SweetSpot: Brandon Crawford
The top of the fourth began innocently enough. Pablo Sandoval lined a 2-2 curve into right field for a base hit. Hunter Pence grounded an 0-1 fastball into left field. Brandon Belt worked the count full, checking his swing on a tough 2-2 curve below the knees, setting up a crucial pitch. Volquez gets a strikeout and he has a chance to work out of the jam. Give up something else and he's in serious trouble.
Volquez threw a terrible fastball, up and way out of strike zone to load the bases.
This is the 2012-2013 Belt. Great eye and discipline— Wendy Thurm (@hangingsliders) October 2, 2014
That brought up shortstop Brandon Crawford, who has some surprising pop at times -- 10 home runs and 10 triples, and that's in San Francisco, a tough home run park for left-handed hitters. The count went to 1-2: changeup away, fastball for a called strike, a curveball at the knees that was foul tipped. Volquez threw another curveball, Russell Martin wanting it low and inside again, but the pitch was up and ...
It was sure easy to see that white Brandon Crawford grand slam ball landing among all those black shirts.— Derek Blume (@doc_blume) October 2, 2014
I have never heard a jet-engine loud ballpark get so quiet so fast. It was mute button from the moment that left Crawford's bat.— Andrew Baggarly (@CSNBaggs) October 2, 2014
"And Clint Hurdle is on the phone to the bullpen." Apparently he wasn't concerned by the bases loaded, no outs thing.— SportsPickle (@sportspickle) October 2, 2014
It was a bad pitch and Crawford didn't miss. Batters hit .136 against Volquez on 1-2 counts and he'd allowed only two home runs all season on that count. But one mistake can cost you the season. With Bumgarner dealing at 45 pitches through four innings, a comeback looks unlikely for the Pirates.
But that's what we said last night.
I know some of you may not believe this considering the recent history of the San Francisco Giants and what they just did to the Atlanta Braves, but the first thing to know about the 2014 Giants is that this is a team built around its offense, not its starting rotation.
The second thing to know is related to the first: Some of the Giants’ statistics are skewed by playing in a park that heavily helps pitchers, leading to a somewhat popular misconception that this is still a team built around its rotation.
The third thing to know is that this a team of stars and big names -- Buster Posey, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval -- but also a team with two of the more underrated players in the game in Angel Pagan and Brandon Crawford.
The fourth thing to know is the offense hasn’t necessarily kicked it into high gear.
The fifth thing to know is the Giants are 20-11, have won five in a row and nine of 10, suddenly have the second-best record in the majors, and that rotation that I just said is perhaps a bit overrated just helped the Giants sweep the Braves in Atlanta by allowing one run in each of the three games.
Madison Bumgarner helped complete the impressive road sweep on Sunday with maybe his best outing of the season, allowing three hits and an unearned run in six innings while recording nine strikeouts and one walk. Bumgarner had been giving hits at a high rate -- he’d allowed more hits than innings in each of his previous six starts -- so this game was a refreshing return to dominance. Eighty of the 95 pitches he threw were fastballs and sliders.
"I still felt like I got behind a lot of times when I wanted to get ahead, but it’s a big step forward," Bumgarner said.
He was able to put away the strikeout-prone Braves with high fastballs -- six of his nine strikeouts came on fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone or out of the zone. His average fastball velocity in 2014 has been 91.5 mph, but those high fastballs were 93, 94, 93, 93, 92 and 92. The final one was use to to strike out Evan Gattis swinging in the sixth inning with a runner on third and the Giants up 2-1.
Sunday’s other big hero was shortstop Brandon Crawford, who homered twice -- one off lefty Alex Wood (a rarity for Crawford) and then a two-run shot of off Jordan Walden in the eighth. That home run came off a 2-1 fastball after Crawford’s checked-swing on a 2-0 pitch was ruled a swing. When things are going well, a checked-swing strike can even turn into a good thing.
"I guess I’m kind of glad I went around though,” Crawford told MLB.com. “It would have been a 3-0 count and I probably would have had the take sign."
Crawford is sort of the unsung glue to the Giants. He’s a plus defender -- you saw him at his best in the 2012 postseason when he made several spectacular plays -- with just enough pop at the plate to go beyond automatic out status. He hit .248/.311/.363 last season, but in this new era of impaired offense that made him nearly a league average hitter once you adjust for AT&T Park.
In 2014, he’s off to a .264/.361/.473 start, including a .438 average against left-handers in 39 plate appearances with seven of his 11 extra-base hits coming against southpwas. He hit just .199 against lefties in 2013, so if real improvement is happening here, Crawford is going to be better than the 2.1 WAR he provided last year.
The other unheralded guy on the Giants is center fielder Angel Pagan, off to a .327/.364/.469 start with 15 RBIs from the leadoff spot. While the Giants were relatively healthy in 2013, Pagan’s hamstring injury was the one major injury the team suffered as he played just 71 games. While he’s not a big home run hitter, he does provide extra-base power from the leadoff spot -- he had 38 doubles and 15 triples in 2012 -- and seems to be the energizer guy. When he’s going well, it seems the Giants follow suit.
OK, about those home runs from the rest of the lineup: The Giants haven’t been known for their home run hitting since Barry Bonds was cranking long balls into McCovey Cove -- they were sixth in the NL in 2010, but 11th in 2011, last in 2012 and next-to-last in 2013.
This year? They’re second in the majors behind only the Coors-inflated Rockies. With 41 home runs, the Giants have as many as NL rest rivals Arizona and San Diego combined. The team is hitting only .238, but that’s maybe why the rest of the NL West should be worried about this 20-11 start. Yes, Crawford and Pagan are playing well, Michael Morse has been in full beast mode and Tim Hudson has been doing his best Greg Maddux impersonation (4-1, 2.17, two walks in 45 2/3 innings) but Sandoval is hitting .170, Brandon Belt has a .279 OBP, Hunter Pence is slugging just .400 and Posey was hitting .224 a week ago. There is room for this offense improve, given good health.
I didn’t know what to make of the Giants heading into the season. They were pretty bad in 2013, winning 76 games and getting outscored by 62 runs, a total significant enough to suggest you couldn’t write the season of to some bad breaks here and there. Yes, they were World Series champs in 2012, but that was a team of marginal quality for a World Series winner, a team that got hot at the right time and faced adversity with poise and confidence.
I saw a team that had brought back Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong to the rotation and while Barry Zito was punted to the curb, Hudson was coming off a broken ankle and was 38 years old. The addition of Hudson and the minor addition of the injury-prone Morse, coming off a horrible 2013, didn’t seem like enough. The rotation was 24th in the majors in rotation ERA in 2013 and 27th in FanGraphs WAR; would it really be much better in 2014? Were there reasons to expect a big comeback season from Lincecum or Vogelsong to pitch like he did in October of 2013?
Maybe the rotation doesn't have to be the dominant force it once was. The rotation entered Sunday’s games once again ranked 27th in FanGraphs WAR, and while the bullpen has been lights out (1.86 ERA), the Giants have jumped out to a great start for reasons other than those named Cain or Lincecum.
The Giants are the best team in the NL West. Just maybe not for the reasons you think.
But now he's hitting -- and most surprisingly, hitting with power. His .271/.349/.521 line includes five home runs, five doubles and two triples, and Bruce Bochy moved him to the second spot in the lineup on Wednesday. That was as much because Marco Scutaro had the night off as Crawford's hot bat, but it still shows Bochy's confidence in his improvement.
