When Spring Training rolled around and the bell rang for the start for the 2010 season – the year the Giants and many fans believed they would finally contend to the end and possibly see October baseball once more – there were two certainties that helped to propel that belief, which fanned oxygen on that fire. The Giants had one of the youngest and most dynamic young hitters in the league, the Kung Fu Panda, able to square up and drive balls that no hitter had any business swinging at. He was the switch hitting Vladimir Guerrero. His talent was undeniable, his sky the limit. Sure, he looked a little chubbier. But he’d also gotten contact lenses and goggles to play in! With improved vision, who knew what he could accomplish?! They also had the Freak, Lincecum. Lincecum was the darling of the National League. He’d just come off of two Cy Young awards in his first two full seasons, a feat that had never been accomplished in baseball history. What a difference four months can make.
The case of Tim Lincecum is one where a perceived weakness can become as debilitating as a real one. Lincecum’s numbers are that of a good starter, a very good starter even. He’s lead the league in strikeouts for most of the season. He hasn’t given up a ton of HR. His strikeout to walk ratio is still quite good around 3:1. He’s thrown a shutout. He has 11* wins (for those who are counting, despite the inefficiency of this beloved statistic). He has a 3.41 ERA, and it was just 3.15 prior to last night. But the sky is falling.
*He’s also been the victim of 4 blown saves in his starts
It’s not necessarily what he hasn’t accomplished this season that seems to have people worried. Rather, it’s quite possibly the series of unflattering firsts. Lincecum had never given up a lead of 3 runs or more in his young career. Check. He’d never walked 5 batters in a game. Check. In fact, he must have liked accomplishing that new feat so much he decided to do it in back to back…to back… to back games. He’d never given up four runs in the first inning. Check, did that last night. Not only had he never given up four runs in the first, he’d never come close. He gave up four total runs in the first inning in 2009 over 32 starts, just six in 2008. I don’t want to get into his dip in velocity – it’s been covered ad nauseam. But one thing people may not realize I believe is worth mentioning: his velocity this year is down LESS THAN 1 MPH from last year. You read that correctly.
The problem with Lincecum’s struggles is not the depth of them. It’s the psychological impact it has taken on both Lincecum and his adoring onlookers. Lincecum has never struggled in his career. Scratch that. Lincecum has never struggled in his life. What’s more, Giants fans have never seen the Freak struggle. It’s as if we as fans are witnessing Superman encounter Kryptonite for the first time, unbeknownst to the mythology. Keeping with the comic book theme, with great power comes great responsibility. The Freak has been tasked with the responsibility of reinvigorating the fans with his complete and utter brilliance, a task that is enormous for a just turned 26 year old kid that looks more apt to ask you for your email address at Borders than strike out behemoths like Adam Dunn. But oddly, if anyone can do it, he can.
Pablo Sandoval represents an actual weakness. His defense is suspect with diminishing range. What’s worse, it seems at times he more or less gives at bats away. He will take a fastball up in the zone down the middle for a strike, swing at a pitch in the dirt, and then tap a ball to an infielder for an easy putout. And if there happens to be a player on, the Giants will have extinguished two of the precious twenty-seven outs allotted each night, a theme far too common for the boys from China Basin this season.
After a torrid April, Pablo hasn’t broken a .700 OPS or .300 wOBA in any single month since. Pablo hit 25 HR and had a wOBA (weighted on base average) of .396 in 2009, which is approaching the absolute elite. His wOBA in 2010 is .305, well below average where a league average hitter should be in the .330 to .340 range. His ISO (isolated power) is down more than 100 points from 2009 – a metric which subtracts singles from slugging percentage to determine a player’s ability to hit for extra bases. His LD% (line drive percentage) is down about 10% from 18.6 to 16.7, replaced with an uptick in GB% (ground ball percentage) from 46.6 to 44.9. One might look at Pablo’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .297 and automatically assume he’s simply regressed to the mean after posting a .350 in 2009 and .356 in his short 2008 stint, but that’s not necessarily true. Hitting them where they “ain’t” is Pablo’s game. He’s supposed to be a player that goes pole to pole with power and is incredibly difficult to pitch to and defend. Pablo’s never going to post a walk percentage of 10%, and quite frankly it’s a miracle he’s at 8% over the past two years.
Panda’s wOBA by Month:
August (thru 8/11) .302
If you take away his first month, he’s quite simply one of the absolute worse hitters in the National League. If you think he’s not killing the Giants offensively (and defensively); you’re out of your mind.
As for the rest of them…
A couple of weeks ago the Giants seemed to be pretty well set at the shortstop position as well. The current outlook isn’t so bright. Edgar Renteria has a strained bicep and may miss more time after sitting out over the weekend. Juan Uribe has been brilliant at times, and abysmal at others. The problem, however, is that he’s had a balky hammy for a while, and playing everyday at shortstop isn’t exactly going to be easy. So allow me to tally this up. The Giants are fielding a third baseman that’s been horrendous for over 3 months, have two banged up shortstops, a second baseman that doesn’t get on base and lately couldn’t hit his way out of a wet paper bag, and a first baseman that quite obviously isn’t an everyday Major League player. The Giants’ infield is an apparent weakness. Scratch that. The Giants’ infield is an ugly mess. And I got news for you: Emmanuel Burris is not the answer. He’s not particularly good defensively and if he’s never shown that he’s a great or even good offensive player in the minor leagues. What makes anyone think he’s going to become either in the Major leagues? The state of their infield may force Sabean’s hand with Brandon Belt. Unfortunately, he plays first base which isn’t necessarily where the Giants have an acute need.
Luckily, the Giants are currently fielding one of the most productive (and truly unexpected) outfields in the National League. Their left fielder is an important patience and power piece that they picked up off the scrap heap. Their center fielder is revelation, a journey man speedster that didn’t see a Major League yard for 3 seasons prior to 2009. And finally, their right fielder is putting up MVP type numbers while playing right field (at China Basin, no less) in a season in which everyone – including me – thought he had no business even playing first base. Again, what a difference four months can make.
The rotation is solid, the bullpen has tightened up and has a monster at the back end in Wilson, and they have quite possibly the best catcher in National League.
And that is why they call it… TORTURE!