SweetSpot: Gregor Blanco
The defending world champs are taking a tumble of late. Between a 10-17 June and an MLB-low 16 wins since May 14 (tied with the Brewers), the San Francisco Giants are falling fast at a time when the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and perhaps even the Padres all seem to have gotten their acts together.
There’s no magic bullet to sift out of the data to suggest that they’re going to turn themselves around all that easily. It isn’t like the pen’s a problem or they’ve been unlucky in tight games. No, the Giants’ real problem is a more demoralizing combination of two factors that aren’t easily fixed.
First, there’s the flat-out poor performance from the rotation that was half of their formula for success (Buster Posey + Pitching = Profit). The Giants’ road ERA of 5.30 ranks 28th in the league. Matt Cain’s five straight quality starts suggests that at least he might be getting back to pitching like himself, but with Ryan Vogelsong down and Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito now reliably unreliable, it’s hard to see how the Giants get back to boasting one of baseball’s best rotations. Moving The Freak to the pen might get better value out of him, but it doesn’t answer whom they would get innings and winnable ballgames from for the next half-season.
That might suggest that lefty Mike Kickham, Monday’s starter, could be part of the cure to what ails them, but Kickham is in danger of being a symptom of the Giants’ other problem: depth.
That’s because once you get past the bold-print signal successes by Giants player development, guys like Madison Bumgarner and Posey, you don’t find a lot of homegrown goodness ready to step in once their veterans struggle or break down. Fortunate as they were to run into a scrap-heap find like Vogelsong, without him the Giants are learning how the other half lives when it comes to conjuring up quality pitching -- and not the half that can call up a Gerrit Cole or Michael Wacha or Tyler Skaggs in their moments of need. Kickham has a nice arm and he rates well within the Giants organization. But that isn’t the same thing as having a top-shelf prospect who is going to help you stay in a game or in a race, or fix your organization.
That lack of depth also crops up when you take note of the rest of the roster. They’ve had to do without third baseman Pablo Sandoval for weeks at a time, and center fielder Angel Pagan might be gone until September.
While you might fret that the recent absence of Kung Fu Panda is the problem, you’d be wrong, because this goes beyond him. The Giants went 8-11 in the games Sandoval has had to miss so far, scoring just 4.06 runs per game -- which isn’t very different from the 4.11 runs they’re averaging on the year. They’re just a .500 team with Sandoval, and a little less than that without him. Maybe some of that can be blamed on bloat; of expectations of what Panda’s capable of, or of the Panda himself. But much like the rotation, the problem has been less one of absence and more one of flat-out mediocrity or worse when Sandoval is playing.
On the other hand, if you really want to play this “How bad are they without Player X?” game, the missing man you really want to talk about might be Pagan. The Giants are 12-20 since Pagan went on the DL, and they’re scoring just 3.5 runs per game in that span. Maybe that would fly when the Giants had the best rotation in baseball, but that’s no longer the case. Pagan might not be Rickey Henderson or Tim Raines at the top of the order, but on a roster already winging it with waiver-bait journeymen like Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres to cover left field, losing Pagan was a hit the Giants’ offense could ill afford. What runs the Giants automatically pick up on the competition because of Posey behind the plate, they’ve handed back because of a low-powered outfield beyond Hunter Pence.
Keep in mind, the Giants have more than a few guys hitting about as well as you might have expected from them coming into the year. Pence is putting up an .809 OPS; his career mark is .813. Marco Scutaro might have come down from last year’s epic stretch performance, but he’s delivering his highest OPS since the 2009 campaign that represented a career best at the time. Brandon Belt isn’t hitting much less than projected. Heck, even Brandon Crawford is having a career year by his own (admittedly modest) standards. These Giants are doing about as well as you could reasonably expect -- and it isn’t enough to carry a club while the stars struggle.
Last week’s revelation that Pagan needed surgery that will keep him out until at least early September doesn’t help matters, because the farm system doesn’t have anything close to resembling a ready alternative.
