Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Late Season Preview

*I had to post this under my name, but it was written by guest contributor Michael Smith. Follow him on twitter: @brocean.

Truth be told, this post was supposed to go up last week, day before the Giants played their first game. However, responsibilities and the like got in the way (financing a car #nct.) and I just never got around to it during my "free time". Don't treat this as a season preview but more of a talking points collection to be able to look back with high hopes at either the All-Star break or with sorrow and acceptance as the September stretch nears and the Giants are hanging on by a thread.

2011 offseason in review:

- Pitching depth! Pitching depth? Jonathan Sanchez is gone. Thank GOD! That idiot asshole was one of the worst pitchers in the league, etc etc etc. Selling low, injury, walks like 5 per 9 innings. Well, maybe not. It's not crazy to see him post a league average ERA with 160-180 IP. Sure, you'll pull your hair out, but I'd also sleep slightly easier at night with him in the rotation than three question marks: Vogelsong, Zito and Surkamp. (more on this matter later on in the post, where I’m actually optimistic on Melky Cabrera)

With new regime leader Larry Baer and the introduction of a self-imposed budget restraint (even though the team is still rolling in cash), I was already bracing for a frugal approach to the offseason. Which I wouldn't necessarily mind. You never want to lock up your wrists in the later years, just to WIN NOW at the expense of possibly being unable to buy out your young arbitration-eligible players' looming raises.

When Carlos Beltran's deal with the St. Louis Cardinals details surfaced to be a $12.5M average annual value over two years, I was sure that would be the one and only real mistake the Giants made. The trade was already hard to swallow in losing Zack Wheeler, now made impossible to contain when you see that you don't even get another year or two of Carlos Beltran. To make matters worse, the price tag was near nothing for a hitter of his caliber. What could have been: Pagan-Posey-Pablo-Beltran-Belt. A potent 1-5.

I even let them have "let's keep two of the same player" mistake when Affeldt and Javier Lopez were retained. You get one mulligan, Giants! Just this one. But in late January, the Giants outdid themselves by watching the Rockies (Hi, division rivals) acquire Marco Scutaro via trade for a replaceable arm in Clayton Mortensen. Colorado acquired him to be a second baseman, but truthfully, he can still take it at shortstop. And with his hitting ability and the scarcity of the middle infield positions, he even becomes a plus-player there.

Coco Crisp walked back to Oakland with a 2 year deal for $14M, something I was okay with considering the Giants acquired Angel Pagan and center fielder by default Melky Cabrera. That and I would not have been thrilled with that acquisition.

Mike Fontenot was cut because of his handed-ness. Let's be honest with ourselves on the matter. Just another instance of left-handers being exonerated from baseball. But really, he was the more useful "2B"/utility infielder of the choices between him, Emmanuel Burriss, and Ryan Theriot. However, the team is already too left-handed (in their own estimation) to carry another left-handed player. What their thought process lacks though, is that some of those LHB position players include: Brandon Crawford and Aubrey Huff. Some reaction I’ve seen is “If that’s a big problem for the team, then they were already shit out of luck”. Let’s be honest: the middle of the field positions are as vital as having your “mashers” in the corners or your 1-2 punch in the rotation. A revolving door of Crawford/Theriot/Burriss doesn’t give me much to look forward to. To make matters worse (fine, more alarming): eventually one will even play 3rd when Sandoval sits. Theriot’s lollypop arm or Burriss’ mental mistakes. Pick your poison.

At least the Giants did well in extending Matt Cain at what is a fair deal when you realize they are paying for his age 27 to age 32 seasons. The money isn't as great a deal when you stop to think about just how much more he could have gotten in a starving free-agent market. That's a more certain deal than paying for Tim Lincecum's age 29 to (possibly) age 34/5/6? seasons at a higher annual average value when that time comes.

I would be okay with the Giants putting their hands up and slowly walking away from signing that big Lincecum deal two years from now. As long as part of that money goes to locking up Madison Bumgarner's arbitration-years from being raised. And of course, development.

