Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Giants will win the west, maybe

If you read Joe Posnanski’s post: Optimism from a Royals Season Ticket Holder, you’d know that Joe took the baton from Bill Vaughn who used to choose the Kansas City Athletics to win the pennant each year, as a joke. Joe was columnist of the Kansas City Star from 1996 until his last season in 2009, and he (mostly) jokingly picked the hometown Royals to win the AL Central each year. And in all seriousness, it’s really not all that far fetched. It’s not like it’s the AL East. Joe brilliantly analogizes himself to Jon Stewart who (mostly) jokingly delivers political news nightly.

It’s the day after St. Patty’s Day, March 18th 2010. Last night, many people got hammered off of Guinness pints and Jameson shots, and from time to time mixing them with Bailey’s for an Irish Car Bomb – which can be equally explosive to an actual car bomb for those with a weak stomach – all culminating in passing out while still wearing work clothes. Many of those who did that likely remember less of last night than they remember of most nights and ultimately feel worthless at work today. Not me (this year).

Anyway, on this March 18th 2010 the Giants are 11-6 thus far this spring despite the various concerns throughout camp*. As a Giants blogger who tries to give his honest opinion and analysis about signings, projections, front office moves, etc; I’ve been pretty brutal on what the Giants did this off-season and what they’ve done over the past several years, i.e. the Sabean years. As a Giants fan, it would appear appropriate to take Joe’s tradition from Kansas City to San Francisco. After all, the NL West – like the AL Central – is not the AL East. The NL West is typically competitive but it’s no powerhouse. Teams with flaws can dodge and ditch their way into October, and often do. For example, the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks gave up 732 runs, scored only 712 – that’s right they scored fewer runs than they gave up – and won 90 games before ultimately getting swept in the NLCS. And who were they swept by? ‘Twas another NL West team, the Cinderella Rockies.

*Renteria’s surgically repaired elbow, Sanchez’ knee and shoulder, DeRosa’s surgically repaired wrist, Huff’s defense, Lincecum’s velocity, Bumgarner’s velocity, who will be the fifth starter, can Rowand lead off, will the Giants actually (and moronically) get rid of Fred Lewis, will the Giants actually (and equally moronically) keep Velez in the place of Fred Lewis, etc.

But I agree with Joe, that there should be hope in baseball each spring. But before we get into that, let’s review 2009

The Good (or exceptional): The Giants (unlike the Royals) weren’t bad in all facets of the game. They pitched exceptionally well, the bullpen and starters included. Tim Lincecum won his 2nd straight Cy Young. Matt Cain emerged as a capable budding #1 starter. Randy Johnson pitched about as well as a man of his age could be expected to before going down with an injury in July, thankfully shortly after (and not before*) winning his 300th big league game. Barry Zito managed to gain a few inches back on his fastball, pitch capably all season and superbly in the second half. Jonathon Sanchez continued to make us scratch our heads throughout the first half. He struck out a ton of batters but never seemed to compete, minimize damage or avoid walking every other batter. Then suddenly, after a demotion to the pen, he threw the first no-no since The Count’s in ’76 and propelled himself to an outstanding 2nd half. The only real problem area was the 5th spot in the rotation. The Big Sadowski and Joe Martinez had a couple of good outings but were mostly pummeled all said and done. The Giants got little to nothing every 5th day it seemed. The pen with Wilson, Affeldt, Romo, Medders, Miller, Howry and a late push from Dan Runzler pitched brilliantly all season.

*I can’t imagine having to watch Johnson hobble his way to 300 wins. I’m glad he notched the final few with grace and not as some relieving left-handed specialist – only resembling himself in competitiveness, mullet and height. A worse thought would be imagining him sustaining a career ending injury before 300. Given his history of back injuries and surgeries, such a thing wasn’t completely out of the realm of possibilities. And were it an arm injury? I could have seen him come back in the ilk of Billy Wagner throwing (opposite) right handed to notch the hallowed 300.

