Friday, October 29, 2010

W: CAIN, L: Wilson, S: Washington; Giants up 2-0

As it turned out, the Giants handled the Rangers decisively on Thursday night, but that was only after the Rangers’ relief corps turned the bottom of the eighth into a full blown walk-a-thon. It started out inauspiciously enough, and it indeed looked as if the Giants’ pitch-black bearded closer would need to come out to The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black – well, if Andy Baggarly had his way anyway, he’d more likely come out to his usual House of Pain – to get three outs in the top of the ninth before the Rangers plated two to secure the win for the steady Matt Cain. Steady, not brilliant and not dominant if you ask Rob Neyer or probably more than a few sabermetricians anyway – more on this later. If not for Ron Washington deciding that saving his flame throwing left handed closer Neftali Feliz in case the Rangers not only tied the game in the ninth but went ahead creating a hypothetical save situation* for him, the story of the game would have been Matt “Big Sugar” Cain. And really, it still is.

*Washington’s use of his pen was truly inexcusable tonight, but it worked out to the Giants’ benefit so I won’t spend too much time on it. I will say that he’s become a bit of a punching bag in the statistical crowd, an honor he’s earned for deploying his relievers in an ever peculiar manner throughout the postseason, most notably not using his closer almost ever. There’s no evidence that the Rangers would have ever scored so, as Rob Neyer pointed out, it became a moot point. At least he got one decision right in Game 2, i.e. to not put the creaky Vlad in right field again which saved the Rangers at least twice on balls put into play by the Giants.

Though the final score was 9 to 0, the game was actually one of the real pitchers duels the Giants and their fans are accustomed to. The game was all zeroes for four innings, 1-0 for two innings and 2-0 for one inning to take us to the eighth. But after the Giants and Cain got their shutdown inning in the top half – with an assist from Javier Lopez continuing his dominant October by retiring Josh Hamilton – all hell broke loose. Well, not right away but soon thereafter. I’ll get to that.

In Cain’s seven and two-thirds of work, he gave up four hits, two walks (1 intentional to face the pitcher in a key situation) and struck out a mere two. He stuck with mostly three pitches on the night of the 98 he threw. He threw 53 four-seam fastballs (54%), 23 changeups (23%), 21 sliders (21%) and 1 curveball (1%). Like Lincecum, he opted to stay off the fastball in terms of how often he usually throws it – he’s thrown 66% heaters in his career. He stole first pitch strikes time and time again with both his changeup and especially his slider, while also mixing in the fastball which he had command of on both sides of the plate. You’ll see from the plot below that while he didn’t throw as many fastballs as he typically does, he didn’t stray from his strength. Cain is a high fastball type pitcher, and he’s effective that way. It’s the reason he’s a fly ball pitcher as opposed to inducing ground balls a plenty and why he’s so suited for AT&T Park.

PitchFX courtesy of Brooks Baseball

According to FOX’s beloved broadcasters McCarver and Buck, Ron Washington would say before the game that Matt Cain “has power, and we like power.” Well, Cain’s power fastball up in the zone certainly could have been a concern for him or could have had him contemplating a change in approach. But as the graph clearly shows, the unintimidated Cain delivered his heater in the upper half of the zone while largely keeping it on the corners, and kept his slider and changeup down and below the strike zone where each of those offerings are most effective. While Cain didn’t flash the swing and miss brilliance his teammate Tim “The Freak” did in his 14 strikeout, 31 swing and miss strikes gem against the Braves, he did evenly distribute 9 swing and miss strikes between all three of his pitches.

The one blemish on Cain’s evening – and it would become a real break rather than a blemish ultimately – was a fastball he left up and out over the plate that Ian Kinsler crushed to center. I can say with the utmost confidence that viewers won’t see so near a homerun (without actually being one) ever again. Even more incredible, it was the Catch-22 of near homeruns. The ball hit the very top of the padded center field wall with great force when the backspin of the ball which carried it so far in the first place returned it to the field. Talk about bitter sweet. Had the ball cleared the fence, the Rangers would have led 1-0. Instead, Cain – the bulldog he is – stranded Kinsler exactly where he stood at second in disbelief when he coaxed a lineout and two groundouts, snatching the momentum from the Rangers.

The Giants immediately capitalized on the captured momentum when Edgar Renteria connected on what was really a pretty good pitch, an up and in fastball which he deposited into the left field bleachers for a solo home run, igniting the crowd. And with the way Cain had been pitching and the misfortune that was the double by Kinsler, it must have felt like a grand slam. C.J. Wilson had been excellent otherwise, and truthfully, had pitched a lot like Cliff Lee was supposed to have. He dropped 0-0 curveballs in for strikes over and over and kept the Giants at bay for most of the night. For a pitcher with a reputation for spotty command he sure didn’t look the part.

Cain again got into some trouble in the sixth when he gave up back to back singles followed by a wild pitch to put runners on second and third with one out. But he got Cruz – who was having a rough night taking the only two punch outs from Cain – to foul out and Kinsler to fly out. After Cain threw down another 1-2-3 inning in the seventh he got the insurance run he coveted after Ross walked, the Giants chased Wilson with a blister, and Juan Uribe blooped him in with a single. Time was running out for Texas.

As I promised earlier, I will now describe the two-out nightmare that was the bottom of the eighth (for Texas) but a huge relief and rare chance to relax for San Franciscans. There was definitely some eighth inning weirdness in this one. But first, Daniel O’Day struck out Andres Torres and especially Freddy Sanchez in convincing fashion. Up came Buster Posey, who had looked lost in general at the plate thus far in the series. He was 0 for 3 to this point in the game with two strikeouts. The hardest contact he’d made was when his bat cleanly struck one of the green seats in the first few rows near the dugout after he’d wung his wood and struck out in parallel. Posey ended up showing the beauty of his approach by reaching out and poking a ball to center for a single, and though the Rangers didn’t know it yet, their doom had begun.

Washington went to left handed reliever (and young, baby faced) Derek Holland to get the lefty on lefty match-up he desired. Wash could just as easily had his closer warming considering the game was close and keeping the deficit at just two would be pivotal were a comeback to be staged in the ninth. But he didn’t. What unfolded to the delight of Giants fans must have been a dose of torture to Texans.

Holland was, in a huge understatement, erratic. Of the 13 pitches he threw, 12 were balls. That plated one, but there were still two outs and the Rangers’ closer was still available and rested. In came Mark Lowe by Washington’s choice. Lowe made it more interesting but ultimately walked in another before giving up a 3-2, back breaking, two run single to Edgar Renteria. Washington dug into his bag ‘o relievers once more and pulled out Michael Kirkman. Kirkman turned out to be the right man for the job, apparently, because he didn’t walk anyone and struck out Freddy Sanchez… after giving up a two run triple to pinch hitter Aaron Rowand and a double to Andres Torres. And as I mentioned, this all – every bit of it – occurred with two outs.

By this time Brian Wilson’s tattooed right arm had become as unnecessary as it was ice cold. Mota came in to log his first postseason inning and retired the Rangers in order to give the Giants the two to nothing lead in the series. The Giants fans erupted, celebrated, and most importantly felt one step closer to that which once was thought to be incomprehensible. But this team of random LEGO’s? ‘Fraid so, America.

More on Cain: A few paragraphs back, I eluded to the fact that many statistically inclined baseball onlookers think Cain is much luckier than he is dominant – Rob Neyer recently wrote about it. There’s a compelling school of thought among them, and in most cases I myself am among them, that a pitcher can only control three variables: homeruns, walks and strikeouts. Meaning, when a pitcher allows the ball to be put into play, he has no control over whether or not an out will be recorded. And so, a statistic exists – and which I myself use pretty often – called FIP or Fielding Independent Pitching. FIP is determined using walk rate, strikeout rate and homerun rate and is scaled to look like ERA or Earned Run Average, which everyone is familiar with. When a pitchers FIP is higher than his ERA, there’s evidence that the pitcher benefited from good defense and good luck, when FIP is lower than ERA the opposite. There’s overwhelming evidence this is true and FIP is a great predictor of future ERA. For example, I’ll confidently submit that Trevor Cahill of the A’s with the 2.97 ERA will not have an ERA below 3.00 next season. I’m so confident in that assertion that I bet a friend $20.

Well, Matt Cain has an ERA well below his FIP in 2010… and 2009, and 2008 and 2007. Over his career of roughly 1,100 innings, his career ERA (3.45) is approaching half a run better than his career FIP (3.84) because he’s done exceptionally well at holding batters to a poor average on balls put into play (BABiP). Cain’s is .274 in his career, much lower than the league average of around .300. I’ll leave it at this: the great debate is, does Cain have some magical, unexplainable ability to induce weak contact, when 99% of professional pitchers simply have no control over such things?