Things I'm rooting for this season:

- Melky Cabrera to make me eat crow, all of it. (Hi, Troy)
I didn't like the deal at all when it occurred. Trading away a still 4th-starter-caliber pitcher for a "center fielder" whose season seemed inflated was risky. I want Melky to be a more-than-league-average CF, and not turn back into a pumpkin whose ceiling is that of a 4th outfielder. Please let this be the start of your prime. Because up until his questionable season last year, he had an 85 OPS+ (say, is that like a post-Philadelphia Aaron Rowand line?)

- Angel Pagan to do well.
If only to shush Spring Training statistics thumpers. That, and he's interesting. I too, caught on to his act in 2009/2010 as he "broke out" by being given a chance on a Mets team that needed warm bodies in the outfield. As I recognize his year-to-year decline, I'd also like to take a chance on him still posting around a 95 OPS+ while holding down center field with decent enough defense to be a difference maker. The decline I speak of (in OPS+, from 2009-2011) is 122 to 108 to 93. Also, bon voyage, Andres Torres.

- Emmanuel Burriss to ... not succeed (please don't hate me?)
(See above re: Spring Training statistics)

- Aubrey Huff to also not do well, or at least "not well" enough for the front office to really hand the job to Brandon Belt (Some of you might really hate me for this one)
Last year, the day before he hit 3 home runs in a game, I publicly went against Aubrey Huff. I even got kudos from some people who condemned me for saying something I had bottled up, then. I have never been a fan of the player, and when he did well in 2010, I had to accept it and root for him because hey flags fly forever. But now, if he performs even materialistically "decent", Brandon Belt will be blocked even further from being a starter provided he doesn't get off to the hottest of starts. Difference in 2010: no young player being blocked. I mean, as much as Bowkermania ran wild back then (RIP), he was still a 26-year-old player. Belt is 23 and more promise than John Bowker had shown at that point, or ever. I don't think Huff is as bad an outfielder as 2011 showed in those two weeks. However, there's something to be said about the ~adequate corner outfield adventures in 2010 and that he's two years older since he was that grade of an outfielder.

- Barry Zito to do well, or at least well enough for his repertoire (170 IP, 105 ERA+)
The timing of this post seems a bit opportunistic what with his unicorn ascension (fuck a phoenix) in Denver. But ultimately, this is to stop the dog-piling on a player who hasn't put up a fuss about his situation. And someone I've rooted for at least 10 years now. Those, and if he doesn't succeed, you would really be trimming your candle wicks and biting your lower lip after every Eric Surkamp outing in the minors. Do you have faith in Surkamp working good off-speed pitches with a below-average fastball in the Majors? I don’t, not really. Do you feel confident in Zito being a league-average pitcher, still? I do, but I’m also his biggest apologist. Also, if you didn’t trust Surkamp, how would you trust Zito…? Not only that, but Vogelsong is very much no sure thing. I've even trimmed a blurb on him because this post has already gone on long enough.

Thing I've come to terms with, begrudgingly:
Freddy Sanchez and his availability this season. Can he put together even 100 games for 2012 at this rate? I hope. But his projected batting lines don't really have that great a difference from him and Ryan Theriot. And another year older, whose defense prowess depends so much on lateral movement to balls in play.

No prediction for how they'll do this year. Just hope that everything really does break right for this team.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Who Has the Better September Offense: Giants or Diamondbacks?

This might seem like a ridiculous question. The Giants are a horrible offensive team, while the Diamondbacks have Justin Upton and 10 other guys that can hit 450 foot home runs. The Giants team wRC+ is 79, while Arizona is at 93. But a closer look at the individual parts that will make up both lineups in the final month of the season reveals that there potentially isn't much of a gap.

San Francisco's ideal lineup would include a healthy Carlos Beltran and Brandon Belt playing, either at 1st base or in left field. Mike Fontenot gets the nod over Tejada and Cabrera at shortstop. The only decision is whether to play Belt at first base and Ross in the outfield, or Huff at first and Belt in left field. I went with Ross. Here's the lineup and their 2011 wRC+:

Ross - 96
Schierholtz - 105
Beltran - 145
Sandoval - 132
Fontenot - 89
Keppinger - 102
Belt - 91 (before his 4 hit game on Sunday)
Whiteside - 74

Now here is Arizona's:

Parra - 103
Young - 95
Upton - 147
Roberts - 114
Bloomquist - 76
Johnson - 89
Goldschmidt - 132
Montero - 107

Let's remove Goldschmidt and Belt for a moment. They both have a small amount of plate appearances, and I am pretty confident in saying Belt is the better hitter. That's an advantage for the Giants. But let's pretend it's even, and look at the rest of the lineup. Looks pretty even as well.

