Opening Day, Part 2

A win for the Giants! And a big one at that. It certainly had some frustrations and some moments that would do damage to any manicure, but it was a decisive win, and had a lot of good things going on for the Giants.

Edgar Renteria was acting a lot like he belongs in the second spot in the order, wasn’t he. Taking pitches, working the count, drawing a walk, going 2 for 3 with an RBI… his swing looked good, and I’m almost ready to believe that those bone chips were responsible for his dismal performance last year.

Mark DeRosa also made his mark, with a walk, 2 runs, and a squeaker opposite field shot that added another insurance run to the game… Plus a fantastic barehanded play off the wall in left field that turned a double into a single.

Molina made some big contributions behind the plate and with the bat. Perhaps the best thing I saw him all day was advance from first to third on Bowker’s soaring single to left with a good read on the fielder, putting himself in position to score on Uribe’s sac fly despite his atrocious lack of speed on the basepaths.

John Bowker got the big hit to keep the rally going, and made a capable if not spectacularly difficult play in the corner in right field that makes you breathe just a little bit easier about his defense. These guys are playing like they belong.

And Uribe did about as much as you can ask an 8-hole hitter to do.

Little needs to be said about Lincecum. He fell behind in some counts in the later innings, but what matters is that he didn’t walk anybody, he didn’t give up any runs, and despite putting some balls in the air, they stayed in the park. And it certainly beats getting chased off the field by the Brewers after the third inning, like last year. 7 IP, 0 R, 4 H, 0 BB, 7 K.

Not everybody was so convincing. Rowand looked… well, like he did at the end of last season. 0 for 5, with two strikeouts and three weak grounders up the middle, swinging early in counts. Huff contributed a hit, but also grounded into a double play. Ishikawa came in as a defensive replacement and bungled an important play. And Medders gave away the shutout and made the game a lot closer than it should have been.

But then Brian Wilson came in and shut the door about as hard as I’ve ever seen him. Over and above any funny business, he was painting the corners at 97 miles per hour.

This was a team that came in with confidence and did what they needed to do to win. This is the sort of attitude that can give them these important wins on the road over the course of the season. Playing .500 on the road is essential to their playoff chase, and if they can repeat this sort of performance with any regularity, they’ll have me sold. Rowand was flat, and Pablo and Huff didn’t do much cleaning up, but five contributing members on offense at the right time gives the Giants an easy win.  Let’s hope this is a launching point.

I was going to look at the theoretical “everyday lineup” more in-depth, but I think it is a subject I will return to when we’ve had a few more games to see what kind of production they are getting in the meanwhile

Opening Day, Part 1

The 2010 season begins today, and regardless of what the year may hold, I am so. Freaking. Excited. Baseball season holds so much meaning to me, and I’ve frankly had my fill of college basketball, plus an extra helping or two. Spring is my favorite season, and the return of baseball probably has a lot to do with that. And the idea of the 2010 season seems so fresh to me today, in no small part because the 25-man roster was only solidified yesterday.

For your edification:
Starting Pitchers (5): Lincecum, Zito, Cain, J. Sanchez, Wellemeyer
Relief Pitchers (7): Joaquin, Mota, Medders, Runzler, Romo, Affeldt, Wilson
Catchers (2): Molina, Whiteside (b)
Infielders (5): Huff, Uribe, Renteria, Sandoval, Ishikawa (b)
Outfielders (6): DeRosa, Rowand, Bowker, Torres (b), Velez (b), Schierholtz (b)

Expected Additions: F. Sanchez (DL), Posey, Burriss (DL)
Possible Additions: Bumgarner, Pucetas, Rohlinger, Martinez, Sosa
Expected Subtractions: Lewis (DL), Whiteside

So, what does this tell us? The pitching is as advertised. Our starters all seem capable of 10+ win seasons, if Wellemeyer’s spring training performances are to be trusted, and the other four all have the tools to dominate a game, though the flashes of brilliance are more common in Cain and Lincecum. Zito is still looking for that strong first half to put together a full season, and Sanchez is clearly the wild card, but it’s fair to say that when any of the four are in top form, they are unhittable. Sanchez’s line of 6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 11K from two starts ago is a taste of what could be ahead should he keep his mechanics in line.