I asked Giants fans on Twitter what they think of Crawford's improvement, but before I run some responses, a few notes about his season so far:
- His walk and strikeout rate have both improved. In fact, his .288 BABIP is lower than last year's .307 mark.
- His home runs are a bit of a fluke as 25 percent of the fly balls he's hit have left the park, a figure that would have ranked fourth in the majors last year -- alongside sluggers like Chris Davis, Pedro Alvarez and Curtis Granderson.
- He's actually been hitting a lot of groundballs -- 8 percent more ofthen than last season.
- He's hitting fewer infield pop-ups -- 14 last season, just one so far this year, perhaps a sign that some of his mechanical adjustments are working.
- He's swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone (about 4 percent less) and making more contact within the zone (6.5 percent more).
Put all that together, and some of the improvement looks real to me. He's not going to hit 29 home runs, but the deeper stats suggest a hitter who has improved.
Some responses from Giants fans:
@WolfmanZack145: "he says he fixed a hitch. He's always had a decent approach, surprise power. Line drive kinda swing."
@SFBleacherGirl: "Supposedly changed his mechanics where he’s more upright and holds his hands higher. Also changed 2-strike approach"
@rewFer: "started hitting better in the second half last year. Carried over."
@BChad50: "I'll be the 1st to point out I'm no scout, but I've always thought he looked like someone that should hit better. And it wasn't any one thing. He seemed to show some patience, and the swing looked like it should result in hits."
@kjellthomas: "Rumor has it that Posey told him to chill out with 2 strikes and never worry about striking out. Just relax and hit the ball."
1. I am not a liar 2. I would not make that stuff up 3. My own dad doesn't speak to me that way 4. Again I am not a liar #accountability
— David Price (@DAVIDprice14) April 28, 2013
Think our entire dugout would ERUPT cause an ump told me to throw the ball over the plate? No, I'm sorry that wouldnt happen #accountability
— David Price (@DAVIDprice14) April 28, 2013
Here's the most important takeaway from the David Price-Tom Hallion incident on Sunday: Hallion missed the call.
Price thought he had struck out Dewayne Wise to end the seventh inning on a pitch on the outside of the corner. He even took a step to the dugout, but Hallion didn't ring up Wise. Price got Wise on the next pitch but after the game said Hallion swore at him.
"I'm walking off the mound, I'm just mad at myself," Price said. "I didn't say a single word or look at him. He [Hallion] yells at me." Hallion told a pool reporter, "I'll come right out bluntly and say he's a liar. I said, 'Just throw the ball.' That's all I said to him."
Something is fishy, but let's start here. Don't call the player a liar if you got the call wrong. Below is the location of the five pitches to Wise; the fourth one is the one in question.
Is Hallion a bad umpire? We can't go off one game, so let's check the season numbers: He ranks 64th of the 74 umpires who have umped at least one game behind home plate, with a correct percentage of 85.3. But that's only seven games. What about last year? Hallion ranked 66th of 82 umpires at 86.3 percent. In 2011, Hallion ranked 65th of 83 umpires. I think the trend is pretty clear: Hallion isn't very good at calling balls and strikes. He's not the worst, but he's a long way from the best.
He's a crew chief who began his major league career in 1985; he should know better than to offer a comment when asked about Price, let alone call the player a liar. Even if there was a misunderstanding, he should keep his mouth shut; umpires should always remain in the shadow.
In the end, the missed call to Wise didn't matter. Wise grounded out, and the Rays broke open a 3-3 game with three runs in the eighth and two in the ninth to give Price his first win of the season. But this little incident is a reminder: It's never good news when you're reading about umpires. We're stuck with them -- and the job is tough -- but we shouldn't be stuck with umpires who publicly call out pitchers they have to call balls and strikes on.
REST OF THE WEEKEND
1. Anibal Sanchez, Tigers. Sanchez did something Justin Verlander hasn't done, something Jack Morris or Jim Bunning or Hal Newhouser never did in a Tigers uniform: He struck out 17 batters in beating the Braves 1-0 on Friday night, the first win of an impressive sweep for the Tigers as they outscored the Braves 25-7. Sanchez set the Tigers' franchise record for strikeouts -- Mickey Lolich twice fanned 16 in 1969 -- and did it in eight innings. Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman each fanned four times, as Atlanta K'd 18 times altogether. Sanchez also became just the fifth AL pitcher since 1920 to fan at least 17 with one walk or fewer, joining Roger Clemens (twice), Johan Santana, Vida Blue and Luis Tiant.
2. Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals. Zimmermann tossed a one-hit shutout over the Reds on Friday -- a night after Gio Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano had one-hit the Reds. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Zimmermann didn't allow a single hard-hit ball and was especially dominant with his slider, throwing it a season-high 20 times as the Reds went 0-for-8 against it. Amazingly, the Reds became the fourth team since 1920 to have one or fewer in back-to-back games, joining the 2008 Astros, 1996 Tigers and 1965 Mets.
3. Russell Martin, Pirates. The Pirates took two out of three from the Cardinals, with Martin hitting a big home run in Saturday's 5-3 win and two more in Sunday's 9-0 shutout. The Pirates are 8-2 in their past 10 games, winning series against the Cardinals, Phillies and Braves.
Clutch performance of the weekend
Yoenis Cespedes, A's. With Cespedes on the DL, the A's had lost eight of nine. They were staring at an 8-6 deficit when Cespedes stepped in with one out and one on in the bottom of the ninth in his first game since April 12. With Orioles closer Jim Johnson having pitched in four of the team's previous five games, Buck Showalter had lefty Brian Matusz face Cespedes, but Cespedes ripped a low slider out to left-center and tied the game with a long home run, and the A's won in the 10th on a throwing error by third baseman Manny Machado (who tried to throw out a runner at third on a sac bunt).
Padres 8, Giants 7 (Saturday). The Giants jumped out to a 5-0 lead after two innings, but the Padres rallied for six off Barry Zito in the bottom of the fourth (including a great move by Bud Black to hit for pitcher Eric Stults with Jesus Guzman, who delivered a two-run single). The Giants retook the lead, but the Padres tied it up in the bottom of the seventh. Both bullpens were stellar into the 12th, with the Padres finally beating Giants closer Sergio Romo when Marco Scutaro booted what could have been an inning-ending double-play ball. OK, the Zimmermann game was pretty good as well -- he outdueled Homer Bailey and threw just 91 pitches while Bailey threw just 89 in seven innings. Good luck seeing another game this year that features just 194 pitches.
Hitter on the rise: Brandon Crawford, Giants
Is the light-hitting defensive whiz really hitting .291/.361/.547? He hit his fifth home run on Saturday -- one more than he hit last season.
Pitcher on the rise: Lance Lynn, Cardinals
After a sluggish start, some fans wondered whether Lynn -- who dropped 40 pounds in the offseason -- had dropped too much weight. But he's allowed just three hits and one run over 14 innings in his past two starts.
Team on the rise: Yankees
Wait a minute, they've made the playoffs every year except one since 1995! What are they rising from? What about preseason predictions of their demise? The Yankees swept the Blue Jays over the weekend, the bats are hitting home runs, the rotation is solid, David Phelps and David Robertson have pitched some key innings in the pen and Mariano Rivera looks like he only has another seven or eight years in him. The Yankees have some overachievers early on (Vernon Wells, the now-injured Francisco Cervelli), but as long as CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte continue to pitch well, they should hang in the AL East hunt.
