SweetSpot: Pablo Sandoval

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It's another edition of SweetSpot TV!

SportsNation

Which team has been the biggest disappointment?

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Discuss (Total votes: 1,688)

Eric and I discuss four pairs of teammates who have been big disappointments.

I realize now we didn't talk about the Blue Jays -- and we should have, considering they were viewed as potential World Series favorites by many heading into the season. I guess their disappointing duo would lead with Josh Johnson (2-8, 6.20 ERA); he could be joined by R.A. Dickey (9-11, 4.46 ERA) or Melky Cabrera (.279, three home runs) or Ricky Romero (stuck in the minors, unable to throw strikes). The Jays have had injuries but they've also had plenty of bad performances.

Which team has been most disappointing? I still go with the Nationals, but you can make a good case for the Blue Jays, Angels, Phillies or the defending champion Giants. What do you think?
Matt Cain threw 36 pitches on Wednesday afternoon, most of them ineffective. He faced seven batters, walked three of them, allowed hits to two more of them, threw just 18 strikes and got yanked before the San Francisco Giants even batted.

When manager Bruce Bochy walked out to the mound in the top of the first inning to pull Cain, the exasperation must have been felt throughout AT&T Park. It was certainly seen on Cain's face, his hat tilted up high on his forehead, a look of disbelief and maybe confusion, a silent hand-off of the ball to Bochy, the Giants' season encapsulated in his slow trudge to the dugout. What happened?

Giants fans were too nice to boo; they offered a little polite clapping, but maybe they sensed the symbolism of the moment: The Giants' season is over. There will be no back-to-back to titles, no more talk of a baseball dynasty, no deadline deals to improve the team for this season. The Giants are 40-50 after losing 7-2 to the New York Mets, in last place and bad. The Giants just got swept at home by the Mets, haven't won two games in a row since June 19, have lost 19 of their past 24 and have been outscored by 51 runs on the season, 13th-worst in the National League.

As for Cain, the only previous start in his career in which he had pitched less than two innings was a 2009 game in which he left in the second after getting hit with a line drive. The hit that knocked him out in Wednesday's game was John Buck's bases-loaded flare to center to give the Mets a 3-0 lead. But Bochy had seen enough. "He was disappointed to come out, but I had to make the call," Bochy said. "He's fine, but I didn't want it to become an issue. He was going on 40 pitches there and I didn't want to push him through again."

After an inconsistent start to his season, Cain had been pitching better -- a 1.82 ERA over five starts in June -- until he was knocked out in the third inning against the Dodgers on July 5, a game in which he walked four batters. His heat map from Wednesday shows he was again all over the place. While he does normally pitch up in the zone, check all the red outside the strike zone.

Cain HeatmapESPNThis is what it looks like when you walk three of the seven batters you face.


The confusing part about Cain's season -- he's now 5-6 with a 5.06 ERA and 16 home runs allowed in 112 innings -- is that he has struggled at home (5.94), a place where he usually thrives with his fly-ball repertoire thanks to the deep power alleys at AT&T, and he has especially struggled with runners on base (.553 OPS with the bases empty versus a .949 OPS with runners on). The splits are so extreme that you have to look beyond just saying he has pitched in bad luck and begin to wonder if he's tipping his pitches from the stretch.

One thing about the Giants' season: Can we lay to rest the idea that the "Giants know how to win"? Did they suddenly lose this trait over the winter? Of course not. The Giants were a good team a year ago that turned into a great team in October. This team never had the makings of a dynasty, especially with a rotation relying on a Tim Lincecum comeback and repeat seasons from Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong. Cain's issues couldn't have been anticipated, but it's not exactly a surprise that the rotation has struggled.

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OK, people, speak up: Are the Giants done?

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Discuss (Total votes: 5,797)

The offense hasn't been as good as last year, even though Buster Posey is again putting up MVP numbers, Brandon Belt is pretty much Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford has actually improved. The offense is down from 4.43 runs per game to 3.93, however, because you're going to have trouble scoring enough runs when the supposed two big bats behind Posey have on-base percentages of .304 (Pablo Sandoval) and .307 (Hunter Pence). Nearly as much as the starting rotation, Sandoval and Pence are responsible for the Giants' last-place standing.

Should the Giants sell at the deadline? Pence is a free agent, although the Giants may want to bring him back. He has hit .218/.258/.366 since June 1, not only hurting his trade value but leading to questions about his long-term viability. Veteran second baseman Marco Scutaro, who's hitting .315 with a .367 OBP, could certainly help somebody. He'd be a great fit across the bay in Oakland, as Eric Sogard is more suited to a backup role. Another reason not to deal away any prospects: The Giants have one of the oldest teams in the league. Their average age for batters (weighted by playing time) is exceeded only by the Phillies and Dodgers in the NL; their pitching staff is the oldest in the NL.

The Giants only had to watch Cain's opponent on Wednesday to see the value of youth. Former Giants farmhand Zack Wheeler displayed his lightning fastball with seven innings of three-hit baseball.

Absent star performances, Giants struggle

July, 1, 2013
7/01/13
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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.

OK, let's stir up some arguing and yelling again. Yesterday, I ranked the top five pitching duos. Today, let's do the majors' best hitting duos.

Ranking the pitchers was difficult because there were so many excellent pairs to choose. Ranking the hitters is difficult because of a lack of obvious candidates. But here goes. Angry comments can be posted below!

1. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, Tigers
They seem like the pretty clear choice for No. 1 to me. You have the best hitter in baseball in Cabrera and a power-hitting, on-base machine in Fielder. One bats right-handed, the other hits lefty. They never miss a game and the fact that they can't run is but a minor inconvenience. Right, Cabrera ranks first in wOBA and Fielder 21st. Last year they ranked first and sixth.

2. Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo, Reds
They've been the best pair so, ranking third and fourth in wOBA (Baltimore's Chris Davis is second). They've also combined to create the most runs of any pair -- Votto is second in the majors and Choo third in runs created, behind only Cabrera. As good as they've been, I can't put them No. 1 for a couple of reasons. First, Choo is unlikely to sustain this level of play (after hitting .337 in April, he's hitting .250 in May, albeit with power and walks). But it's hard to rate this duo as the best when Choo is also completely helpless against left-handers -- .146/.317/.188. He hit .199 against them last year, so you can pretty easily argue that he should be platooned.

3. Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, Giants
The Giants are no longer fueled by their starting rotation but by this pair. Their raw stats may not blow you away, but some of their effectiveness is masked by playing half their games in AT&T Park. Last year, for example, Posey hit 17 of his 24 home runs on the road (although this year he's hitting .367 at home and .227 on the road). Sandoval has been inconsistent throughout his career -- his year-by-year OPS totals since 2009 are .943, .732, .909, .789 and .832 so far in 2013 -- but after breaking a bone in each hand the past two seasons, looks poised for a big season. And we mean big. He's the ultimate bad-ball, bad-body hitter, and while I wished he walked more, he and Posey have developed into a lethal combo. Put them in a different park and their numbers would be even better.

4. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
Both started a little slow but have still combined for 21 home runs. Each has the ability to hit 40 home runs (Encarnacion hit 42 last year, Bautista passed the 40 mark in 2010 and 2011). Both are hitting under .260 right now, but they draw walks so they will post solid-to-excellent on-base percentages. If Bautista ends up hitting closer to the .302 mark he posted in 2011 and Encarnacion hits .280 as he did last year instead of his current .256, they could end up challenging Cabrera and Fielder for the top spot.

5. Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, Angels
Oh, yeah, Trout is now hitting .293/.373/.558, including .343/.434/.757 in May, and provides added offensive value with his speed. The question: What does Pujols bring to the table? He has scuffled so far with a .247/.318/.420 line, including a league-leading 10 double plays. The foot is clearly bothering him and maybe it doesn't get better. Maybe Pujols doesn't get better even if the foot does. But I'm not quite ready to write him off just yet.

SportsNation

OK, after Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, who is the best hitting duo in the majors?

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OK, I know I'm going to hear it from Rockies fans about not including Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez -- but I'm going to include them in the poll instead of Trout and Pujols. For the first time in his career, CarGo is actually hitting on the road, a robust .325/.407/.625. His walk rate is up as well, so we could be seeing an improved Gonzalez this year. If CarGo does keep hitting on the road, then I'll move them into the top five.

Worth mentioning:

Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez/Jean Segura, Brewers. Gomez and Segura are off to great starts, but let's wait a bit to see if they're this good.

Carlos Santana and Mark Reynolds, Indians. Two reasons the Indians have scored a lot of runs.

David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox. Ortiz has 29 RBIs in 27 games since returning from the DL and Pedroia has a .420 OBP.

Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp, Dodgers. If Kemp gets going.

• Chris Davis and Manny Machado/Adam Jones, Orioles. Machado falls into the Gomez/Segura camp: Let's see him do it for bit longer period of time.

In April, Jose Bautista had turned into a three true outcomes type of player: home run, walk or strikeout. He hit seven home runs and had a slugging percentage over .500, but was hitting just .200.

Was he just finding his stroke as he returned from last year's injury problems? Or was he no longer the MVP-caliber hitter of 2010 and 2011, when he hit 54 and 43 home runs, drew walks, and hit .260 and then .302?

He hit his first two home runs of May on Sunday in a 12-4 pasting of the Red Sox to raise his overall batting to .246/.360/.544 -- respectable, if not quite 2011-level Bautista. And the Blue Jays need 2011-level Bautista if they have any hope of recovering from their awful start.

I'm not quite sure he's there yet. While Bautista can crush any fastball -- he's hitting .333 with six home runs in 51 at-bats ending with a fastball this season -- it was his production against "soft" stuff that allowed him to hit above .300 in 2011. Check out these two charts on his batting average against soft stuff in 2011, and then the past two seasons:

Jose Bautista heat mapESPN Stats & InformationIn 2011, Bautista hit .291/.415/.591 with 16 home runs against soft stuff.

Jose Bautista heat map 2012-13ESPN Stats & Information Over the past two seasons, Bautista has hit just .180/.326/.365 against soft stuff.

As you can see, that's a lot of red (hot) in 2011 and a lot of blue (cold) since. This year, he's 7-for-51 (.137) with three home runs against soft stuff. He split his home runs on Sunday -- one came off a first-pitch Ryan Dempster fastball, the other off an 0-1 83 mph slider from Clayton Mortensen. Bautista is a dead pull hitter -- only one home run to center and one to right-center over the past two seasons -- which can leave him vulnerable to breaking stuff on the outside part of the plate.

I haven't seen enough evidence that he's going to punish those pitches like he did a couple years ago, so I would guess he'll be prone to ups and downs throughout the season. He's still a huge threat at the plate, but not the MVP bat of 2011.

REST OF THE WEEKEND

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Who would you most want the rest of the season?

