Sunday, April 27, 2008

Zito Ready?

I'll admit that Zito hasn't given much reason for optimism, if hoping for a league average pitching performance on a big salary is optimism, but I still have some hope.

Of course, it is still early season, small samples, yada yada, but while he has had some improvements in saber terms, in baseball terms, 0-5 is a pretty stark number, wins do have some meaning in the real world, if not the sabermetric world.

But I have some hope for this start. He was improving with each start, struggling with his new mechanics, but seemingly improving. So a stepback should be expected at some point, plus Arizona is an extreme offensive park, so that contributed to his blowup as well.

The encouraging thing I heard from one of the announcers is that he had a real nice side outing with the coaches where he was locating great - which has been his problem all season long, not throwing to his spots - so I expect to see his best outing of the season today, what with it being SF (neutral to pitcher's park), the nice side outing, plus general progress during the season.

Still, a big disappointment, given how well he pitched at the end of last season.

Go Giants!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Want to Win a Couple More Games Per Season?

This has been something I've thought about for a long time, since I saw John "the Count" Montefusco hit a home run and reinforced by Don "Caveman" Robinson, then brought to mind again last season when Russ Ortiz re-joined the Giants: most pitchers are missing something by not working on their hitting as well as their pitching. Are you competitive enough to want it, to get that extra win or two?

If Only I Could Hit

Using the lineup analysis data that ties run production as a function of OBP and SLG, I tried some numbers out to see what would happen to a pitcher if he could hit as well as the worse position player. For this experiment, I used the Giants pre-season lineup that I noted should produce 4.27 runs per game and compared it with a lineup where the 9th hitter could hit as well as Omar Vizquel was projected to hit. Thus, the .467 OPS pitcher/PH/double-switch (pitcher alone is much lower) is now a .671 OPS hitter. That's roughly a 200 point increase in OPS.

First, I assumed that the pitcher was good enough to keep runs allowed to 4.27 runs and thus would be a .500 pitcher with our projected offense, or 81 win season for a team like that. Improving the pitcher to Omar level would boost runs scored to 4.61, or an extra 0.34 runs per game. That would change a .500 pitcher, or 16-16 win/loss in 32 starts, decision in each game, to a .538 pitcher, or 17-15 win/loss. Only two games, or really, just changes one game from a loss to a win, but on a team-wide level, that makes a .500 team with 81 wins to a 87 win season and competitive for the division title (though usually just short by the end).

Second, I assumed a good pitcher that would win at a .600 winning percentage, which working through the math in reverse, means that he has a 3.49 ERA when the team is scoring runs at a 4.27 pace. Again, boosting the runs scored by 0.34 runs per game results in a loss turning into a win, changing a 19-13 starter to a 20-12 starter. That changes a 97 win team to a 103 win team.

Overall Result

It does not seem like much, but, like a baseball season, if you are around long enough, it makes a difference. Over a ten year career, that's the difference between a, say, 120-120 record or a 130-110 record (that is the equivalent of an 88 win season). You go from an average pitcher to one who is not that bad, pretty good even. Or a good pitcher at 130-110 to a great pitcher 140-100 (that is equivalent of a 94-95 win season for a team). Or a great to an elite at 150-90.

Seems like it's only a little gain for such a big jump in OPS - and I will admit that jumping from 200 OPS points is a big jump and probably beyond the abilities of a lot of pitchers - but there are many pitchers who don't hit well AND don't work at it, and they brush that off like it's nothing, as long as they pitch well, that is all that they care about. Well, would they like to win a couple more games per season?

And I know that sabermetrically, wins are not the greatest measure of a pitcher's value, but a win is a win when you look at the final standings of the year. And most pitchers are not going to go chapter and verse about their DIPS ERA if they won a lot of games. Shouldn't their pride at least get them off their butts and take batting practice more seriously and learn how to hit better? It might change only one loss into a win, but that's a two win swing and can move a pitcher from one level of winning to the next level.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cup Half Full or Half Empty on the 2008 Giants?