The Bad (pitiful, innocuous, impotent …no word really does it): The Giants (like the bad news bears) were particularly bad in one facet of the game: hitting (or lack there of). They were actually historically bad when it comes to runs scored versus runs against. In the NL, they were 13th in runs, 13th in doubles, 15th in home runs, 14th in total bases and dead last in OBP and OPS. They featured hitters not known for their ability to get on base at the top of the lineup in Velez and Rowand. They featured a right fielder that hit 2 dingers all season long and couldn’t hit left handed pitching to save his life – despite his ability to routinely do so throughout his career – in Randy Winn. They featured a cleanup hitter (who runs slower than a booger rolling down a sap covered tree) that never met a pitch he didn’t like and walked 13 times (only 10 of which were unintentional) in 491 at bats and made 372 (easy) outs in 520 total plate appearances, or 71.5% of the time. Yes, staggering. Reminiscent of Pedro Feliz, isn’t it? They plopped Edgar Renteria in the 2 hole for most of the season, the results of which were obviously dreadful – sans that home run against Betancourt of the Rockies. Other positions, or more specifically second base, were a revolving door of impossibly easy outs courtesy Frandsen, Burriss and Downs. When they finally started to play small(er) ball, they couldn’t bunt. The only truly bright spot was the emergence of the Kung-Fu Panda, and a bright spot it was. They got that right as Panda hit .330, 25 home runs and ranked 9th in the NL in wOBA (weighted on base average). He electrified the fans and gave them (me) a reason to be truly excited to watch every day, not just when Lincecum was on the bump.

The Ugly: The Giants were flirting with the wild card down the stretch last year and remarkably had trimmed down the Dodgers division lead considerably. Everyone knew they could pitch, everyone knew they couldn’t hit. Giants’ fans pleaded and prayed for a power bat, poised to see post season baseball once again. So the Giants went out and traded one of their better young left-handed pitchers, Scott Barnes, to acquire one of the hottest hitters at that time in the AL, Stanford Alum Ryan Garko. Garko never got his bat going and Bochy relatively quickly banished him to the bench. He then was non-tendered during the winter, ensuring the Giants had given up a quality young pitcher for ~100 lack-luster, non-impactful at bats. The Giants also traded prized pitching prospect Tim Alderson* for Freddy Sanchez. Sanchez was having knee issues and didn’t play immediately after his acquisition. To make matters worse, he hurt his shoulder at some point once he actually started playing and was a non-factor down the stretch. The two deadline deals were deadline duds.

*As it turned out, Alderson didn’t look much like the young pitcher that dominated at High-A in 2008. His strikeout rates went down, walks went up and he is looking more and more like a major league reliever at best and certainly not a solid major league starter.

As the offseason began and winter meetings commenced, the talk was: which of the free-agent sluggers would the Giants sign and not if they would acquire one. The Giants attempted to remedy the offense by adding a couple of players instead of a single expensive one. They added the solid utility player Mark DeRosa who would also be coming off of surgery. The other major acquisition was adding Aubrey Huff after Adam Laroche mistakenly misread the market and passed on the Giants’ offer. Before that, the Giants whiffed on Nick Johnson who probably took less money to play with the Yankees, which seems to be a recurring theme with players such as Beltre and Scutaro who also took less money to play for the other biggest franchise in baseball. Huff is coming off of one of if not his worst major league seasons. He’s an aging slugger with a ‘track record for driving in runs’ and seemingly a complete and utter inability to play first base. On top of that, they paid Uribe a few million to be a utility guy and out of nowhere re-upped Bengie Molina for $4.5 MM guaranteed (with incentives!) despite having Buster Posey ready to take over the job for peanuts. This isn’t the type of offseason that’s likely to instill confidence in fans (and me).

BUT, and like the Royals, the Giants too have many of the pieces. In fact, they (mainly) have roughly the same pieces.