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Discuss (Total votes: 765)

Three stars
1. Shelby Miller, Cardinals. One hit. Twenty-seven down. In a 3-0 win over the Rockies on Friday, the St. Louis rookie became the fifth pitcher since 1961 to allow the first batter to reach base and then retire 27 in a row, joining John Lackey (2006 Angels), Jerry Reuss (1982 Dodgers), Jim Bibby (1981 Pirates) and Woodie Fryman (1966 Pirates). Miller had the Rockies guessing wrong -- or merely looking -- all night long, as he got 30 called strikes, the second-most by a starter this season. Eight of those closed out Miller's 13 strikeouts. Just a dominant performance. In fact, for all the attention given to Matt Harvey this year, compare the two young right-handers:

Miller: 5-2, 1.58 ERA, 45.2 IP, 29 H, 3 HR, 11 BB, 51 SO, .179 AVG
Harvey: 4-0, 1.44 ERA, 56.1 IP, 27 H, 3 HR, 14 BB, 62 SO, .142 AVG

2. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals. Not to be outdone, Wainwright took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Saturday, finishing with a two-hit shutout in another 3-0 win for the Cards. Wainwright improved to 5-2 with a 2.30 ERA and had strong words about his rookie teammate: "You follow Roger Clemens a couple times like I have been, it makes you focus a little bit more," he said. "Once you see Shelby mow through a lineup like he has all year, you want to go out there and do it, too." Kudos also to Cards manager Mike Matheny for leaving in Miller to throw 113 pitches, and Wainwright to throw 120. In this day when managers are too willing to yank starters at 100 pitches, it is good to see a manager let his guys go the distance.

3. Chris Sale, White Sox, and Jon Lester, Red Sox. Two more one-hit shutouts, Lester on Friday, Sale on Sunday. Can't anyone here hit anymore? Lester got 12 ground-ball outs as he joined Pedro Martinez (2000), Hideo Nomo (2001), Curt Schilling (2007) and Josh Beckett (2011) as Red Sox pitchers to throw a one-hit, no-walk shutout in the live ball era. But Sale threw his wearing the so-ugly-they're-cool 1983 throwback uniforms.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Evan Longoria, for his two-out, two-run, bottom-of-the-ninth home run to give the Rays a dramatic 8-7 win over the Padres on Saturday. My favorite part: There's some sort of picnic area in left-center (yes, "picnic area" and "domed stadium" is kind of an oxymoron) where the ball landed, and it looks like half the fans out there didn't realize it was a game-winning home run.

First off, credit Ben Zobrist for a drawing the two-out walk on a 3-2 pitch from Huston Street, working back from a 1-2 count. Street knew that was the batter he had to get. "You get him 1-2, you've got to make a pitch," he said. "I'm frustrated about that just as much as leaving a pitch to Longoria in the middle of the plate." The Rays had led 6-2 before the Padres scored five in the seventh, leading Joe Maddon to say it would have been one of Tampa's worst three losses of the year. "But you can't go to the dance playing like that. When you get leads, you've got to put the other team away. I'm not happy with that. That's inappropriate. That's got to stop," he said.

The Rays finished the sweep on Sunday, however -- their fifth win in a row -- and clawed a game over .500.

Best game
Well, that Padres-Rays game was pretty good. Miller's game was mesmerizing. Toronto's win over Boston on Saturday featured Adam Lind's go-ahead home run in the ninth off Junichi Tazawa, after the Red Sox had tied it in the bottom of the eighth. But I'll go with Cleveland's 7-6 win over Justin Verlander and the Tigers on Saturday. Or Cleveland's 4-3 win on Sunday, in which the Indians tied it in the ninth and won it in the 10th, leading to this quote from Mark Reynolds, who delivered the go-ahead single: "With two strikes, I'm just trying to shorten up my swing and get something into play," he said. Wait ... since when does Reynolds shorten up his swing? Gotta love baseball.

The Indians took two of three from the Tigers to move into a first-place tie with Detroit.

Hitter on the rise: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
He had six home runs through April 21, but his average fell to .173 after a three-strikeout game on April 25. In 16 games, he's hit .419/.478/.694, with three more home runs, eight doubles and nearly as many walks (six) as strikeouts (eight). He has six three-hit games in that stretch, and he's showing he's more than just an all-or-nothing slugger. He's showing he's a guy who is going to be the Cubs' cleanup hitter for a long time.

Pitcher on the rise: Zach McAllister, Indians
Don't believe in the Indians? Don't believe in the rotation? McAllister is starting to look like another solid option alongside Justin Masterson. He didn't get a decision in Sunday's game but pitched a solid six innings. He's 3-3 with a 2.68 ERA and a decent 33/13 SO/BB ratio in 43.2 innings. He's a fly ball pitcher but has allowed just five home runs in seven starts. If he keeps the ball on the right side of the fence he has a chance to be successful.

Brandon Phillips play of the week
This one was pretty.

Happy Mother's Day
Pablo Sandoval uses his pink bat to launch one into McCovey Cove. Tim Lincecum backed up Sandoval with his best outing of the year as the Giants took the final three of four from the Braves. Tough stretch coming up for the Giants, however: 20 of their next 30 on the road, including series in Toronto, Colorado, St. Louis, Arizona, Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

Team on the rise: Indians
They're 12-2 over the past 14, hitting .305 with 24 home runs -- and that stretch does not include that 19-6 win over Houston earlier in the season. The pitching staff has a 2.98 ERA with 13 home runs allowed. The Indians lead the majors in home runs and OPS, and guys like Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Lonnie Chisenhall have room to do better.

Team on the fall: A's
Awful week, losing four to Cleveland and then two of three to Seattle. They scored more than three runs just once in seven games as injuries to outfielders Coco Crisp, Chris Young and Josh Reddick have left them playing Michael Taylor and Brandon Moss in the outfield (with Daric Barton or Nate Freiman replacing Moss at first base). Jarrod Parker is still scuffling (6.86 ERA, four walks in 6.1 innings on Saturday). The A's just need to get healthy, and they didn't hit their stride last year until July (they were 37-42 and 13 games out on July 1), so they may be down now, but hardly out.
Quick thoughts on a Tuesday night that featured a lot of home runs across this great land ...