Such pitchers do exist, though they are rare. Tom Seaver was one and the active and brilliant Mariano Rivera another. And having watched Cain pitch from 21 years old to 26, I have no issue saying I believe he is among these magical few. I hope I’m right but at least a few more years are probably needed to confirm or obliterate my perception. It may well be my bias as a bleeding, die hard Giants fan coming through, but who can blame me?

To conclude this blog: After Cain’s similarly fantastic Game 3 win against the Phillies in the NLCS, irreplaceable Giants beat writer Andrew Baggarly said it better than anyone before him after Cain came off the bump following eight mesmerizing innings of shutout ball:

“And yes, Cain walked off. He didn’t leap or jog. He took no pleasure in the moment with a roundhouse punch or a fist pump or even a smile. He exited like a grim town sheriff after shooting the bad guys.

Then he simply gave a firm handshake to catcher Buster Posey, who waited for him at the rail with an admiration so palpable, the kid might as well have asked for an autograph.

The town was safe for another day.”

It seems beat writers can be swayed by “Big Sugar’s” romance, too.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Giants Crush Koufax's Equal - Lee - Take Game 1

The Paul Bunyan tales of Cliff Lee can now cease for at least the next few days as the lefty is bulletproof  in October no more (previously 7 and 0). The Yankees managed to take down the Phillies last year despite being beaten by Cliff Lee twice in the World Series, and now that the Giants vanquished the illustrious darling of the East Coast media, they won’t have to go that route. I posited in my 3 keys to the series that the Giants would put themselves in excellent position if they were able to defeat Lee even once. Check. They also passed the other two key tests of the series on this night with flying colors by keeping Hamilton at bay and the Rangers’ running game too.

*Speaking of those they’ve defeated, the Giants have now beaten Derek Lowe (2 x), Tim Hudson, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson and Cliff Lee in these playoffs. They also beat Halladay, Oswalt (3 x), and Hamels in the regular season, as well as Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Johnson, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Latos (2 x), R.A. Dickey and Adam Wainwright during the regular season. I’m just saying.

One thing that helped the Giants was the fact that the usually superb Lee was unusually wild. He wasn’t Jonathan Sanchez wild. But he walked a batter and so I guess he was wild for Cliff Lee. For one, he could not locate his curveball. Of the 104 pitches he threw, 11 were curves. That’s actually a couple more than he averages per start. That problem was, only 3 of 11 went for strikes. One was an excellent hammer that dispatched Burrell swinging in the second inning, but otherwise he was unable to locate the pitch. He also used the changeup sparingly– he only 5 threw of which 3 went for strikes – so perhaps he didn’t have a feel for it tonight. He threw his cutter more often than usual (30% of the time). That’s because it was about the only pitch he was able to consistently locate but the Giants hitters appeared ready for it, especially when it wasn’t located with the surgeon precision the world has become accustomed to after hearing McCarver and Buck drool over him for 4+ innings.

He threw 80% strikes in the fourth but labored while throwing 32 pitches and giving up two runs (1 earned as Michael Young did the Giants a huge favor by committing an error to start the inning). And that probably did a lot to undo him as he threw 29 more in the fifth while getting two-out-hit to death before ultimately being yanked for Darren O’Day – who is typically excellent against right handed hitters – who promptly gave up a mammoth three-run dinger to Juan Oooo-Ribe. When the ball landed in the bleachers, the crowd had reached a fever pitch that only 55 years of disappointment and a season of torture could create, and the Giants had opened up a six run advantage they would never relent. Lee’s strike percentage by inning was uncharacteristically low (62, 67, 66, 80, and 62). He got behind hitters more often than he usually does, and when he needed to make pitches he didn’t. He missed up and in with his fastball a few times when he was trying to plant it on the insider corner. And when he needed to come into the zone as he fell behind, he center-punched the zone a few times too many and the Giants punished him for it. And he left his curve up and away versus right handed hitters more than a couple of times, because as I said, he didn’t have a feel for the pitch, a pitch he often uses to freeze hitters for strike three.

Freddy Sanchez had an excellent evening. In his first at bat he swung at a perfectly placed down and away fastball, shattered his bat, and hustled into second with a double as it dumped just inside the foul line down the right field line. I guess that was a good sign for how the rest of his night would go. In the third, he doubled in a run down the left field line on a cutter that was down in the zone but caught too much of the middle of the plate. And in the fifth after the Giants did a wonderful job of wearing down Lee in the previous inning, Sanchez doubled in another – his third double, making him the first player in history to double in his first three World Series AB’s – this time on a fastball that Lee was trying to get in on Sanchez but got way too much plate and was up in the zone. Sanchez smoked it into the left-center gap for a clean, warning track two bagger. Freddy lined out hard to right field in his next AB against Alexi Ogando but he’d hit it on the screws again. For good measure, he finally scorched a slider that caught too much plate in his final at bat for another run scoring hit, this time a single with an advance on the error by Vladimir Guerrero, which brings us to our next topic.

The Rangers – Ron Washington, more specifically – went with Bad Vlad in right field. It turned out to be a really bad idea as he committed two errors and looked much like a wounded animal in the spacious AT&T outfield throughout the night. He let a “single” drop off the bat of Edgar Renteria – I say "single" with hesitance because an adept right fielder might have been able to actually snag the liner on a fly; this is something I saw more than once down the stretch with Jose Guillen manning right field – and to make matters worse, he let it fly right by him as he couldn’t reach down to retrieve it and Rent ended up on three for the other of his two errors. To say he didn’t look comfortable would be to say that that Donald Trump’s hair is comb-overish or that Keith Law is sometimes condescending. Something tells me Vlad won’t be in the lineup come Thursday.

The Giants managed to start the series off wonderfully despite the rocky start in the first two innings. Lincecum gave up 1 in the first and 1 in the second, though he wasn’t hit especially hard. He benefited from a nice double play by Juan Uribe to end the threat in the first with the bases juiced – that after he’d done something extremely boneheaded. He retrieved a weak groundball and had the runner between home and third dead to rights, but instead ran him back to the bag as if another Ranger would be there waiting and one would be tagged out. It was a clear case of Tim forgetting the situation. In the second, he gave a double to Lee – yes, the pitcher – on a butcher boy play before giving up a sacrifice fly to Elvis Andrus. The person that scored was the ever-speedy Bengie Molina – he received a nice and classy ovation from Giants fans during introductions – but his cause was helped on what could have been a close play if not for the truly atrocious throw from Torres, though Torres rewarded his manager for letting him start despite the relative ineffectiveness from his weak right side with a big double.

Lincecum left the game with two outs in the sixth having given up 8 hits, 4 runs and 2 walks while only striking out a very uncharacteristic and few 3. He didn’t look great early on but pitched well enough to win on this night. He did appear to be heading into a groove but it seems likely, though as grateful as he was for the 8 runs of support, that the two long offensive innings for the Giants in both the fourth and fifth extinguished what momentum he had. Perhaps having only thrown 93 pitches will be in his favor when he takes the mound again, should he need to of course.

The Rangers would never again be within four runs of the Giants. Both pens didn’t pitch particularly well but the Giants added on three more in the bottom of the eighth so it didn’t much matter. Wilson came in to get the final two outs in the ninth when neither Ramirez – who I am hoping Bochy sees for what he is by now – nor Affledt could close the door. Bochy wasn’t taking any risks and frankly I can’t blame him.

Tomorrow is Game 2 and it starts at the same time, i.e. 4:57. Matt Cain will oppose C.J. Wilson who I wrote a scouting report for yesterday. The Giants shouldn’t expect to get too much help from the Rangers tomorrow as far as errors – or errahs if you’re Dick Stockton – and should look to make their own breaks. Hopefully some other bats will join the fun and Freddy will stay hot as well as Huff who is really starting to swing the bat better. Furthermore, the Giants made a few snazzy plays tonight but also made a couple of mistakes – they’ll need to continue to do the former while limiting the latter. The Giants are just three wins from endearing themselves to The City forever, but they better play one game at a time. It all starts with pitching. Matt Cain, you’re up.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

SF Giants: 3 Keys to the World Series

One: Cliff Lee

The Giants don’t have to find a way to beat Cliff Lee, but if they can, it will do wonders for their chances to come out as winners in the Fall Classic. Everyone knows how good Lee is. I do, I wrote about it. Everyone else does, too, Fangraphs and a host of others wrote about him in the past 24 hours and in the last couple of weeks following his crusades through the postseason. If the Giants have to face him twice, and this seems very likely, if they could find a way to just beat him once, it’d be huge. They don’t even have to beat him while he’s in the game. If they can get into the middle relief corps before Feliz emerges, put up a crooked number, and pitch effectively – this will be up to Timmy – bravo. It will be difficult, but I don’t know what hasn’t been difficult about the Giants’ season thus far.