Joe on Royals:
They had the best pitcher in the American League in 2009, Zack Greinke, and he’s just 26. They have a brilliant young closer in Joakim Soria, and he turns 26 in May. They have an almost 24-year old first baseman, Billy Butler, who hit 50 doubles and 20 homers last year.

Me on Giants:
They had the best pitcher in the National League in 2009, Tim Lincecum, and he’s just 25. They have a brilliant (well, good) young closer in Brian Wilson, and he turned 28 in March. They have an almost 24-year old third baseman (and he belongs at first), Pablo Sandoval, who hit 44 doubles and 25 homers last year.

Both teams also have terribly inadequate and foolish GM’s.  They have a lot more in common than I would ever have imagined if not for Joe's blog. The real difference in KC and SF? The drop off in Kansas City after their stars and solid players such as David DeJesus is steep, specifically in terms of pitching.

The Giants got Freddy Sanchez last July to provide some offense and a steady presence at second base, which has been a wasteland since the departures of greatness that was Kent and quite good when healthy in Durham. They think his knee will heal fine and his shoulder will be ready sometime in April. They think he will provide solid defense at second, hit for doubles power and anchor the number 2 spot in the lineup.

The Giants signed Aubrey Huff to bat cleanup and provide power. They think his power will somewhat return and he will rebound from his atrocious 2009 stats. They think he’ll provide protection for Sandoval and drive him in enough to approach 100 RBI. They think he’ll play adequate first base and will likely look to sub him out for Ishikawa (or Posey) when they have a lead.

They signed Mark DeRosa to provide a somewhat more patient approach in the lineup and a little power. They think he’ll be able to move around the diamond as needed but log most innings in left field. They think his wrist will heal up nicely reverting him back to his 2007, 2008 and first half 2009 form.

The Giants think Matt Cain will at least pitch as well as 2009 and possibly take another step forward to becoming a true number 1 starter providing the Giants with one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball.

The Giants think Renteria will rebound this season after cleaning up the elbow which was ailing him all of 2009. They think he’ll play solid but not spectacular defense but provide some offense at a primarily defensive position, much like he had done in his years with the Braves and Marlins.

The Giants think Zito will continue to pitch at his 2009 level (though they assuredly realize he’ll never be the guy they thought they were getting when they paid him $126 MM). They think Sanchez will pitch like he did after his no-hitter and perhaps take another step towards greatness.

The Giants think Bumgarner will step into the fifth spot in the rotation and provide a solid effort throughout the season and avoid the automatic loss that was the fifth’s turn in 2009. They think 2010 will be just one season to get his feet wet before turning into the number 1 starter they drafted in 2007.

And somewhere in there, sometime in 2010, Posey will fit into the equation somehow. It seems more and more likely he’ll start the season on the 25 man roster to play some first and catch. They think Molina might provide some mentoring and show him how to handle the fireball staff the Giants boast and the rigors of catching every day.

The Giants think Lincecum will be Lincecum, Wilson will be Wilson, and Panda will take another step into offensive superstardom.

There are so many keys to the season for each and every team. Health is usually an obvious one. It’s important that multiple guys have good seasons and put up the numbers they have on the back of their baseball card. But you have to pick one. For me, it’s Nate Schierholtz. Nate shows tremendous power in batting practice but has yet to show it in games at the big league level. Right field is a quite important position as you need not only a good defender but someone to provide some offense, and at AT&T it's even more important. Schierholtz has a strong and accurate arm he showed off on several occasions in 2009. He’s shown the ability to play the tricky right field corner at AT&T very well. His defense is there. His key is to improve his patience and learn how to apply his power against big league pitching. Nate has shown he can be a pretty good hitter but with obvious flaws. Mainly, like all of the lefties on the farm for the Giants it seems, is the down and in breaking ball. Bowker has the hole. Ishikawa has the hole. Schierholtz has the hole.  And it's not a small hole, it's more of a gaping hole. It’s quite remarkable (and extremely disappointing).  As a Giants fan, it's ... more than a little frustrating.  You know it's a problem when Schierholtz has swung at pitches that actually ended up hitting him.