The lineup is odd, if not out and out strange. With the exception of Renteria and the pitcher’s, the entire lineup is capable of hitting 15 home runs. But we can’t be lulled by the prospect of DINGERZ! The Giants’ lineup has to see improvement in its on-base percentage, fundamentals like bunting and the hit and run, and its discipline at the plate. Now, none of this is a great secret, but the Giants have already shown themselves at their best and worst in Arizona. The worst is first pitch outs when they should be working the count (Renteria, Renteria), striking out at back foot sliders (Schierholtz, Nate and Ishikawa, Travis), and 6-8 pitch innings (everybody). The best we’ve seen are late-inning comebacks, hitting for power, three or more batters with multi-hit games, and Bengie Molina drawing walks. It’s feast or famine again with the Giants, and we can only hope to see more of the former this year.

As nobody expects the Giants to run the bases very well, relegating them to the status of a “station to station” offense, the other big question mark seems to be defense. There’s no question that the right side of the field is significantly downgraded from a year ago, with Uribe, Huff, and Bowker supplanting Burriss, Ishikawa, and Winn/Schierholtz, however temporarily. The left side is mostly unchanged although it is older, for better or for worse. Whether that will cost the Giants some games remains to be seen.

I would group the player-specific questions as follows: Will Lincecum and Zito start strong this year? Will Cain tail off in the second half? Will this finally be Johnathan Sanchez’s breakout year? Will we see the 2008 model or the 2009 model of Edgar Renteria, Aubrey Huff, and Mark DeRosa? Will Pablo Sandoval continue his meteoric rise to superstardom? Will John Bowker earn a permanent place at the major league level? When and in what condition will Freddy Sanchez return? When will Buster Posey arrive, and will he hit like every expects him to? And will the Giants finally make the push to return to October baseball?

I will look at some of these questions tomorrow, after we have seen their season opener against the Astros. First up on the slab is the day-to-day management of the lineup. Exciting, right? Right?! Right.

Realignment: A Boondoggle

Since the suggestion of floating realignment was dangled in front of
Selig’s commission, everybody has come up with a solution to this “problem” more commonly referred to as the AL East. ESPN’s Buster Olney is the latest to weigh in (Insiders only article), and he says that realignment is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ Which makes me wonder why realignment has to happen at all.

How quickly do people forget that two years ago the Rays won 97 games and the Yankees only appointment in October was shopping for Halloween costumes. What happened to the 2008 Rays? The 2007 White Sox? The 2003 Marlins? The 2001 Diamondbacks? I won’t mention who won in 2002, but I still intend to one day burn a rally monkey in effigy.

Despite these success stories, there are still some problems, and the ones more commonly cited. The Pirates. The Royals. The Reds. The Orioles, the Jays, the Rays. Teams that can’t hope to compete, and have to suffer the Phillies and Mets or Yankees and Red Sox 38 times a year. Teams of superior means and superior skill (usually).  And so people ramble on about how we need a premier league, or floating realignment, or doing away with divisions entirely. They say the system is unfair.

But I will be the first to say that I love the system, despite its flaws. I love it. I love sneering at the Cardinals for coasting through the central division. I love knowing that a big, mean, DH-using team is waiting on the other side for whatever NL team emerges with the pennant. But most of all, I love hating my division foes. I love wishing we could somehow steal Adrian Gonzales from the Padres. I love watching the Diamondbacks’ misfortune, I love watching Troy Tulowitzki choke, and I love hating each and every Dodger and every last crass and classless fan. That rivalry is part of what makes the game so great. It’s something I don’t find in any of the other major sports, and I am not the least bit inclined to give it up under the auspices of “parity.” What it really is is catering to a small handful of teams that, by and large, are the ones perpetuating competitive imbalance in the first place.

It’s not alignment that needs fixing. What need fixing are poorly run teams that can’t sell tickets. Or, if you like, the financial juggernauts that by their nature encourage this imbalance. And I think as long as we stay tethered to solutions starting with a dollar sign, we won’t find what we’re looking for. Instead of yearning for a salary cap, plunder the farm systems of teams that want to win now by overspending. Encourage a culture of smart spending, like the path that the Rays and Twins or forging. Help the Pirates and Royals find ways to be competitive, instead of locking themselves into this fire sale mentality.

I want people to start thinking outside the box a little more. Rather than finding ways to make the game “less bad,” let’s look at ways to make the game better.