Two: Rangers’ Speed

The Rangers are fast, they know how to run the bases and swipe them too, and they know it. This can and will be a huge factor in the series; either to the detriment or the benefit of the Giants if they’re able to combat this Texas advantage. They stole 123 bases in the regular season, 7th best in MLB. But, they were successful only 72% of the time which isn’t incredible. The Phillies, on the other hand, were successful 84% of the time. The Giants’ pitchers don’t hold runners particularly well – see Tim Lincecum – but ever since their rookie catcher Buster Posey arrived, they have done much better. That’s because Posey has an excellent arm and threw out 37% of attempted base stealers. Their most threatening runner will be leadoff hitter Elvis Andrus (and shortstop extraordinaire) who is really fast and swiped 32 bags in 2010. His OBP was league average at .342, but hopefully the Giants can do a better job of keeping him off the bags.

Aside from stolen bases, however, the Rangers do a great job of stealing bases on balls in play as well. There were two instances in one game against the Rays with David Price on the hill in which the Rangers were able to literally steal runs by scoring from second on ground balls in the infield. This is exactly the type of the thing the Giants need to be aware of and, if they are sharp, they can actually create outs with. After all, seven game series’ are won by the team that plays better, not necessarily the better team.

Three: Josh Hamilton

Avoid, avoid, avoid. The Giants know a great deal about this particular tactic – especially Bruce Bochy who had to face Bonds several times a year while skippering the Padres. Josh Hamilton was the best hitter in the American League in 2010 and will likely take home an MVP trophy for his efforts. He was slow in the Rays series, but caught fire against the Bombers as he hit four homeruns. Remember: Ross did what he did because he caught fire. Hamilton did it because that’s what he does.

Hamilton terrorized AL pitching all season long. He’s a swinger at heart, as he walked 7.5% of the time. But, he still managed a .411 OBP by hitting .359 with 32 homeruns. He slugged a silly .633 with an isolaTed Power (ISO) of .274. His wOBA (weighted on base average) was best in baseball at .447 – a metric which concludes a hitter is excellent at .400 and above and average at around .335 or .340. Along with the power and average, he only struck out roughly 18% of the time which is very reasonable for this type of hitter. There’s no doubt he benefited from his average on balls in play with a mark of .390, but his career mark of .344 isn’t all that far off. To make matters worse, he has plenty of speed and thus isn’t the greatest double play candidate. Injuries have significantly derailed his running game the past few seasons but in the World Series I have to assume it’s no-holds-barred.

Like I said: avoid, avoid and avoid. Bochy was hesitant to waL. Bonds when he managed the Padres, so it’ll be extremely interesting to see how he goes after Hamilton. As great as Hamilton is, he’s nowhere near the hitter than Bonds was in his peak years – that type of player simply doesn’t exist. Perhaps Bochy will rethink his strategy given what’s at stake as well as the fact that the hitter behind Hamilton, Guerrero, is perceived to be a hitter you can pitch to right now. Maybe more so when he’s having to use his energy to chase down balls in the cavernous outfield of AT&T.

Stats provided by Fangraphs

Scouting C.J. Wilson for Game 2

If the Giants had decided to put Sanchez in the number two spot in the rotation again, we’d have probably been in for a long night against the Texas Rangers in game 2. That’s because, much like Jonathan Sanchez, the Rangers’ game two starter, C.J. Wilson, walks a lot of batters – he led the AL with 93 walks, Sanchez led the NL with 97 – and thus he is constantly pitching behind hitters. Wilson does do a nice job of striking out hitters, but not nearly at the same clip that Sanchez does. He struck out 7.5 per 9 innings in 2010 but walked 4.1 per 9 as well, so his 1.83 K/BB ratio isn’t anything special. What was very impressive, however, was his ability to avoid giving up the long ball. Despite pitching at least half his games in the live park in Arlington, Wilson gave up just 10 HR over 204 innings, a rate of .44 per 9 innings, and not a single one to a left-handed hitter. He did this with a ground ball rate of over 49% and only 5.3% of the fly balls hit off of him went over the fence. Perhaps more remarkable is the fact that this is C.J.’s first season as a full time starter as he’d spent the past four season in the bullpen. This is a huge obstacle for the Giants, as their most reliable source of runs, their modus operandi, is the long ball.

Wilson finished the season with a 15-8 record and a 3.35 ERA. His Fielding Independent Pitching metric was 3.56, so perhaps the .271 average he allowed on balls in play was a bit over his head. Another metric that is commonly used is xFIP. xFIP is a lot like FIP – the metric developed by Tom Tango to show how well a pitcher controlled those factors for which he is most responsible, i.e. walks, strikeouts and homeruns – but it differs in one key area. xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) adjusts FIP by normalizing the home run component. Meaning, if a pitcher is allowing fly balls to go out of the park at an abnormally low rate, the xFIP will bare that out by assuming home runs are a function of frequency of fly balls and home ball park. Home ball park, of course, because right field in Yankee Stadium is very homer prone, while right field in San Francisco: not so much. Anyway, Wilson’s xFIP jumps all the way to 4.20, perhaps predicting that his future ERA and FIP will be higher than that of this season; time will have to tell.

Wilson is a lot like his lefty rotation mate, Cliff Lee, in that he throws all of a fastball, cutter, slider, changeup and curveball. When he was in the bullpen throughout the past four seasons, he threw his fastball 74, 77, 80 and 70% of the time. After moving into the rotation in 2010, he threw it only 49.2% of the time, more typical of a starter. His heater averages 90.5 MPH velocity, mixing in both a two-seamer and four-seamer. He will throw his cutter 18.6% of the time at 87.8 MPH average velocity. He uses this pitch second most often when behind in the count, and is very comfortable throwing it for a strike out of his specialty pitches. When behind in the count if he’s not throwing the heater, it’s most often a cutter. His next most often used pitch is the slider. The slider (82.6 MPH) is C.J.’s put away pitch. He tries to use it when ahead in the count, especially with two strikes to put hitters away with a strikeout. He’ll throw the changeup 11.7% of the time at 82.1 on average. He uses it much more often when behind in the count as opposed to ahead in the count. In fact, he uses it least often when he has two strikes on a hitter, so I’d submit that he isn’t comfortable with it as a swing and miss pitch. Finally, he also mixes in a 75.3 MPH curveball at a clip of 8.5% of the time. He will throw it as a strikeout pitch as well as to steal a strike 0-0 (10% of time). However, he doesn’t have a great deal of confidence with it when he really needs a strike considering in 2-0, 3-0, 2-1 and 3-1 counts he tosses it 1% of the time at most.

Wilson really neutralizes lefties, so it’s a bit perplexing that he was used in Game 2 versus game 3. AT&T already does a great job at keeping left handed power at bay, and given Wilson’s effectiveness against them, it might have been prudent to utilize his unique skill set to combat the much liver Ballpark in Arlington. Lefties struck out 9.07/ 9 IP against him with just 2.36 per 9 (ratio of 3.83). They also, as I said earlier, never took him deep. Average wise, lefties hit a paltry .146. It’s a good thing that Huff is pretty confident against lefties and doesn’t try to do too much. It’s also comforting that unlike Lee, Wilson isn’t nearly as troubling versus right handed hitters, though he’s no slouch – and that’s something the Giants have in abundance.

Also worth noting, I read that C.J. Wilson was mashing line drives all over AT&T during batting practice. Perhaps he’s the Giants’ version of Madison Bumgarner, and perhaps that’s one reason why Wash decided to go with him for Game 2.

Stats provided by Fangraphs

Scouting Cliff Lee for Game 1

I promise not to enjoy writing this post, one bit. It’s my goal not to gush over Cliff Lee’s stats as I provide the scouting report on him, or to point out that he’s one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball, and what’s more, finds a way to elevate his game even further in the spotlight of the cool October night and the human electricity that’s so evident in New York and Philladelphia, and now Texas and San Francisco. F*** it, I’m going to gush a little – I was a pitcher, after all – but this guy is really good (and everyone agrees). I’m just hoping the Giants can find a way to make him look human for a night or two.