Team on the fall: Angels
The Giants have lost five straight, including a sweep to the Padres, but the Angels lost three of four in Seattle and are staring at the same lousy April they had a year ago. Will Mike Scioscia still be managing the club this time next week?
So here we go: The 2013 SweetSpot All-Underrated team, guys who don't seem to receive as much national acclaim as they deserve. Note: It's hard to be underrated if you play for an East Coast team, especially ones named "Yankees" or "Red Sox."
C -- Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
Had a breakout season with the bat last year, hitting .320 with 12 home runs in between a stint on the DL for breaking his hand when a suitcase fell on it. Aside from his offense, statheads know Lucroy as one of the best pitch-framers in the business. Assuming he stays away from suitcases, the Brewers will reap benefits from his team-friendly contract: He'll make $15 million through 2017.
1B -- Allen Craig, Cardinals
Craig is still looking for his first home run of 2013, but a year ago he replaced Albert Pujols and hit .307/.354/.522 -- that's a higher on-base and slugging percentage than Pujols had with the Angels. Craig hit over .300 in the minors but his lack of a defensive home kept him off prospect lists and he didn't play 100 games in a major league season until last year, when he was already 27. He's a late bloomer but that doesn't mean he can't rake.
2B -- Neil Walker, Pirates
Unlike Craig, Walker seemed to spend forever on prospect lists, first as a catcher, then as a third baseman. He's settled in at second base, but playing for Pittsburgh his solid ability at the bat goes unnnoticed. He's not a star, but a solid contributor who should hit .280 with 12-15 home runs and adequate defense.
3B -- Kyle Seager, Mariners
Seager got off to a bad start and Karabell told me ESPN fantasy owners were dropping him like Raul Ibanez drops flies. Oh, the rash judgments of April. After a two-hit night Monday, Seager is up to .276/.337/.487. Unheralded coming up through the Seattle system, he has proved to be a better hitter than his North Carolina teammate, Dustin Ackley.
SS -- Brandon Crawford, Giants
OK, OK ... do I think his hot start with the bat is for real? No. Crawford has never really hit. But he's kind of a poor man's Andrelton Simmons, and while everyone raves about Simmons' ability in the field, nobody talks much about Crawford's. Just show them your ring, Brandon.
LF -- Josh Willingham, Twins
Willingham has put up good numbers at the plate for years -- including a monster 35-homer, 110-RBI season last season -- but he has played for the Marlins, Nationals, A's and Twins when they all had bad seasons and has never appeared in a postseason game. He may get that chance this year if the Twins trade him to a contender. (Not that the Twins can't contend! You never know!)
CF -- Shin-Soo Choo, Reds
He's finally getting some recognition thanks to his hot start (.366 average, better-than-Votto .521 OBP), but even then some people just want to talk about his shaky defense in center. He was a good player for the Indians for several years before coming to Cincy and I see his first All-Star Game in his future.
RF -- Norichika Aoki, Brewers
He came over from Japan last year and quietly hit .288/.355/433, lashed out 51 extra-base his, stole 30 bases and played a very good right field. He also made appearances as Bernie Brewer and at least four times raced as the Italian sausage.
SP -- Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
Quick: Which starting pitcher has led the AL in ERA since last July 1? I hope you guessed Iwakuma. In 20 games, he has a 2.44 ERA, edging out Justin Verlander's 2.51 mark, and held batters to a .225 average. He's off to a great start in 2013, with a 1.69 ERA through four starts and just 12 hits in 26.2 innings. His fastball isn't overpowering, but he gets away with throwing 90 mph fastballs up in the zone and mixing a good splitter.
SP -- Mike Minor, Braves
I'll break my East Coast rule to include Minor, who also has been dominant since last July 1, with a 2.00 ERA that is second in the majors only to teammate Kris Medlen. I believe he's for real.
What do you think? Whom would you put on your All-Underrated Team?
By the way, check out the video. Who do I think is overrated? You may be surprised.
1. Brandon Crawford's defense. I know, I get it. Maybe you live on the East Coast. You don't watch much baseball from the left side of the country. So maybe you were surprised watching the Giants in the postseason and seeing Crawford's D, especially his cannon of an arm. Crawford ranked third among NL shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved at plus-12 and it's going to be fun watching him and Atlanta's Andrelton Simmons compete for Gold Gloves in upcoming years.
2. Oakland's outfield defense. The Braves may have had one of the best outfield defenses in decades last year with Michael Bourn, Jason Heyward and Martin Prado, but with Bourn a free agent my pick for best outfield in 2013 goes to the A's. In Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, the A's have two of the best arms in the business. Cespedes was inconsistent in center but will move full time to left field, clearing the way for Chris Young to take over in center. He was an elite defender with the Diamondbacks (fourth among outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved over the past three seasons) and should be an improvement over Coco Crisp, who will presumably shift to a backup role, but he can fill in at all three spots and provide average defense. There's a reason Oakland's young pitching staff was good last year and a reason it should be good once again.
3. David Hernandez's slider. I mentioned Hernandez on my Team USA roster piece Monday and how he quietly developed into one of the game's premier relief pitchers in 2012. Hernandez sets up his slider with a mid-90s fastball and if he gets ahead in the count, the slider is deadly. In 112 plate appearances ending with a slider in 2012, batters hit just .088 ... with 71 punchouts. J.J. Putz is back as closer but Hernandez is the big weapon in Arizona's bullpen.
4. Steve Delabar's splitter. The Blue Jays picked up Delabar in midseason last year from the Mariners for backup outfielder Eric Thames. Delabar -- you may know him as the former school teacher with a steel plate and screws in his arm -- held opponents to a .193 average and fanned 92 in 66 innings. Like Hernandez, a mid-90s fastball sets up his off-speed pitch and batters hit just .148 off his split. Delabar's fastball is pretty straight and he needs to curb his home runs -- he allowed 12, although just three after joining the Jays -- to become an elite reliever in Hernandez's class, but if he does that the Toronto bullpen will be much improved.
5. Ross Detwiler's fastball. The Nationals are the best team in baseball entering the season in large part because of the depth of their rotation. Detwiler would be a No. 2 on many teams, but in Washington he's the No. 4 or 5 guy. He went 10-8 with a 3.40 ERA in his first full season in the rotation. He throws his fastball more than any starter in baseball, about 80 percent of the time. It's really a hard sinker, so while Detwiler may not generate the big strikeout totals he does induce groundballs -- just over 50 percent last year. Detwiler crushed lefties -- .170/.255/.259 -- so if he can improve his curveball and changeup against right-handers, he can take his game to the next level. And make the Nats that much tougher.
A few thoughts before Sunday's game.
- Asked before Game 4 if he thought Prince Fielder was pressing or trying too hard, Jim Leyland said, "No, I don't think so. I think he's hit some balls hard that have been caught, and then he's had some other games where he hasn't swung quite as good." Prince himself had said after Game 3 that pressing is just a word used when you're not hitting well. In looking at the numbers, however, Fielder has been a little less patient. During the regular season, he swung at 27 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, but that figure is 40 percent during the postseason. Overall, he's swung at 50 percent of the pitches he's seen in the postseason compared to 43 percent during the regular season. Leyland is right in that Fielder has hit into some bad luck, but Fielder has been more aggressive than normal.
