SweetSpot: Barry Zito
10. Angels give $125 million to Josh Hamilton. It's easy to forget that Hamilton hit 43 home runs and finished fifth in the MVP voting with the Rangers last season. But that was fueled by a huge first half. A big increase in strikeouts compared to 2011 and an increasingly poor approach at the plate were warning signals that he could be a risky investment. Hamilton salvaged his season a little in the second half, but he's still a guy with a .304 OBP and the Angels will be on the hook for $30 million a season in 2016 and 2017 -- his age 35 and 36 seasons.
9. Rockies give rotation spot to Jeff Francis. Francis had a 5.00 ERA with the Rockies in 2010. He had a 4.82 ERA with the Royals in 2011. He had a 5.58 ERA with the Rockies in 2012. The Rockies thought it was a good idea to give him 11 starts. Look, if three guys get hurt and you have to use Francis to fill in, OK. But 11 starts? He went 2-5 with a 6.61 ERA.
8. Yankees have no backup plan for Derek Jeter. Knowing Jeter's return from last October's broken ankle didn't have an exact timetable, and knowing his defense was an issue even when he was healthy, the Yankees needed an alternative plan -- and, no, Jayson Nix and Eduardo Nunez weren't good ideas. I advocated early in the season that the Yankees go after defensive whiz Brendan Ryan, a move the team finally made in September. Nix, a .214 career hitter entering the season, didn't hit much and Nunez, a terrible fielder, rated at minus-28 Defensive Runs Saved, the worst total of any player in the majors.
7. Brewers pretend Yuniesky Betancourt is still a major league player. Giving Betancourt 396 plate appearances is kind of like giving up. Betancourt hit .280 with six home runs and 21 RBIs in April. Fake! He was still Yuniesky Betancourt and has hit .189/.215/.287 from May 8 on -- that's 284 PAs. Once it became obvious that April was a fluke, why keep him around all season?
6. Royals count on Jeff Francoeur for more than clubhouse leadership. The Royals believed so much in Francoeur that they traded super prospect Wil Myers to keep Francoeur in right field. Even though Francoeur hit .235/.287/.378 in 2012 and was worth minus-2.3 WAR. As in, way below replacement level. Francoeur played 59 games, struck out 49 times, drew eight walks, hit .208 and was mercifully released on July 5. There also was the Chris Getz problem at second. Or Ned Yost batting Alcides Escobar second for nearly 300 at-bats despite a .274 OBP. Or that Carlos Pena pinch-hit appearance ... if you get the idea that Yost had a bad year, well ...
5. Royals give Wade Davis 24 starts. Part of the controversial Myers-James Shields trade, Davis had pitched very well for Tampa Bay out of the bullpen in 2012, but the Royals decided to return Davis to the rotation, where he had mediocre results in 2010 and 2011 (4.27 ERA). Giving Davis a chance to start wasn't the worst idea, although he wasn't that great as a starter in Tampa considering the Rays' great defense and a pitcher's park. He was better in relief because his fastball ticked up in shorter outings. The big problem here was Yost kept running Davis out there despite a 5.67 ERA and .320 batting average allowed. The Royals have allowed the fewest runs in the AL, but what if Bruce Chen had joined the rotation before mid-July?
4. Mariners think it's a good idea to play Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez in the outfield. Together. OK, we'll be a little fair to GM Jack Zduriencik, who did reportedly acquire Justin Upton, only to see Upton veto the trade. He also pursued Hamilton. So Morse was kind of a Plan C or Plan D, the hope being his bat would make up for his lousy defense. Nope. Morse's defense was predictably awful, plus he didn't hit. When Franklin Gutierrez spent the year raising sheep in Australia instead of playing center field, that forced the Mariners to use Ibanez regularly in left field, giving them two of the worst (the worst?) corner defenders in the majors.
3. Giants stand pat with Barry Zito. OK, he beat Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series, which pretty much justified that $126 million contract all by itself. While it was understandable to open the season with Zito in the rotation -- he was at least serviceable last season before his clutch postseason performances -- you couldn't assume Zito would roll 30 starts again. Zito went 5-11 with a 5.75 ERA as the Giants gave him 25 starts. But that ERA comes courtesy of help from pitcher-friendly AT&T Park. Zito went a stunning 0-9 on the road with a 9.56 ERA and .401 average allowed. Basically, on the road, the average hitter against Zito was Ted Williams.
2. Angels sign Joe Blanton. Considering Blanton had a 4.79 ERA in the National League over the three previous seasons, the odds that he would perform better moving over to the American League seemed slim. There may have been some belief that Blanton's fly-ball tendencies would work in Anaheim. Wishful thinking. He went 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA. Meanwhile, the Angels let Ervin Santana go, and he had a great year for the Royals.
1. The Phillies go Young. Let's see. Delmon Young and Michael Young were worth a combined minus-2.8 WAR in 2012, with the Defensive Runs Saved statistic suggesting both were lousy defenders. Ruben Amaro flouted advanced metrics and acquired both players. They combined for minus-2.3 WAR while with the Phillies. On a perhaps related note, the Phillies have allowed the second-most runs in the NL.
If the old saying is true that in baseball you shouldn't rush to judgment until June, then we can now rush to judgment since we're well into the month. Actually, I don't know if that's an old saying or not, but you hear it said, and it's probably mostly true. Remember when Vernon Wells was good?
So, let's make a judgment about the San Francisco Giants and their starting rotation. Matt Cain has scuffled. Tim Lincecum isn't much better than last year. Ryan Vogelsong was pounded and is now injured, replaced by veteran reliever Chad Gaudin, who hasn't even been a very good reliever. Barry Zito hasn't been the same Zito who beat Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series. Madison Bumgarner, their best pitcher, ranks 45th in ERA among major league starters. This is a rotation in trouble, and if the defending champs are to stay in contention, they'll need those guys to improve or find a way to upgrade.
Zito pitched Wednesday and the Pirates knocked him around for 11 hits and eight runs in 4.2 innings on their way to a 12-8 victory. There were a few seeing-eye singles mixed in there, but Zito has been getting hit all season, with 90 hits in 73.1 innings, a .306 opponents' batting average allowed that ranks 100th out of 105 qualified starters. His fastest pitch against the Pirates was clocked at 84.3 mph. Yes, season-long BABIP of .348 might suggest some bad luck, but his home run percentage -- he's allowed just four -- suggests some good luck. He's also trending downward, with 30 runs allowed over his past 34 innings.
Right now, the likely pool of noncontenders includes the Mets, Marlins, Cubs and Brewers in the National League, and the Blue Jays, Twins, White Sox, Mariners and Astros in the American League. From that group, I see four likely trade targets: Ricky Nolasco of the Marlins, Matt Garza and Scott Feldman of the Cubs and Josh Johnson of the Blue Jays. All are impending free agents. Nolasco is the most consistent of the group and the guy I'd go after; Garza has made five starts since returning from the DL and Johnson two after missing all of May. Their upside is high if they round into shape, but they come with more risk -- Johnson in particular.
Of course, Nolasco (3-7, 3.80 ERA, 72 SO, 22 BB in 87.2 innings) will be sought after by several teams, so it will take a decent prospect to acquire him -- and the Giants' farm system isn't highly rated right now, so just because the Giants might want Nolasco doesn't mean they'll get him. General manager Brian Sabean loves those veteran pickups, so you have to expect him to make a deal; and remember that the guy he picked up last year, Hunter Pence, still had another year left on his deal, so the pool of candidates might not just be impending free agents, but guys under longer-term contracts (still don't see the Phillies trading Cliff Lee, however).
The team the Giants beat in the World Series has its own issue to fix, as we saw Wednesday afternoon. Detroit Tigers closer Jose Valverde was one strike away from closing out a 2-0 victory against the Royals when Lorenzo Cain swatted an 0-2 hanging splitter for a two-run homer. Valverde has held batters to a .197 average, but five of the 13 hits he's allowed have left the park. With three blown saves in 12 chances, he doesn't exactly inspire confidence, especially after his collapse last October.
The Tigers have now lost four games they led entering the ninth inning, and the bullpen is a collective 4-12. Some of the bullpen issues have been overblown -- its 3.87 ERA ranks 15th in the majors, and it ranks fourth in strikeout percentage. It's a middle-of-the-pack bullpen with a shaky closer.
Steve Cishek, Marlins; Tom Wilhelmsen, Mariners; Glen Perkins, Twins; Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies; Huston Street, Padres.
Perkins is signed to a team-friendly deal through 2015 and plays for a division rival, so I don't see that one happening. The Tigers could try to go back to the well where they stole Doug Fister and get Wilhelmsen from the Mariners, but with Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik fighting to keep his job, he might not want to punt his closer for a prospect. Plus, Wilhelmsen is still cheap, so he'd be expensive to acquire -- though he hasn’t exactly been lights-out, blowing his fourth save on Wednesday. Papelbon has a big contract and might not be available anyway, and Cishek might not be an upgrade. Street is currently on the DL, and his home run problems this year have been more acute than Valverde's (seven in 20.1 innings).