This is not to pick on the Giants’ farm system. Posey and Bumgarner are the sort of studs any player-development team would want to hang its hats on. It isn’t like they’re already out of an NL West race that any of the five teams could yet win. But without ready-now talent to call up or already-rostered veterans worth turning to, the Giants’ bid depends on their stars to step up. Posey already is, Bumgarner is and Cain seems back, too.
But as the deadline approaches, the question should be less whether Brian Sabean pulls a deadline-day rabbit or two out of his hat, but whether even that would give the Giants enough to overcome a roster that isn’t deep enough to sustain getting anything less than excellence from any of their stars.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
1. The Giants in 2012 scored 718 runs and allowed 649. This would normally result in a record of 88-74, meaning the Giants exceeded their expected record -- based on those runs scored and allowed totals -- by six wins. That was tied with the Reds for the second-highest positive differential in the league, behind the Orioles' historically anomalous plus-11. To me, this means the Giants' true talent level is closer to that of an 88-win team than a 94-win team.
2. Now, Giants fans will argue this is because of their good bullpen or the team's ability to "play the game the right way." The Giants did have a good record in one-run games: 30-20, the fifth-best percentage in the majors (although it's worth noting that the Indians had the third-best such percentage). It's also true that the Giants exceeded their projected record by six wins in 2011, tied for the highest differential in the majors. In 2010, however, they underperformed by two wins. While there is some correlation between a good bullpen and a team's record in one-run games, that isn't always the case. Tampa Bay had an outstanding bullpen in 2012, led by Fernando Rodney, but was 21-27 in one-run games. The Yankees were 22-25 in one-run games but the Marlins were 26-26. I'm not suggesting the Giants don't play the "right way," but we're trying to quantify talent here.
3. You can also argue that the Giants exceeded their runs scored totals based on their offensive components. For example, the Giants and Reds posted an identical .314 wOBA, yet the Giants scored 49 more runs than the Reds. The Giants hit .269/.327/.397 while the Diamondbacks hit .259/.328/.418, yet Arizona scored just 16 more runs. The Giants raised their game with men on base, hitting .276/.341/.412, and hit even better in "high leverage" situations at .293/.358/.443. This ability to produce in what we'll call clutch situations isn't necessarily a repeatable skill.
4. Melky Cabrera was awesome in 2012, hitting .346/.390/.516 in 501 plate appearances prior to his season-ending suspension. Right now, the Giants haven't replaced that, as Gregor Blanco -- certainly an adequate fourth outfielder -- would be the regular left fielder. Cabrera created about 93 runs in his 501 PAs; Blanco created about 52 in 453; prorated over 501 PAs, that's still a 35-run drop from Cabrera.
5. Possible regression from Buster Posey and Angel Pagan. MVP winner Posey hit .336/.408/.549, but much of that damage was built up against left-handers, off whom he hit .433 with a .793 slugging percentage. Against right-handers he hit .292 with a more pedestrian .440 slugging. Posey also hit .368 on balls in play -- the sixth-best mark in the majors. It's entirely possible that's a real skill, but if I had to predict, I would predict Posey doesn't hit .336 again. Pagan had an inspired season in 2012 and is one of the more underrated players in baseball. He's also one year removed from a poor season with the Mets and has to show he can put back-to-back seasons together.
6. Hunter Pence. Overrated.
7. Marco Scutaro hit .362 for the Giants. Marco Scutaro is not a .362 hitter.
8. The rotation didn't miss a start in 2012, as the top five guys started 160 of 162 games (Eric Hacker made one start because of a doubleheader and Yusmeiro Petit made one late-season start). Can Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito all stay healthy again? They'll need to as there isn't much depth on the 40-man roster -- Petit, who owns a 5.54 career ERA in the majors -- would be the apparent fill-in guy right now. It just seems to me that odds of all five guys not missing any time two straight years is pretty slim.
9. Tim Lincecum. As good as he pitched out of the bullpen in the playoffs, let's not forget he was one of the worst starters in the majors last season, with a 5.18 ERA, including a 6.43 ERA away from the friendly confines of AT&T Park. Now there are some positive signs here: He was better in the second half (3.83 ERA) and his FIP of 4.18 suggests better peripherals than his actual ERA. But I don't think we can assume he's still the elite pitcher he was until we see better results.