Lee is a lot like Roy Halladay, except he throws with the preferred left hand. Cliff Lee is a lot like Roy Halladay in that he throws a nasty curve, except his curve is better. Cliff Lee is a lot like Roy Halladay in that he walks very few batters, except he walks fewer (.76/ 9 IP versus 1.08). Cliff Lee is a lot like Roy Halladay in that he gives up few long balls, except that he gives up fewer (.68/ 9 IP versus .86). Otherwise, there BABIP are almost identical (Lee: .302 and Doc: .298). They both strike out plenty of batters (Lee: 7.84 and Doc: 7.86). But Lee walked so many fewer in 2010, that his K/BB ratio of 10.28 not only makes Halladay's 7.30 seem pedestrian, but it is also one for the record books. It's second best all time for a single season.  I guess one thing that Halladay exceeds Lee is in inducing ground balls, that’s at least a good sign (Lee: 41.9% and Doc: 51.2%). Lee finished with a 3.18 ERA but his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) metric was just 2.58, suggesting he deserved better. His overall peripherals suggest a far better record than the 12-9 he finished with. That and his mere 28 starts – he dealt with injuries at the outset of the season – will prevent him from winning the Cy Young. Well, that and his old teammate Felix Hernandez, I’ll surmise here.

In just 212 innings in 2010, Cliff Lee managed to rack up 7.0 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), substantially better Halladay’s 6.6 which he compiled in far more innings (250 IP). The point is, as good as Halladay is, Lee is probably better. The one weakness that Lee May have as compared to Halladay is that he’s not quite the workhorse. It’s not that he can’t go the distance for a complete game; he can. He’s thrown 17 in the past three seasons including 5 shutouts. It’s that Lee doesn’t pitch on short rest. Lincecum pitched on 1 day rest in Game 6 of the NLCS out of the pen; you won’t see Lee doing that. Could he do it? Maybe, but he’s never done it; he’s never been asked to.

The Giants will have their hands full, and the array of batter dicing sword-pitches he will feature are all impressive. Lee throws: Fastball, Cutter, Change, Curveball, and Slider in that order of frequency.

He throws his fastball 63.6% of the time and averages 91.3 MPH. That is his most effective pitch as he throws it for strikes when and wherever he wants. He simply pounds the zone, always keeping the hitter on the defensive. In fact, Fangraphs shows that his fastball was the 4th most effective in MLB in 2010 behind Tim Hudson, Trevor Cahill and Ubaldo Jimenez. He uses his cutter now more than ever, and for good reason. It’s most effective versus right handed hitters and is obviously a huge weapon as lefties typically struggle more against right handed hitters. This isn’t the case with Lee and makes him unique. He’s show a reverse split – meaning he, unlike most pitchers, pitches better against opposite handed hitters in some capacity – but only in strikeout rate. But in 2010, Lee posted reverse splits across the board. He walked fewer righties, K’d more, relented fewer homeruns, had a lower batting average against and thus obviously had a lower WHIP (Walks plus hits per inning pitched), FIP and ERA. Lefties had much better luck on balls in play (BABiP) against Lee. He’ll throw that pitch nearly twenty percent of the time (19.8) – and likely more often to right handed hitters. If he were a gunslinger, this would be his .45 Schofield revolver.

I wish that’s all he had, but it’s not. He’s trimmed the usage of his changeup, but it’s still a useful pitch for him. Lefties often use a changeup to combat right handed hitters – and righties to combat lefties. Well, Lee must have decided he liked his cutter a bit more versus them and thus started using about 7% more cutters and 7% fewer changes. So his changeup is down to 9.4% in usage, thrown at an average velocity of 84.7 MPH. He tosses a knee buckling curve only 5.6% of the time at 75.5 MPH, as if to say, “I have a Winchester, too.” If you haven’t picked up on it yet, that means that his curve is on average 15.8 MPH slower than his four-seam fastball. This is the type of thing that devastates a hitter. The greater the separation in velocity from pitch to pitch, while also maintaining the same arm slot and arm speed, the more havoc you wreak on the hitter. Finally, Lee mixes in an 80 MPH slider about once or twice per game. It’s a pitch he used more frequently earlier in his career but apparently still keeps in his back pocket.

In short, Lee is a fantastic pitcher who has been outrageous in the postseason to this point in his career. The Rays had no luck with him, the Bronx Bombers had no luck with him; I guess it’s time for Bochy’s Misfits to get a crack at him.

I wanted to also show two velocity plots from Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee. The first is from Tim Lincecum’s 14-strikeout game against Atlanta. You’ll notice that the velocity of pitches is pretty decently distributed but also somewhat haphazard.

Lincecum: Oct 7 vs Braves
Now let’s take a look at Cliff Lee’s October 17th start against the Yankees in which he threw 122 pitches in eight innings. You’ll see just how precise he is with great velocity distribution, i.e. mixing his speeds, and how consistent they are. It’s pretty remarkable.

Lee: Oct 17 vs Yankees
Thanks to Fangraphs for stats and Brooks Baseball for PitchFX Tool

Giants Reminiscent of "Who Dat?" Saints??

This is what my buddy Tony Sackman had to say after the Giants clinched the NL Pennant:

I dont remember who I was talking to about this, it may have been you (it was). Before the NLCS, I was talking to someone about the Giants and how because they’ve been so torturous all season and through the division series that would be a strength for Giants. The Phillies, dissimilarly, beat up on the Reds relatively easy, with the one exception an error aided comeback win in the NLDS Game 2. I think the most stressful thing the Phils went through that whole series was in the late innings of Game 1, dealing with whether or not Doc was going to go the distance with a big fat zero in the hit column. It’s hard to say whether or not after that dominating performance in Game 1 the Phanatics were already looking to the AL scoreboard, and who they were going to face in the Fall Classic. Decisively beating up on the champions of the lowly NL central encouraged thoughts that the Phillies were going to cruise to the NL pennant.

Then when San Francisco came to town, they hit a road block in the form of a bunch of misfits know as the Giants. For the first time I am actually happy there is an east coast bias. Nobody knew who or what the Giants were doing in the playoffs, let alone the NLCS. In fact, I can guarantee that during the national playoff broadcasts, there were a lot of people outside of San Francisco asking, “Who are these players and what are they doing here?” I guess they can take a page out of the New Orleans Saints recipe book and say WHO DAT? But back to my original point, the "torture" the Giants put us (the fans) through all season turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Grinding out wins is what playoff baseball is all about. The Giants had played from behind, won 1 run games, and scrapped for runs every week of the season. This was nothing new for them and, I believe, a big reason they won. Great pitching will always neutralize great hitting.

PaapFly: I pretty much agree with everything Tony says here. The Giants did fly under the radar all season long. They always seem to. Aside from Lincecum, whose electrified baseball fans across the country with his wicked windup, barista/ skater kid appearance and back-to-back Cy Young awards, the Giants players have been pretty low key. I think their ability to know how to stay focused, not panic and always know that their pitching will keep them in games likely helps them when it comes to these October nail biters. This team is impossible not to fall in love with, plain and simple.

Now for some of his questions, and my initial thoughts:

Tony: Who do the Giants DH for the three games in Texas? I don’t think we can DH Burrell, even though he hasn’t been very formidable at the plate as of late. His history in Tampa Bay should negate any thoughts of doing so.

Me: I am going to have to disagree here. Not in that they shouldn’t DH Burrell necessarily, but that he can’t DH. I think he wasn’t comfortable in a sustained DH role, perhaps, for whatever reason. But, I don’t think it should affect a guy over just three games. But, two of three games in Texas will be against right handed pitching. Because of this, I think Bochy will probably go with Pablo as DH and the normal alignment otherwise. That will be against Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter. In game five, they’ll be up against Cliff Lee again. Maybe they’ll try Rowand in center, Torres - a hopefully healthy Torres, I might add - in right and Ross in left.

Tony: I also like the addition of Scheirholtz replacing Pat in late innings for defense.

Me: Me too. I can’t recall when it was, but there was a ball sometime late in the series that went near the outfield corner, I think. Anyway, Schierholtz raced it down and fired it back to the infield. Off the bat, I thought it might be a double. Luckily, with Schierholtz out there, that’s exactly what he can prevent. Earlier this season, Nate gunned down both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley on attempts at doubles. Both were impressive, and the one on Howard was particularly enjoyable. Howard didn’t think Nate had a shot at him, and decided to loaf it in to second. Renteria, knowing it’d be close if Howard didn’t speed up his pace, acted nonchalant (i.e. like nothing was doing) and quickly snatched the ball and swipe tagged Howard for the out. It was an incredible play and throw by Nate and an impressive play by a seasoned shortstop. The Phillies never forgot that, believe me.

Tony: More on DH – Maybe they’ll DH Huff and put the better defender Ishikawa at first? I do not like this because Ishikawa is too valuable for his continual quality at bats off the bench in key situations.