There’s an article up on the Giants’ new hitting coach (Bam Bam) Muelens on how he intends to improve the Giants hitters. Frankly, I like his approach. Rather than work mostly on their flaws, he wants them to focus on their strengths. In 2009, I found myself perplexed beyond words. It seemed to me in one at bat a player would swing at the first lousy pitch and ground out softly. In the next at bat, he’d look at a hanging curve or grooved fastball right down the middle. Some people have said the Indians’ top catching prospect (Carlos Santana) is such a good hitter because he’s selectively aggressive. He’s patient but when he sees something he likes, regardless of count, he hammers it. The Giants were more or less the exact opposite in 2009. They rarely smashed mistakes and often made easy outs on pitchers pitches.

If this is Bam Bam’s plan, and it’s even mildly successful, I’ll be thrilled. I like what I am hearing from the players in regards to him and I like what he’s saying. I like his positive approach and reinforcement. I like that he can speak 5 languages, relate to each player and that he tries to approach each player with a different set of drills and things to work on that works for the individual player. Muelens apparently transformed John Bowker into the type of patient hitter that walks often or more than he strikes out in AAA and if he can duplicate that success in San Fran this year, we’re going to be in for a treat. No pun intended.

It’s still mid-march and the games are still quite meaningless. But the Giants have some brilliant pieces and if everything goes more or less how they are hoping it will this season, we may well see some post season baseball. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the Dodgers are busy spending all of their cash on legal fees rather than baseball players.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

100% Joe Posnanski links

It's been nearly two weeks since I've posted anything.  Why?  Well, I've been very busy and by the time I get home at night, I just haven't felt much like writing. I've also been reading far less of the baseball stuff the various baseball blogs,,, mlbtraderumors, FanGraphs and the like have to offer each day.  But the one blog I always manage to check (along with Neyer's Sweetspot) is Joe Posnanski's blog.  I've heard people say on more than one occasion he's likely the greatest American sportswriter ... and each day I read something new from him I find nothing to dispute that.  What's more?  Joe, unlike so many of America's sportswriters, embraces sabermetrics.  Isn't that something?  

With that ... a triple dip of Joe Posnanski:  

If you think its tough to be a Giants fan, you're right.  Well, at least it's been pretty rough recently.  It's worse for Pirates fans.  But, it may just be worse for Royals fans ... Doyle's law (for 25th Hour fans); no Murphy's Law really does apply when the Royals lion mascot Sluggerrr hits a man in the eye with a hot dog.  What's the worst result that could happen from a team mascot hitting a fan in the eye with a harmless hot dog?  Well, read this (on the Royals taking losing to a new level) to find out ... I don't recommend reading it in an area designated for quiet (like I did).

All Giants fans should read this from Joe Posnanski on Pedro Feliz

And this also from (you guessed it) Joe, which leads me to my next post...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Neyer Happ(ily) sets the record straight

There’s been a ton of talk this offseason about J.A. Happ’s ‘lucky’ 2009 rookie season. In short, the sum of Happ’s peripheral stats in 2009 aren’t the making of a sustainable sub-3 ERA beyond his rookie year. He walked too many, struck out too few, but was lucky enough to strand a majority.

Luckily, Neyer comes to Happ’s defense. His point? With the internet, anyone can say anything about a ball player. I’m guilty of pointing out that the Giants’ very own lefty set-up man, Jeremy Affeldt, also had a quite ‘lucky’ 2009. But Neyer does point out some interesting aspects of Happ’s craft that bode well for his future. He describes his tall lengthy frame and how he’s deceptive, making his mediocre fastball appear to be plus. Additionally, Neyer points out his significantly higher strikeout ratio in the minor leagues.