10. The NL West looks tougher. The Dodgers should be better, the Diamondbacks should be better and the young Padres could be better. The Giants played .625 ball against the NL West last year, .544 against everyone else, so a tougher division could eat into their overall win-loss record.
Now, OF COURSE I COULD BE WRONG. The Giants surprised us in 2010 and then went on their unlikely postseason run in 2012 after losing their first two games to the Reds in the Division Series. The Giants are certainly a good club. But there are a lot of good clubs right now, and I just don't see the Giants as a great club. If the rotation stays healthy and Lincecum bounces back, the Giants will be right there once again. And maybe win their third title in four years.
A year later, he stood next to a large bin half-full of champagne bottles with "Giants World Series Champions" labels on them, soaked in the sweet scent of victory.
"I was just waiting on an opportunity to see if somebody can pick me up," he said after the San Francisco Giants swept the Detroit Tigers to win their second World Series in three years. "I was playing amazing, amazing winter ball. The Giants offered [a contract], saw all my games. I talked to my agent, 'What do you think?' ... I said to myself you have to be with a winning team. They were the 2010 World Series champions and that’s where you want to be."
Instead, they put their faith in Blanco, the speedy 28-year-old outfielder most noted for his spectacular catch earlier in the season to help preserve Matt Cain's perfect game.
"I always believe in myself," Blanco said about replacing Cabrera. "Always, always. They said just play your game, you’re a good player. I was able to fill that spot. Play defense. And the opportunity took care of itself."
Signing Blanco was just one of several moves Giants general manager Brian Sabean made heading back to last offseason that shaped this club into the World Series champion. Blanco was certainly an under-the-radar move, but he fit a mold the Giants had sought in recent years: An athletic player who could play defense. He had struggled in Triple-A in 2011, hitting .201, but the Giants knew he’d at least bring speed and a good glove.
Manager Bruce Bochy addressed this mindset prior to Sunday's Game 4, talking about when he first took the Giants job in 2007. "They were more of a power club, slugging club," Bochy said. "In our division with the bigger ballparks, that we would be better off going with pitching and defense and try to get more athletic. So that was the plan, and Brian has done a great job with it. As you well know, our outfield, we’re faster, more athletic out there."
Sabean’s big heist of the offseason was swapping outfielder Andres Torres and reliever Ramon Ramirez to the Mets for center fielder Angel Pagan. Torres had been a big part of the 2010 title team, a guy Sabean had once picked up off the scrap heap, but had hit .221 in 2011. Pagan was three years younger and the Mets had soured on him after some nagging injuries slowed him in 2011. Sabean threw in Ramirez, dealing from the team’s bullpen depth, to upgrade center field.
The team also trusted second-year shortstop Brandon Crawford with the starting job, even though Crawford had hit just .204 in 66 games as a rookie. Again, a defense-first decision, but in watching Crawford every day during the playoffs, you saw why the Giants were willing to live with his offense (which proved to be much better than his rookie campaign).
Sabean made his final touches during the season, acquiring Hunter Pence from the Phillies and Marco Scutaro from the Rockies. Pence was deemed the bigger acquisition at the time, but it was Scutaro who ended up paying the big dividends. He hit .362 after coming over from Colorado, giving the team a terrific No. 2 hitter in front of Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey in the absence of Cabrera. His terrific postseason was capped off by the game-winning RBI in Game 4.
In a crowded tunnel outside the Giants' clubhouse after the game, Sabean quietly deflected the attention away from himself, giving credit to the entire organization and to "all the great players who have played here through the years." He mentioned how many former players remain close to the organization. Pitching coach Dave Righetti is a former Giants player. Former All-Star first baseman Will Clark was in uniform, holding court after playoff games.