- It's not just bad luck that many of the Tigers' line drives keep finding San Francisco gloves. Sitting out in the left field bleachers on Saturday, it was easy to see Gregor Blanco moving around for every batter -- in, back, left, right. A couple times I saw him make a signal toward Angel Pagan. I'm not saying the Tigers don't adjust, but I don't think their outfielders are moving around from batter to batter like the Giants outfielders. "I think it says a lot about our team athleticism," shortstop Brandon Crawford said before Game 4. "I know Blanco has made a couple catches that have taken away runs. Marco's play against the Cardinals and mine last night stopped a possibility of a rally starting."
- Tim Lincecum's has been Bruce Bochy's secret weapon out of the pen. In his pregame press conference, Bochy said he'd prefer not to use Lincecum, although he'd wait until batting practice when pitching coach Dave Righetti talks to Lincecum to see how the two-time Cy Young winner feels. There's no urgency to use Lincecum tonight with the three-game lead and with Cain likely to at least get you into the sixth inning, Bochy has a well-rested pen he can use. Better to give Lincecum the day off and have him available if you need him in Game 5 or 6.
- Gary (@2charms) asked me on Twitter: "I'd like to see research on WS champions & # of layoff days, the correlation. ie how many champs w 6, w 5, w 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 etc." I went back to 1995. The World Series champion has averaged 3.5 days off between the LCS and Game 1 of the World Series. The World Series loser has averaged 3.4 days off. People remember 2006 when the Tigers had six days off and the St. Louis Cardinals one and the Cardinals won in five games, or 2007 when the Colorado Rockies had eight days off and the Boston Red Sox two and the Red Sox won. The Tigers had five days off this year. But it has worked the other way as well: The Philadelphia Phillies had six days off in 2008 versus Tampa's two; the New York Yankees had six days off in 1996 versus the Atlanta Braves' two. If the Tigers lose, it won't be because they were rusty.
- Quintin Berry is back in the Detroit lineup, hitting second again. It's not like Leyland has a better option. Andy Dirks is hitless in the World Series, but he's a better hitter than Berry. One thing is that Leyland isn't pulling a Joe Girardi and suddenly deciding to play his bench players. "Our lineup is what it is, and we're playing in the World Series," Leyland said. "I'm not afraid to make adjustments, but down three games to none, it's a little late for changing a lineup, I think." I will say that Leyland's philosophy makes a lot more sense than than desperation Girardi employed in the ALCS.
- Matt Cain hasn't been lights out this postseason, although he did managed to blank the Cardinals for 5.2 innings in his previous start. He gives up a lot of fly ball outs, so the Tigers' best hope for beating him is to connect on a couple home runs. There just isn't enough productivity in the Detroit lineup right now (catcher Alex Avila will also not start after getting hit by a foul ball in Game 3) to string together long rallies of base hits. If the wind is blowing out all game, maybe that's a break the Tigers can catch. But if I had to predict, I'll say the Giants take another low-scoring game, say 3-1, and win their second title in three years.
DETROIT -- We can go silly overanalyzing three baseball games, so let’s keep it simple: The Detroit Tigers are a stars-and-scrubs team. If the stars aren’t delivering, it’s going to be an uphill climb. And now that climb is Mount Everest.
In Game 1, Justin Verlander didn’t deliver. In Game 2, Prince Fielder grounded into a crucial double play with the score 0-0 in the seventh inning. In Game 3 on Saturday night at Comerica Park, Fielder and Miguel Cabrera both had their chances. With two on in the first, Fielder grounded into a 4-6-3 double play, with Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford nicely turning two as Cabrera barreled down on him. In the fifth, Cabrera batted with the bases loaded, two out and the Tigers down two runs, but Ryan Vogelsong induced Cabrera to pop out to shortstop.
When that ball fell harmlessly into Crawford’s glove, the air was sucked out of Comerica. You had the feeling the game -- and perhaps the World Series -- ended there, with the best hitter in baseball unable to knock in runs the Tigers desperately needed. Oh, Comerica tried to come to life a couple times after that -- when Anibal Sanchez struck out Angel Pagan to end the top of the seventh and when Cabrera led off the bottom of the eighth -- but the fans were muted by the cold air and wind and the big, fat zero on the scoreboard.
The final score: Giants 2, Tigers 0, the Giants now 27 outs from a World Series sweep after becoming the first team with consecutive shutouts in the World Series since the 1966 Orioles.
Cabrera and Fielder are now 3-for-19 in the series, without an extra-base hit and with one RBI that came in Game 1, trailing by six runs. (Austin Jackson has a .500 OBP in the series, so it's not like they've been hitting with the bases empty every time.)
"I wouldn’t say it’s pressing," Fielder said after the game. "That’s just a word you use when you’re not playing well."
I happen to agree with Fielder. There will be a lot of opinions out there tomorrow or if the Tigers go down in Game 4 that Cabrera and Fielder pressed or choked or whatever label you wish to apply. Teams struggle for short stretches like this all the time in the regular season, of course; such stretches are unremarkable in the midst of 162 games. The difference is in the regular season there's a next day. For Fielder and Cabrera, there's only one more tomorrow to snap out of their mini-slumps.
* * * *
Vogelsong wasn’t near as dominant in this start as in his two in the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals, when he allowed just eight hits and three walks in 14 innings, but he scuffled through 104 pitches in 5.2 innings and got the big outs when he needed them -- the Fielder double play in the first, a Quintin Berry double play in the third, the Cabrera popup. He gave up five hits, walked four and struck out three. Here’s how rare his outing was: Since 1990, a starting pitcher has had four walks and three strikeouts in a postseason game 25 times; each time the starter allowed at least one run and the average was 3.2 runs allowed.
I’ve written enough about Young, so I’ll skip him other than to mention he had a .279 OBP against right-handed pitchers in the regular season. Berry, back in the lineup with a right-handed pitcher starting, was a nice story this year: Essentially an organizational player, signed last November as a minor league free agent, he’d been let go by the Phillies, Mets and Reds in his career. Called up in late May after an injury, he had a hot few weeks and Jim Leyland and the Tigers kind of fell in love with him. He can run (21-for-21 in stolen bases) and his glove was a big improvement over the likes of Young and Brennan Boesch in the outfield.
But Berry has no business batting second in a World Series game. Since July 1, he hit .224/.285/.312 (BA/OBP/SLG), which is probably a fair assessment of his abilities. OK, he can run and none of other Tigers except Jackson and Omar Infante can. But he killed the Tigers in Game 3: the double play, striking out with the bases loaded and one out ahead of Cabrera’s popup, and then striking out feebly against a Tim Lincecum changeup in the seventh (OK, a lot of hitters have done that through the years).
Look, Berry is the kind of underdog you root for, but he was exposed in this game.
* * * *
Give credit to Sanchez for a strong performance. Unfortunately, he had one bad inning -- the second, when he seemed to lose his fastball command. He walked Hunter Pence on four straight pitches to start the frame, which isn’t easy to do. That began a laborious 31-pitch inning, with the key hit being Gregor Blanco’s one-out triple to deep right-center on a 3-2 slider. With two outs, Sanchez fell behind Crawford with a first-pitch changeup and Crawford then lined a 1-1 fastball just in front of Jackson for the Giants’ second run.