  • Look, Pablo Sandoval is fat. I'm about 99.7 percent sure if that if he lost 10 or 50 pounds that he'd be a better player. But, hey, he is who he is and right now the Giants don't care if can't tuck in his jersey as long as he keeps hitting like this. He crushed an 0-1 fastball from J.J. Putz for a two-run homer in the ninth inning to give the Giants a dramatic 2-1 win over the Diamondbacks. He's 11-for-18 in his past four games, but the best thing about his home run: He sort of called it. Andrew Baggarly of CSN tweeted, "Sandoval told Pence on his way to the plate that he was 'gonna click one.' So he called his shot? 'Pretty much.'" For Putz, that's already four blown saves (although the D-backs managed to win the first three of those games) and you wonder if Kirk Gibson will consider moving David Hernandez or even Heath Bell into the role.
  • [+] EnlargeSan Francisco's Pablo Sandoval
    Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY SportsPablo Sandoval's two-run home run in the ninth gave the Giants a win over the Diamondbacks.
    Watched a lot of the Rays-Royals game to see James Shields battle against his old pals. Alex Cobb was dominant through five innings, leading 2-0 and going to two balls on just two hitters. The Royals broadcast showed a cool split screen showing the similar deliveries of Shields and Cobb; Shields has that little Tiant-esque twist and Cobb has maybe a little more deliberation, but the two are very similar. Cobb even credits Shields with showing him the spike curveball that he now uses with his fastball/changeup combo. Suddenly with two outs and nobody on in the sixth, the Royals got to Cobb with an Eric Hosmer double, Lorenzo Cain single, Mike Moustakas home run to right (his first of the year), Jeff Francoeur double and Salvador Perez single. Meanwhile, Shields served up a two-run homer to Matt Joyce in the first, but settled down and delivered another quality start. He's only 2-2 as the Royals have struggled to score runs, but he has a 3.00 ERA and 39/10 SO/BB ratio. He's been everything the Royals wanted.
  • The reports of Roy Halladay's demise may have been exaggerated, but the reports of his return may also have been a bit premature. The Indians tagged him for three home runs, nine hits and eight runs in 3.2 innings. Cleveland then added four more off the Philly bullpen -- with Ryan Raburn hitting two for the second game in a row -- in a 14-2 win. The Indians have scored 33 runs in their past three games. Oh, Carlos Santana is good: .389/.476/.722. I'll have to check in on the Indians one of these nights.
  • Ian Kinsler is quietly having a great season for the Rangers -- two more hits in a 10-6 win over the White Sox to raise his line to .317/.395/.525, along with outstanding defense at second.
  • Fun back-and-forth game in Toronto as the Blue Jays beat the Red Sox 9-7 after David Ortiz had given Boston a 7-6 lead with a three-run double in the seventh. Big win to snap a four-game skid. Edwin Encarnacion hit two home runs, including the go-ahead two-run shot off the very tough Junichi Tazawa, and this ginormous shot off Jon Lester into the fourth deck, just the 14th player to hit one there. Melky Cabrera continues to struggle but Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are starting to heat up. Still, as Dan Szymborski wrote, the Jays' slow start has hurt their playoff odds big time. Insider
  • Yuniesky Betancourt, you are awesome.
  • This happened at Dodger Stadium tonight.
With apologies to the nice starts of the Pirates and Rockies, the most important story line of April has been the Braves' opening up a 3.5-game lead over the Nationals in the NL East.

Considering the importance of winning the division and avoiding the ridiculous wild-card play-in game, the last thing the Braves wanted to do was dig a hole and try to catch the Nats from behind. Atlanta's 16-9 start -- which includes a 3-2 win over Washington on Monday when No. 5 starter Julio Teheran faced off against Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg -- is even more impressive when you consider everything that has gone wrong for the Braves so far:

  • Six-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann hasn't played a game.
  • First baseman Freddie Freeman missed 14 games.
  • Jason Heyward is hitting .121 and is currently on the DL after an appendectomy.
  • B.J. Upton is .146.
  • Dan Uggla is hitting .177.
  • Teheran scuffled through 5.1 innings on Monday but allowed just two runs -- lowering his ERA to 5.08.
[+] EnlargeJustin Upton
AP Photo/Evan VucciJustin Upton is batting .304 with 12 home runs for the first-place Braves.
Plus, they Braves had to play 16 of their first 25 games on the road. Of course, a lot has gone right, beginning with Justin Upton hitting .304 with 12 home runs, Andrelton Simmons playing Gold Glove defense at shortstop, Evan Gattis emerging from Double-A to his six home runs, drive in 14 runs and turn into a cult hero while filling in for McCann, and the bullpen going 5-1 with a 2.07 ERA.

Most importantly, the Braves are now 4-0 against the Nationals, which means the Braves earn an A as I hand out my grades for April in the National League. Justin Upton earns an A+ for his monster month -- only four players have hit more home runs in April (Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols share the April record with 14) and only Bob Horner (14 in July 1980), Andruw Jones (13 in June 2005) and Ozzie Virgil (13 in May 1987) have hit more in a calendar month in Atlanta Braves history.

The Nationals, meanwhile, earn a C- for a lackluster 13-13 start -- they're 5-1 against the Marlins and 8-12 against the other major league opponents on their schedule. The Nationals also reported that Strasburg experienced forearm tightness during Monday's game and will be examined on Tuesday. Strasburg walked four while allowing just two runs in six innings against the Braves, but he hasn't been the Strasburg of 2012, or at least the Strasburg of the first three months of 2012. His strikeout rate is down, left-handed hitters have a .391 OBP against him and his ERA is 3.13, ranking just 26th in the NL. Strasburg earns a C, but teammate Bryce Harper earns an A+.