I see confusion on the part of Giants fans of how to take the 2008 Giants. Some are buoyed by the flirting of .500. Others want to point out how lousy their record would look if their record was extended to a 162 games season.

This reminds me of season's past when fans got really down on the Giants but was missing something essential about all the bad times: either someone was injured and out, or not performing well, essentially not producing what they were expected to do. One that sticks out in my mind was a few seasons past, when Schmidt missed the season until around the third week of May, and some proud fans boasted that they had foreseen this before the season. I pointed out that we don't really know what the Giants are truly capable of, we had a key reliever out in April and Schmidt was out but coming back soon. They went on a winning streak basically once Schmidt returned.

Another good example is the year the Marlins won the World Series by tagging out JT Snow at home plate. They were one of the worse teams, if not the worse team, for much of the first two months of the season, but then when Dontrelle Willis joined them, they just took off. They were a different team after he joined them, but it was also other factors, probably like playing Miguel Cabrera more or something. Whatever the reasons, the post-Dontrelle Marlins were a totally different animal than the pre-Dontrelle Marlins.

Sames can go for the 2008 Giants, though clearly not as World Series champs, but probably better than the epic losers many have proclaimed them to be.

So let me say first, that I don't foresee things. I try to see things as likely or unlikely, probable, possible, improbable; or at least I try. I try to see scenarios.

Here's how I see this season.

Lineup is Apples and Oranges

People looking at the Giants season so far are comparing apples with oranges.

First off, if your leadoff hitter is hitting .118/.167/.118/.285, you are not likely to win many games. Heck you would be lucky to win any games, in my opinion. And the Giants didn't with Roberts doing that in his first six games of the season. They went 0-6 in the games that he started. The one win in the early season was the one where he didn't start.

Well, guess what? He isn't hitting lead-off anymore, Lewis has pretty much taken over that role. So while the 6 losses do matter in terms of how the final standings of the 2008 Giants is, it has no real bearing on the 2008 Giants we see going forward. So their 8-12 record (after today's loss to the D-backs) is really an 8-6 record with the crew of players they have now contributing.

Now, the first thing I would note here is that this is all small samples, so I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that they are a winning team that can compete for the division title. I am not that optimistic. Particularly when they got a big boost from John Bowker hitting 3 homers in a week's time or so.

But here's another factor that people have been missing as well: Aaron Rowand hasn't been healthy for much of the season. After he hurt himself in Milwaukee, he didn't really do that well, which hurt our lineup. He hit .200/.259/.320/.579 over the next 8 games he played, with little power. Even if the pessimists are right about Rowand, he's at least a high 700 OPS hitter.

I still think that he's a mid-800 OPS hitter when he is healthy. He was hitting .385/.357/.462/.819 up to the game where he got hurt. And he has hit like two Aaron Rowands for the past four games, including today's game, plus got his first homer of the season (on the road, natch). That is something that will be different going forward as well.

And speaking of Bowker, that brings up another player who has been horrible, Rich Aurilia has hit a sickly .182/.237/.182/.419 as our full-time 1B. He's been so bad that the Giants have rushed Bowker a bit to get him ready to start at 1B since the OF is full with Lewis (who, BTW, has been playing well), Rowand, and Winn.

And speaking of Winn, he hasn't been hitting as well as he normally does (though oddly, despite the dumping on Aurilia, Durham, and Roberts this season by the Giants nay-sayers, I haven't seen much carping on Winn, which is 180 degrees from many of their stance last year when Winn came off a bad year) and thus that should bode well going forward assuming that he reverts back to his normal, consistent, self. Though that will be balanced most probably by Lewis doing a bit worse.

Really, the whole lineup has been sub-par, though obviously Castillo and Bocock probably are not going to be any better going forward (who thought we could find anyone who is worse than Feliz? Too bad Frandsen was injured, I would have loved to see how he did there, but he might not get the opportunity next season, it truly was as bad a time to get injured, and not just injured but out the whole season), but there should be marked offensive improvement relative to early and mid-into this short season, at LF, CF, RF, and 1B.