Neyer’s “big finish:”

“I don’t suppose I should speak for my colleagues, so I’ll just tell you this: J.A. Happ, lucky or not, awes me. He’s one of the most brilliant athletes on the planet, doing something that’s incredibly rare and difficult. And that’s all true whether Happ is the new Mark Redman or the new Tom Glavine.”

Neyer indicates it may be implied that people like he “don’t respect the talents of people like J.A. Happ.” I myself was once a very successful pitcher. I threw a perfect game in little league. I was Santa Clara County Juco Pitcher of the Year as a freshman at DeAnza College. I was recruited by Kansas, San Jose State and Santa Clara University. Before I tore my labrum, I was pretty darn good, but certainly not J.A. Happ good, or in all likelihood even rookie ball good. The majority of players that (just) make it to the minor leagues were probably the very best players in their high schools, towns, counties and even states in some cases. Each one of them is incredibly talented. And do you know what they get for it (at least initially)? Long muggy bus rides through Middle America and a $20 (soon to be $25) per diem, or just enough to get 3 sloppy fast food meals a day worthy of – well, no one.

In other cases, such as that of Mark Prior, a player is one of the very best players in his entire country but gets hurt and dissolves into our distant memories. Avoiding that takes quite a bit of luck – there’s that word again.

Happ not only braved the minors but differentiated himself enough to warrant a promotion to the big leagues and pitched well enough, no less, to receive considerable Rookie of the Year consideration. So, ya, Happ has earned a whole lot of credit. I’m glad Neyer wanted to (and did) set the record straight.

And for those who are wondering, Glavine made himself a (Hall of Fame) career of seasons in which the sum of his peripherals didn’t indicate sub-3 ERA’s or greatness. But the sum of his numerous great seasons (and overall longevity) has his ticket to Cooperstown all but punched. As for Happ? Only time (and perhaps a little luck) will determine his legacy. But, Neyer’s right, if he never threw another pitch in the big leagues he’d still be “one of the most brilliant athletes on the planet…”

Given all the time us “nerds” spend toiling over numbers and determining a player was lucky and won’t improve upon or even equal a successful season, it’s nice to see someone put it into perspective.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

RBI (Ridiculously Bad Indicator)

Giants beat writer Andrew Baggarly reminisced with Felipe Alou recently. They specifically talked about the regrets Alou had during his player days and those as the manager of the Giants. If you’d like to read about that, check out his blog (Extra Baggs) here. Towards the end, Baggarly says…

I’m left with a lot of memories of that ’04 team, which was my first on the Giants beat. Mostly, I look back and wonder how the Giants managed to win 91 games with that roster.

Michael Tucker? Dustan Mohr? Deivi Cruz? Neifi Perez? Herges closing for half a season?

How did this team contend to the final day?*

Oh yeah. Must be that guy who drew 232 walks and had a 1.422 OPS. (And yes, we have every reason to believe Barry Bonds used massive amounts of artificial enhancements that season. But so did a lot of other players and none of them drew 232 walks.)

Bonds’ 2004 season still remains the most impactful I’ve ever seen, or ever will. Without him. That isn’t a .500 team. No way.

As it turned out, the Giants soon discovered what life would be like without an elite-level Bonds – and how many massive deficiencies and fissures in the organization that he covered up for all those years.

*PaapFly: I recall that final day. I also vividly recall the grand slam by Steve Finley. It sticks out nearly as much as that which I’ve unsuccessfully attempted to block out of the 2002 World Series. What I recall the most about the final day of the 2004 season was when the Astros final (and winning) score became official and Bonds was pulled from the game, grabbed his famous black (maple) Sam bats, and reluctantly walked down the tunnel. Bonds knew his chance at a ring was slipping, and so did I and every other Giants fan watching. They’d failed to close the ’02 series against Anaheim despite the 5 run lead in game 6. They’d failed to get past the wild card Marlins (who were bound for their own ring) in 2003. That particular series ended painfully and dramatically with J.T. Snow being thrown out at the plate attempting to score from 2nd on a single, successfully running over Pudge Rodriguez, but his effort was in vain when Pudge clutched the leather red-stitched ball in his hand with the grip of a Boa Constrictor. And they’d failed again (with finality) in 2004. Why finality? We now know that Bonds’ chance wasn’t just slipping by, rather it had irrevocably passed him by.