* * * *
Speaking of Crawford, he turned two nice double plays and made a diving stop and throw to take a hit away from Cabrera to begin the eighth. He did make an error later that inning, but he’s played an outstanding shortstop throughout the playoffs. Looks like a kid who will be winning some Gold Gloves in the future.
* * * *
Finally, kudos to the Giants’ new secret weapon: relief pitcher Lincecum, who threw 2.1 hitless innings with three strikeouts. His dominant performance allowed Bochy to easily bridge the gap to closer Sergio Romo with just one middle reliever. It certainly makes managing a little easier when you can minimize the use of your bullpen (you never know which guy may not have it that night) and not worry about LOOGYs and ROOGYs. Old school, baby.
* * * *
There isn't much to analyze now. Blanked in two consecutive games, the Tigers now have to face Giants ace Matt Cain. Before Game 1, I thought the key decision looming over the series was Bochy's decision to start the struggling Madison Bumgarner in Game 2, which meant Cain would be lined up for just one start. Well, now Cain has a chance to pitch the clinching game of a World Series. The Giants have won six in a row and their starters have a 0.47 ERA over that span.
The Tigers turn to Max Scherzer, who is certainly capable of a big game. He's allowed just two runs in his two playoff starts, although he was pulled in the sixth inning both games with his pitch counts in the 90s. Even if he shuts down the Giants, Leyland will likely need some length from his bullpen. It's certainly possible and a win means Verlander in Game 5 and then Tigers fans can start dreaming of the impossible ...
SAN FRANCISCO -- This was the Madison Bumgarner Giants fans saw most of the season: the pitcher with impeccable control, the ability to get inside on right-handed batters, generate ground balls and change speeds. This was the pitcher who had become one of the best young left-handers in the game, not the guy who had struggled in recent weeks.
Bumgarner justified manager Bruce Bochy’s faith in choosing him to start Game 2 over Tim Lincecum or Ryan Vogelsong, leading the Giants to a 2-0 victory and sweep of the first two games. He threw seven shutout innings, an efficient 86 pitches with eight strikeouts and just two hits allowed, one of those being an infield single. It was a dominant effort.
Amazingly, the day before, Bumgarner himself didn’t seem to know what to expect. Through his first 25 starts he had a 2.83 ERA and had allowed a .218 opponents' average. But he had struggled since an August start against the Dodgers when he threw 123 pitches. Since then he’d posted a 6.85 ERA. His fastball velocity had dipped and he appeared fatigued in his previous playoff start, against the Cardinals. Batters had feasted off his fastball, hitting .400 against it his past nine starts.
Before Game 1, he hesitantly suggested he and pitching coach Dave Righetti had resolved his issues. “I think we were going through some mechanical issues that -- just some small things that might have affected my arm and made it more difficult to throw, and I think that’s really all it was,” he said. “I think we’ve got it fixed. Like I said before, there’s no way to tell 100 percent until you get out there and get going game speed.”
I think we’re 100 percent sure now.
* * * *
Doug Fister -- despite taking a line drive off his head in the second inning -- matched Bumgarner zero for zero through six innings, albeit with one caveat: not with the same efficiency.
That set up the key decision of the game. With Hunter Pence leading off the bottom of the seventh, Fister had thrown 108 pitches. Pence hits right-handed, followed by three lefties. Jim Leyland had right-hander Octavio Dotel and rookie lefty Drew Smyly warming up. If Leyland brings in Dotel -- probably his best option against right-handed hitters -- it’s probably for just one hitter with the string of lefties due up.
Leyland decided to leave in Fister for one more batter; he’d thrown more than 108 pitches seven times, so it wasn’t uncharted territory. Pence had flied out twice against him and has looked feeble most of the postseason. There were certainly cries on Twitter suggesting Leyland should have pulled Fister. I see it both ways. I can certainly see Leyland’s desire to hold back Dotel to possibly face Marco Scutaro and Buster Posey later in the game. It's easy to criticize Leyland since the decision didn't work out and in this day and age few managers want to lose game when a starter is over 100 pitches.
That brought in Smyly, who walked Brandon Belt on a 3-2 slider up out of the zone. Gregor Blanco then placed a bunt down the third-base line, the ball rolling to a stop on the dirt between the grass and the baseline. Catcher Gerald Laird had no option but to let the ball go; it was just a perfect bunt by Blanco. Brandon Crawford grounded into a double play but that scored the game’s first run.
Leyland did have another option there. Use Phil Coke instead of Smyly. Coke, of course, had defaulted into the closer's role after Jose Valverde's postseason implosion and pitched well in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. Normally, the seventh inning -- especially against the left-handers -- would have been Coke's inning, followed by Joaquin Benoit and Valverde. Instead, Leyland trusted a rookie with little experience pitching in relief. Coke did finally get into the game -- in the eighth, with the Tigers now trailing 2-0.
"Probably if Valverde was ready, probably would have had Coke in that situation, but Smyly did fine," Leyland said. "He got a little bit wild there, but he got a couple big outs. He got the double-play ball and gave us our shot at it."
A 114th pitch. A slider meant to be a few inches outside left over the plate. A perfect bunt. The little things.
* * * *
One more little thing that can matter: sliding. In the top of the second with none out, Prince Fielder was hit by a pitch and Delmon Young doubled just inside the third-base bag. As the ball bounced away from left fielder Blanco, third-base coach Gene Lamont waved home Fielder. First, the wave. With nobody out, you had better be pretty sure Fielder is going to score. In fact, you had better be just about absolutely sure Fielder is going to score.
According to sabermetrician Tom Tango’s run-scoring matrix, an average team would be expected to score about 2.05 runs with runners at second and third and no outs; with a runner on second and one out, the average run production is about 0.7 runs. That data is from 1993 through 2010, so the run-scoring environment is a little lower now, and of course you would have to adjust based on upcoming hitters and so forth. Still, Lamont’s decision was about a 1.3-run decision. Fair or not, he made the wrong one.
Blanco’s relay throw actually airmailed shortstop Crawford, but Scutaro -- him again! -- was backing up and threw home to catcher Posey, and replays showed he tagged Fielder on his shoe and/or rump just before he slid across the plate. If Fielder had slid to the back part of the plate, he probably would've been safe, as Posey would have had to stretch to make the tag. That’s asking a lot from Fielder, however; he's not paid to slide expertly into home plate. Yes, the next two Tigers hitters popped out and struck out, so maybe Fielder wouldn’t have scored, but it’s kind of like time travel: That play changes everything that potentially comes after.
Then, in the top of the fourth, Omar Infante was picked off first and caught at second. With a better slide -- he dragged his foot behind him -- he might have been called safe.
Those two plays exemplified the first two games of the series: The Giants made plays and the Tigers didn't. Pablo Sandoval snagged a Cabrera line drive; Cabrera didn't have the range on Pence's base hit. Scutaro made the relay, Fielder didn't make the slide. Smyly couldn't execute the 3-2 slider that he walked Belt on, Fielder grounded into a 1-6-3 double play after Cabrera had led off the seventh with a walk.
Right now, like Bumgarner's pitches on a perfect San Francisco October evening, everything is working for the Giants.
There’s a running joke out there that Hunter Pence must be an alien because of the awkward way he plays baseball, a unique style not replicated by any other major leaguer.