Some other NL grades for April:

Pirates bullpen: A. A key to Pittsburgh's lead in the NL Central has been a pen that has gone 6-2 with a 2.59 while pitching the second-most innings in the majors and allowing a .202 average, second behind Kansas City's .201 mark. Closer Jason Grilli has gone 10-for-10 in saves and has allowed one run in 11 innings.

Matt Harvey, Mets: A. I'd give him an A+, but he actually allowed a run against the Marlins on Monday. Harvey is 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA and has held opponents to a .153 average. He did throw 121 pitches in just 5.1 innings against the Marlins, but more than anything that serves to show that Harvey has room to get even better. Which is a scary idea if you're a National League hitter.

Marlins: D-. Last in the majors in batting average, home runs, slugging percentage, OPS and ownership.

Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, Reds: A. It seems like there's a perception that the Reds are an explosive offensive team, but that wasn't the case last year (ninth in the NL in runs scored despite playing in a hitter's park) and while the Reds are second in the NL in runs scored in 2013, they also rank ninth in slugging percentage. The Reds rotation, however, was terrific last year and has been terrific again, second to the Cardinals with a 2.97 ERA. Latos and Bailey remain two of the more underrated starters in the NL. Latos threw six shutout innings against the Cardinals on Monday, picking up his second win and lowering his ERA to 1.83. Bailey is 1-2 thanks to poor run support but has a 2.81 ERA. The two have combined for 69 strikeouts and just 17 walks, and when Johnny Cueto returns from the DL, he might give the Reds the best starting pitching trio in the league.

Cardinals bullpen: F. St. Louis starters are 14-6 with a 2.20 ERA. St. Louis relievers are 0-5 with a 5.89 ERA and .301 average allowed.

Pablo Sandoval's waistline: F.

Pablo Sandoval's bat: B.

The decision by the Brewers to sign Yuniesky Betancourt: D-. I mean, really ... Yuni was going to help the Brewers?

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Who has been the NL MVP for April?

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    18%
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    9%
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    5%
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    59%

Discuss (Total votes: 17,432)

Yuniesky Betancourt: B+. He's hitting .286/.305/.532 and has five homers and 20 RBIs in 23 games, helping the Brewers to fight through injuries to Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart. Don't you love baseball?

Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies: A. He's back, he's hitting, he's fielding and the Rockies are in first place. The Rockies have to hope that the strained shoulder Tulo suffered on Sunday isn’t serious (he sat Monday’s game, but there are no plans for a trip to the DL).

Matt Kemp, Dodgers: D-. Heading into Monday's games, FanGraphs rated Kemp 33rd among 36 full-time NL outfielders in WAR -- ahead of only Juan Pierre, Jon Jay and Ben Revere.

Starlin Castro, Cubs: C. I have to remind myself he's still just 23, but Castro is in his fourth season and just hasn't that much with the bat. He's hitting .271 with two home runs, but his approach -- just three walks -- is still limiting his upside. A hitter with an OBP under .300 just isn't that valuable.

Weather in Colorado: F. Please, baseball, don't play games when the weather is below freezing.
No, the World Baseball Classic isn't the World Series or the World Cup, and it doesn't really prove which country has the best baseball talent. But it's a fun event, the players participating want to win, and there are fans across the globe -- mostly outside of the United States -- who care passionately about the results.

Is the event perfect? Of course not. Thursday's much-anticipated Pool C game between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic in Puerto Rico should have featured Felix Hernandez starting against Johnny Cueto instead of Anibal Sanchez against Edinson Volquez, but I didn't have a problem getting pumped up to watch a Dominican lineup that featured Jose Reyes, Robinson Cano, Edwin Encarnacion, Hanley Ramirez, Nelson Cruz and Carlos Santana, and a Venezuelan lineup that went nine deep with the likes of Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez, Pablo Sandoval, Miguel Montero and Martin Prado.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Al Bello/Getty ImagesRobinson Cano drove in three of the Dominican's nine runs in the opener against Venezuela.
Managers Tony Pena of the Dominican and Luis Sojo of Venezuela were forced to scramble when a first-inning rain delay led to the early exits of Volquez and Sanchez. But the Dominican had already jumped on Sanchez for three first-inning runs -- Cano doubled in two -- and a contingent of Dominican relievers, some minor league no-names and some major leaguers with big fastballs held the explosive Venezuelans to just six hits in a 9-3 victory. The game slogged along, reminiscent of a Red Sox-Yankees affair from the mid-2000s, but that just showed what the game means to the players: They weren't going through the motions like you might see in a spring-training game in Arizona in early March.

The win puts the Dominicans in the driver's seat to win Pool C and help escape the embarrassment of 2009, when they lost twice to the Netherlands in pool play and failed to advance (scoring just three runs in those two games despite a lineup that included Cano, Reyes, Ramirez, David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada). Venezuela entered the tournament as a favorite alongside the U.S. Even minus Hernandez, it seemed to have more pitching depth than the Dominican, especially among the starters.

But in pool play, it's all about bullpen depth. Pitchers are limited to 65 pitches per outing and if they throw at least 30, they can't pitch the following day. If you pitch two days in a row, you can't pitch a third day in a row. But the Dominican bullpen rolled out Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera, he of the average fastball velocity of 97 mph last year, veteran Octavio Dotel, Pedro Strop of the Orioles and Rays closer Fernando Rodney. Strop had the key appearance on Thursday, pitching 1.2 hitless innings in the middle of the game when the score was 5-3. Command has always been the issue for Strop, but he threw an efficient 20 pitches, 14 for strikes. With a day off on Friday, Pena had no reservations about running all his relievers out there.