Sabean is a guy who sabermetric analysts have never given his full due, saying he rode Barry Bonds to a lot of success in his early years as the Giants' general manager. Maybe so, but you can’t deny two World Series titles in three seasons. He’s one of the few GMs out there who will trade for sort-of-expensive veterans such as Pence and Scutaro to help provide upgrades; these guys aren’t stars (although Scutaro played like one), but they are good role players, similar to the Cody Ross and Pat Burrell pickups in 2010.
In the end, the players have to produce, of course. It's a team built around its starting rotation and catcher Buster Posey. But Bochy and Sabean believed in Blanco, and the left fielder came through. He hit .286 against the Reds, including a home run in Game 4 of that series. He hit just .182 against the Cardinals, but drew six walks and scored six runs. In the World Series, he made two key diving catches in Game 1, and tripled in a run and scored and made another big catch in Game 3.
A year ago, he didn’t have a job. Now he’s a World Series champion.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 ...
That bunt Gregor Blanco dropped in Game 2? It’s not complete luck the ball rolled to a stop on the dirt between the grass and the foul line. He said he practices 10 to 15 bunts a day during batting practice.
“Although maybe never one that perfect,” he said with a laugh after the game.
The relay throw that Marco Scutaro cut off to nail Prince Fielder at home -- after Blanco had overthrown Brandon Crawford? That wasn’t by accident. Asked about the play, Crawford looked like he’d been asked if he’d been abducted by aliens.
"We practice it in spring training," he said. "It’s kind of routine for us."
The fact that Doug Fister threw 114 pitches in six-plus innings while Madison Bumgarner threw just 86 in seven innings in Game 2? That’s all part of the plan as well -- grind out at-bats, work the count, put pressure on the defense.
Practicing bunts, relay throws and working the count isn’t enough. You still have to execute. That’s what the Giants have done for five games, outscoring the Cardinals and Tigers 30-4 over that span.
"We know what kind of team we are," Pagan said. "Pitching and defense."
Pagan may be selling his teammates a little short on their offense, actually. The Giants don’t hit home runs -- finishing last in the major leagues in that department -- but they do score runs. While they’re seemingly built for the spacious alleys of AT&T Park, they score a lot of runs on the road, leading the NL in runs scored away from home during the season (and only the Angels scored more in the majors).
What the Giants don’t do is rely on the long ball to generate offense. Pagan and Scutaro have been terrific at setting the table. Even if they’re not getting on base, they’re making the opposing pitcher throw a lot of pitches. Pagan saw 25 pitches in Game 1 and 20 in Game 2. Scutaro saw 18 and 19. Compare that to Detroit’s big sluggers, Miguel Cabrera and Fielder, who combined to see just 41 pitches in the first two games.
There’s an art to that kind of execution, just like there’s an art to even a routine play like Blanco’s bunt. On that play, Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta was playing close to second, trying to hold Hunter Pence as close as possible. With third baseman Cabrera playing in, that meant there was a big hole Blanco could attempt to slap the ball through. Blanco said he has the green light to do that, but in this case it was "a bunt all the way. Cabrera actually wasn’t charging all that hard."
While the bunt was so good that catcher Gerald Laird and pitcher Drew Smyly had no choice but to hope it rolled foul, it reflects an important aspect about this series: defense.
"We know their defense isn’t that good," Pagan said. "You get a bunt down there, and you never know what might happen."
The Tigers’ defense hasn’t been a liability, although Delmon Young’s throw home in Game 1 was laughably horrible, but the Giants’ defense has made some key plays, most notably Scutaro’s relay to gun down Fielder. Blanco made two diving catches in left field to rob Cabrera and Fielder of hits in Game 1, and Pablo Sandoval made a nice snag of Cabrera’s line-drive screamer in Game 2.
As the series heads to Detroit, maybe that’s something the Tigers can turn to. Cabrera and Fielder are due for some long-ball action, having combined for just two home runs, or even just for some of those line drives to fall. Fielder was hit by the first pitch in one plate appearance in Game 2, but in his other six PAs, he has seen just 16 pitches, appearing a little overanxious at the plate. In 11 postseason games, Fielder is hitting .205/.271/.273 with just one extra-base hit and three walks. Cabrera has stung the ball a couple of times, but he also has just one home run. In the end, the Tigers are still a team that essentially rides the brute force of its starting rotation and its No. 3 and 4 hitters.