I think the Tigers already have their closer: I'd promote Drew Smyly, who can crank it up to 94-95 mph in relief and has been excellent so far, with a 2.11 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 38 innings. He's crushed left-handers (.127 average, no extra-base hits) but, as a guy groomed in the minors as a starter, isn't a LOOGY. And while you often hear about the desire to acquire a Proven Closer, the past two World Series winners entered the playoffs with relievers who had become their team's closer during the season -- Jason Motte with the Cardinals in 2011 and Sergio Romo last year.
And if the Tigers want more bullpen depth to go with Smyly and Joaquin Benoit, how about going after White Sox setup man Jesse Crain, who has allowed two runs in 30 innings? He's a free agent, and with the Sox dropping into the cellar, he should be available, though it's unlikely the division rivals would make a deal.
But a back three of Crain, Benoit and Smyly would be a championship-caliber trio to go with the Tigers' championship-caliber rotation.
The San Francisco Giants are built around their starting rotation.
That would seem more a statement of fact than an assertion of opinion.
After all, conventional wisdom tells us the rotation carried the Giants to a World Series title in 2010 and then another in 2012.
But if that is a statement of fact, then here's an opinion: The Giants, despite their current half-game lead over Arizona in the National League West, are in trouble. Because this is not a championship-caliber rotation right now.
The past two games in Toronto exposed an issue that has plagued the Giants the past two seasons: The Giants don't pitch nearly as well on the road. Facing a Blue Jays lineup that batted Mark DeRosa, who has a .302 slugging percentage since 2010, cleanup on Tuesday and J.P. Arencibia and his .252 on-base percentage cleanup on Wednesday, Barry Zito and then Ryan Vogelsong got battered around as the Blue Jays put up 21 runs in the two games. Zito allowed 12 hits and eight runs Tuesday; Vogelsong allowed eight runs in just two innings in Wednesday's 11-3 loss.
Vogelsong's bad outing was the latest in a string of bad outings for him. Among 110 qualified starters, Vogelsong's 8.06 ERA ranks 110th. Vogelsong gave up two more home runs to the Blue Jays, running his season total to 11 in just 41.1 innings. Chris Quick looked at Vogelsong's home-run problems before this start and found, not surprisingly, that several of them came on pitches up in the strike zone. This long blast by Arencibia wasn't off a pitch up in the zone, but it was left out over the middle of the plate; Adam Lind's two-run homer in the first also came off a pitch down the middle.
As Chris wrote,
And that, to me, is the biggest knock on Vogelsong so far this season. His command has been un-Vogelsong-like. We're used to seeing Vogelsong surgically dissect hitters like this. Not so much the guy that’s chucking neck-high fastballs above. ... Like most pitchers, Vogelsong needs to locate in order to succeed. And only time will tell if his current dingeritis is a sign of cracks in the facade, or if he’ll eventually find his release point or arm-slot or whatever and start throwing the ball where he wants to.
It's possible Vogelsong's next start is in jeopardy:
Bochy not ready to say one way or the other who will start Monday on Vogelsong's day. Will be discussed on flight.— Andrew Baggarly (@CSNBaggs) May 16, 2013
But Vogelsong isn't the only culprit in the rotation. Madison Bumgarner has been outstanding but the rotation still ranks just 20th in the majors with a 4.41 ERA. Heck, the Marlins' starters have pitched just 13 fewer innings but allowed 23 fewer runs.
It's when you dig even deeper, however, that the problems become more severe. Giants starters have a 5.01 ERA on the road, 23rd in the majors. Here, a comparison to 2012:
2012: 3.09 ERA, 3rd in majors
2013: 3.98 ERA, 17th in majors
2012: 4.45, 18th in majors
2013: 5.01, 23rd in majors
As you can see, the Giants weren't that great on the road last season, either. But this season, they're not dominating at home. And that's where we get back to that first sentence: The Giants have transformed into an offensive team, a fact obscured somewhat by playing in a park that favors pitchers to a large degree.
San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean loves to add veterans during midseason. Instead of making a big splash in the winter, he evaluates the team's weaknesses and then makes his move. In 2010, he added outfielders Pat Burrell and Cody Ross. In 2011, he traded for Carlos Beltran. Last year, he picked up Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro.
But if he properly assesses things this year, I believe Sabean should be on the search for a starting pitcher. Certainly, I expect Matt Cain to turn things around. Vogelsong will be given a fairly long leash, I suspect, given his track record of the past two seasons, but is certainly the guy on the hot seat right now. The Giants are likely to keep Zito and Tim Lincecum, even given their superficially OK ERAs, but those two are hardly strengths right now.
The Giants can certainly still win the West. But right now it will have to be the hitters and the bullpen that will have to carry the load.
One reason some people don't like statistics -- at least those fancy ones -- is they sometimes produce results incongruous with popular belief.
For example, this:
San Francisco Giants pitching staff 2012: 8.1 WAR (Baseball-Reference)
Kansas City Royals pitching staff 2012: 12.7 WAR (Baseball-Reference)
Giants pitching staff 2012: 13.3 WAR (FanGraphs)
Royals pitching staff 2012: 14.8 WAR (FanGraphs)
Giants pitching staff 2012: 56 runs above replacement (Baseball Prospectus)
Royals pitching staff 2012: 104 runs above replacement (Baseball Prospectus)
The three sites may disagree on the particulars, but they all agree on this: In 2012, the Kansas City Royals had a better pitching staff than the San Francisco Giants. The World Series champion Giants.
The above numbers do include bullpen results, and the Royals did have an outstanding bullpen in 2012. But even in pulling out just the starters, FanGraphs rated the Giants' starters at 11.7 WAR and the Royals' starters -- Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar and Will Smith and Jonathan Sanchez and all the rest -- at 8.0 WAR. Not that much of a difference there.
The Royals had so much confidence in that staff that they traded for three new starters in James Shields, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis. The Giants were so discouraged by their results that they brought back the entire rotation.
So what gives? Is this a case of sabermetrics run amok? I don't believe so.
A player's home park can, of course, have a huge impact on his statistics. In the case of AT&T Park, the run-scoring environment is so low that the advanced metrics penalize Giants pitchers for their home-park advantage. In 2012, the Giants and their opponents scored only 580 runs at AT&T Park, but combined to score 787 runs on the road. In the case of the Giants' pitchers, they allowed 3.3 runs per nine innings at home, but 4.8 on the road.
The Royals, meanwhile, play in a more neutral park, but their pitchers allowed 4.7 runs per nine innings on the road (and remember, that's in the American League, where scoring was slightly higher overall -- 4.4 to 4.2 runs per game). When you factor in the advantage of pitching at AT&T, it decreases the value of the Giants' pitchers, and thus their WAR totals aren't as impressive as their ERAs may indicate. It's no different than it's easier to hit .300 at Coors Field.
Let's examine the Giants starters more closely. Below, you'll find their runs allowed per nine innings at home and the road over recent seasons.
2012: 2.1 home, 3.9 road
2011: 3.1 home, 3.6 road
2010: 2.9 home, 3.8 road
2012: 2.5 home, 5.0 road
2011: 3.4 home, 3.8 road
2010: 4.8 home, 2.2 road
2012: 4.3 home, 6.6 road
2011: 3.2 home, 2.9 road
2010: 3.9 home, 3.3 road
2012: 3.1 home, 4.2 road
2011: 2.2 home, 4.5 road
2012: 4.2 home, 4.8 road
2010: 3.8 home, 5.1 road
Last year produced more extreme results, but other than Lincecum in 2010 and 2011, the Giants' pitchers generally receive a nice boost at home. And while the Giants do have to play road games in Colorado and Arizona, that's balanced by the more pitcher-friendly parks in San Diego and Los Angeles. It's also worth noting that in broad terms all pitchers (and hitters) have a home-field advantage.
Does this mean that the rotation that has led the Giants to two World Series titles is overrated?
I think it's important to separate the regular season from postseason here. There's no denying the excellence of the Giants' starters in their 2010 and 2012 playoff runs. In 31 postseason games, they've allowed only 59 runs in 187 innings and posted a 2.70 ERA. Reputations are often created -- or sealed -- with October performance and there's no denying what Cain, Bumgarner, Lincecum and Vogelsong have done in the playoffs. Even Zito, after being left out of the rotation in 2010, stepped up last year, beating the Cardinals in the NLCS and then Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series.