The Dominicans can attack you in different ways. They have the speed of Reyes, Erick Aybar and Alejandro De Aza; the power of Cano and Encarnacion; the patience of Santana, who drew four walks on Thursday. The team is also hoping to add Adrian Beltre in the second round. With that lineup and that crew of hard-throwing relievers, the Dominicans certainly have the ability to win it all.

The U.S. is still the favorite on paper (it plays its opener on Friday against Mexico). Even without starters Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, it has the most pitching depth. After Volquez, the Dominicans have to rely on guys such as Wandy Rodriguez and probably Samuel Deduno to start.

And don't sleep on Venezuela. Its Saturday game against Puerto Rico likely becomes the key game now in Pool C. I wouldn't bet against a lineup where Marco Scutaro is batting ninth.

What does it mean to win 94 games?

December, 18, 2012
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One of the fun aspects of what I do is the ongoing dialogue we can engage in. When I posted my top-10 power rankings on Sunday, and then a follow-up on why I didn't include the Giants, I heard it loud and clear from Giants fans on Twitter and in the comments section. OK, OK, I get it: I didn't show your team enough respect. The two major gripes were: (A) The Giants are not only the defending World Series champions, but have won two in three years; (B) They won 94 games in 2012.

[+] EnlargeTim Lincecum
H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY SportsTim Lincecum starred for the Giants' 2010 Series winners, but worked mostly from the pen in the 2012 postseason.
Starting with the first one, I'd argue what happened in 2010 is completely irrelevant to what may happen in 2013, especially since the 2012 Giants only had one starting position player who was the same in both postseasons, (Buster Posey, as Pablo Sandoval was benched for much of the 2010 playoffs). The 2010 playoff rotation didn't include Barry Zito (not on the roster) and the 2012 rotation didn't include Tim Lincecum (demoted to the bullpen), except for one start. So the two teams really weren't the same team (which is a credit to the front office). As for the 2012 results, I understand the desire to give credit to the team that just won it all, but I also don't think it's accurate to give too much credit for predicting 2013 based on what happened in 2012 -- and, specifically, placing too much emphasis, for example, for beating the Reds in a five-game series that swung on Brandon Phillips' baserunning play in Game 3 and Johnny Cueto's injury.

But that paragraph won't win over Giants fans. This next section might not either, but here goes. What does winning 94 games mean exactly? Now, one of my arguments in leaving the Giants out of the top 10 was that I believe their true talent level is lower than that of a 94-win team. But even leaving that aside, let's say 94 wins is 94 wins, regardless of how a team got there. What happens the next season? I looked at all teams in the wild-card era to win 94 games -- and, to get a larger sample size, all teams that won 93 or 95 games as well. This gave us 31 teams, not including 2012. The results:

  • Those 31 teams declined by an average of seven wins the following season.
  • Eight teams did improve, by an average of four wins per season.
  • Two teams had the same record.
  • That means 21 of the 31 teams declined -- by an average of nine wins per season.

Look, when you win 94 games -- when any team wins 94 games -- that means a lot of things probably went right: The rotation stayed healthy or somebody had a monster season or the bullpen came together or the team did particularly well in one-run games. That's not always the case, of course; a talented team can win 94 games based on depth alone, even without career seasons. But, as you can see from the numbers above and the table below, 94-win teams decline. As Bill James outlined in his early writings, there are six "indicators" that can be used to predict a team's improvement or decline the following season. Let's run each through for the Giants.

1. Pythagorean record. Teams that outperform their Pythagorean record tend to improve the following season. The Giants outperformed theirs by six wins. So this may not be the strike against the Giants that I indicated.

2. The Plexiglass Principle. Teams that improve one season tend to decline the next, and vice versa. The Giants improved from 2011, so this would suggest a decline in 2013.

3. The Law of Competitive Balance. All teams tend to drift toward a .500 record, which is known as regression to the mean. This would also suggest a decline.

4. Age. Not surprising, young teams tend to improve and old teams to decline. The Giants are a mixed bag here -- their weighted age for batters was eighth-youngest in the majors, but their weighted age for pitchers was fifth-oldest. The Giants' big moves have been to re-sign Angel Pagan (who turns 32 next season) and Marco Scutaro (who turned 37 in October).

5. Late-season performance. Teams which play better in the second half tend to improve the following season. The Giants played better in the second half -- 48-28 versus 46-40 -- so another positive sign (especially since Melky Cabrera missed much of the second half).

6. Performance of Triple-A team. This speaks to organizational depth. Fresno was 74-70 (and Double-A Richmond 70-71), so this seems like neither a positive nor a negative.

Anyway, I don't know if all these indicators still hold true. The game is always evolving and changing and we can always conduct new studies of old ideas. One final note: Of the teams that did improve below, you'll note that several made major offseason acquisitions -- the 2009-10 Phillies traded for Roy Halladay, the 2005-06 Yankees added Johnny Damon, the 2003-04 Red Sox added Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, the 2001-02 Yankees signed Jason Giambi and David Wells.

The Giants have elected to stand pat (for now). Hey, I could be wrong. Buster Olney put them No. 1 in his power rankings. As great as the October run was by the Giants, that run is over. Flags fly forever, but they don't predict the future.

Tim LincecumKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesHaving a weapon like Tim Lincecum was a huge advantage for the Giants in the postseason.

The offseason is already in full swing, but I wanted to put a bow of sorts on the 2012 season. Let's take one final look at the 2012 postseason and see what we learned ... if anything.