This is all dependent, of course, on the health of Carlos Beltran. If he isn't part of that San Francisco lineup, it changes everything. And just because the Giants might be as good as the Diamondbacks or possibly have an edge offensively doesn't mean they'll perform better, especially in the short period of a month.

Cap of the tip to Curse of Benitez for his close reading of Baseball Rulebook, Page 1, invaluable insight that guided my work and made this post possible.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Facts and Statisticinos About Tomorrow's Starting Pitcher

Check this out, loyal readers. Madison Bumgarner turned 22 this August, meaning his official age for the 2011 season is 21 (he was 21 on June 30, the halfway point of the season). He is having an historically great season for a pitcher his age, especially in the DIPS department. He's in his first full season, and he already has better command of the strike zone than his teammates Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum right now. Lincecum and Cain already had the "stuff" when they arrived in the majors; they had to add some quality pitches and "learn how to pitch" to become the aces they've been for several years. Bumgarner has a certain amount of "stuff"; he also seems to already have a great idea of "how to pitch". His K/BB ratio is 3rd best all time for a pitcher his age in a single season, and his placement barely changes if you use age 22 as the qualifier instead. Notice that the closest pitcher in recent memory is Brett Anderson, and he's not even that close. The only recent pitchers with K/BB over 3.00 on that list are Anderson and King Felix. Madison Bumgarner right now is doing something pretty unique. Imagine what kind of pitcher he could be in 2 or 3 years. Should we expect a development in either his stuff or his overall pitching ability?

Perhaps not. Every pitcher develops differently, and Bumgarner now could be close to the finished product. Maybe he never has another 2.60 FIP season. He could still be an excellent pitcher. Perhaps the improvement occurs in his ability to prevent weak contact. His .330 BABIP is very high and a product of bad luck and poor defense, but maybe part of it is attributable to his skill or approach. There could be a regression in his home run prevention, or even his strikeouts and walks.

But is that what we should expect? No. It's only fair and normal to think that he will get better in some respect. Which is exciting. And scary.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Much Better: Hall DFA'd, Burriss Sent Down

Okay, Pat Burrell was not released. Bill Hall was. And Brandon Belt was not sent to AAA. Emmanuel Burriss was. This is good news, because these moves are exactly what the Giants should have done. But that blatant error on the part of CSN made me write a rant post that now looks kind of dumb.

You can still read it here if you like.

A lot of it still applies. There's stuff about Beltran, and while Belt hasn't been sent down, we heard today that the Giants envision him in a role similar to that of Travis Ishikawa last season. In other words, Brandon Belt will mostly be a pinch hitter/defensive replacement. And Huff is still starting. Which is terrible. So that rant still applies. Also, ALEX HINSHAW?

I don't know about you but I haven't been this excited for a game since Opening Day. I'll say Carlos Beltran goes 2-for-4 with 2 singles and 9 RBIs. Oh and he'll also make the pitcher balk. That talented.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Too Much to Handle

What a freakin' rollercoaster. I don't like rollercoasters. They make me throw up. I can't know this because I've never been on a rollercoaster, but I'd like to think I'd throw up if I ever got on one. That's how I avoid them. And recent events are confirming my worries.

Let's start at the beginning.

The Giants acquired Carlos Beltran. You know that. What you may not know is how it all went down. The Giants traded Gary Brown. Damnit, I thought they could get him without giving up a top prospect. Wait, they're giving up Zack Wheeler. No! Wheeler's even better. They're trading Wheeler and Brown. YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING SHITTING ME. Oops, they're just giving up Wheeler. Okay...I hate whoever put that rumor out there. It's very possible that the Giants are giving up Wheeler, Eric Surkamp, and Francisco Peguero for Beltran. Dead. Wait, the Giants may be getting more than just Beltran. OMG REYES?! Shutup, that isn't happening. In the end, they gave up top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler in the deal, a fairly steep price to pay, and a price I wasn't willing to pay up until today. But I trust the Giants in evaluating pitching prospects and the thought of Beltran in the lineup is jus too exciting, so I'm okay with the deal.