The tougher question to answer: What would these guys do on a different team, in a different park? Cain, Bumgarner and Lincecum have pitched only for the Giants. While the numbers suggest they would be worse, that may not necessarily be the case. Maybe pitching in an extreme environment -- like hitting in Coors Field -- produces extreme results. Just as Rockies hitters have trouble adjusting to life on the road, maybe Giants pitchers have simply adapted in unique ways to their home park and if they pitched in a more neutral environment, they would adapt differently and their home/road splits would even out.
In general terms, however, I would say the rotation is a little bit overrated (and the Giants' offense, which scored the second-most runs on the road in the majors last year, underrated), although you can't underestimate the value of their durability through the years.
That said, I'm pretty sure the Giants don't win the World Series with Hochevar starting instead of Cain.
Moore went 11-11 with a 3.81 ERA and struck out 175 batters in 177.1 innings, normally numbers about which one would be ecstatic from a rookie left-hander, but viewed with some disappointment. But it's not fair to view Moore through the lens of what happened to Harper and Trout, or even the 2.95 ERA that Rays teammate Jeremy Hellickson had posted as a rookie in 2011.
Expectations for Moore shot up after the dominant playoff start against the Rangers in 2011, when he pitched seven scoreless innings in just his second major league start. After an inconsistent first half in 2012, Moore was very good in the second half (3.01 ERA, five home runs allowed, opponents' batting line of .220/.303/.336). It was that improvement that was one reason many believed -- myself included -- that Moore would step in nicely behind Price as the team's No. 2 with the trade of James Shields to Kansas City.
Anyway, fast-forward to 2013. Most of the attention in the American League East has been paid to the revamped Blue Jays, the injury-riddled Yankees, and the revamped Red Sox (remember them?). Jackie Bradley Jr. drew a walk off CC Sabathia in the season opener and poems were written about his future greatness. Matt Moore? Yesterday's news.
After allowing no runs in his first start, Moore started again Wednesday on a 39-degree day in Texas, following a rain delay. He walked a career-worst six but escaped unscathed. In some regards, he was a little lucky -- last season, a starter walked at least six batters 65 times but only twice allowed no runs. His biggest out was getting Elvis Andrus to ground into an inning-ending double play with two on in the fifth. (Ben Zobrist would make the game's other key defensive play, throwing out Adrian Beltre at home in the eight to help preserve the 2-0 lead.)
"Where the big pitches that really needed to be made, I was locked into those moments," Moore said. "From that, we can be happy with what the results were."
The cold weather makes it difficult to evaluate Moore's performance. His fastball velocity is down a couple miles per hour from last year in his first two starts, but that's not yet a concern in early April. What is a concern is the location of those fastballs. Look where he has been throwing it against right-handed batters so far:
Those are tough places to make a consistent living, especially when you're throwing 91-92 instead of 95-96. If he gets batters to chase that high fastball, it can work. But as we saw Wednesday, high fastball can also lead to walks. Again, it's early, and I think Moore will be fine -- heck, he hasn't allowed a run -- but the fastball command is something to pay attention to before we declare him the next David Price.
My bigger point: Before we move on to hoping for the next great thing, let's pay attention to the good ones already here.
Other quick thoughts from Wednesday:
- Watched more A's-Angels. Random thoughts: (1) Joe Blanton might not last the year in the rotation; wasn't that good in the National League the past few years; (2) Albert Pujols looks really good (except when he has to run); (3) John Jaso looks really good in that No. 2 hole in the lineup; (4) Bob Melvin is a better manager than Eric Wedge (see point No. 3); (5) With Scott Sizemore out for the year, Eric Sogard is going to play a lot of second base. He has a chance to surprise. Not much power, but takes good at-bats, doesn't strike out much, will take a few walks.
- How about Barry Zito for eight-game NL MVP? Hasn't allowed a run in two starts and is hitting .750!
- Big start for the Royals' Wade Davis, who fought through a no-out, bases-loaded jam in the second by striking out Aaron Hicks and Joe Mauer and getting Josh Willingham to pop out. He was taking something off his fastball at times, according to the Royals announcers; they weren't calling it a changeup, but more of a "BP fastball." He settled down and went five scoreless. Davis had started for Tampa with mediocre results but had a great year in relief in 2012. If his transition back to the rotation works, KC's top three of Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and Davis may be better than I originally thought.
- Here's a long home run from Atlanta's Juan Francisco. Nobody said he didn't have power when he connects.
- Bad news for the Mariners. Not only did the Astros kill them two games in a row, but Michael Saunders crashed into the wall and is likely headed to the disabled list with a shoulder strain. Looks like Saunders just misread where the wall was; one out certainly isn't worth crashing into a wall for.
- Bryce Harper still hasn't walked. He went 2-for-4 and hit his fourth home run to raise his average to .394. But he saw only eight pitches. I'll look at this more closely Thursday, but since he saw so many breaking balls last year, I wonder if he's being more aggressive on fastballs early in the count. It's working for now, but at some point pitchers will start to use that aggressiveness against him.
But that paragraph won't win over Giants fans. This next section might not either, but here goes. What does winning 94 games mean exactly? Now, one of my arguments in leaving the Giants out of the top 10 was that I believe their true talent level is lower than that of a 94-win team. But even leaving that aside, let's say 94 wins is 94 wins, regardless of how a team got there. What happens the next season? I looked at all teams in the wild-card era to win 94 games -- and, to get a larger sample size, all teams that won 93 or 95 games as well. This gave us 31 teams, not including 2012. The results:
- Those 31 teams declined by an average of seven wins the following season.
- Eight teams did improve, by an average of four wins per season.
- Two teams had the same record.
- That means 21 of the 31 teams declined -- by an average of nine wins per season.
Look, when you win 94 games -- when any team wins 94 games -- that means a lot of things probably went right: The rotation stayed healthy or somebody had a monster season or the bullpen came together or the team did particularly well in one-run games. That's not always the case, of course; a talented team can win 94 games based on depth alone, even without career seasons. But, as you can see from the numbers above and the table below, 94-win teams decline. As Bill James outlined in his early writings, there are six "indicators" that can be used to predict a team's improvement or decline the following season. Let's run each through for the Giants.
1. Pythagorean record. Teams that outperform their Pythagorean record tend to improve the following season. The Giants outperformed theirs by six wins. So this may not be the strike against the Giants that I indicated.
2. The Plexiglass Principle. Teams that improve one season tend to decline the next, and vice versa. The Giants improved from 2011, so this would suggest a decline in 2013.
3. The Law of Competitive Balance. All teams tend to drift toward a .500 record, which is known as regression to the mean. This would also suggest a decline.
4. Age. Not surprising, young teams tend to improve and old teams to decline. The Giants are a mixed bag here -- their weighted age for batters was eighth-youngest in the majors, but their weighted age for pitchers was fifth-oldest. The Giants' big moves have been to re-sign Angel Pagan (who turns 32 next season) and Marco Scutaro (who turned 37 in October).
5. Late-season performance. Teams which play better in the second half tend to improve the following season. The Giants played better in the second half -- 48-28 versus 46-40 -- so another positive sign (especially since Melky Cabrera missed much of the second half).
6. Performance of Triple-A team. This speaks to organizational depth. Fresno was 74-70 (and Double-A Richmond 70-71), so this seems like neither a positive nor a negative.
Anyway, I don't know if all these indicators still hold true. The game is always evolving and changing and we can always conduct new studies of old ideas. One final note: Of the teams that did improve below, you'll note that several made major offseason acquisitions -- the 2009-10 Phillies traded for Roy Halladay, the 2005-06 Yankees added Johnny Damon, the 2003-04 Red Sox added Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, the 2001-02 Yankees signed Jason Giambi and David Wells.
The Giants have elected to stand pat (for now). Hey, I could be wrong. Buster Olney put them No. 1 in his power rankings. As great as the October run was by the Giants, that run is over. Flags fly forever, but they don't predict the future.
The offseason is already in full swing, but I wanted to put a bow of sorts on the 2012 season. Let's take one final look at the 2012 postseason and see what we learned ... if anything.
1. Starting rotation depth is vital. The Giants' rotation depth was certainly a huge factor in their World Series run. Tim Lincecum pitched most of the postseason out of the bullpen, but he did make one start in the NLCS; that allowed Bruce Bochy to skip Madison Bumgarner and when Bumgarner made his World Series start on 10 days of rest, he pitched much better after looking fatigued in previous outings. Having five quality starters gives a manager flexibility -- whether using one of those pitchers out of the bullpen or to rest a tired or struggling starter. One of the key games of the postseason was Game 4 of the Division Series, when Barry Zito got knocked out in the third inning. Bochy could afford a quick hook because he had Lincecum, who pitched 4.1 innings of one-run relief.