Me: Now that you mention it, I sort of do like this alignment. Ishikawa has been putting in quality at bats each time out, I agree. I think this is more reason to put him out there where you 1) improve defense and 2) get several good at bats instead of just one per game. What’s more, Panda seems to put better at bats together off the bench than in a starting role, for whatever reason.

Tony: MORE on DH - I think that they will DH panda against RHP but I am not too sure what they will do against LHP, maybe Fontenot? Ok, as long as he is not at 3rd.

Me: I think Panda may DH against RHP. I think it will either be him or Ishi as the additional bat – but Ishi would play D in that scenario. On Fontenot against LHP, no way. Fontenot is a left handed hitter with very limiTed Power. I see the Giants going with Rowand or maybe even Panda against Lee and Wilson.

Tony: Lastly, how big has Bochy and crew keeping Guillen off the roster been? We might have been seriously swept. FP said it best (paraphrase) “for the first time as a Giant, Cody Ross could comfortably play right field without the notion that if he failed, the job wasn’t his the next day. He no longer had to look over his shoulder and the payoff has been remarkable.”

Me: Agreed. Getting Guillen, playing him every day, and continuing to play him every day made no sense whatsoever. It’s moves like that one that make you wonder, despite all.the success Sabean and Bochy had in finding and using diamonds in the rough this season: Do they get it? I more than assumed; I knew the Giants would go with Guillen for the NLDS – I even wrote a post: Giants Likely Going with Ghastly Guillen. When they didn’t, I was equally shocked and ecstatic. Obviously, the move paid off in a big way,

Tony: Unbelievable weekend! How fitting that as we near the holiday at the end of October, we have a bunch of misfits in orange and black running around AT&T park.

Me: Touche. Also, how fitting would it be after all the power houses they had in the 60’s with all those Hall of Fame players, and after having the best player in the game for 15 seasons in the 90’s and 00’s, for this team of all teams to go all the way and bring the first World Series to San Francisco. One can hope.

Monday, October 25, 2010

How the Giants Won the Pennant (in just 2,800 words)

Inning 1:

At the beginning of the first inning (after Torres singled to lead off the game), I was feeling very good. The Giants’ speedy leadoff hitter was reemerging as a serious offensive threat. By the end of the first, it felt like the Giants were going to be routed. After Sanchez was out in the third with two on and none out in a must-get shutdown inning (more on this later), it would have been reasonable to believe the Giants were going to get Uber-routed.

It seemed pretty clear that Sanchez didn’t have it after he walked Polanco on four pitches and promptly flung a wild pitch to advance him to second. Utley then doubled him home and the flood gates appeared to be opening early. Luckily, Sanchez managed to minimize the damage to a 2-0 Philly advantage after giving up a single to Howard and a sacrifice fly to Werth. So, at the end of one, it was pretty obvious Oswalt was dealing and throwing darts and Sanchez was all over the place. It sure felt like Giants fans would be in for a long night.

Inning 2:

The second inning was largely uneventful, but after Burrell managed to reach on an infield single, it was a good sign the Giants were getting on base. Moments later, Ross hit into a double play on the first pitch and I thought (or screamed aloud): “Seen that before!”

In the bottom half, Sanchez appeared to regain his arm slot and retired the Phillies in order. Maybe he’d pull it together after all, much like he did in game 2.

Inning 3:

The third was quite possibly the most eventful of the entire game if not the series. Time and time again, the Giants get knocked down only to get right back up again, and after the first couple of innings there was probably cause to panic. The Giants disagreed.

Jonathan Sanchez didn’t bring much to the table with his arm, but much like against the Padres in the NL West clinching game, Sanchez got a rally going with his bat – he singled to center to start the third. Torres nearly pumped one out to center which would have tied the game – the FOX announcers acted like it was a infield pop fly, right on cue – but only got a single out of it after Sanchez ran the bases as if he’d been blindfolded and spun in circles. Frustrating, yes, but the Orange and Black had something going. After a sac bunt by Freddy, Huff singled softly to center and I thought the game would be tied. Torres apparently didn’t get a good jump and was thrown out by 10 feet despite the ball bouncing off the mound and slowly making its way to Ruiz. I was livid, because Torres was out by a mile on a poor throw. I couldn’t fathom how Flannery would send him on that. Anyway, Posey hit a swinging bunt and Polanco kind of threw it up the line, and the official scorer inexplicably gave Howard the error. It was a Polanco error or hit all the way. More importantly: new ballgame.

It was pivotal the Giants receive a shut down inning from Sanchez. They sort of did and sort of didn’t in the turning point of the game. Sanchez walked Polanco again (this time on five pitches) and up came Utley. Despite the double in the first, Utley had been terrible all series long. He’d played poor defense at times and hit worse. But Utley was still Utley. Just last year at AT&T, Sanchez buzzed one by Utley’s head and Utley took him deep pitches later. I have a lot of admiration for Utley as a player and expressed it here earlier this year. Sanchez dotted Utley in the back with an 87 mph 2-0 fastball, the wheels were falling off and things started to get weird.

The ball remarkably bounced almost directly into Utley’s hand and probably in the heat of the moment, he flipped the ball towards Sanchez in bush league manner. This is my opinion only, and it was pretty harmless. Anyway, Sanchez stared Utley down and they exchanged words, and before long every player headed toward the diamond as the benches cleared. Every player except for one: Jeremy Affeldt. And why did he stay? He stayed because a man who pitched for the Giants at the end of his career told him to, Mark Gardner*.

*Mark Gardner is the perfect man to lead the Giants’ bullpen and he and Brian Wilson have a lot in common. They both know loss. Gardner didn’t have the greatest career, but he fell in love with an organization and has been there almost ever since he arrived. While at CSU, Fresno, Gardner met his wife Lori, an All-American softball pitcher. Lori would get liver cancer during his playing career and Gardner would retire after 2001 to fight to the bitter end with his wife. Lori would finally succumb to it in 2003. Gardner immediately became the Giants’ bullpen coach in 2003 and has held that position ever since. Brian Wilson lost his father at a critical age of his life, he was just 17. Suffice to say, both the leader in that bunch and the man slated with closing out the gut wrenching, torturous games know a thing or two about bouncing back.

For me, this was the very moment the game was won. I’d wanted to write about it as soon as they won, but the great Joe Posnanski beat me to it. Who better to? Here’s my take on it with some quote help from Joe. Gardner would say to Affeldt: "You stay here," and "You warm up." Not to my surprise after reading it from Joe, the Phillies fans had less than flattering things to say to Affeldt for not joining the boys on the field. Affeldt would ignore them and keep warming. When he came in I showed a tweet to my fiancé that Affeldt had sent out after they lost game five. It read: “To lose patience is to lose the battle.” – Mahatma Gandhi. And before game six, he tweeted: “Anyone who angers you conquers you.” – Elizabeth Kenny. I guess the Phillies fans didn’t conquer the lefty.

"Keep this thing close," Affeldt would remember manager Bruce Bochy telling him. "Because we're going to win this game." And it was also time for me to put my foot in my mouth once again. At the beginning of the season, I admittedly didn’t have a lot of good things about to say about the Giants’ roster. Boy, was I wrong. And my one criticism of Bochy’s division series roster was Affeldt over Runzler. But Bochy knows the people and not just the numbers (I know just the numbers). And sometimes that burns him. But sometimes it rewards him. I may have even seemed correct after Affeldt didn’t throw a pitch against Atlanta. But, again in the NLCS, Boch went with Jeremy.

Affeldt came in and immediately calmed the storm. He struck out Howard on a high 93 MPH fastball. He then coaxed a Werth fly out and meek grounder to first from Victorino.

But the battle was far from over. The Giants’ pen had just been handed seven innings to win the pennant. They’d take the challenge and run with it, with a little help from the rotation.

Inning 4:

The Giants went down in order in the fourth: Ross, Uribe and Renteria. Not much to talk about here. Roy appeared to be rolling again.

Affeldt, after pitching beautifully to get out of the third, was tasked with putting up another zero. He made it look easy. He got Ibanez, Ruiz and Oswalt in order. He was so good, in fact, I wondered if Bochy might consider letting him hit to lead off the 5th.

Inning 5:

Bochy again pulled the right strings. He wasn’t too hypnotized by Affeldt’s dominant two innings and perhaps knew his guys limitations. He used Fontenot to pinch hit and he rewarded him with a single. They would put two on in the inning, but Huff and Posey would fail to capitalize. But, Oswalt would throw more stressful pitches and this would no doubt contribute to his inability to go past the sixth.