That's not to say this isn't a huge risk. Beltran has a pretty significant injury history and is likely a two month rental. If the Giants don't win the World Series or if Beltran gets injured and Wheeler goes on to be a star, yikes. But I've decided it's a risk worth taking. Okay.

It get's announced that Beltran will play RF, with a Schierholtz/Ross platoon in LF. Small quibble, but Schierholtz is a very good right fielder, not to mention the skill it takes to play that position at AT&T park. And why is Schierholtz getting platooned? It doesn't really make sense to give one of your better players LESS playing time, but that will be a common theme later in this post.

Matt Cain is Matt Cain. Getting shit done.

Now there's the business of clearing a 40-man and 25-man roster spot for Beltran, who will be arriving and starting tomorrow. What's this? Brandon Belt is optioned down to AAA AGAIN and Pat Burrell is released to make room on the 40-man roster. Whoa.

At first glance, the real baffling move is to send Brandon Belt back to AAA. The Giants have one of the worst players in baseball this year playing Belt's position right now. There's that whole not playing your best players theme already. And it's not like they can blame this demotion on Belt's struggles at the plate, which was at least a somewhat legitimate excuse after his first demotion. Belt has barely played, but when he has, he's hit pretty well (no hits against Clayton Kershaw, one of the best lefties in the game, so who cares). And, wait a minute, Emmanuel Burriss is still on the Major League roster? That guy as an OPS+ of 41. But he's FAST!! Give me a break. The Giants don't really need him for depth - Keppinger, Fontenot, and Crawford all play SS. The case can even be made that Crawford should be sent down before Belt. For all of his great defense, he can't hit, and isn't going to get much playing time going forward.

But the decision to release Burrell might be more mind-numbingly dumb. It wasn't necessarily that surprising because Aaron Rowand is owed too much money to be cut, of course. But Pat Burrell had the 3rd best OPS on the team this season. He really can still hit. The worst part is that he did NOT need to be released to make room on the 40-man roster. Steve Edlefsen. Clayton Tanner. Alex Hinshaw (What the hell is this love affair with Hinshaw, who is AWFUL?). Bill Hall. These guys are all not very good. Why keep them? It's so un-sabermetric, but clubhouse chemistry is very important and we have every reason to believe that Pat Burrell was a big part of that. I'd love to think a team won't grab him or maybe he can retire and stay around the team. But as I pointed out, he's too good, and a smart team will pick him up.

UPDATE: CSN, who reported this news, has failed. Pat Burrell is not eligible to come off the DL and can't be released yet. Still, the point stands and I wouldn't be surprised if he's released soon.

UPDATE #2: Holy hell, Brandon Belt isn't being sent down and this post is mostly worthless. What the hell happened at CSN today?

I don't know. I haven't processed everything. There's an argument to made that the biggest upgrade this team could make was replacing Huff with Belt, and that isn't happening. And a good player and great clubhouse presence is being dumped in favor of much worse players. I love having Beltran on this team, but the Giants are doing their best to screw it up.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Matt Cain's Career Year

You know how we feel about Matt Cain on this blog. If you don't, just read this. Carl Steward filled in for Andrew Baggarly on Friday night, and had a very surprising opinion of Cain's 2011 season.

There's a lot to say about Matt Cain's 2011 season. His strikeouts are up from the last 2 seasons, and his walks are down. He's getting more groundballs, and allowing fewer home runs. His success against lefties has been especially impressive, possibly due to an improvement in his changeup, which he throws mostly to LHBs. The percentages differ whether you use Baseball Info Solutions or Pitch F/X, but the conclusion is similar: Cain has evolved in his pitch selection (I am using the Pitch F/X numbers):

60.3% 4 seam fastballs, 12.8% changeups, 12.6% sliders, 11.6% curveballs, 2.1% 2 seam fastballs

58.5 % 4 seam fastballs, 16.0% changeups, 8.8% sliders, 13.4% curveballs, 2.8% 2 seam fastballs

48.3% 4 seam fastballs, 17.9% changeups, 11.7% silders, 13.5% curveballs, 8.2% 2 seam fastballs

Not only has Cain increased his usage of the changeup since 2010, but he started developing a 2 seamer, and is now using it a significant amount of the time. I can't faithfully conclude what these changes mean exactly, but the difference in approach could be a reasonable explanation for why Cain is enjoying a career year.