Of course, every team wants rotation depth. The Nationals had five good ones, but squandered that advantage by electing not to use Stephen Strasburg. The Reds had four good starters, but had to use No. 5 starter Mike Leake once Johnny Cueto was injured. The Cards were able to bounce 18-game winner Lance Lynn from the bullpen back to the rotation after Jaime Garcia was injured (although Lynn pitched poorly). The 2009 Yankees used only three starters in the postseason, but they're the only team to do so since the 1991 Twins. I don't think we'll see that again, and we're more likely to see five-man rotations moving forward, as managers account for the long grind of the regular season and the high-intensity efforts required to get through playoff games.
Matt Cain, Lincecum and Bumgarner were all first-round picks -- Cain the 25th pick in 2002, Lincecum the 10th pick in 2006 and Bumgarner the 10th pick in 2007. Those three -- along with Buster Posey (another first-round pick) and Pablo Sandoval (an amateur signing out of Venezuela) -- are the heart of the Giants. In his excellent wrap of the World Series, Joe Sheehan wrote in his newsletter:
- The trend is clear. If you want to build a championship team, you have to do it through the draft and through success in international signings. The 2009 Yankees, who signed three of the top four free agents the previous winter, laying out $400 million in contract commitments, may go down in history as the last team to win a championship by buying up the available talent. The economics of the game are such that you can't plan to get ten wins better in the free-agent market; you might do so with good fortune, but there won't be enough high-quality free agents available to make that something you can plan.
The catch: It's not so easy to draft a rotation of All-Stars.
Here's one way to look at that. In the past three seasons, 71 different starting pitchers have accumulated at least one season with 3.0 WAR (via Baseball-Reference.com). Only 24 of those 71 had at least two 3-WAR seasons. Only 13 of those 24 compiled both (or all three) seasons with the team that originally drafted or signed them -- Justin Verlander (3), Clayton Kershaw (3), Jered Weaver (3), Cole Hamels (3), Felix Hernandez (3), Cain (3), Mark Buehrle (3, two with the White Sox), Cueto (2), C.J. Wilson (2, both with the Rangers), David Price (2), Lincecum (2), Jon Lester (2) and Josh Johnson (2).
You see where I've gone here: It's difficult to draft a homegrown rotation. In Cain and Lincecum, the Giants have two of 13 of a rare breed. Plus they have Bumgarner, who has compiled 3.9 WAR over the past two seasons, but 8.7 WAR via FanGraphs' calculations.
Building a homegrown rotation might be the goal, but the reality is the Giants are the exception. Most teams will have to piece together a rotation via all the means possible -- finding a Ryan Vogelsong off the scrap heap, acquiring an undervalued talent like Doug Fister, trading prospects for a young rotation anchor like Gio Gonzalez, or signing a veteran free agent.
2. Lineup depth matters. As Dave Cameron wrote on FanGraphs:
- From 1-6, the Tigers are probably the best team in baseball. From 7-25, however, there isn’t a team in baseball better than San Francisco, and those 19 players were the guys who made the difference for the Giants in their playoff run.
When Victor Martinez tore up his knee in an offseason workout, the Tigers elected to give $23 million in 2012 to Prince Fielder. His bat went cold in the playoffs, but Fielder pretty much performed as expected during the regular season. The Tigers, however, had glaring holes throughout the lineup, holes that were obvious on paper heading into the season -- second base, designated hitter, corner outfield. The Giants certainly had some wasted payroll ($16 million spent on Aubrey Huff and Freddy Sanchez), but they essentially used their Fielder money on Melky Cabrera ($6 million), Angel Pagan ($4.85 million) and portions of the Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro contracts.
As Dave wrote, "The Giants simply didn’t ask any bad players to play vital roles in October. What they lacked at the top end of the roster, they made up for at the back-end. Despite the fact that it’s an overused cliche, the Giants really did win through a team effort. And they won because the roster was smartly constructed to avoid pitfalls."
If there's one thing to be learned from the Giants' roster construction, it's that $23 million can be wisely spent on depth as opposed to one star player. Fielder was worth 4.4 WAR to the Tigers; Cabrera, Pagan, Pence and Scutaro provided 10.9 WAR to the Giants.
3. Not striking out is the new on-base percentage. The Giants famously finished last in the NL in home runs -- last in the majors, for that matter. Some of that power outage is attributable to their home park, and to the fact that they play a large percentage of their road games in San Diego and Los Angeles, two more pitcher's parks. But the Giants hit doubles and triples (they led the majors in three-baggers), they run the bases well, were decent at drawing walks, and ranked third in the NL in batting average.
In fact, their home park masked what was actually an excellent offensive team. While the Giants ranked just sixth in the NL in runs scored overall, they scored 46 more runs on the road than any other NL team. Remarkably, only the Angels scored more runs on the road. We saw throughout the postseason how they were able to do this: They battle, put the ball in play and put pressure on the defense to make plays. Only the Phillies had fewer strikeouts among NL teams.
If there's one trend that develops from this postseason, this might be it. Not striking out doesn't necessarily make you a productive a hitter, however. For the Giants, it was a means to their productivity. The three teams that struck out the fewest times in the majors were the Royals, Twins and Indians (which maybe implies the lack of quality pitching in the AL Central more than anything else) and they finished 12th, 10th and 13th in the AL in runs scored.
4. Winning the division is paramount. There's no doubt the second wild card played out as baseball officials intended: Force teams to win the division title. Just ask the Rangers.
5. Bullpen depth. Nothing new here. Of course, more important than bullpen depth is having a hot bullpen. The Cardinals' pen struggled much of 2011, but put it together at the right time. The Giants ranked eighth in the NL in bullpen ERA during the season, but their top five relievers -- Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez plus Lincecum -- allowed four runs (three earned) in 44 innings in the postseason. One major key was having Affeldt, a lefty who isn't strictly a LOOGY. Having a left-hander you're not afraid to use against right-handed batters is a huge weapon, as it allows you to stretch out the back end of the pen a little more without worrying so much about specific matchups.
6. Hope for all teams. The Giants weren't a great team. They ranked sixth in runs scored and sixth in runs allowed in the NL. They had the 10th-best run differential in the majors. They won 94 games despite Lincecum's terrible regular season, injuries to closer Brian Wilson and Sandoval, plus Melky Cabrera's suspension. Other than Cabrera (and possibly Posey), nobody had a career season. Scutaro did hit an otherworldly .362 after joining the team. The point is this: You don't need to build a super team full of high-priced free agents to win the World Series. Don't get me wrong -- the Giants did spend at least $10 million on four players (Zito, Lincecum, Cain and Huff), but those four provided only 1.3 WAR during the regular season (Zito and Lincecum obviously stepped up in the playoffs).
But what the Giants did should provide hope for all teams out there. With good draft picks, smart trades, a lucky signing or two (like Ryan Vogelsong) and the willingness to pick up a little extra payroll during the season, any organization can build a World Series contender, even if you can't afford the high-priced free agents.
7. Luck is maybe the biggest factor of all. In the end, all you have to do is get into the postseason. From there, play well, get hot and hope you catch some breaks. Think of all the breaks the Giants got along the way to their title: Cueto's injury, Brandon Phillips' base-running gaffe, Scott Rolen's error, the Nationals not using Strasburg (which could have turned the Nats-Cardinals series), even facing a mediocre Tigers team (seventh-best record in the AL) in the World Series.
Each of the first four Division Series could have gone the other way but for a single play here and there. Pagan said as much after one World Series game, saying the Giants might not even be here if not for Rolen's error. But it's also true that good teams take advantage of opportunities given to them. The Giants did that and are World Series champs for the second time in three seasons.
They call him Kung Fu Panda. Now they can call him a World Series legend.
Pablo Sandoval, a batter who rarely sees a pitch he doesn’t like, found three pitches he loved in the World Series opener and entered his name alongside three of the biggest names in the history of the game.
Ruth. Reggie. Pujols. Pablo. The only four players to hit three home runs in a World Series game.
Here’s the thing: The first three guys didn’t hit two homers off the reigning best pitcher in the world. The San Francisco Giants beat Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers 8-3 but the score was secondary to one of the great individual performances in World Series history (Sandoval would later add a line-drive single to finish 4-for-4). His trip into the record books:
Home run No. 1: An 0-2 95-mph fastball that Verlander tried to elevate but Sandoval jacked to dead center, a 421-foot rocket of a line drive with two out in the first. It wasn’t necessarily a bad pitch -- eye level -- but Sandoval has the hand-eye coordination to extend the strike zone like few batters. In that regard, he’s similar to two great World Series performers of the past, Yogi Berra and Kirby Puckett, notorious bad-ball hitters. And at least in Puckett’s case, even the similar stocky build.
How unlikely was the home run? Not surprisingly, Verlander hadn’t served up an 0-2 home run all season and only four in his career.
Home run No. 2: After Angel Pagan had doubled off the third-base bag with two out in the third and scored on Marco Scutaro’s sharp single up the middle, Verlander threw Sandoval two changeups in the dirt, prompting a quick visit from pitching coach Jeff Jones. The next pitch was a 95-mph fastball on the outside corner that Sandoval drove to left field, just clearing the fence for a two-run homer. Again, not a terrible pitch, just a terrific swing. Of Sandoval’s 12 regular-season home runs, just two went to left field or left-center, but he hit nine in that direction in 2011, so he has legit opposite-field power.