I say awkward, but others might term it ugly. He hits from a stance so wide it makes you pull your groin just looking at it. He chokes up on the bat, and swings his arms back and forth as the pitcher gets set to deliver the baseball, his back leg bent at the knee, his front leg angled away from home plate. He can be so hyper-aggressive that he’ll swing at pitches off the plate that he has no chance of reaching.
When he throws, he corkscrews his right shoulder backward almost like he’s heaving a shot put instead of a baseball. He sometimes circles under fly balls like a squirrel weaving between cars on a busy highway. He does all this with his uniform pant legs cupped just below his knees, showing off his sanitary socks more in the style of the 1930s than 2012.
You can almost see his sunburned, weather-creased face, a relic of the past transported into the future, before everyone was taught to play the game the “right” way, as if they all learned to play from a Tom Emanski instructional video.
So maybe it’s fitting that the key hit in the Giants’ 9-0 victory over the Cardinals in Game 7 on Monday came off Pence's bat, and it wasn’t a classic line drive in the gap off the barrel of the bat but a broken-bat infield grounder that somehow plated three runs.
Fox announcer Tim McCarver immediately mentioned the weird English that must have been on the ball, causing Kozma to misread its flight. While the super-duper slow-motion camera showed the ball actually -- remarkably! -- hit Pence’s bat three times, the overhead camera didn’t appear to show a ball that suddenly veered in a different direction.
Did Kozma misread the play? In real time, the multiple contacts between bat and ball would have happened simultaneously, so I think it would have been impossible for Kozma to react to “first” contact. I think he was reacting to the pitch and the way Pence was swinging, not the ball. He just overplayed the pull and paid big time. In effect, Pence’s swing was so ugly, the contact on such a bad part of the bat, it caused Kozma to miss the play.
Pence’s hit -- it was scored a double -- made it 5-0. The Giants would add two more in the inning. Matt Cain, who scuffled a bit early, settled down and pitched into the sixth inning. The stadium was loud and electric. In a series without a really good game (five games decided by at least five runs, no one-run games), the seventh game turned into an anticlimactic blowout.
But for Giants fans, it was a victory as beautiful as Pence’s idiosyncrasies.
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I had mentioned Sunday night that defense could play a key part in this game. The Giants' advantage here did play out. Kozma made two more mistakes in that third inning, failing to get an out on Brandon Crawford's ground ball and then making a poor flip to Daniel Descalso on what should have been a double play. In the first inning, Lohse might have had a chance to get Angel Pagan at home plate on Pablo Sandoval's tapper between the mound and first but couldn't get a grip on the ball. (With no outs, he probably made the right play to get the sure out as is.)
Meanwhile, the Giants made three nice plays early in the game. The first two Cardinals hitters reached in the second, but first baseman Brandon Belt, playing in expecting a bunt, made a diving stop on Descalso's hard grounder to record the force at second. Crawford made a leaping grab of Lohse's soft liner with two on for the third out. In the third with two outs and a runner on third, left fielder Gregor Blanco made a nice running grab of Allen Craig's liner in the gap.
* * * *
Did Matheny wait too long to pull Lohse? Not really. He had a pretty quick hook as is, just three batters into the third. With runners at second and third, Lohse carefully pitched around Buster Posey to load the bases. You can make the case that Matheny should have gone to the 'pen for Posey -- at that point, Lohse already had allowed six hits while recording just six outs. With Posey struggling in the series, I would have brought in one of those hard-throwing relievers to face him, rather than bringing in a new pitcher with the bases loaded. I also would have brought in Trevor Rosenthal over Kelly. Neither had been scored on during the postseason, but Rosenthal had been much more dominant with 11 strikeouts and just one hit allowed in 6.2 innings. Kelly had four K's in seven innings. That situation called for a strikeout pitcher, but Kelly had been the designated long man, so that's who Matheny went to. Have to adjust your thinking in a game such as this.
* * * *
Cain didn't have his best stuff early on, and the Cards missed some chances. David Freese was visibly ticked off after missing a juicy 1-1 fastball over the middle of the plate in the second inning. Later in that inning, Kozma fouled off a flat 1-0 slider. Cain had piled up 56 pitches through three innings, so you knew he wasn't going to pitch deep into the game. He did settle down after the Giants got the big lead, but give Bruce Bochy credit for not trying to eke a few extra outs from Cain even with a seven-run cushion. With two outs and two on in the sixth, Bochy brought in lefty Jeremy Affeldt to face Descalso. Cain's pitch count -- 102 at the time -- made it an easier decision, but it was a good move to not give the Cardinals any air of hope.
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.
Yes, you can never have enough pitching. You win with it, you lose to it, you can’t live without it and, if the margins are narrow enough, you live and die with every pitch. Welcome to Bruce Bochy’s world in a Melky-free world. And welcome to the reason why he can thank his lucky stars that he’s the man managing a rotation with Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and Monday night’s starter against the Dodgers, Madison Bumgarner.
Bumgarner was in perfect command against the evil SoCal boys in blue, mowing them down through eight scoreless frames while whiffing 10 in San Francisco's 2-1 victory. Just another day at the office for one of the Giants’ rotation horses, his 18th quality start on the season, and a reminder that this club is far from done where the National League West race is concerned.
But there’s more to it than that. This summer, with all the talk of extending or overextending young superstar prospects on the mound during a pennant race, Bumgarner is a great example of the wisdom of not letting expectations set your timetable where young pitching is concerned. Coming into 2010, Bumgarner was supposed to be all that, flame-throwing southpaw’d greatness in cleats at the tender age of 20. And then he wasn’t -- he wasn’t throwing hard, having lost five miles per hour off his heat from his minor league days. He wasn’t mowing people down. He wasn’t greatness in cleats, or street shoes or flip-flops.
He also wasn’t hurt, although preseason conditioning turned out to be an issue. But from that seeming disappointment, Bumgarner has significantly changed his repertoire from what he was when he was a top prospect. His velocity has remained in low-90s territory, but he has come to rely more and more on a devastating slider that has helped him boost his swings-and-misses to a 16 percent clip despite whatever it was he lost on his fastball. He’s arguably a better pitcher as a result. He’s also only just turned 23, and more than a year younger than Stephen Strasburg.
That deafening silence you hear over Bumgarner’s birth certificate is the concern over his workload. Because without starting pitching, the Giants could be done. But if Tim Lincecum really does get his kinks ironed out, they may have four horses to ride all the way to the end.
If we can credit Bochy for helping keep Bumgarner saddled up and delivering, we might also credit Bochy for always being willing to wangle some extra way to score to make good on the slender margins his pitchers provide. Whatever the talent Bochy is working with, and even whatever the defensive sacrifices he might have to make behind that starting staff.
Picking between Justin Christian and Gregor Blanco to start in Melky Cabrera’s place in the outfield is sure to make you ask where Nate Schierholtz got to (Philadelphia), and what’s behind Door No. 3, but we’ll see what Bochy’s willing to risk in the weeks to come. If general manager Brian Sabean swings a waiver deal for a veteran bat, don’t be surprised -- it’s the sort of move he has been able to pull off in the past, and again, with this kind of pitching, a little bit of offense goes a long way.
Bochy is so hungry for runs, he’s even platooning at shortstop lately, spotting Joaquin Arias’ single-riffic plinky-ness for Brandon Crawford against the league’s lefties. Platooning at a key up-the-middle position like short? That might work considering Arias’ .818 OPS against lefties in about 200 big-league plate appearances, but it’s also slightly more risky this season than in years past, because the Giants are no longer leading the league in strikeout rate, instead whiffing opponents a very league-average 20 percent of the time. That means more balls in play, and more chances the defense could cost you. The Giants are a little above-average in defensive efficiency (.696, vs. the NL-standard .690), but it’s still a risk.