The Giants realize that postseason baseball can turn on a dime. Pagan said as much when he mentioned after Game 2 that the Giants “may not even be here except for an error” in the Reds series, alluding to Scott Rolen’s bobble in extra innings of Game 3 that kept that series alive. They know the Tigers were a much better team at home during the regular season -- 50-31 versus 38-43 on the road. Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer are quality starters, and if you win one of two, Justin Verlander will be ready for Game 5.
But right now the Giants are making the plays and doing the little things. Do that for two more games and they'll be World Series champions for the second time in three years.
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.
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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.
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.
The potential benefit is obvious: Cabrera had been the second-best hitter on the team while active, batting .346/.390/.516 with 11 home runs. Over the past 30 games, Giants left fielders have hit .271 with no home runs. Xavier Nady has hit .333/.412/.433 as the right-handed platoon, but Gregor Blanco has done nothing from the left side, hitting .250/.262/.333 with one walk and 18 strikeouts. Basically, by playing Blanco the Giants are essentially punting offense from left field.
- Potentially much more offense from left field.
- A better bench -- Nady can pinch-hit, Blanco can pinch-run or be used as a defensive sub.
- No guarantee that Cabrera will hit after the long layoff, although he would be allowed to report to instructional league 10 days before his suspension ends. Bochy indicated this would be a concern. Still, a PED-free, rusty Melky is likely to produce more than Blanco.
- The media distraction caused by his return. Although Buster Posey said that wouldn't be a big problem: "I don't think it would bother us than just the extra questions. That would be the main thing, the extra questions."
- Clubhhouse harmony. Cabrera hasn't been with the team down the stretch. Reliever Jeremy Affeldt said he would rather fight with the team they have now. Interviewed by Jim Bowden on MLB Network Radio, Bochy indicated fairness to players currently on the roster would be a factor, according to a tweet from Bowden.
- You would have just won a series without him.
- Bad publicity.
As an outsider, it's impossible to know the impact within a team's clubhouse. Certainly, there has to be a feeling that Cabrera let down his teammates by getting caught. On the other hand, center fielder Angel Pagan said, "If they bring him, we're teammates. We'll receive him with open arms." In the end, the players want to win the World Series. They know all their teammates aren't saints.
The Giants are a better team with Cabrera. But maybe they feel they're fine with their offense -- since Cabrera's suspension they've increased their runs per game from 4.2 to 5.1. Maybe they don't care that Guillermo Mota -- twice suspended for PED use -- will be on the postseason roster. In the end, maybe it's just a headache that isn't worth it.
I say it is.
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
At least National League manager Dusty Baker didn't actually use Williams in the game.
Anyway, the All-Star roster selections are now complicated by a four-tiered system: Starters are voted in by the fans, players vote for some of the reserves, managers fill in the rest of the roster (keeping in mind that each team needs a representative) and then fans vote for the final man. Good times!
As always, things get screwed up along the way. Here's a quick reaction to this year's rostesr -- but, don't forget, there likely will be a few injury and pitcher replacements to come!
Worst National League fan selection: Pablo Sandoval, Giants. I chided Rangers fans last week for stuffing the ballot box, but clearly I underestimated Giants fans. David Wright has arguably been the most valuable player in the National League in the first half, hitting .355/.449/.564 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) while carrying a Mets offense racked by injuries. Sandoval overcome a 400,000-vote deficit over the final week to pass Wright, even though he's played only 44 games.
Worst American League fan selection: Derek Jeter, Yankees. I don't have a huge problem with the fans voting in one of the game's all-time greats, but Elvis Andrus or Asdrubal Cabrera would have been a more deserving starter. Both have better numbers at the plate and are superior defenders to the aging Jeter. At least both made the team as reserves.
Best fan selection: Jose Bautista, Blue Jays. Considering his slow start, .239 average and north-of-the-border status, it would have been easy for the fans to miss out on Bautista's June power surge that has lifted him to a major league-leading 26 home runs.