No Prisoners

You know, I was just going back and looking at the highlights of the Giants-Dodgers game at AT&T on August 12th… Yes, that game. Eugenio Velez taking out Russell Martin at home plate. McDonald pegging Sandoval on the hands and clearing the benches. Sandoval’s dodge on the basepaths. Manny answering with a slithery dodge of his own. Lincecum’s would-be complete game. Some of the most questionable officiating I’ve ever seen. And Uribe’s walk-off shot in the 10th to stave off sweep. Good old-fashioned hardball.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Hits it high, hits it deep… We are going home!” It’s been recycled over and over again in the season recap videos. But what grabbed me most about the videos was Renteria getting in Martin’s face when the benches cleared, still wearing his sweatshirt. Lincecum’s surprising burst of emotion when they gave Furcal that iffy call at first base. And Uribe walking off the field after the game-ending home run, only to have Freddy Sanchez jump on his back.

Sanchez had been a Giant for maybe two weeks at that point. He probably played in about five games. But he talked about coming from the Pirates, where he’s never known a playoff chase, or a rivalry like the one shared by the Giants and Dodgers. In that brief moment, you could see that he loved playing for San Francisco.

We might not have a very good offense at this point. It frankly makes me want to tear my hair out sometimes. But these guys want it bad. If the Giants stay healthy in 2010, the Dodgers and Rockies had better watch out.

Counting the Days (And the Numbers)

Well, it’s been a while. Obviously. But as the season gets closer, I’ll have a lot more to write about, obviously. In the meantime, I have some items to sort through.

Moves so far this offseason:
Freddy Sanchez: Declined his $8.1 option for 2010, and signed a 2-year, $12 million contract.
Mark DeRosa: Signed a 2-year, $12 million contract.
Juan Uribe: Resigned for one year at $3.25 million, up from $1 million last year.

Off the books: Dave Roberts ($6.5 million), Noah Lowry ($4.5), Randy Winn ($9.6), Randy Johnson ($8), Benjie Molina ($6.5), Bob Howry ($2.75), Rich Aurilia ($1).

Off the books for 2010: $38.85 million
On the books for 2010: $15.25 million
Payroll freed up through FA: $23.6 million

Subtract from that $2.4 million added onto Aaron Rowand’s contract ($9.6-$12 million), plus the arbitration cases of Johnathon Sanchez, Brian Wilson, and Tim Lincecum. I figure that the net cost of these three could run anywhere from $17 to $32 million. So I admit I was surprised to hear that the Giants extended Adam LaRoche an offer of 2 years and $17 million. I wonder what the front office is expecting to pay for this trio of pitchers…

As for the signings themselves, I am glad that the Giants have been more conservative with their spending, though I am a bit disappointed that the team hasn’t been getting much younger (Randy Johnson notwithstanding). My hope is that DeRosa and F. Sanchez do for the lineup what RJ did for the starting rotation last season. Yes, I’m talking about those dreaded intangibles. It certainly sounds silly, but it seems to have worked for our pitchers, and our anemic offense is no secret. Bring on the Bam-Bam.

Taking Stock: The Hitting Problem

It’s an odd time to be starting a blog for a team that isn’t in the playoffs. But given the sort of coverage that has been put out about the San Francisco Giants this year, I need a soapbox somewhere to talk about this team. Rather than waiting until next March to start posting, this blog will be a place to talk about the Giants’ 2009 season, and the strides they are making towards 2010.

88-74. The Giants finished fourteen games over .500 this year, after four consecutive losing seasons. The Giants have never once, in their 127 year history, had five consecutive losing seasons. So breaking that .500 mark was important; but the Giants easily eclipsed the cautiously 82-80 that many of the hometown analysts posted for the team. And in the four seasons leading up to 2009, the Giants averaged 73.5 wins, or 15 games under .500. Improving their winning percentage a robust .099, the Giants were easily this year’s most improved  team in the National League. The Rockies actually posted a change of +.111 from last year, but only a modest +.012 from two years ago, when they went to the world series.

The Giants also maintained remarkable consistency. From month to month, the had four months where their records was within two games of .500: April (10-10), May (15-14), July (14-13), and September (13-14), their only month with a losing record which improved to 16-15 if you include their four games in October. During each of these months, there was also a difference of 6 or less between runs scored and runs allowed. This points out the team’s two major flaws.