In the bottom half, the Giants would come within inches of falling behind again. In came the game four starter, Madison Bumgarner. He gave up a single to Rollins and then got two fly outs from Polanco and Utley. But Howard would hit a beautiful opposite field double that would surely score Rollins. Except, the ball caromed perfectly to Torres who quickly hit his cutoff and force the Phillies to hold Rollins, crisis averted. Bumgarner walked Werth intentionally and got another weak groundout from the “Flying Hawaiian” Victorino.

And the Giants (read Bochy) were using starters, relievers and a little luck to cobble together a chance to win, in breathtaking, impossible to predict fashion.

Inning 6:

The sixth inning started more or less promising as the eventual NLCS MVP, Cody Ross, hit his third double – to go along with his three long balls – of the series. Oswalt plunked Uribe hard in the back, and Juan didn’t look to happy about it. Uribe would take his base and, while not in that moment, find reason to flash his infectious smile later. Renteria would ground into a double play – again, seen that before – with some fancy defense by Utley. It was the usual Utley, not the Conrad Utley we’d seen a few times in the series. Oswalt had gotten out of it, but his night was over.

The bottom half didn’t start off swell for the Giants (and their nail biting fans, with them in every moment). Bumgarner gave up a double to Ibanez – a player starting to show signs of life. After a sacrifice by Ruiz, Ben Francisco came to the plate. He’d had some pretty good swings off of Bum in game four. Bochy, for what reason I can’t say, stuck with the 21 year old rookie. Perhaps it was a hunch. Bumgarner rewarded him – much like Bochy’s misfits did time and time again in the game, this series – by striking Francisco out looking and getting Rollins to fly out to center. Another crisis was averted.

Inning 7:

In came Madson and I was baffled. Earlier in the night, I’d said aloud: “if the Giants can just get into the pen in the sixth or seventh, they’ll get a chance against Not-Madson and Not-Lidge.” Why was Madson in now?! “Great,” I thought. Madson went through the Giants like a buzz saw in game five. But Ishikawa set a tone in the first at bat as if to say: “It won’t be so easy this time, Madson.” Ishi took a good at bat and eventually struck out a ball that almost hit the Torres in the on deck circle (See Below, lucky pitch number seven). Madson struck out Torres, too, and he was doing it again! But after Sanchez doubled, Huff intentionally walked, and Posey grounded out, they’d at least gotten some pitches (some juice) out of Madson.

Thanks to Brooks Baseball PitchFX Tool

What was the biggest midseason acquisition this season in the National League? Roy Oswalt? Derek Lee? Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick? No, no, how about Javier Lopez? That’s remarkable. In came Lopez in the bottom half. I looked at every 28 seconds from June until July 31st waiting for the Giants to add a hitter. And on July 31st, I read that the Giants had acquired a lefty (a LOOGY) named Javier Lopez. I wasn’t impressed with his stats, upon reviewing them, and despite the Giants desperately needing left handed pitching help with Affledt and Runzler hurt, I wasn’t exactly ecstatic. I wanted Josh Willingham – he would end up hurt and not play for a good portion of the second half. I wanted David DeJesus – he was hurt just before the deadline and supposedly just before Sabean grabbed him. Instead, we got a LOOGY: A lefty one-out guy. What in god’s name?

In came Lopez. Lopez had been brilliant since coming over for Pittsburg. He’d been brilliant in the divisional series. He’d been brilliant in the NLCS up to this point except for one hit he’d give up to Howard. He already had five holds in the postseason. He’d given up one run but gotten huge out after huge out. He turned the heart of the Phillies’ order into mincemeat by retiring them in order and putting an exclamation point on the end with a strikeout to Howard. So much for him being a LOOGY.

Inning 8:

In the top of the eighth, Madson continued to do what he’d done to the Giants all series long. After five pitches, the Giants were down to an out and in stepped Juan Uribe. Uribe had huge hits for the Giants all year long. Actually, he’d had huge homeruns for the Giants. He hadn’t hit a homerun in the postseason since his first ever postseason game with the White Sox in 2005. Madson had thrown 22 pitches (plus 4 intentional walks balls). And Juan Uribe, “Jazz Hands” and all, went BOOM with an opposite field homerun. How improbable was that? Well, the dinger wasn’t. But, from Lookout Landing, we learn that Uribe hadn’t hit an oppo homerun all season and in at least five seasons. That’s postseason baseball in a nutshell for you, and so is this: Tim “The Freak” Lincecum was suddenly warming up, on 1 day rest.

Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus tweeted, “Again, Lincecum used to close on Sundays at U. Washington… often after throwing 130+ pitches on Fridays.” And though Lincecum didn’t throw a scoreless 8th, he did get the inning started on the right note by striking out the dangerous Jayson Werth, a hitter who hit a two-run job off of him in game 1. He gave up two singles – including a great at bat by Victorino, the first major league hitter to ever take Timmy deep way back in his major league debut in 2007 – after that and in came “Fear the Beard” Brian Wilson. Wilson would need to throw just three pitches (saving bullets for the ninth) as Ruiz hit a line-drive – but it was no screamer, as many would incorrectly posit he hit it on the screws – that would find it’s way into Huff’s glove for one and eventually to Renteria’s at second to double off Victorino.

Inning 9:

Schierholtz put together a pretty terrible at bat and struck out in the ninth, but he was in for defense anyway. Then Torres, who I’d been telling my fiancé all night wouldn’t ever bunt for some reason, bunted. And he placed it beautifully and slid in safely, but hurt his groin in doing so. Hopefully, he’s good to go by game one on Wednesday. Torres stayed in the game for the time being – he’d be replaced by Rowand in the bottom half for precautionary reasons – and after Sanchez singled and Huff struck out, Bochy tried to bluff Charlie Manuel by putting Panda in the on-deck circle while Posey batted and Wilson’s spot in the order was up after him. People would say Manuel called his bluff and walked Buster intentionally – a walk even Joe Posnanski would not have minded – but it was pretty obvious. The Giants were not going to lose their closer for the ninth with two outs and a slight chance to add on. Wilson looked goofy with his helmet on and grounded out.

The Giants were three outs from the Fall Classic, and the fans knew it wouldn’t come easy. Wilson has a penchant for never giving in to hitters, never quite giving them something to hit, and walking a few batters here and there because of it. Wilson luckily was able to get the first batter (Gload) out which certainly boded well for the rest of the inning. But then he walked Rollins and up came Polanco. Polanco had more than one huge hits in the series. This time, though, he grounded into a fielder’s choice fielded very nicely by Uribe to get Rollins out at second. And then Wilson brought the collective heart rates of Giants fans to a hummingbird proportions by walking Utley. Up came Howard, he’d had a decent series despite the strike outs and lack of an RBI – which FOX was so great at pointing out 100 times in the series. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll figure that one out. Howard fought off some tough pitches and took the count to three and two. And Wilson would fearlessly throw his slider in that spot – again, this guy never seems to give in – and after a slight hesitation home plate umpire Tom Hallion rung up Howard much to the delight of the entire Bay Area. And that, is how the GIANTS WON THE PENNANT!

My favorite quote of celebration: Q: “Brian (Wilson), what’s it like having a different person step up to win every night?”

A (Wilson): “It feels awesome, it feels like when you’re a kid, and every guy gets a chance to be a hero every night and then you get to eat orange slices and Kool-Aid after the game. Except, we’re nailing champagne right now.”

Drink up, Giants, you deserve it. But you’re not done yet.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Giants Flinch, Fail to Clinch in Frisco