1. Starting rotation depth is vital. The Giants' rotation depth was certainly a huge factor in their World Series run. Tim Lincecum pitched most of the postseason out of the bullpen, but he did make one start in the NLCS; that allowed Bruce Bochy to skip Madison Bumgarner and when Bumgarner made his World Series start on 10 days of rest, he pitched much better after looking fatigued in previous outings. Having five quality starters gives a manager flexibility -- whether using one of those pitchers out of the bullpen or to rest a tired or struggling starter. One of the key games of the postseason was Game 4 of the Division Series, when Barry Zito got knocked out in the third inning. Bochy could afford a quick hook because he had Lincecum, who pitched 4.1 innings of one-run relief.

Of course, every team wants rotation depth. The Nationals had five good ones, but squandered that advantage by electing not to use Stephen Strasburg. The Reds had four good starters, but had to use No. 5 starter Mike Leake once Johnny Cueto was injured. The Cards were able to bounce 18-game winner Lance Lynn from the bullpen back to the rotation after Jaime Garcia was injured (although Lynn pitched poorly). The 2009 Yankees used only three starters in the postseason, but they're the only team to do so since the 1991 Twins. I don't think we'll see that again, and we're more likely to see five-man rotations moving forward, as managers account for the long grind of the regular season and the high-intensity efforts required to get through playoff games.

Matt Cain, Lincecum and Bumgarner were all first-round picks -- Cain the 25th pick in 2002, Lincecum the 10th pick in 2006 and Bumgarner the 10th pick in 2007. Those three -- along with Buster Posey (another first-round pick) and Pablo Sandoval (an amateur signing out of Venezuela) -- are the heart of the Giants. In his excellent wrap of the World Series, Joe Sheehan wrote in his newsletter:
    The trend is clear. If you want to build a championship team, you have to do it through the draft and through success in international signings. The 2009 Yankees, who signed three of the top four free agents the previous winter, laying out $400 million in contract commitments, may go down in history as the last team to win a championship by buying up the available talent. The economics of the game are such that you can't plan to get ten wins better in the free-agent market; you might do so with good fortune, but there won't be enough high-quality free agents available to make that something you can plan.

The catch: It's not so easy to draft a rotation of All-Stars.

Here's one way to look at that. In the past three seasons, 71 different starting pitchers have accumulated at least one season with 3.0 WAR (via Baseball-Reference.com). Only 24 of those 71 had at least two 3-WAR seasons. Only 13 of those 24 compiled both (or all three) seasons with the team that originally drafted or signed them -- Justin Verlander (3), Clayton Kershaw (3), Jered Weaver (3), Cole Hamels (3), Felix Hernandez (3), Cain (3), Mark Buehrle (3, two with the White Sox), Cueto (2), C.J. Wilson (2, both with the Rangers), David Price (2), Lincecum (2), Jon Lester (2) and Josh Johnson (2).

You see where I've gone here: It's difficult to draft a homegrown rotation. In Cain and Lincecum, the Giants have two of 13 of a rare breed. Plus they have Bumgarner, who has compiled 3.9 WAR over the past two seasons, but 8.7 WAR via FanGraphs' calculations.

Building a homegrown rotation might be the goal, but the reality is the Giants are the exception. Most teams will have to piece together a rotation via all the means possible -- finding a Ryan Vogelsong off the scrap heap, acquiring an undervalued talent like Doug Fister, trading prospects for a young rotation anchor like Gio Gonzalez, or signing a veteran free agent.

2. Lineup depth matters. As Dave Cameron wrote on FanGraphs:
    From 1-6, the Tigers are probably the best team in baseball. From 7-25, however, there isn’t a team in baseball better than San Francisco, and those 19 players were the guys who made the difference for the Giants in their playoff run.

When Victor Martinez tore up his knee in an offseason workout, the Tigers elected to give $23 million in 2012 to Prince Fielder. His bat went cold in the playoffs, but Fielder pretty much performed as expected during the regular season. The Tigers, however, had glaring holes throughout the lineup, holes that were obvious on paper heading into the season -- second base, designated hitter, corner outfield. The Giants certainly had some wasted payroll ($16 million spent on Aubrey Huff and Freddy Sanchez), but they essentially used their Fielder money on Melky Cabrera ($6 million), Angel Pagan ($4.85 million) and portions of the Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro contracts.

As Dave wrote, "The Giants simply didn’t ask any bad players to play vital roles in October. What they lacked at the top end of the roster, they made up for at the back-end. Despite the fact that it’s an overused cliche, the Giants really did win through a team effort. And they won because the roster was smartly constructed to avoid pitfalls."

If there's one thing to be learned from the Giants' roster construction, it's that $23 million can be wisely spent on depth as opposed to one star player. Fielder was worth 4.4 WAR to the Tigers; Cabrera, Pagan, Pence and Scutaro provided 10.9 WAR to the Giants.

3. Not striking out is the new on-base percentage. The Giants famously finished last in the NL in home runs -- last in the majors, for that matter. Some of that power outage is attributable to their home park, and to the fact that they play a large percentage of their road games in San Diego and Los Angeles, two more pitcher's parks. But the Giants hit doubles and triples (they led the majors in three-baggers), they run the bases well, were decent at drawing walks, and ranked third in the NL in batting average.

In fact, their home park masked what was actually an excellent offensive team. While the Giants ranked just sixth in the NL in runs scored overall, they scored 46 more runs on the road than any other NL team. Remarkably, only the Angels scored more runs on the road. We saw throughout the postseason how they were able to do this: They battle, put the ball in play and put pressure on the defense to make plays. Only the Phillies had fewer strikeouts among NL teams.

If there's one trend that develops from this postseason, this might be it. Not striking out doesn't necessarily make you a productive a hitter, however. For the Giants, it was a means to their productivity. The three teams that struck out the fewest times in the majors were the Royals, Twins and Indians (which maybe implies the lack of quality pitching in the AL Central more than anything else) and they finished 12th, 10th and 13th in the AL in runs scored.