Best reserve: Mike Trout, Angels. There might have been a fan mutiny if Trout (who wasn't on the All-Star ballot) hadn't made the team.
Wait, the Cubs got two players? Bryan LaHair is one of the nice stories of the season, but he made it only because a backup first baseman is required. The fact that a platoon player with just 28 RBIs made it speaks to the lack of depth at first base in the NL. However, LaHair's selection also shows the player voting is done too early in the season. LaHair was hitting .388 through May 3 but is hitting .236/.313/.389 since. Basically, he made the All-Star team with one hot month. Paul Goldschmidt or Adam LaRoche would have been a better choice.
$173 million payroll and one All-Star: Red Sox. DH David Ortiz is Boston's lone All-Star, the first time since 2001 the Red Sox have had just one All-Star. (Manny Ramirez made it that year.) The Red Sox had had at least six All-Stars each year since 2007.
Weirdest selection: Huston Street, Padres. Street has pitched well (1.35 ERA) but has pitched only 20 innings. Third baseman Chase Headley would have been the Padres' obvious rep, but Sandoval getting voted in as a starter meant Wright had to get the nod as the backup third baseman.
More evidence that player votes are tabulated too early: Lance Lynn, Cardinals. Lynn got off to a terrific start but is now only 27th in the NL in ERA, pushing more deserving starters like Johnny Cueto, James McDonald, Zack Greinke and Madison Bumgarner to the sideline.
The too-many-relief-pitchers rule: Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies. Again, it's a shame that the rules require relievers to be added. Seventeen starters have a better ERA than Papelbon, who has pitched a grand total of 30 innings. Of his 18 saves, only six came in one-run games. Only question: Will Tony La Russa use him in a tie game?
Comeback All-Star of the year: Adam Dunn, White Sox. After hitting .159 in 2011, Dunn made his second All-Star team (and first since 2002, his first full year in the majors) by slugging 24 home runs and driving in 58 runs. Despite hitting .213, Dunn has a respectable .363 OBP thanks to a league-leading 64 walks.
Most deserving guy who didn't make it, National League: Johnny Cueto, Reds. He has a 2.26 ERA despite pitching in The Great American Ball Park.
Most deserving guy who didn't make it, American League: Austin Jackson, Tigers. Jackson did miss 20 games with injuries, but he's been tremendous, hitting .326/.408/.537 and playing excellent defense in center field.
AL final man vote: Jake Peavy, White Sox. Peavy is the most deserving based on his terrific first half, but if you’re trying to win the game, Angels reliever Ernesto Frieri may be the best choice, considering he hasn’t allowed a run in 23 innings since coming to the Angels.
NL final man vote: Michael Bourn, Braves. This may be the most intriguing final man vote ever: All-time great Chipper Jones or hyped newcomer Bryce Harper? I’ll split the difference and take the guy who had the best first half and could help the NL as a pinch hitter, defensive sub or pinch runner. After all, the game counts, right?
At 28 years old and after spending much of the previous five seasons in Triple-A, Bryan LaHair was a purportedly “known” quantity -- Quadruple-A bat, perhaps a fill-in first baseman. In his one brief shot at The Show in Seattle in 2008, he split time at first base with utilityman Miguel Cairo and Jose Lopez. He didn't shine, and it was back to Tacoma the next year. In short, he seemed a man doomed to a dim star on an obscure walk of fame to be named later, perhaps in Tacoma, maybe in Iowa.
He changed that in his sixth campaign in the Pacific Coast League, changing the minds of scouts and analysts alike with 28 homers and a 1.070 OPS. And this year, taken seriously for the first time, he's a 29-year-old getting his first real shot at everyday play in the major leagues ... and blowing the league away. He's third in the National League in slugging, fourth in OBP, and fourth in OPS. And all it took to bring him to Wrigleyville was a minor-league contract, after the Mariners let him slip away as a minor league free agent.