Then again, this is the manager who helped the Giants win it all in 2010 by coming up with one of the craziest platoons of recent memory: Splitting at-bats between first baseman Travis Ishikawa and center fielder Aaron Rowand in the lineup across first base and the outfield in July through Aug. 14, while moving Andres Torres and Aubrey Huff around to accommodate them. Rotating in Ishikawa helped launch a 27-13 Giants run that preceded their deals for Jose Guillen and Cody Ross. It had less to do with Ishikawa’s greatness than it did with working with what Bochy had at his disposal and getting enough runs to win with an incredible pitching staff.
In short, Bochy has got a well-earned rep as a lineup MacGyver: Give the man some used gum, a pencil and a Topps card to be named later, and he might just give you an edge, part of the reason why Chris Jaffe’s excellent book "Evaluating Baseball’s Managers" described him as one of the most underrated skippers in baseball history.
One of the things Jaffe suggested in his book was the Achilles’ heel that Bochy’s teams had back in San Diego when he managed the Padres was that they tended to be short on pitching. Happily for him and for the Giants, thanks to Madison Bumgarner & Co. that’s one problem this year’s Giants don’t have.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
You have to love August baseball. This is when the grind of the long season settles in, when depth becomes even more important, when pitchers have to pitch through fatigue and soreness and maybe a little pain. It's when we find out if the pretenders are contenders and whether the favorites really do have the firepower.
August is time for scoreboard-watching. August is time for your ace to go on a five-win hot streak. August is time for the MVP candidates to shine. August is time for big wins, like the one the Giants had on Sunday at home, when they scored five runs in the bottom of the eighth to defeat the Colorado Rockies. Trade-deadline acquisition Hunter Pence had the decisive blow, a three-run home run, his first since joining the Giants. Pence is hitting just .137 with the Giants, but his homer off Rafael Betancourt capped a rally started when Brandon Crawford's leadoff pop fly fell for a single.
Beginning with the Giants, here are 10 important things you need to know as August rolls on.
1. The Giants have an offense.
Since the All-Star break, the Giants are second in the National League in runs scored to the Nationals, hitting .270 with a .339 on-base percentage, also second in the league. Buster Posey, of course, has been on fire, hitting .443 with nine home runs and 32 RBIs since the break. Only Boston's Adrian Gonzalez has more post-break RBIs (35). Melky Cabrera hasn't slowed down either; his .918 second-half OPS matches his .910 of the first half. If Pence can get going to provide another power threat, the Giants' offense looks even better.
2. Remember Jayson Werth.
Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Mike Morse have combined for 23 home runs since the break to power the Nationals, who had their eight-game winning streak snapped Sunday, but Werth provides something the offense has needed all season: A leadoff hitter. Since his return from a broken wrist, Werth has hit .400 with a .500 OBP. On the season, Nationals leadoff hitters rank just 13th in the National League in OBP. "I am totally surprised how my wrist is doing, how I’ve recovered," Werth told the Washington Post a couple days ago. "When I look down at my wrist and I see that scar, it almost reminds me. Like, 'Oh, yeah.' I almost forget about it until I see the hatchet wound." Werth won't ever live up to the $126 million contract, but he's a a huge key as the Nats push for a division title.
3. Who will step up for the Angels behind Jered Weaver?
Can we stop declaring that the Angels are guaranteed to secure one of the AL wild cards? They're 3-8 over the past 11 games after Jason Vargas outdueled Weaver on Sunday and have slipped 8 games behind the Rangers in the West, and to fifth in the wild-card race behind the Rays, Orioles, A's and Tigers. Dan Haren has allowed at least one home run in nine consecutive starts, Ervin Santana continues to pitch like a ticking time bomb and has allowed the most home runs in the majors, Zack Greinke has been terrible in two of his three starts with the Angels, including the fifth five-plus walk game of his career, and even C.J. Wilson has allowed 27 runs in 29.2 innings over his past five starts. With the starters getting knocked early, the overtaxed Angels bullpen has also been an issue. For all the Mike Trout love, the Angels have a good chance of becoming the season's most disappointing -- yes, even more disappointing than the Red Sox.
4. The Rays are scorching hot on the mound.
If pitchers feed off each other, the Rays are like a pack of hungry wolves right now. Tampa Bay owns a 2.33 ERA since the All-Star break and has held opponents to a .200 average in going 17-11. The Rays swept the Twins by scoring four runs in the top of the 10th and have won eight of 11 to surge into the wild-card lead with the Orioles. Next up on this road: Trips to Seattle and Anaheim. That four-game series against the Angels looms large and David Price and James Shields will start the first two games.
5. Jim Leyland is right ... sort of.
The Tigers manager started a minor firestorm when he referred to Mike Trout as "Wonderboy" in suggesting his own Miguel Cabrera is deserving of the AL MVP Award so far. Leyland's comments really weren't derogatory, as he was simply referring to the potential of voters getting caught up in Trout's storyline. Hey, he's right in that regard; voters do love a good storyline. It's why Ichiro Suzuki won in 2001 over Jason Giambi and teammate Bret Boone. Or why Miguel Tejada won over Alex Rodriguez in 2002. Interestingly, the last "Wonderboy" to challenge for an MVP trophy was A-Rod in 1996, and he finished second to Juan Gonzalez in one of the worst MVP votes of all time.
That's because what MVP voters really like is a player who makes the playoffs. It's why Ryan Braun beat out Matt Kemp in 2011 or why Joey Votto collected 31 of 32 first-place over Albert Pujols in 2010 despite basically identical numbers. Of the 34 MVP trophies handed out during the wild-card era, only six have gone to players whose teams didn't reach the playoffs: Pujols (2008), Ryan Howard (2006), Barry Bonds (2004 and 2001), A-Rod (2003) and Larry Walker (1997). So maybe Trout is the MVP favorite right now, but that all changes if the Angels don't reach the playoffs (the same, of course, can be said for Cabrera).
6. The Cardinals have the same record through 115 games as 2011.
Just like a season ago, the Cardinals are 62-53. However, in 2011 they were just 3 games behind the Brewers and 4 behind wild-card leader Atlanta. While they're 7 behind the Reds in the National League Central, they trail the Braves and Pirates by just 2.5. Like a year ago, the bullpen is struggling -- on Sunday, St. Louis blew a three-run lead in the eighth to the Phillies and lost in 11 innings. Of course, we know the bullpen buttoned down last year.
7. The best trade deadline pickup may have been ... Paul Maholm?
Maybe the Braves got the best Cubs pitcher being shopped around. Maholm's record since June 29: Eight starts, eight runs allowed. He's pitched in obscurity for years in Pittsburgh, often with some terrible defensive teams behind him. He doesn't light up the radar gun but his strikeout rate has ticked up a notch this year, perhaps because he's throwing his slider with greater frequency. Oh, another note: Mike Minor, much-maligned by Braves fans in the first half, has a 1.99 ERA over his past five starts.
8. Manny Machado is here to stay.
Can a rookie lead the Orioles to the first playoff berth since 1997? In four games since his surprise call-up from Double-A, all the 20-year-old rookie has done is hit three home runs, a double and a triple, scored five runs and knocked in seven. Maybe we have a second Wonderboy.
