuck with him as befits a 25-year-old lefthander who has "the stuff." Hanson, surely the most experienced 25-year-old in the game, helped transform a pathetic bench into a solid one, and filled in capably at four positions when injuries struck. And one holdover, last year's designated whipping boy Gorkys Hernandez, gave the Giants a great three-month start to the season at two outfield positions, and at a time when no one else in the outfield was hitting. 

The elephant in the room, the guy many fans on the Giants message board have taken to calling "E-5," is Longoria, who surely must be wondering what strange world he's stumbled into. A year-in, year-out solid performer in Tampa, beloved by the fans, veteran of three postseasons, "Longo" has endured a season-from-hell in San Francisco. Always a power-walks-defense guy in the basic mold of Mike Schmidt, Longoria has managed occasional power (.422) but has killed himself with 17-- yes, that's seventeen-- walks in  379 at-bats for an incredibly execrable OBP of .280. As a career .268 hitter, Longoria needs the walks to remain a credible offensive player. Through 2013, the Rays' last postseason appearance, he routinely walked about 10-12% of the time, with OBPs above .350. But his walk numbers have been in decline since 2014, and it's a pity the Giants FO didn't spot this. It's an unusual and unsettling path--  veterans usually walk more as they age-- and it's without a doubt the root of his struggles. We would not discount the possibility that his problems at the plate have affected his defense, which in no way has resembled the Gold Glove level of his past.

The good news is that this type of flaw is correctable, and so we're not ready to proclaim that Longoria, 33 in six weeks, is in irreversible decline. But we can't be sure he isn't, either, and he's being paid a whole lot of money through 2022.

These new guys were added to a "core" of successful players that have been together since at least 2014, and in most cases longer.  Along with Posey, that means Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, Madison Bumgarner, and Hunter Strickland, as well as Hunter Pence, who is in what figures to be his last year.   All of these, save Pence, were expected to lead this team every day on the field, with the assistance of Cueto and Samardzija, and together with the newcomers bring the Giants back to respectability. And, though it hasn't followed that script, the Giants have regained that respectable form. They're a .500 team now, and that is unlikely to change over the final month. They won't win, but they aren't embarrassing themselves either.

It's been our contention since the year began that the Giants are looking to 2019 or, more realistically, 2020, as their last best chance to grab the brass ring one more time with this core of players. They doggedly remained under the salary cap this year, passing up the chance, perhaps, to pick up a few more wins by spending money, in order to reset to zero the luxury-tax penalty under which they've labored. Thus we expect a major move in the free-agent market this coming offseason. The farm system has been thin of late, and former Giant David Bell was just put in charge of rebuilding that minor-league program this year, so the trade route is unlikely for the Giants, at least in terms of picking up one or two "impact" players. We're talking big names here. The ultra-talented young slugger Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals has been prominently mentioned, but we expect the biggest fish to be a front-line starting pitcher-- with a power bat, as usual, a secondary concern.

In any case, this team is preparing to make a big move or a series of big moves, turn loose some serious cash, and go all in for the next two seasons. Given that, who on the current roster stays, and who goes, and who might get a chance?

The Untouchables are Buster Posey, Andrew Suarez, Dereck Rodriguez, and, probably, Madison Bumgarner. The Brandons, Belt and Crawford, are almost sure to stay, as will Johnny Cueto, though they'll have to wait a full year for him, and Longoria, and Mark Melancon.  The younger players who emerged this year-- Moronta, Slater, Duggar, and Hanson-- are the type of player a veteran team needs to refresh its aging roster. Nick Hundley is going to go through some rough times over the next five weeks starting every day, but he's a fine backup catcher and, apparently, immensely popular in the clubhouse. Will Smith remains the best acquisition the Giants have made since the 2014 championship.

That's thirteen players, half a team. Posey is expected to be ready for opening day 2019, and he's signed through 2022. Longoria, as we noted earlier, is also signed through 2022. Crawford, Belt, and Cueto are signed through 2021, Melancon through 2020.  These contracts will weigh heavily against any idea that involves trading any of these people this year and possibly next. And both Suarez and Rodriguez are still rookies. They aren't going anywhere.  Slater, Moronta, and Duggar are also rookies, years away from free agency. It's not inconceivable one or more might be packaged in a trade, though.