The amazing thing: None of the three pitches was grooved. Two were outside the strike zone. It was simply three swings for the ages for Kung Fu Panda.
* * * *
It’s easy to say after the fact that Verlander didn’t have it, but the first two batters of the game were an indication this would be tougher going than when he faced the Oakland A’s and New York Yankees. Verlander required six pitches to retire Pagan, who fouled off three fastballs before finally grounding out on a curve. Scutaro grounded out on a 2-1 slider, laying off a tough 1-1 curveball.
The Giants have a completely different approach than the two teams Verlander faced in the American League playoffs. The A’s are a swing-from-the-heels team that set a league record for strikeouts. The Yankees clearly were in midst of a team-wide offensive meltdown. But the Giants play in a tough home run park -- fewer home runs were hit at AT&T this season than any other park -- and play a style that suits their home stadium. Only the Phillies struck out fewer times in the National League, as the Giants work the count, put the ball in play and make the opposing defense make plays.
As dominant as Verlander was in his three previous playoff starts, and even though he was working with plenty of rest, it’s worth noting he was worked hard down the stretch. He has had 12 games of 120-plus pitches this year, including the postseason, and six of those came on Aug. 28 or later. His three starts against the A’s and Yankees featured pitch counts of 121, 122 and 132.
I’m not saying that’s the reason he struggled; give credit to the Giants for a lot of quality at-bats. Pagan and Scutaro are locked in right now and the Tigers will have to figure out a way to keep those two off the bases. Maybe Verlander was also too amped-up, as he was in the All-Star Game. In fact, only twice in the past two years has Verlander failed to pitch at least five innings (other than the rain-delayed playoff game against the Yankees a year ago): Game 1 of the 2012 World Series and Game 1 of the 2011 American League Championship Series. Questions about his ability to stay focused and in the right frame of mind will be there out until his next start.
* * * *
Defense could still play a major factor in this series. Pagan’s double off the bag wasn’t Miguel Cabrera’s fault, although even if he fields that ball I’m not sure he throws out Pagan. Delmon Young was playing left field pretty much over in Oakland, even for weaker hitters such as Gregor Blanco, which made no sense. It didn’t really come into play in this game, although he may have had a chance to throw out Brandon Belt at home plate on Barry Zito’s RBI single in the fourth. Instead, he chunked one of the worst throws you’ll ever see. With Madison Bumgarner starting Game 2, I'm sure we'll see Young out there again. Beware, Tigers fans, beware. Meanwhile, Blanco made two diving catches in left field, an example of the Giants' edge at several positions.
* * * *
Finally, Zito did what he had to do. Bruce Bochy got him out of the game as soon as he got into trouble in the sixth, with Tim Lincecum again looking like a guy who can be a big weapon out of the bullpen. The winners of Game 1 have won eight of the past nine World Series and 13 of 15. But as Wednesday night showed, those are just numbers. We have no idea what is going to happen.
Even though they're trailing in the series, the Giants have to be feeling pretty good. On paper, they arguably rate the edge with both starting pitching matchups -- Ryan Vogelsong over Chris Carpenter in Game 6, and Matt Cain over Kyle Lohse in Game 7. Of course, as we learned with Zito, "on paper" doesn't mean a whole lot. Vogelsong has looked good in his two playoff starts but Carpenter has a long history of playoff success. Cain hasn't had a stellar postseason so far, allowing three runs in each of his three starts and going more than six innings just once. And let's not discount the excellent season Lohse had.
Prediction? Carpenter and the St. Louis bullpen come up big and wrap it up in Game 6.
- Chris Quick looks back at Zito's amazing Friday night and his career with the Giants. How good was Zito? His Game Score of 72 tied for his fourth-best of the season, remarkable considering he was facing a lineup that crushes left-handed pitching.
- Scott Spratt of Baseball Info Solutions looks at the much-maligned Tigers defense on ESPN Insider. Scott points out that several recent World Series participants have been below-average defensive clubs, although the Tigers would have the worst Defensive Runs Saved total since the 2003 Yankees. One key question for Jim Leyland: Does he play Delmon Young in left field when the Tigers are in the National League stadium?
- CC Sabathia will get his elbow examined.
- Jason Linden wraps up the Reds' season with a review of preseason projections.
- Did the Rangers lose their way in 2012?
- Maybe it's time for the Indians to change their name!
Now, for some post-apocalyptic coverage of the Yankees' fall:
- Jonah Keri at Grantland looks at what the Yankees could do for 2013, and maybe why they won't work to get below the $189 payroll tax threshold: "The biggest reason for the Yankees to go full ham is that they're swimming in cash. Forbes estimates that the Yanks reaped $439 million in revenue last year, 42 percent more than the next-highest team, the Red Sox. The owners' effective wealth might be significantly higher, given that the YES Network (partly owned by the Yankees) is a private and wildly profitable enterprise, the franchise's market value is surging every year, and baseball's national TV deal is about to drop an additional $26 million per year into every team's coffers. The Steinbrenners are perfectly entitled to pocket massive profits and cap their spending at whatever level they choose, of course."
- On ESPN Insider, Buster Olney examines the Yankees' possible next moves: "The Yankees will restructure their outfield in some fashion. Brett Gardner will be back, and, although Curtis Granderson was an incredible bust in the postseason, with 16 strikeouts and three hits in 30 at-bats, he has hit 84 homers and driven in 225 runs the past two seasons combined. He's 31 years old; it's a no-brainer for the Yankees to pick up his $13 million option for next season because he still represents a good value in the market. The Yankees almost certainly will turn the page on Nick Swisher, whose repeated postseason struggles have become a problem for an organization that defines itself by postseason success."
- Wally Matthews of ESPNNewYork says heads would have rolled under the old Steinbrenner regime: "The first thing he would do is berate his older son, Hank, for negotiating what is now indisputably the worst contract in the history of professional sports, the deal that extended Alex Rodriguez for 10 more years and a minimum of $275 million."
- Take 'em or trash 'em? ESPNNewYork asks which players the Yankees should keep or dump.
- Joe Posnanski seems ready to bury this Yankees team: "Suddenly, you see questions and concerns everywhere and no sure things anywhere ... but, really, it isn't sudden at all. Everyone could see that the Yankees were getting old. Everyone could see that sooner or later the bill was going to come due on their huge win-now, pay later contracts. ... The most amazing part of this team, I think, is not that they collapsed at the end, but that they managed to squeeze one more great season out of this team first."
Some thoughts on the Giants’ 2-1 victory:
- As dominant as Aroldis Chapman was in the ninth inning, getting two strikeouts while throwing just 15 pitches, I was a little surprised he didn’t come back out for the 10th inning. Chapman pitched more than one inning eight times this season, but only twice after becoming the closer, a 1.2-inning save May 27 and a four-out save Aug. 10. Factoring in the shoulder fatigue that sidelined Chapman for 11 days in September, maybe Reds manager Dusty Baker is wary about using Chapman for more than an inning. The trouble is it’s a big drop-off from Chapman to Jonathan Broxton. Of course, it’s a big drop from Chapman to just about any reliever not named Craig Kimbrel.
- As is, despite giving up two singles to start the inning, Broxton would have escaped the 10th if not for shoddy Reds defense. After he struck out Brandon Belt and Xavier Nady, Ryan Hanigan's passed ball allowed the runners to move up and then Scott Rolen mishandled Joaquin Arias' chopper to third base. The sloppy defense in this postseason continues. Giants manager Bruce Bochy made a couple interesting choices that inning: He let Belt swing away with two on and no out. I would say most managers would have bunted there about 99 percent of the time. I didn’t mind the call. Belt has never had a sacrifice bunt in his brief career and he was the Giants' best chance to deliver a hit. Bochy then let pitcher Sergio Romo hit with runners at first and second. Again, I liked the call. Romo is the Giants’ best reliever; Bochy had used the other relievers you might want to use. Plus, Bochy had used up his bench; only backup catcher Hector Sanchez was left.
- Xavier Nady and Xavier Paul. Discuss. Or not. Man, these two benches are horrible.
- Keith Law and Eric Karabell talked about an interesting point on the Baseball Today podcast today, wondering if the Yankees aren’t better off moving up Robinson Cano in the order. He hit cleanup on Monday, and was left in the on-deck circle as Alex Rodriguez made the final out. Keith’s point is that batting lineups don’t matter all that much, but one obvious benefit of stacking your best hitters at the top is you may get them one more plate appearance. That’s the problem with the Reds batting Zack Cozart and his .288 OBP second. He made the final out, leaving Joey Votto on deck.