By simultaneously shredding expectations and opposing pitchers, LaHair is providing a fine example that players' career paths aren't simply a matter of forecasting off past performance. That works on the macro level, for most players. But whether as a matter of changing their game or finally getting opportunities they'd long deserved, a few past-prime players are making the most of their opportunities this season.
You can't quite come up with a full lineup's worth of these guys, but beyond LaHair, here's my off-the-cuff list of this season's other “surprise stars,” some of whom will belong in Kansas City as full-fledged All-Stars in a month's time.
C A.J. Ellis, Dodgers: Say what you will about catching always being in short supply -- and it isn't -- Ellis had to wait until this year to get a clean shot at a catching job. Now 31, he's pretty much the perfect example of an organizational soldier: He spent his first two full seasons after getting picked in the 18th round out of Austin Peay as a backup at High-A, caddying for Russell Martin and then Edwin Bellorin (once upon a time a well-regarded Venezuelan prospect).
Ellis finally became a regular in Double-A in 2006. From the start, he showed tremendous ability to get on base, but the Dodgers kept him at the same slow pace, as he spent two years in the Southern League and two years in the PCL before graduating to two years as a big-league backup. That sort of long-form apprenticeship that seemed certain to lock him into little more than membership in the International Brotherhood of Backup Backstops.
Perhaps only taken seriously as a starter as a matter of grudging last resort this past winter, when the market offered slim pickings as far as catching help, Ellis is second only to Yadier Molina among NL catchers in his production at the plate while throwing out 41 percent of opponents' steal attempts. Ellis might be this group's best bet beyond LaHair to be headed to Kansas City for the All-Star Game.
SS Mike Aviles, Red Sox: It has been a bumpy road for Aviles since his old-rookie debut as a 27-year-old with the Royals in 2008. In K.C., he had to contend with injuries and the idea that he wasn't really a shortstop. This year, shortstops are putting up the collectively lowest OPS (.678) or OPS+ (88), so Aviles' .711 OPS/90 OPS+ clip is just a wee bit above average, not shabby considering he's also doing fine at short, according to advanced fielding metrics. Beyond buying time for Jose Iglesias, this has proven a relatively high-yield, low-expense gamble for the Sox: League-average shortstops usually cost millions on the market, but Boston got him for an organizational arm (Kendal Volz) and Yamaico Navarro, a utility player so interesting that K.C. flipped him to the Pirates, who have already ditched him in Indianapolis.
OF Gregor Blanco, Giants: Melky Cabrera isn't the only Giants outfielder having a season well beyond anything he's done before. A Braves prospect they lost interest in, he was dealt to the Royals, who dealt him to D.C. before the Nationals ditched him. All he's ever done is get on base; he just needed an opportunity. He got one when general manager Brian Sabean fished him off the discard pile this past winter. Pushing his way past Nate Schierholtz, Blanco has hit his way into everyday play in right field and the leadoff job with a .387 OBP as a 28-year-old journeyman. Blanco may rival Sabean's “discovery” of Andres Torres in 2009 before all's said and done.
RF Justin Maxwell, Astros: Nobody has doubted Maxwell's power or talent, but his ability to stay healthy has been an annual concern. The Nats decided they had better uses for his spot on the 40-man and traded him to the Yankees, but he spent more time on the disabled list in 2011 with a bum shoulder than he did in pinstripes. The talent-hungry Astros snagged the 28-year-old off waivers this spring, and he's been a free-talent find as a fourth outfielder, providing power against lefties and strong-armed defense.
SP Jerome Williams, Angels: Back in the day, Williams was a top prospect in the Giants' organization, ranking in Baseball America's top 20 for all baseball. That all seemed merited after a fine 2003 rookie season in which he drew an NL Division Series start for them against the Marlins. It was almost unrelentingly downhill from there; he needed elbow surgery in 2004, got dealt to the Cubs in 2005, and then bouncing through the Nationals, Twins, A's (twice) and Dodgers organizations, as well as a stint in the independent leagues. After making a nice impression on the Angels down the stretch last season, the 30-year-old Williams is getting regular rotation work in the majors for the first time in seven years as their fifth starter. More of a finesse righty these days, he's been an exceptional salvage-project success, putting up eight quality starts in 10 turns, far better work than most teams reasonably expect from a No. 5.