I recently wrote an article on the issue of parity (or lack there of) in baseball. Using my method, the Giants managed to fall in an area of neutrality, but how? They were neither particularly good at allocating money and playing beyond the limitations of their payroll (such as the Twins and A’s), nor terribly inefficient such as the Mets and Orioles. I posited two reasons: 1) Moneyball (or adequate statistical analysis) wasn’t necessarily implemented widely throughout baseball until the early 2000’s and 2) they had this guy named BARRY BONDS. It seems to me that Baggarly is subscribing to at least a similar theory.

I’d like to get back to Bonds’ historic 2004 season and hopefully provide the verifiable evidence why the popular (and romanticized) statistic, the RBI, is not particularly useful at evaluating the best hitters around. Is it the worst statistic of all time? No, probably not. The problem with it is that it tells us very little, and as I’ve said over and over again, it’s a counting statistic. Accumulating RBI is (almost) completely dictated on opportunity, and thus, if one player is getting a sizable surplus of opportunity in relation to another, it becomes completely unfair (silly, stupid, moronic) to compare the two. I recently heard an argument from a Yankees fan (Libertyboynyc) of the Bronx Brass Tacks blog that J.D. Drew has been a horrible signing because he “…hasn’t batted in a 70th run in three seasons…” among other things. I don’t intend to get into Drew’s statistics. But let’s go down the path of looking at two players who accumulated 101 RBI over a full season of AB’s to determine why such an (attempted) justification to denigrate – which is Libertyboynyc’s favorite word – Drew’s abilities is plainly incorrect.

As you can see, Ruben Sierra accumulated 101 RBI’s in 692 plate appearances (PA’s) and Barry Bonds ended the season with 101 in 617 PA’s. But what else did they do? Bonds more than doubled his HR’s (45 to 22), Bonds struck out fewer times than he went deep (45 HR to 41 K’s), Bonds hit .362 to Sierra’s average of .233. When it gets really interesting is when you see the OBP/SLG/OPS and wOBA. Bonds more than doubled his OBP (.609 to .288); Bonds more than doubled his SLG (.812 to .390) and thus obviously more than doubled his OPS (.678 to 1.422). Sierra’s wOBA was well below average at .296 when Bonds’ was unfathomably high at .538, this when an excellent hitter will have a wOBA around .400. Bonds drew 232 walks that season. You read that right, 232. The 2009 entire Giants roster collectively walked 392 times and Bengie Molina has walked exactly 184 times in his 12 major league seasons. This is a drastic example, yes. But history is riddled with such (albeit less extreme) examples.

So ya, when someone tells me how important knocking in runners and hitting in the clutch is, I can only really scratch my head. There’s so much data out there for us to look through. Why would anyone in their right mind ever limit themselves to RBI? It’s about the last statistic I’d ever care to look at, if at all. The logical and easy answer (I guess) is because it’s been drilled into the fans heads, and fans are clingy. All this seems simple and straightforward to me, you know, considering I myself in the not too distant past would’ve happily and confidently expressed my reverence of a player like Ryan Howard for his ability to drive in runs, or Bengie Molina for that matter. But that veil of ignorance has been lifted.

It’s truly possible to enjoy the game in every way that you always have. There’s no danger of unraveling the mystique and beauty of the game by embracing something new. After all, the only thing in life that’s constant is change. And if along the way you find new found respect for players like Tim Raines and Alan Trammel, well that’s just sweet justice. And if along the way you manage to determine that a number of questionable Hall of Fame inductees just happen to be Yankees, well that’s ok too.

Not convinced? See this material: Joe Posnanski on batting average, HR and RBI and Keith Law on RBI