- Not to bury Homer Bailey's awesome start. You can see why he pitched a no-hitter two starts ago as he took a no-hitter to two outs in the sixth (although the Giants had scored on a hit-by-pitch, walk and two sacrifices). The walk to No. 8 Brandon Crawford proved especially painful and kudos to pitcher Ryan Vogelsong for a good bunt and Angel Pagan for delivering the sac fly. Considering Bailey had thrown just 88 pitches, you can argue that Baker took him out too early. I can't fault Baker for handing the game to the best bullpen in baseball, but the Giants couldn't touch Bailey on this night.
- Bailey’s game score of 80 was the fourth highest in Reds postseason history, behind Hod Eller’s 89 in Game 5 of the 1919 World Series against a team that wasn’t trying to win (9 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 SO) and Ross Grimsley’s 84 in Game 4 of the 1972 NLCS (9 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 SO). Jose Rijo’s win to clinch the sweep of the A’s in the 1990 World Series (8.1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 9 SO) scores a 91. And, yes, this was just an excuse to mention Hod Eller.
- Brandon Phillips' hustle effort in the first inning when he got thrown out at third base is one of those plays described as a “baserunning error” if you don’t make it but “heads-up baseball” if you do. The argument against trying to get the extra base is that with zero outs there is a little reward if you do make it (you’re already in scoring position) but a huge penalty if you get caught. As it turned out, Vogelsong labored through a 30-pitch inning and Phillips’ hustle cost the Reds a potential big inning.
- Vogelsong did a nice job of settling down after that inning. He walked Votto and Ryan Ludwick in the third, but got Jay Bruce on a fly to left. Bruce swung at the first pitch, which isn’t necessarily the worst idea if he thinks a pitcher is going to groove something after two walks. Bochy hit for Vogelsong leading off the sixth, again not a bad idea considering the circumstances. Vogelsong had thrown 95 pitches, the Reds had Votto and Bruce due up the next inning and the Giants were still hitless at the time. It was the one opportunity Bochy knew he could use Aubrey Huff against a right-hander, without the possibility of the Reds bringing in Sean Marshall or Chapman. Huff just isn’t a big weapon right now.
- As I write this, the Reds haven’t announced their Game 4 starter. It could be Johnny Cueto, but that seems unlikely. It could be Mat Latos, three days after throwing 57 pitches in Game 1. It could be Mike Leake, but to activate him they’d have to replace Cueto, which would make him ineligible for the National League Championship Series, should the Reds advance. If they go with Latos, that would likely mean starting Bronson Arroyo on three days’ rest in a potential Game 5. No easy calls here, but I’d probably go Latos and Arroyo, and rely on the deepest bullpen in the league. The Giants counter with Barry Zito -- and you know Bochy will have a quick hook. The Reds had a .770 OPS against left-handers compared to .710 versus righties, so if Zito struggles early don’t be surprised to see Tim Lincecum again in relief. Should be a good chess match yet again.
1. While the eyes of the baseball world seem to be on every Red Sox-Yankees series, and this is again the ESPN Sunday Night matchup, more than 10 games separate these teams in the standings. Meanwhile out West, the Dodgers and Giants renew their long-time rivalry. Unless the Diamondbacks start figuring things out, it will be Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner starting a playoff game for the NL West champs -- or perhaps will start a playoff game due to the wild card. The Dodgers avoid Bumgarner this weekend, as well as inconsistent Tim Lincecum (you take a guess what he’ll do next outing). The last time these teams met the Dodgers did not score a run, quite literally: Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong and Lincecum helped the Giants outscore the Matt Kemp-less lineup 13-zip. Kemp is back now, Hanley Ramirez is here, too, and it should be more of a fair fight.
2. Say what you will about whether the Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles will be legitimate contenders in September and therefore should be buying at the trade deadline, but naysayers will get a closer look when they meet at Camden Yards, each team firmly in the thick of the wild-card race. This is good for baseball! Oakland’s newfound offensive prowess is scheduled to be tested by Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter and Wei-Yin Chen. Yeah, the Orioles could use a rotation upgrade or two.
3. While Oakland is 16-3 in July, the division-leading Texas Rangers are 8-10. Only Kansas City, the Mets and, of course, Houston have fewer wins this month. The Rangers host the Chicago White Sox, a team that lost all its games last weekend in Detroit, then won all three games when it came home to meet the terrible Twins. Are the White Sox a crew that can stick with the good teams? The White Sox don’t see the Tigers again until the last day of August, and this will be a big test against Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and, at least for now, a scheduled Roy Oswalt on Sunday night. The struggling Josh Hamilton, hitting a mere .194 since June 1 (what does Nolan Ryan think of that?), should enjoy Sunday’s game against Gavin Floyd, who he’s 8-for-13 against. Playoff preview, perhaps?
Three more stats to watch:
15-0, 2.89: Zack Greinke could be a former Milwaukee Brewer before his scheduled Sunday start against the Washington Nationals -- or even by the time you read this -- but those are his career numbers at Miller Park. Nothing to worry about for the team that acquires him, right?
4-0, 1.26: That’s the July combined win-loss record and ERA for Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann, scheduled to pitch in Milwaukee Friday and Saturday. Then on Sunday it’s Gio Gonzalez! Good luck to the defending NL Central champ Brewers, on a six-game losing streak. Meanwhile, keep talking about Stephen Strasburg and innings limits all you want, but the Nationals have depth.
0-3, 10.42: And we end with Red Sox-Yankees. Jon Lester won two of three starts at Yankee Stadium last season, but with a 9.20 ERA. That ERA is still better than Lester’s numbers for this current July. Yeah, he’s struggling. The Yankees will also face Aaron Cook and Felix Doubront.
Have a great weekend!
ESPN.com will be holding its second annual Franchise Player Draft on Thursday afternoon. It's a fun project where we gather 30 ESPN writers and TV personalities and conduct a fictional draft of every player in baseball, asking the question: Whom would you build a team around?
In last year's draft, Tim Lincecum went fifth, the second pitcher selected after Felix Hernandez.
This year? Nobody's going to take a pitcher with a 5.82 ERA.
So what's wrong with the two-time Cy Young winner? In some sabermetric circles, the issues are described as Lincecum merely having a lot of bad luck so far.
1. His batting average on balls in play is high -- .327 versus .281 in 2011 and a career mark of .296. So he's just been unlucky with a few bloops, flares and dying quails, or maybe just some bad defense behind him.
2. His strikeout rate per nine innings is still excellent -- 9.6 K's per nine, a touch higher than 2011 and just a tick below his career average. See? He still has dominant strikeout stuff.
3. He entered Wednesday's start with a .361 average with runners in scoring position? See, more bad luck. No wonder he began the game with a 6.41 ERA.
Add it all up and Lincecum will regress back to more normal levels and return to being one of the best pitchers in baseball over his next 20-plus starts ... just like always.
Maybe all that is true. Maybe some of it is true. But I don't think it's quite so simple.
Let me throw a couple heat maps at you. The first one compares Lincecum's pitch locations versus left-handed batters on 0-1 and 1-1 counts in 2011 versus 2012; the second does the same versus right-handed batters. (These don't include Wednesday's game.)
I think these graphics are pretty instructive. In 2011 against left-handed batters, Lincecum pounded the outside corner or bottom of the strike zone. But in 2012, his hot zones are more up in the strike zone and over the middle of the plate. As a result, Lincecum is getting hit harder on these counts. In 2011, for example, batters hit .205/.237/.323 after falling behind 0-1; in 2012, they're hitting .291/.336/.496 (again, before Wednesday's game).
Against right-handers, he's having similar location issues. In 2011, he had two hot zones on the inside corner of the plate and down in the zone; in 2012, there's a lot more red over the middle of the plate and no red on the inside part of the plate. His strikeout/walk ratio after being ahead 0-1 has declined from 11-to-1 to 4.7-to-1. When he got to a 1-1 count in 2011, batters hit .181; in 2012, .230.
The diagnosis, to me, isn't just bad luck, but location, location, location. This can certainly be seen in his walk rate, which is up by more than a walk per nine innings, but also in his command: He's leaving too many pitches in hittable areas, especially in counts where he usually has hitters at a disadvantage. The result? A higher-than-normal batting average on balls in play.
Hey, I could be completely wrong. I'm sure Lincecum has had some bloops fall in. I'm not sure I buy the bad defense angle, as Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito are all doing just fine.
Lincecum's box score line in the Giants' 4-1 loss to visiting Arizona on Wednesday looked better: 7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 5 BB, 6 SO, 1 HR. (I'm not sure why one run was unearned; Arizona had Miguel Montero on third with one out when a fly ball was hit to Gregor Blanco in right field. He dropped the ball on the transfer, but I believe Montero was tagging up on the play.)