The Giants offense was terribly anemic this year, and this shows when you consider that the Giants allowed the fewest number of runs allowed all season, tied with the Dodgers with 611. Viewed another way, they allowed an average of 3.77 runs per game, well below the league average of 4.49; however, they only scored an average of 4.06 runs per game, 4th worst in the league. And the batting stats get worst from there. On base percentage: .309, worst in the league. OPS: .699, worst in the league. And a paltry .245 average with runners in scoring position.

So, the Giants need to perform better at the plate next season. But that’s not the most constructive advice, is it? So we need to go deeper. The core of the Giants offense this season was Benjie Molina and Pablo Sandoval, both aggressive hitters who are known to swing out of the zone. Not only did they carry the offense, they also are the heart and soul of this team. Molina is a two-time Willie Mac award winner, and Sandoval, with his bubbly attitude, is the new face of the franchise. And the other players feed off of that, and have adopted that personality to some degree. The Giants have come to be known as a team of free-swingers. And this is at the root of their offensive woes.

What the Giants lack is plate discipline. On a team of young players, the mindset of getting up there and taking your hacks is hurting their cause, big time. The team batting average is not terrible, though it leaves much to be desired. So the reason their on base percentage is so low falls to walks. The San Francisco Giants finished last in the majors in walks this season, with 392, roughly 2.4 walks per game. For reference, the Yankees lead the league in walks this year with 663, followed closely by the Colorado Rockies with 660. The league average for walks was 558, drawing a full walk per game more than the Giants. In fact, there were only four team in the National league with fewer than 500 walks: Pittsburgh (62-99), Houston (74-88), and San Francisco.

The Giants were also second to last in the National League in home runs, with the New York Mets claiming the bottom spot (122 and 95, respectively). This has left many fans crying for a “big bat.” They bemoan not acquiring Matt Holliday or Adam Dunn mid-season, and cite AT&T Park’s status as a pitcher’s park as a reason why hitters won’t play here. Now, as we head into the off-season, the names being thrown around are auspicious: Jason Bay and Prince Fielder. But you can’t reasonably expect them to come to San Francisco and put up numbers like they have in Boston or Milwakee. Bay, with 36 home runs, was batting 4th, 5th, or 6th in the Red Sox order behind on any given day. This means he’s batting behind Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, Kevin Youkilis, J.D. Drew… All dangerous and professional hitter. Pricnce Fielder was hitting behind Ryan Braun, a power-hitting left fielder who hit .320 this season. This means that they have protection in the order, and are frequently hitting with runners on base or in scoring position, with the pitcher throwing out of the stretch.

The Giants do not need power hitting. They need to get runners on base. If they sign Mark Reynolds and he hits 40 home runs, it’s not worth the price tag if they’re all solo shots. What the Giants need are so-called “professional hitters,” who hit for average and can hit situationally. Hitters who can pull the ball to the right side when there’s a man on second and there are less than two outs. Hitters who can put the ball in the air for a sac fly when they need to. Hitters who can lay down a bunt. Hitters like… well, Freddy Sanchez.

Freddy Sanchez’s late-season debut was disappointing for… well, just about everybody. Especially Freddy Sanchez. Everyone would have liked to see him tear it up in San Francisco and help lead the Giants to the playoffs. But his injury problems have sidelined him. People are asking many questions about Freddy now that they were when there was fan speculation on trading for then-Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson. His back problems would keep him on and off the DL, and depriving the Giants of the output they really needed. But Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy are on the right track.

Realistically, the Giants probably won’t be able to afford Jason Bay or Prince Fielder or Adam Dunn and maintain the current strength in pitching and defense. But it’s not always about getting the production out of the players. Randy Johnson’s season was cut short by injury, but he spent a large portion of the season sitting next to our young pitching staff. And that has long term rewards that don’t always show in the numbers.

Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria have demonstrated that they can take a pitch. Travis Ishikawa has demonstrated that he can take a pitch. Even Pablo Sandoval has demonstrated that he can take a pitch. Now, what the Giants need is for Freddy Sanchez to reinforce that they have to take pitches. They need a culture change. Opposing pitchers were aided all season by first and second pitch outs by the Giants, often tallying as few as 8 or 9 pitches for an inning. The starting pitchers were going deeper into games, and the Giants weren’t getting good looks. They need to learn to sit on pitches work pitch counts, find the gaps, put the ball back up the middle on two strikes, and moving the runner over. Wear down the pitchers, and wait for them to make mistakes. These are things that need to start happening for the Giants to be a true playoff contender.

Plate discipline has to come first. Power will follow on its own.

More to come soon.