Quite simply, what these guys reflect is that not all replacements are “replacement level.” Just when you think you know what a player is capable of, a happy few beyond their expected peak age of 27 have demonstrated the delightful capacity to surprise and exceed the modest expectations even their fans harbored for them. I don't know about you, but I like these kinds of surprises -- here's hoping we see more of the same from all of them.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
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.
While playing a competent second base for Aguilas, the 27-year-old Arias is also fourth in the league in stolen bases and is tied for league lead in triples with Chicago White Sox prospect Alejandro de Aza, who is playing locally with the Toros del Este.
Meanwhile, free agent pitcher Miguel Batista is trying on a new role with the Aguilas since joining the team a week ago. Batista is sharing closer duties with Boston Red Sox pitcher Tony Peña Jr.
Hamilton wants to be the next Pujols
St. Louis Cardinals prospect Mark Hamilton might be playing himself into contention for a roster spot with the big club by having a productive winter for the Hermosillo Naranjeros in the Mexican Pacific League.
Hamilton, a 6-4 left-handed hitting first baseman, hit .345 at Triple-A Memphis in 2011 and is following up with a .340 winter with 20 RBIs in 77 at-bats in the second half of the regular season.
With the departure of Albert Pujols, the Cardinals need to make decisions for first base in 2012 and might look to fill the roster spot from within. Hamilton was the Cardinals’ second-round draft pick in 2006.
Salazar wants back in the Show
Released by the Marlins last June, Oscar Salazar is determined to make it back to the majors and is putting together a stellar winter season with the La Guaira Tiburones to prove he can return to the same form which saw him hit .302 with the Baltimore Orioles and San Diego Padres in 2009.
Through 48 games, Salazar has 35 RBIs, seven home runs and is batting .260 and has been key in the clutch to help the Tiburones to the top of the standings.
Salazar has teamed up with outfielder Gregor Blanco, who last month signed with the San Francisco Giants, and Hector Sanchez, also a product of the Giants farm, for a combined 99 RBIs in 48 games.
Aviles making an impact
Boston Red Sox infielder Mike Aviles, who is trying his luck playing right field for the Ponce Leones, is making a quick impact since joining the team this week.
Aviles drove in four and hit two home runs, helping the Leones beat the Mayaguez Indios 5-3 in 14 innings in only his second game. Through his first five games, Aviles is hitting .265. Prior to joining the Leones, Aviles, who played five games in the outfield for the Red Sox, had said he wanted to improve his skills to perhaps compete for the Red Sox right field job in spring training.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee Brewers prospect Martin Maldonado is batting .338 through 25 games with Mayaguez with three home runs and 11 RBIs.
- ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Braves have optioned rookie center fielder Jordan Schafer to Triple-A Gwinnett and called up Gregor Blanco.
The 22-year-old Schafer won the job after an impressive showing at spring training, but he struggled through his first two months in the big leagues. He was hitting just .204 with two homers and eight RBIs and already had 63 strikeouts in 167 at-bats.
Blanco was with the Braves throughout the 2008 season. He batted .251 with one homer, 38 RBIs and 13 stolen bases.
No, but seriously ... We kid spring training because we love it. It's not spring training's fault; it's the fault of the managers and general managers who put a great deal of stock in a few dozen at-bats, many of them against weak competition.
PECOTA's projection for Schafer in the majors this season: .238/.308/.391.
Schafer's actual results: .204/.313/.287. More than anything, what's killed Schafer is the lack of power, as he's hit just one home run since Opening Day (remember that exciting moment for him?). What's worse, his heralded defense hasn't been much good, either. Not statistically, anyway.
He's still a good prospect, and I suspect that we'll see him this summer after he pops a few homers. In the mean time, Blanco's not the worst replacement in the world, largely because he's willing to take more than the occasional walk. The Braves can survive -- and perhaps even thrive -- with Blanco manning center field ... but there's still that out-making machine in right field to worry about. Baby steps, I guess ...