4. Winning the division is paramount. There's no doubt the second wild card played out as baseball officials intended: Force teams to win the division title. Just ask the Rangers.

5. Bullpen depth. Nothing new here. Of course, more important than bullpen depth is having a hot bullpen. The Cardinals' pen struggled much of 2011, but put it together at the right time. The Giants ranked eighth in the NL in bullpen ERA during the season, but their top five relievers -- Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez plus Lincecum -- allowed four runs (three earned) in 44 innings in the postseason. One major key was having Affeldt, a lefty who isn't strictly a LOOGY. Having a left-hander you're not afraid to use against right-handed batters is a huge weapon, as it allows you to stretch out the back end of the pen a little more without worrying so much about specific matchups.

6. Hope for all teams. The Giants weren't a great team. They ranked sixth in runs scored and sixth in runs allowed in the NL. They had the 10th-best run differential in the majors. They won 94 games despite Lincecum's terrible regular season, injuries to closer Brian Wilson and Sandoval, plus Melky Cabrera's suspension. Other than Cabrera (and possibly Posey), nobody had a career season. Scutaro did hit an otherworldly .362 after joining the team. The point is this: You don't need to build a super team full of high-priced free agents to win the World Series. Don't get me wrong -- the Giants did spend at least $10 million on four players (Zito, Lincecum, Cain and Huff), but those four provided only 1.3 WAR during the regular season (Zito and Lincecum obviously stepped up in the playoffs).

But what the Giants did should provide hope for all teams out there. With good draft picks, smart trades, a lucky signing or two (like Ryan Vogelsong) and the willingness to pick up a little extra payroll during the season, any organization can build a World Series contender, even if you can't afford the high-priced free agents.

7. Luck is maybe the biggest factor of all. In the end, all you have to do is get into the postseason. From there, play well, get hot and hope you catch some breaks. Think of all the breaks the Giants got along the way to their title: Cueto's injury, Brandon Phillips' base-running gaffe, Scott Rolen's error, the Nationals not using Strasburg (which could have turned the Nats-Cardinals series), even facing a mediocre Tigers team (seventh-best record in the AL) in the World Series.

Each of the first four Division Series could have gone the other way but for a single play here and there. Pagan said as much after one World Series game, saying the Giants might not even be here if not for Rolen's error. But it's also true that good teams take advantage of opportunities given to them. The Giants did that and are World Series champs for the second time in three seasons.


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.

[+] EnlargeGregor Blanco
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAYThis little thing -- Gregor Blanco's bunt staying fair -- led to the only run the Giants needed in Game 2.
On his 114th pitch, Fister left a 2-2 slider over the middle of the plate and Pence grounded a base hit past Miguel Cabrera.

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.

[+] EnlargePablo Sandoval, Angel Pagan
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsAngel Pagan, who went 2-for-4 himself, salutes Pablo Sandoval after his first homer as Giants manager Bruce Bochy looks on.
Home run No. 3: Now facing reliever Al Alburquerque in the fifth, Sandoval golfed a 1-1 slider that was barely off the ground into a long, beautiful arc over the center-field fence, sending Giants fans into a communal roar of joy. Is there a better sound than a ballpark erupting?

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.

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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.

Chris Quick of Bay City Ball has a good post on Pablo Sandoval, who has really struggled since coming off the disabled list on Aug. 13, hitting .222/.281/.263, with no home runs in 99 at-bats.

Here's Chris's post, in which he shows how Sandoval just isn't driving the ball, a likely result of residual effects from the broken hamate bone plus a hamstring injury.

Bruce Bochy gave Sandoval the night off on Wednesday, but it will be interesting to see if Sandoval returns to the No. 3 spot in the lineup he's been in over his past 25 games.

"It’s starting to mount up on him a little. He’s trying too hard," Bochy told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We’re just trying to get him away from the game so he can relax, come back and have fun. It hasn’t been much fun for him the last couple of days."

The Giants are last in the majors in home runs with 87 (yes, some park effects going on there), but with Melky Cabrera on the suspended list, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence are the only Giants with more than eight home runs (and Pence has just three home runs in 40 games since joining San Francisco).

The Giants' lead in the NL West in secure (7 games over the Dodgers), so Bochy has three weeks to see if Sandoval can get his bat going before the postseason. They'll need power from someone besides Posey if they want to go all the way.
Well, there was only one game to talk about so Keith Law and I were forced to discuss Tuesday night's destruction of Justin Verlander on Wednesday's Baseball Today podcast.

1. Both of us agree that perhaps Verlander didn't have the right attitude about his start. But does the 8-0 win really prove the NL is better than the AL?

2. Melky Cabrera won MVP honors over teammate Pablo Sandoval so we discuss Melky's future and what to expect from him moving forward. Meanwhile, Royals fans wonder what went wrong with Jonathan Sanchez.

3. Dillon Gee had surgery to remove a blood clot and will miss some time, so Keith fills us in on prospect Matt Harvey, who may replace Gee in the Mets' rotation.

4. We go to the emails and tweets to talk about the Tigers, White Sox, Marlins, Albert Pujols and prospects Gary Brown, Shelby Miller and A.J. Pollock.

5. Justin Upton ... would you trade him? We debate.
My favorite All-Star selection in the past decade was reliever Mike Williams of the Pirates in 2003. At the break, he had 25 saves ... but a 6.44 ERA. He was the Pirates' lone representative, of course, although the club did have other worthy options -- Jason Kendall was hitting .308, and Brian Giles was hitting .306 with a .444 on-base percentage. Williams, in fact, was so bad that he never pitched in the majors after that season.

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?

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