Giants announcer Mike Krukow said he thought he saw Lincecum throw some of his best pitches he'd seen a while, but as you can see with the five walks (one intentional), he was still all over the place. A few examples:
- With Montero on third in the second, he walked Chris Young on five pitches. He threw three consecutive fastballs to Ryan Roberts and the 1-1 pitch looked pretty hittable, although Roberts got jammed slightly and flew out to right.
- In the third, with a runner on first and two out, Montero hit a hard grounder to second that Ryan Theriot made a diving stop on.
- In the fourth, after Paul Goldschmidt had walked, Roberts smoked a 2-0 pitch on a line to left field, but right at Melky Cabrera.
- In the fifth, on a 2-2 count to Gerardo Parra, Lincecum threw a changeup that bounced in the dirt, an obvious ball. Parra walked on the next pitch. A year go, hitters had a .239 OBP against Lincecum after a 2-2 count; this year, .385 (before Wednesday). In 2011, Parra strikes out on that changeup.
- In the sixth, Goldschmidt hit 1-0 curveball on low liner over the left-field fence for the go-ahead home run. It wasn't a terrible pitch, down at the knees, but was over the middle of the plate instead of down and away. Goldschmidt now has 12 career home runs -- four off Lincecum.
So maybe there is some luck evening out -- the diving stop, the liner to Cabrera -- but I saw a pitcher struggling with his control. I'm not expert enough to break down his mechanics, but at one point Krukow examined Lincecum's motion and suggested his release point was out of sync with his landing foot. That would certainly explain some of the command problems.
Look, Lincecum is likely to have better results moving forward, but my take is that will have to come from improved pitch location, hitting the corners and making better pitches when he's 0-1 or 1-1. It hasn't been bad luck; it's been bad pitching.
First base: Barry good. After an 0-3 start following three one-run losses to the Diamondbacks, the Giants turned to Barry Zito against the Rockies at Coors Field. Of course, he threw his first shutout since 2003 and became just the second left-hander to ever throw a shutout there -- Tom Glavine having done it twice. Even more amazing may have been this 11-pitch at-bat Zito mustered off Esmil Rogers. With Buster Posey and Brandon Belt getting the day off the Giants fielded a lineup with Aubrey Huff batting cleanup, Hector Sanchez fifth and Brandon Crawford seventh. Don't worry, Giants fans: Bruce Bochy said Belt will be back in the lineup when the teams meet again on Wednesday.
Second base: Mets win as Nationals throw it away. I wrote on Sunday about the Mets' patient approach at the plate. They drew six walks on Monday and Mike Baxter's pinch-hit leadoff walk off Henry Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth led to the winning run. Ruben Tejada laid down a two-strike bunt that Rodriguez threw away to put runners at second and third. Daniel Murphy then singled in Baxter for a 4-3 win. Jon Rauch threw two hitless innings for the win and the Mets bullpen has allowed just one run in 13.1 innings so far.
Third base: Red-hot Fredi. The curious lineup decision of the night belonged to Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez. He benched Jason Heyward to get Matt Diaz into the lineup, since Diaz was 8-for-15 in his career against J.A. Happ. I suppose playing Diaz is reasonable. But he could have easily moved Martin Prado to third base and put Diaz in left field. Instead, he kept Juan Francisco -- like Heyward a lefty swinger -- in the lineup. Gonzalez's rationale? He wanted to see to how Francisco would fare against a left-handed pitcher in case he's needed later in the season if Chipper Jones can't go. Umm, OK. But why bench Heyward in the season's fourth game? He was 2-for-10 with two walks, a double and triple, hardly a reason to give him a day off. Heyward is still a 22-year-old with superstar potential. Those guys need to play every day. Anyway, the Braves lost 8-3 to the lowly Astros, committed four errors (three by Francisco, the guy Gonzalez had to get in the lineup), they're 0-4 and Gonzalez is undoubtedly the manager on the hottest seat in the bigs right now.
Home plate: Tweet of the day.
I hope Ozzie Guillen clears up His Castro comments. My dad took us away from Cuba for better life in USA.Glad he did.— Jose Canseco (@JoseCanseco) April 10, 2012
- One of my favorite pieces of the season: Colleague Jim Caple reveals all the early spring training storylines.
- The Astros will be wearing their old Colt .45s throwback jerseys this year. However, as Paul Lukas reports, there is one major problems with the replica jerseys: They're not replicas.
- Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts has his spring training primer for the Dodgers. Jon has 22 locks for the Opening Day roster and one of the non-locks may be a surprise to you.
- Some have concerns about the Angels bullpen, but they could have a secret weapon in Bobby Cassevah. I actually think the Angels' pen could end up being a strength, especially if Jordan Walden improves upon his rookie season. Scott Downs, Rich Thompson, Cassevah, LaTroy Hawkins and Hisanori Takahashi provide depth in middle relief. Including Walden, those six combined for a 2.69 ERA in 2011.
- Pro Ball NW takes a look at what to expect from Justin Smoak in 2012 and addresses Eric Wedge's suggestion that Chone Figgins will be given a chance to win the leadoff spot. Look, Wedge is supposed to say nice things about his players early in spring training. I still think the odds are slim that Figgins has anything left after two terrible seasons. The big issue for the Mariners is trying to figure out the logjam at third base in the upper minors. They have (1) Kyle Seager, who profiles more as a utility infielder or second baseman (where he's blocked by Dustin Ackley) but posted a 96 OPS+ in 201 PAs with the Mariners in 2011 (not great, but better than Figgins); (2) Alex Liddi, a 23-year-old who mashed 30 home runs at Tacoma but also hit .259 and struck 170 times; (3) Francisco Martinez, the key guy acquired in the Doug Fister trade, who played most of last season at age 20 in Double-A and hit .289/.321/.426; (4) Vinnie Catricala, one of my favorite players in the minors, who hit .347/.420/.632 in 62 games at Double-A but carries a shaky glove. Personally, I'd like to see Seager win the third-base job, let Liddi play another year in Triple-A, start Martinez in Double-A since he needs to work on his strike-zone appreciation (24 walks in 2011) and move Catricala to left field, where he played some last year.
- Amanda Rykoff, blogger for ESPNW, is a huge baseball fan and has a good primer on some advanced stats -- many of which we mention here all the time and don't always explain to the uninitiated.
- Fun quiz now that potential future Hall of Famer Manny Ramirez signed with the A's: Can you name all 12 Hall of Famers who played for the Oakland A's? Take the SportsNation quiz. You have four minutes. It's harder than you think.
- Blake Street Bulletin is going position-by-position in previewing the Rockies: Third base may not necessarily be given to Casey Blake, not with hotshot prospect Nolan Arenado on the rise.
- Barry Zito is still around. And the Giants may actually need him to generate some value this year, writes Chris Quick.
- Good research piece by J.P. Breen at FanGraphs, looking at which teams have developed the most talent via the draft since 2002. No. 1: the Red Sox. No. 30: the Mariners, with the amazingly low total of just 8.9 WAR. (The study doesn't include international signings like Felix Hernandez.)
Here are three fixes or action items for each club.
1. Rotation (Joe Saunders, eligible for arbitration)
Arizona's rotation posted a 3.84 ERA, only ninth in the NL, but a strong figure considering it had to pitch half its games in the desert. Most impressive, only the Phillies received more innings from their starters. If there's a red flag, it's that the rotation ranked 14th in the NL in strikeouts per nine innings. Saunders is in his final year before free agency, after posting a solid 3.69 ERA over 212 innings, and Arizona might not want to pay him the big increase he'll get from his 2011 salary of $5.5 million. The back of the rotation has an opening as well.
Likely solution: Look for the D-backs to re-sign Saunders to a two-year deal. He doesn't strike out many guys, but Arizona's outfield of Justin Upton, Chris Young and Gerardo Parra might cover the most ground in baseball. Rookies Jarrod Parker, Wade Miley and 2011 No. 1 pick Trevor Bauer should battle for the No. 5 spot out of spring training.
2. Find a leadoff hitter
Arizona's starting eight looks set, but nobody on the roster profiles as a quality leadoff hitter. Arizona leadoff hitters compiled a .314 OBP, with light-hitting Willie Bloomquist leading off most often, 75 times.
Likely solution: Kirk Gibson needs to think outside the box here, with a lefty/righty platoon perhaps necessary. How about Young leading off against lefties? He posted a .392 OBP against them in 2011, and Justin Upton and Paul Goldschmidt can provide power lower in the order. Parra might be the best option against right-handers.
3. Bullpen depth
The bullpen ERA improved from 5.74 in 2010 (worst in the NL) to 3.71 (10th). It helped that it didn't have to throw many innings, but there's no guarantee the rotation will carry such a heavy workload again. Plus, closer J.J. Putz has been injury-prone in his career and guys like Micah Owings and Bryan Shaw were surprising contributors.