9. The Yankees are 26-22 since June 18. A-Rod is on the DL. CC Sabathia is again on the DL ...
Since reeling off that 10-game winning streak in mid-June, the Yankees have played just above .500 baseball. They're actually 14-14 over the past 28 games. Phil Hughes, having looked better, has returned to being Phil Hughes his past two starts. Ivan Nova lives and dies on whether his curveball and slider have enough bite on any given start. Sabathia has a tender elbow. Andy Pettitte had a setback. And then there's the offense. Curtis Granderson is turning into an extreme all-or-nothing hitter. He has seven homers since the break, but is hitting .218 with a 39/9 SO/BB ratio. Ichiro Suzuki has a sub-.300 OBP since joining the Yankees. And ... the Yankees are still up 5 games in the East.
10. We don't know anything.
Nine teams in the AL are within 5.5 games of a playoff spot. Seven teams are within 5 games of a playoff spot in the NL. That means more than half the teams have legitimate playoff hopes. There is no clear-cut No. 1 team in baseball. We have parity, we have excitement, we have fans filling ballparks (well, at least some of them) and we have a crazy, unpredictable finish ahead of us. Why is that important? Because it gives all of us reason to do plenty of scoreboard-watching.
We're talking about one of the 10 best hitters in the National League. Sandoval didn't quite have enough plate appearances in 2011 to qualify for the leaderboards, but among those with 450 PAs, he ranked sixth in the NL in OPS+, 14th in wOBA and 11th in wRC+. Considering some of those ahead of him left the league (Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols) or were expected to regress (Lance Berkman, Michael Morse, Jose Reyes), Sandoval is one of the most valuable players in the NL. He was off to a .316/.375/.537 (AVG/OBP/SLG) start, with five home runs and 15 RBIs. The Giants' offense, last in the NL in runs scored in 2011, is ninth this season.
But there's the problem: Once you get past Sandoval and Buster Posey and Melky Cabrera, it thins out in a hurry. Brandon Belt hasn't homered in 44 at-bats, Angel Pagan has a .279 on-base percentage, Brandon Crawford is hitting .215 with a .234 OBP, and Ryan Theriot and Emmanuel Burriss have combined for one extra-base hit in 88 at-bats.
As for third base, Wednesday night the Giants inserted Theriot at second and moved Joaquin Arias from second to third. Burriss also played there later in the game. Arias is a 27-year-old infielder who last played in the majors in 2010. He hit a robust .232/.272/.353 at Triple-A Omaha last season. The fact that he's even on the big league roster tells how thin the Giants are; in fact, why a team would want four light-hitting middle infielders on their roster in Crawford, Theriot, Burriss and Arias is a bit confounding. Yes, blame the injury to Freddy Sanchez if you want, but it's still poor roster management.
So if Arias is the guy who gets more playing time, you're talking about a player who is probably below replacement-level. Sandoval's WAR a year ago was 6.1 -- in 117 games. (That total was helped by some excellent defensive metrics, which he wasn't replicating so far this year.) Still, if we consider him a six-win player and he misses a quarter of the season, we're talking about two to three wins in lost value, considering the likely production from Arias & Co. Aside from that, the complicating factor is how Sandoval returns from the injury. Last season, he did fine, hitting .315 after coming back. But there is no guarantee he won't have some minor ill effects this year.
I see this as a bigger blow than Evan Longoria's injury; at least the Rays could turn to a won't-kill-you platoon of Elliot Johnson and Jeff Keppinger. The Giants have a guy who couldn't hit Triple-A pitching a year ago.
There was a point at which a team could contend with Theriot at short, as the Cubs did in 2007 and 2008. But after consecutive .321 OBPs, his value as an offensive patch at the position seems dubious. He used to walk around 10 percent of the time, but that’s down to six percent these days. He’s lost speed on the bases, and what little power he had disappeared shortly after a five-homer May in 2009 that only seemed to encourage him to leap from his shoes, swinging for the fences forever after. As mighty mites go, Theriot was no Jimmy Wynn, so this wasn’t going to end well, and hasn’t.
That’s not even the worst of it as far as Giants history goes. Not that they’re asking, but where have you gone … Johnnie LeMaster? For some or all of seven seasons, LeMaster was the Giants’ shortstop, from 1978-1984. LeMaster hit .222/.277/.289 (or a .566 OPS), for his career. He holds the worst single-season WAR from a regular shortstop since before integration, before Pearl Harbor, since before FDR’s second term as president. Advanced analysis has yet to invent a metric with a kind stat or word to offer in defense of his glove work. The all-time all-bad team has a shortstop, and his name is almost certainly Johnnie LeMaster.
Unfortunately, Brandon Crawford’s .584 OPS last year looks downright LeMaster-ly, especially with the neat feat of not reaching a .300 OBP or SLG. Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider projects Crawford to take a big step forward offensively -- all the way up to a .629 OPS, thanks to slugging .341 while putting up a .288 OBP.
Surely the Giants have some other alternative? They surely do, but you can’t really grace with them with any reassuring adjectives like “adequate.” Emmanuel Burriss has struggled to stick at short since getting out of A-ball almost five years ago, lacking the range, hands or arm, and drifting into a utilityman’s aspirations. Mike Fontenot has wound up a shortstop by coming at it from the other direction -- he couldn’t hold down a semi-regular job at second base for the Cubs, and has been shunted into a utility role to hang onto his career.
At least Crawford’s defense gets reasonable marks, but it had better, because the alternatives on hand are almost universally execrable. Theriot’s days as a passable shortstop appear to be history -- he’s spent the past two seasons delivering un-glovely work afield according to Plus-Minus, UZR, Defensive Runs Saved on Baseball-Reference.com and Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs. Between Crawford’s bat and Theriot’s glove, you’d think Brian Sabean was trying to assemble FrankenLeMaster.
However, to be charitable to Sabean’s design you could flip-flop that idea: Get Crawford’s glove and Theriot’s bat in an ad hoc offense-defense platoon. That might work thanks to baseball’s best pitching staff when it comes to keeping balls out of play: Thanks in large part to Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and the since-dealt Jonathan Sanchez in particular, the Giants have led the majors in strikeout rate in both of the past two seasons. That was while posting two of the seven highest staff-wide strikeout rates ever in major league history. In the current Age of Strikeouts, more Ks equal fewer balls in play, making lead-gloves a little more affordable -- like using former DH Aubrey Huff in the outfield.
So maybe, just maybe, the Giants can get away with starting Theriot at short when fly-ball/strikeout like Lincecum and Bumgarner or Matt Cain are on the mound. Maybe the less dominating Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong need a little more help from their friends in the infield, and that’s Crawford’s role, starting on their days, and coming in for Theriot on defense on the others.
The problem is that Theriot’s bat isn’t really some great boon you really want to plug in. Rising to the standard of “hits better than Johnnie LeMaster” really isn’t one you should gun for. Maybe if Theriot ever got his walk rate back up around 10 percent, you might see a reason why, but there’s a reason why the Cubs moved him off short (and dealt him), and it’s the same reason the Cardinals traded for Rafael Furcal last summer. Ryan Theriot simply isn’t a shortstop. Adding him to the shortstop mix in San Francisco just makes plain that they still don’t really have one.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.