The Giants’ game five cinching effort, that started off so well, ended so disappointingly. If someone would have told you that: 1) Roy Halladay would not be sharp and would need a mound visit in the first inning before getting an out, 2) Halladay would pull his groin in the second inning and finally 3) Andres Torres would reach base in four of four plate appearances, would you have believed  the Giants would lose? I certainly would not have. The slightly inclement weather didn’t play a factor, but shoddy defense assuredly did.
The Giants were essentially sunk by a single inning, and were it not for a comeback the previous evening it would have been two nights in a row. Writing is therapy – and my fiancé is a doctoral candidate so I would know – so here goes. The calamitous top of the third went something like this:
1) Lincecum gives up a jam shot (grenade) single to center to Raul Ibanez – his first hit of the series. 2) Lincecum promptly gets Placido Palanco down 0 and 2. 3) A Timmy changeup slips from his forked fingers and hits Polanco – perhaps foreshadowing doom. 4) Roy Halladay bunts a ball just foul. 5) The umpire calls the ball fair. 6) Posey throws a seed strike to Pablo Sandoval to get the out at third. 7) Not. Pablo “Not so Kung Fu” Panda cannot make it to the bag in time and Ibanez is safe. 8) Pablo throws the ball across the diamond to throw out Roy Halladay, who was not running… 9) …because the ball was foul. 10) Victorino grounds out to first baseman, Aubrey Huff, to score one. 11) Psyche. Huff – who would later admit to having aspirations of throwing out the slow Ibanez at home – muffs the grounder which spits out to center field, scoring both runs and advancing the would-be out Victorino to second. 12) Placido Palanco singles on a ball to left center, scoring would-be out Victorino… 13) …and the damage is done. The rest isn’t of much importance - Howard whiffed, Utley stole second and Werth* flew out.
*Dave Cameron just yesterday wondered how the Phillies could possibly just let Werth walk at seasons end. I see where he’s coming from. Werth is a good player that can do more than a few things very, very well. He has power, speed, plays good defense, runs the bases well, and he’s patient. I replied because, “…the Phillies are overpaying Howard and have no choice.” Anyway, I think there’s a strong likelihood he does walk, and that the Phillies simply can’t work out a way to keep him. But, with an aging lineup – Utley, Rollins, Polanco and especially Ibanez – plus a somewhat precipitously declining Ryan Howard, I just don’t see the Phillies’ lineup being nearly as formidable as people believe they are now and know they were two years ago. I think that a loss of Werth without a stepping up of the aging vets or the rookie Brown would knock the Phillies out of the NL’s elite, at least offensively. They clearly have the starting pitching.
Halladay wasn’t terribly sharp the rest of the way or at any point during the game, as he threw a ton of pitches in the second (despite setting them down in order) after managing to wriggle out of the first. But he managed to be effective. The Giants did manage to scratch one more run off of him with an RBI double by Cody Ross in the fourth, but that was all they would get. Halladay got Sandoval to fly out to right and Ross rather foolishly tried to take third on the play. They got two more on in the fifth with two outs, but Huff grounded out. They got two more on in the sixth, but Uribe struck out on a ball to end the threat. Halladay gave way to the pen and Torres got on again in the seventh, but never scored.
And then there was the eighth inning. Ryan Madson came out and I was happy. He had to be a bit gassed after his hefty workload the previous evening, but so much for that. Madson usually throws quite a few changeups. He didn’t. He threw one. He struck out the side on 12 pitches with an array of mostly filthy cutters. He cut threw the most productive part of the Giants’ lineup thus far this postseason like a hot Samurai sword through room temperature butter.
Bonehead Bochy had an easy decision to go with closer Brian Wilson in the top of the ninth – he’d thrown a relatively few pitches the previous two nights and would rest on Friday with the day off. He went with the Giants’ fourth or fifth or sixth best reliever instead, Ramon Ramirez, whom promptly gave up an impressive solo homerun to Werth. And with that, the Giants’ clinch which was still within reach given the one run deficit, was all but squelched. The fans were deflated and Lidge was likely energized. Lidge went right at the Giants and rather impressively spun a few get-it-in sliders – I think, anyway, I haven’t taken the time to look them up – for strikes and retried San Francisco in order.
The Giants now head back to Philadelphia clinging to a 3-2 series lead. Don’t allow the once true thought that the Phillies “still have to win three in a row to beat them” to delude you. That would be as foolish as putting stock in the very purposefully placed, previously hit numbers board at the roulette table. The Giants now must win Game 6 or Game 7 to ignite the bubbly bath, and they’ll have to do it on the road. This resilient team has found a way to do it all year, and I’m sincerely hopeful they can do it again. Don’t stop believing.
And I assure you, the squalid Phillies fans will be sure to greet the Giants with all the class they can muster.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bochy's Band of Misfits –The Giants – One Fistfight from Fall Classic

Scoring: Giants up 0-1, up 0-2, up 1-2, down 3-2, down 4-2, down 4-3, up 4-5, tied 5-5, walk off 5-6!

First off… Buster Posey! At this point, Posey doesn’t just have the keys to San Francisco. Posey has the keys to the adjacent cities as well, and those cities that are adjacent to the cities that are adjacent to San Francisco. That’s at a minimum.

Last night he went 4 for 5 with 2 doubles, he drove in two runs, and he basically had some of the most important hits on the night. In the first, he smashed a sharp ground ball single up the middle on a breaking ball to open the scoring. He did that with two strikes. In the third, he ripped a double that one hopped the left field wall on a 1-1 count and brought in another run. I told my buddy that Blanton was getting too aggressive with his changeup before that double. He was. He threw it, Posey was ready, and Blanton was lucky the Kid didn’t backspin it into the bleachers. In the 5th Posey showed off his other graceful talents. Posey nabbed a one hop throw – a great throw by Rowand, of all people – and laid a quick swipe tag to get Carlos Ruiz. That may have saved the game for the Giants as it was 1) one of three outs in a nightmarish inning and 2) one less run (4 instead of 5) in a horror showish inning. In the 7th (after striking out in the 5th) Posey doubled again, and once again after being down two strikes. And finally, in the 9th, Posey went down 0 and 2 to Roy Oswalt who dominated him in game two. Posey hit a near double down the line foul, nearly broke his bat on a pop up that dropped foul*, and then lined a single (his fourth of the night and third with two strikes) down the line for a single that moved Huff to third and set up the walk off sac fly. Asked about whether or not he knew his game was “epic,” not from the standpoint of a rookie but from any player, Posey smiled and coolly replied: “Well, thank you.”

*Krukow (on KNBR) said, Posey must be thinking: “I’m gonna stick with it, that ones had three hits in it.” Make that four.

The roughest inning for the Giants, I thought, may have been the 4th because it may have resulted in some repercussions in the 5th. Bumgarner labored hard in the 4th and was able to get out of a jam. In the bottom half, the Giants hitters were out in just 7 pitches. They certainly didn’t do Bumgarner any favors in terms of giving him a breather and he unraveled in the 5th. These are the types of innings the Giants offense must avoid, as "clutch" as they were on Wednesday night.

Bruce Bochy gave Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval a start tonight and boy did it pay off. Pablo did ground into one of his patented - seriously, look it up - double plays with the bases loaded, sure, but only after a very good at bat and a scorched ground ball rather than a roll over. But before that double play, Panda delivered one of the biggest hits of the postseason**. He seemingly doubled down the fight field line – it might have hit a sliver of chalk, or it might now have – earlier in the at bat. But with two strikes Durbin tried to put him away with a high fastball and Pablo laced it into the left center field gap to score two and reclaim the lead for the Giants. It was a swing of the bat that was so throwback 2009 Panda, and after a season in which Pablo hit .208 with runners in scoring position and was badly battered on balls in play, it truly proved that in AT&T as in the jungles of China, the Panda is not extinct.

**What would a postseason post be without a mention of can-do-no-wrong Ross? Ross hit a broken bat, grenade double down the left field line to set up the spot for Pablo.

Aubrey Huff contributed with another three hits, and two huge ones at that. Huff had a two out, run scoring, line drive up the middle single in the 5th that brought the Giants back within one. That was a huge swing of the bat as it got the fans back into it after the devastating top half, refreshing their memories of Ashkon’s “Don’t Stop, Believing… this could be the seeeeeaaason.” He also singled on one pitch in the 9th to set up the Posey single and the Uribe sacrifice fly. Huff hasn’t delivered the knock out blow thus far this postseason – a double, triple or homerun to break a teams back. But Huff has delivered huge singles in the middle of (or to start off) pivotal rallies more than once.

Bochy, I thought, also made another great (non) move. When Werth hit the chalk double off of Romo following the Howard double off of Lopez, the Giants were immediately thrust into a “here we go again” moment. Bochy could have panicked like he had in the divisional series. He didn’t. I might have. I was panicking. Bochy instead stuck with the Frisbee throwing righty, and he delivered. He delivered a fly out and back to back strike outs on six straight (five swing and miss) Frisbee sliders, which is of course, his specialty. That was a great vote of confidence by Bochy and a wonderful job by Romo. It also was a moment of success which Romo can draw back on and perhaps it will bear dividends later. It’s a lot easier to recall the homer Romo gave up to Hinske (and Manny in May) than to recall his 5:1 strikeout to walk ratio and over 10 strikeouts per 9 IP. It seems Bochy’s recollection was just fine last night.

Before we get into the bottom of the 9th, let’s not forget that in the top half, Uribe made an absolutely spectacular play on a ball in the hole. Ross Gload hit a ball to Uribe’s right and was getting down the line pretty good.  Uribe snared it and delivered a seed across the diamond to get Gload by an eyelash. Earlier in the game, Jeff Fletcher from AOL Fanhouse tweeted (after a nice play by Rollins): “#sfgiants fans, that’s what it looks like when you have a shortstop with an arm.” Ya, Jeff, we know.