Aside from Andrew McCutchen, who could be traded tonight but will likely go elsewhere as a free agent this winter, the most tradeable commodities are Joe Panik and Hunter Strickland, with Tony Watson as a dark-horse possibility.  Panik remains under club control for two more years and is arbitration-eligible this offseason-- considering the disappointing season he had, we can see quite a few clubs gambling he'll benefit from a change of scene. Strickland is in the same position contract-wise as Panik. For all his tempestuous ways, he still brings it at 99, and recent history is replete with inconsistent relievers who magically "found it" for a year or three at mid-career; again, often after a new start somewhere else. Watson, 34 next May, is signed through 2020 (though our friends at baseball-reference have it as 2019; it isn't) and in our view it would be a mistake to let him go unless the return is outlandish-- an All-Star outfielder, perhaps. If such were ever available, it's likely Watson would have been traded for him a month ago. We expect he'll stay.

Will Smith is still only 29 and he'll be a free agent after this year. Signing him should be a top priority and he will command more, a lot more, than the two million five he made this year. Hundley makes the same money, is also an impending free agent, and will be 35 next week. He'll likely be a cheaper-to-keep-her decision.

That leaves Bumgarner, the big enchilada. He is in the final year of a seven-year contract he signed in 2012, at the tender age of 22, which has paid him $46 million.  He's likely to command twice that amount of money for half that length of time-- with his pedigree, teams will line up to offer $100 million for four years, and some crazy fool may double both ends of that. You never know, though this past offseason saw a big slump in the free-agent market. But a good many observers believe that was simply a holding action in anticipation of the spending spree that awaits this winter. If the Giants don't lock up "Bum" before Thanksgiving, he'll be as hot a commodity as there is on the market. He just turned 29, and while he's won a total of 9 games in 33 starts over the past two years while battling freak injuries, no one in the game is fooled by those numbers.

The Giants may decide to sit down with Bumgarner and lay out their strategy for the next two years. Adding a top-level free-agent pitcher-- Patrick Corbin? Dallas Keuchel? Charlie Morton? The mind reels-- to go along with "Bum" and Suarez and D-Rod and, eventually, Cueto, would make the Giants instant contenders, even favorites. Would he go along with a short-term deal, say two years and $35 million, with the chance to bail and take a bigger payday when the rebuild inevitably begins in, say, 2021? 

Among the remaining holdovers, Hunter Pence will leave the Giants after seven mostly-memorable years. Gorkys Hernandez' contract is also up and he may have value as a backup if the team gets significantly younger in the outfield, as it should, but how much value is the question. Chase d'Arnaud, 32 in January, is also arbitration-eligible. The Giants may, and ought to be, wary of going to arbitration with players over 30 coming off a good year. Pablo Sandoval, who resurrected a nearly-destroyed career admirably this year before going on the DL, is a free agent. Boston is still paying him a handsome salary so maybe he'll return on the cheap again.  Among the pitchers with no contract leverage, expect Ty Blach to be back, while Chris Stratton's chances may depend on how he does the next five weeks. Derek Holland, 32, who's done everything asked of him and more, was a bargain at $1.75 million. It's likely the Giants will try to re-sign him-- if the price is right.  Sam Dyson, 30, is arbitration-eligible after making $4 million this year.

Which brings us to the Albatross, Jeff Samardzija, who after a hard-working and somewhat effective 2017 seemed to lose everything-- arm, velocity, control, and confidence-- this year. The latest message from the medical team is that his troublesome elbow needs more rest, not more treatment. It's hard to know what to make of that, but it's beginning to look as though the Giants, with the emergence of Rodriguez and Suarez, and the contributions of Holland and Stratton, may have already moved on. If "Shark" were declared ready today, whom would he replace in the rotation? Now that the other monstrous contract, Melancon's, has begun to show signs of a return on investment, would the Giants consider simply releasing Samardzija and paying the forty million dollars remaining over the final two years of his contract?

Most likely Samardzija gets one more chance next spring, especially with Cueto out until 2020. Perhaps he ends up in the bullpen, an ornate doorstop. And needless to say, the Giants must learn from this experience and not give a player that kind of money based on the hope that he'll fulfill untapped potential. It's not that that potential isn't, or wasn't there; it 's more like that tap was simply never found.

That's all until October and the inevitable post-season wrapup.