Cain has maintained low ERAs, BABIPs, and HR rates throughout his career while having only above average K and BB numbers, leading to two explanations from the statistical community: he's overrated and lucky, or he's the exception to the rule. Both views may now be outdated, because Cain's FIP this year is down to 2.87, almost a run better than his career average, and 15th best in the majors. His amazing 4.5% HR/FB this year means his xFIP isn't as kind, but at 3.51 it's still .75 runs better than his career mark. His BABIP and LOB% are normal for his career, in fact a bit worse, partly to blame for his Fangraphs-adjusted ERA (ERA-) being only just as good as the total for his career.

I've been paying attention to this development in Cain for some time, which is why Carl Steward's confounding article from Friday bothered me so much. I don't imagine Steward cares what Matt Cain's FIP is; someone who rates Ryan Vogelsong as the most effective pitcher for the Giants this year probably only knows wins and ERA. Yet Cain's ERA is lower than it was last year. None of what Steward wrote really made sense. He described some kind of weird pattern of Cain pitching well in one start and then poorly in the next, something I haven't noticed nor what the record suggests. It could just be a case of looking at the past with...whatever the hell that metaphor is.

"He hasn't been horrible, he just hasn't been the Cain everybody saw in 2010."

That's unfair, and completely wrong. And so is Steward's line about Cain needing to become the rotation's "horse" again. I don't love that term, but it does describe part of Matt Cain's profile: he has never been hurt, and he pitches many innings each year. He can be counted on. Steward would have you believe that he has not been as reliable this season. Meanwhile Cain leads the staff in inning pitched, and he's been excellent at going deep into games. Lincecum and Vogelsong (Vogelsong in far fewer starts) have both failed to get past the 6th inning in 5 starts this season. Bumgarner hasn't gone past the 6th inning 4 times. Cain, reliable as ever, has only failed this criteria once, April 20th in Colorado. Very equine of him.

Now stop saying mean things about Matthew Thomas Cain.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

CIN 10, SF 2: Lincecum Cold Streak Continues

That's now 3 iffy starts in a row for Tim Lincecum and today's was the worst. After striking out the first batter of the game, he struck out no more, walked 4, and gave up 7 earned runs in 4 innings. And just 36 of his 73 pitches were strikes. Yikes. Many, including the brilliant FOX broadcasters, are speculating that Lincecum's complete game, 133 pitch outing against the A's is the reason for the recent struggles. But I don't buy that one start is gonna mess with Lincecum and cause him fatigue, especially because it's not like he hasn't thrown a lot of pitches before. With him, there's really no concern that he won't figure it out; he's a great pitcher who has gone through struggles before, most notably August of last season. But it'd be nice if he figured it out soon because this offense can't afford for the pitching to be anything less than perfect.

Speaking of the offense, that's going to be rough to watch for a while. It's been beaten to death, but it's really amazing that the Giants have not only been hit by a ton of injuries, but they've been injuries to very important players. As Grant at McCovey Chronicles pointed out, the entire Opening Day starting infield, with the exception of Miguel Tejada, is out right now. Posey, Belt, Sanchez, Sandoval. That's UNBELIEVABLE. I mean, it's not too great when Andres Torres is your best player on offense by a pretty large margin. The only glimmer of hope is that the offense really can't get too much worse (knock on wood), and they are still in first place. Pablo Sandoval may not be the same player he was at the beginning of the year when he comes back, but he's still better than Tejada. Brandon Belt isn't too far away from returning. Maybe Bruce Bochy will realize that Pat Burrell should be getting more starts at the expense of Aaron Rowand, who is again terrible. Things should get better, but it's gonna be ugly for a while.

Also, Burriss and Tejada hitting 1-2 in the lineup? Hahah, I guess Bochy never figured out what OBP is.