Everyone in the world knew (or should have) that Oswalt was going to try to light Uribe’s hands on fire with inside fastballs given his sore wrist. Oswalt did, and did, and did, and did do just that. He threw a fastball at the top, inner corner of the zone at 95 by Uribe for strike one. He threw a fastball just under Uribe’s lips for a ball. He threw another inside fastball boring in on Uribe and it hit his hand, maybe, or the knob of the bat which is what the umpire went with. Then he threw yet another fastball up and in that glanced off of Uribe’s bat on a check swing. Apparently, Oswalt thought Uribe was set up for a changeup, some type of offspeed.  And maybe he was. He probably was. I half figured that at some point, either against Uribe or Posey, that Oswalt would throw the Bugs Bunny 64 MPH curveball. Instead, Oswalt threw an 83 MPH changeup. I think Oswalt would probably tell you he intended to throw that pitch below the strike zone with the count 1 and 2. He didn’t. Oswalt threw a good changeup. It would have been a great pitch 0-0. It would have been a great pitch 2 and 0. But 1 and 2 against Uribe, he threw it at the bottom of the strike zone – reachable for Uribe – and after Uribe flipped it relatively deep to left field and drew Francisco back, the game was all but comfortably over as Huff rushed home like life depended on it. Huff popped up from his slide and stretched both arms straight up in the air in stunning reminiscence of Rocky Balboa’s famous statue in the City of Brotherly Love, almost as if to add insult to injury. It was beautiful.

Brian Wilson would later say that Uribe was hitting in the cages in the late innings to test his hand. Whatever he was doing all game, Uribe found some way to muster the strength in the hand and get it done. OOOOO-Ribe!

The Giants need a single win to claim the National League pennant for only the fourth time since they came West in 1958 – the others in 1962 (Mays, Marichal, McCovey, Alou, Perry etc.) 1989 (Clark and Mitchell) and 2002 (Bonds and Kent). The Giants will not take this lightly, but rather will take it one game at a time. Tonight they’ll go with their long-locked, f-word spraying, humble Cy Young award winning Tim “The Franchise, The Freak” Lincecum. And no matter who the opponent or the opposing pitcher when he’s going, they like their chances.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Scouting Joe Blanton for Game 4 of the NLCS

In August, the Giants went on a critical road trip and among their opponents were the Phillies. The Giants felt like their best shot at a win in the series was to get at Joe Blanton who was throwing game two of three versus Matt Cain on August 18th. Much to the Giants’ chagrin, that didn’t happen.
Cain ended up losing the game 8-2 while giving up 5 runs (of which only two were earned). The game started well enough when Andres Torres hit a lead off homerun against Blanton. But the game ended poorly after Philly capitalized on a Mike Fontenot error when Jimmie Rollins opened it up with a long ball. The Giants would add one more run on a solo shot by Burrell but that was all they would get as Affeldt and Mota would give up three more runs combined to put it out of reach. Blanton pitched effectively for the win by throwing 20/27 (74%) first-pitch strikes and striking out seven while issuing zero walks over 6.1 innings.
The Giants will look to avoid the same fate in Game 4 of the NLCS. Today at 4:30, the Giants will send out Rookie Madison “Young Hickory*” Bumgarner to oppose Joe Blanton this time, following the great game “Big Sugar” Matt Cain tossed yesterday.
*I came up with this myself, let’s see how it fits. He’s from Hickory, North Carolina and, well, quite young.
Blanton made 28 starts in 2010 and threw 175.2 innings. He didn’t throw a single pitch in the divisional series so he will be going on roughly one months rest. It’s difficult to say if the extra rest – which can very helpful after a season of innings – will be a positive or a detriment to Blanton as rust can be an issue as well. The Giants fans (and hitters) would welcome a rusty Blanton.
He is a pretty effective middle or back end of the rotation starter. He averaged 6.87 K/9 and just 2.22 BB/9 for a ratio of 3.12. While he doesn’t have tremendous ability to miss bats, his relatively low walk rate is what makes him solid. The biggest knock on Blanton is that he’s tendency to give up the long ball (1.38 HR/9). I checked a few things to see how fluky that rate was because it’s pretty high, but to my surprise it’s the exact same mark he posted in 2009, and furthermore, he actually gave up fewer home runs at home and pitched more poorly on the road so it’s not a creation of Citizens Bank Park. He was bitten a bit by balls in play this season (.331) which was above his career mark of .304 and pushed his FIP (4.34) below his ERA of 4.82. His BABIP wasn’t due to an increase in line drives because his rate has stayed steady around 20% for his entire career and again in 2010.
Blanton threw five pitches in 2010, up from four. Big surprise, he added a cutter to his arsenal but used it sparingly. I guess when you get to play with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee inside of one season, this is what happens. He’ll throw his fastball most often and about 55% of the time at an average velocity of 89.4 MPH. This is actually his poorest pitch according to pitch value and has been consistently throughout his career. Blanton’s fastball is straight and he doesn’t throw particularly hard so he absolutely must have sharp command with that pitch especially to get outs. His next most often used pitch is the changeup which he tosses around 17% of the time and gets about 7-8 MPH differential from the fastball. He throws a slider 13% of the time just a tick harder than the change, a curve about 9% and finally, he threw the cutter he added this season just 6% of the time.
There a few things the Giants will try to do to win this game. For starters, Bumgarner needs to continue to pitch as if he’s been there before. Additionally, it would be great if Blanton is rusty and struggles with fastball command. They can either get a few free passes this way or capitalize on straight, hittable fastballs. Lastly, it will be exceedingly helpful if Manuel doesn’t change his mind and throw Roy Halladay on short rest. This is a huge game for both teams. A loss isn’t devastating to the Giants, but it would put them in a position where they would need to win two of three (playing two of three in Philly) against H2O (Halladay-Oswalt-Hamels).
Stats provided by Fangraphs

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cain Quiets Phillies

Charlie Manuel mentioned it in his postgame interview, and he was pretty much dead on. Cain threw fewer fastballs than he typically does and had sharp command (especially when absolutely necessary) despite walking three and hitting two batters. Cain threw just 51% fastballs according to the Brooks Baseball PitchFX tool, whereas he averaged 64% throughout the season. Cain replaced that -13% and threw more changeups which he threw 26% of the time (up from the season average of about 14%). Cain was spotting his fastball on both sides of the plate as well as moving it up down in the zone. Furthermore, he was able to throw quite a few changeups down in the zone and fading away from lefty handed batters like Chase Utley, whom he coaxed into a fly out and two ground outs. The result: seven shutout innings and zero runs with five punchouts. When Cain did miss, he missed out of the zone and rarely if ever out over the plate.
They said his nickname in high school was Big Daddy, but it was actually Big Sugar. We can chalk that up to one of the many, many mistakes in FOX’s broadcast, but I don’t have the time to list them all. I will say, though, that hearing Joe Buck ridicule the Phillies’ teenage batboy because he was wearing a titanium necklace was truly painful.

Cain now has thrown 14 innings, given up 9 hits and 5 walks and stuck out 11. Cain is not the sexy starter that Tim Lincecum is. He only strikes out about 7 batters per 9 innings but he’s been as steady as they come. Cain never had a sub par month in 2010 as his highest monthly ERA was 3.79. In fact, he’s only had a month over 4 once in the past two seasons, the only one coming in September and October of 2009 when he posted a 4.98, which is certainly good enough to win a few games if you’re pitching for a team that scores runs – see the Yankees.

Offensively, the Giants did a decent job at getting Cole Hamels to throw some pitches. They weren’t the Yankees, but they also weren’t the Giants of 2009 who seemed to average seeing less than ten pitches per inning. Burrell drew a huge walk in front of the red hot Cody Ross, who once again got the scoring started with a clutch two out single down the left field line. Cody had been punishing fastballs down and in but this time beat a pretty good pitch that was a fastball below the strike zone. Then Huff followed that up with his second RBI –my favorite stat – of the postseason with a single that glanced off of Utley’s glove into the three-four hole. Utley also let one go off his chest for an “RBI single” off the bat of Freddy Sanchez. It should have been an error and one can only hope he turns into Chase Conrad. The odds of that are about as good as me suddenly enjoying the FOX broadcast personalities.

The Giants won the game 3-0 and by more than one run for the first time this postseason. Charlie Manuel has already said Blanton will make the start tomorrow versus Madison Bumgarner, but you have to wonder if he has any tricks up his sleeve. Manuel has to at least consider going with Roy Halladay on three days rest for tomorrows 4:30 start.

Stats provided by Fangraphs