Likely solution: Arizona won't spend big here, although a guy like Jonathan Broxton would have been a nice gamble. Look for them to troll for a veteran lefty or make a minor deal.
San Francisco Giants
1. Finder another bat -- one who can hit
The Giants' offensive woes were well-documented, of course -- last in the NL in runs scored, with the lowest on-base percentage. Some of that is the ballpark, some of it was injuries, but there's no denying it was a terrible offensive team.
Likely solution: No, Melky Cabrera is not the only answer. Or shouldn't be. While he had a career year with the Royals, his .339 OBP is hardly star level, and he hit 30 points above his career average. The other outfielders on the roster are Andres Torres and Nate Schierholtz. That's not a division-winning outfield. Brian Sabean: You need Carlos Beltran back. How many more years can you get out of that great young rotation before somebody gets hurt or leaves via free agency? You have to win now. Sign Beltran.
2. Shortstop (Brandon Crawford)
The ill-advised idea to sign Miguel Tejada last season predictably didn't work out. Crawford has the goods on defense, but his .204 batting average is an accurate indicator of his offensive abilities. Crawford remains the default option right now, and while the Giants got into a bizarre bidding war for Bloomquist, Giants fans would love to see a different free-agent shortstop in the Bay Area.
Likely solution: You never know, but there are no signs the Giants are pursuing Jose Reyes or Bay Area native Jimmy Rollins. The Giants signed Javier Lopez to a two-year, $8.5 million deal and picked up Jeremy Affeldt's $5 million option. Why not use some of that money for a shortstop? In the end, unless the Giants sneak in for a second-tier shorstop like Rafael Furcal, it looks like Crawford will be the guy.
3. No. 5 spot in the rotation
The two candidates on the roster right now are Barry Zito (5.87 ERA in 53 innings) and Eric Surkamp (5.74 ERA in six starts as a rookie). As good as Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner are, and as good as Ryan Vogelsong was in 2011, the rotation is one major injury and Vogelsong regression from looking a little shaky.
Likely solution: Surkamp had great numbers at Double-A -- 142.1 IP, 110 hits, 44 BB, 165 SO -- and the Giants skipped him past Triple-A in promoting him to the majors. He's a lefty who isn't overpowering with a fastball that averaged just 87.9 mph in his stint in the majors. Look for Zito to get the job out of spring training: "I'm not gonna hide from it: Barry Zito is our fifth starter next year," Bruce Bochy told KNBR radio station in November.
Los Angeles Dodgers
1. Find a new owner
While the Dodgers were allowed to sign Matt Kemp to a $160 extension, until Frank McCourt sells the club, the bankrupt Dodgers will be hamstrung on moves. McCourt has agreed to sell the team by April 30.
Likely solution: The bidding process starts next week and Mark Cuban says he'll participate. Dodgers fans should love that idea, but baseball previously balked when Cuban looking into buying the Cubs and Rangers. A team of investors fronted by ex-Dodgers Orel Hershiser and Steve Garvey is one possibility. Former agent Dennis Gilbert, who also pursued the Rangers, fronts another group of partners.
Here's how bad the Dodgers' offense was in 2011:
First base: 27th in majors in OPS
Second base: 28th in majors in OPS
Third base: 24th in majors in OPS
Shortstop: 19th in majors in OPS
Likely solution: The Dodgers have already signed Mark Ellis to play second base and Adam Kennedy to help at third, low-cost fixes but hardly great solutions. It looks like another year of James Loney at first base, but maybe it's time to punt on him and try prospect Jerry Sands. Loney has hit just 48 homers over the past four seasons and doesn't walk much. He's a .281 hitter without anything to go with it, and he's due a raise in arbitration over the $4.88 million he made in 2011. The lone bright spot is speed demon shortstop Dee Gordon, who looks to show his .304 rookie season wasn't a fluke. (Juan Uribe is also still around, at $16 million over the next two seasons. Yay.)
3. Rotation (Hiroki Kuroda, free agent)
GM Ned Colletti has indicated the club can't afford to re-sign Kuroda, unless he's willing to take a big cut. (Kuroda has said he'll either sign with the Dodgers or return to Japan). After Clayton Kershaw, Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley, there are two spots to fill.
Likely solution: Cheaper free agent veterans like Aaron Harang or Chris Capuano are possibilities. Trading Andre Ethier for a starter is another option. Look for the No. 5 spot to be filled from within -- somebody like Nathan Eovaldi, Allen Webster or Chris Withrow.
1. Third base (Ian Stewart)
Rockies third basemen hit a combined .222/.281/.348, among the worst production from the position in the majors, as Ty Wigginton earned the majority off the playing time after Stewart collapsed. Stewart hit .156 with zero home runs in 122 at-bats, although he found his stroke at Colorado Springs (of course, everyone finds their stroke at Colorado Springs). Here's the thing about Stewart: Even when he was good, he wasn't that good -- his park-adjusted OPS from 2008 to 2010 still places him as a below-average hitter.
Likely solution: It's possible Stewart gets non-tendered; there's also rumors off a Stewart-for-Blake DeWitt deal with the Cubs (your abscess for our canker sore). Top prospect Nolan Arenado, the Arizona Fall League MVP, hit .298 with 20 home runs at Class A Modesto, but he's just 21 in April and probably needs another season in the minors. The Rockies have also asked about Atlanta's Martin Prado, reportedly offering outfielder Seth Smith.
2. Starting pitcher (Jorge De La Rosa out for at least half the season)
As 2011 proved, it's still difficult to build a consistent rotation in Colorado. The Rockies' rotation compiled a 4.73 ERA, ranking 15th in the NL. Yes, Coors Field is a hitter's park, but it's no longer the Coors Field of old. It was a bad rotation. Right now, Jhoulys Chacin is the only starter who looks like a reliable option for 2012.
Likely solution: What the Rockies have done is collect young, power arms. They got Drew Pomeranz and Alex White for Ubaldo Jimenez; they just picked up Tyler Chatwood from the Angels for Chris Iannetta. Esmil Rogers is still around, and still very raw. A veteran starter acquired via trade is a possibility to line up behind Chacin and Jason Hammel; one guy the Rockies have pursued is Jeremy Guthrie, offering closer Huston Street.
3. Second base (Mark Ellis signed with the Dodgers)
Jonathan Herrera is still around, but the .300 average he posted in April looked more and more like a fluke as the season progressed. He finished at .242, and considering he has no power, isn't a viable short-term or long-term solution.
Likely solution: Look for the Rockies to make a trade pitch for Padres second baseman Orlando Hudson. There isn't much left on the free-agent market, although Kelly Johnson would make for an interesting risk in the thin air if he doesn't re-sign with the Blue Jays.
San Diego Padres
1. Bullpen/closer (Heath Bell, signed with Marlins; Chad Qualls, free agent)
Welcome to San Diego, Josh Byrnes. The new GM will have to figure out how to build a winning club on a payroll of $53-55 million. But you know what? The Padres aren’t that far behind the Diamondbacks. The Padres had a run differential of minus-18; the Diamondbacks had a run differential of plus-69. The Padres would have been expected to win 79 games based on their differential; the D-backs 88. With the departure of Bell and last season’s trade of Mike Adams, the Padres will be looking for bullpen depth.
Likely solution: Ernest Frieri and Luke Gregerson are the best internal candidates, but Frieri needs to improve his control and Gregerson is more of a righty specialist. Rookie Brad Brach, a one-time 42nd-round draft pick who signed for $1,000 has dominated in the minors but probably needs time in middle relief. The Padres won’t spend big on a free agent, so look for a trade.
2. Power (empty)
Ryan Ludwick led the team with 11 home runs. Nobody else reached double digits. And don’t blame the deep canyons of Petco Park -- the Padres hit 45 home runs on the road, fewest in the majors.
Likely solution: None. The Padres’ "big" moves have to been bolster the bench with Mark Kotsay and John Baker. Prospect Anthony Rizzo, who hit 26 home runs in 93 games at Triple-A Reno, will be given another shot at first base after hitting .141 with one home run in 128 at-bats with San Diego. Kyle Blanks is still around, but at 270 pounds, his lack of range in the outfield is a problem. Third-base prospects Jedd Gyorko and James Darnell are both close to big-league ready and provide some hope for punch down the road.
3. Starter (Aaron Harang, free agent)
Mat Latos, Cory Luebke and Tim Stauffer are a solid top three, with Luebke’s season in particular flying under the radar (154 strikeouts in 139.2 innings). The Padres got good work out of Dustin Moseley and Clayton Richard over 38 combined starts, but both guys delivered just 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings and are good bets to regress, even pitching in Petco.
Likely solution: The Padres have offered Harang arbitration, but he’ll probably get a two-year offer from another team. Otherwise, it’s hoping that Moseley and Richard hold their own and that prospects Casey Kelly and Robbie Erlin (acquired in the Adams trade) are ready by midseason.