Pitching Has Underperformed

Meanwhile, the pitching has not been super great, if anything, they have been a little disappointing and underperforming what I was expecting them to be in 2008, except for the Kid, Tim Lincecum. The relievers have been good overall, their high ERA due to one or two bad outings, but no one has been pitching lights out better than could be expected, they are all around what we could expect or worse, and all the starters except for Lincecum, should see some improvement going forward, particularly Cain, but I think Zito as well. I still think that he can get his stats looking good this season, he's been turning it around the last couple of starts.

So I think the pitching staff could and should do better going forward, relative to the first few weeks of the season. Particularly the pitching rotation, where Cain and Zito should settle down, plus perhaps Sanchez finally learns to be consistently good instead of on and off. Correia has pitched about what I would hope for on the good end, so he's at risk for some fall-back, but not much I think, I think he's a good pitcher, and a great #5 starter compared to the dreck that most teams have.

And with a better bullpen backing them up, relative to last year, with Wilson, Walker, and Valdez leading the way, where they weren't even on the team last year until late, the starters will start having more luck in winning this season versus last season.

Giants Thoughts

I'm more jazzed about the Giants than I was pre-season. Sure, the vets have sucked and we are probably not going to get much for them in mid-season trades, but Lewis and Bowker have sure looked nice, eh? And Rowand has shown enough, I think, to say that his acquisition was a good thing.

On the pitching side of the ledger, except for that one game, his last start, Cain had looked very good paired up with Lincecum as our 1-2 punch in the pitching rotation. Plus Zito has looked better sabermetrically with each start, so I am buoyed by that. Then there's the excitement that comes with Sanchez's starts and Correia's steadiness that I like. And Valdez is reminding me of when Nathan had his nice season with us, pitching in middle relief. That's often where the game is truly on the line, still in the balance, not at the end when the closer finishes up a 2-3 runs lead.

Go Giants!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Wow-kers, It's Bowker's Time!

I had been hoping to write about Bowker's 2007 season at some point and show how good a season he had and thus is a good prospect to watch out for, but obviously that ship has sailed, so instead I'll explore a corollary question: is this real or not?

Feels Like the First Time

For Giants fans who were living under a rock this weekend, Bowker was called up this weekend, started Saturday and Sunday and only hit two home runs, going 4 for 6, and driving in seven runs. He got the call-up late Friday night and got around 3 hours sleep taking Fresno to S.F. route to the majors. Luckily, it was a home game on the weekend, so he was able to get tickets for his parents and I presume friends and family as well. Major league life can't get any better this this. What a dream start to a major league career!

His homer in his first game put him in a select group of eight San Francisco Giants who had homered in their first game, including Giants greats Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Bobby Bonds, Will Clark, Matt Williams, and John "the Count" Montefusco. With his homer yesterday, he is all alone, the only player in the Giants 50 year history in San Francisco to homer in his first two games.

Just all in two day's work. Today, he gets a well-deserved rest, no use testing the Baseball Gods and batting him against Randy Johnson, one of the nastiest lefties in baseball history, even if he is in his mid-40's now. Some may quibble, but why do that to him?

2007 Breakout Season

Despite playing in that hellhole of a park in Norwich, he was still 12th overall in OPS, 7th overall in SLG. And he was a 23 year old playing in a league where the average pitcher was 25 years old, which means that despite the two extra years of experience that the pitchers he faced had, on average, he still knocked them all around the park:

2007: .309/.364/.529/.893, 22 HR in 518 AB, 24 AB/HR
Home: .271/.330/.422/.752, 6 HR in 251 AB, 42 AB/HR
Road: .345/.397/.629/1.027, 16 HR in 267 AB, 17 AB/HR

As I have shown in previous analysis of the Dodd Stadium homefield "advantage", the park, for whatever reasons, damps down power, both doubles and HR power, relative to the parks in the rest of the Eastern League, costing our prospects some 30-50% of their slugging percentage had they played all their games on the road. Bowker, despite some heavy hitting, was not unaffected by this.

In addition, Bowker improved as the season went on, showing that he figured out the pitchers more than they figured him out:

APR: .306/.342/.500/.842, 3 HR in 72 AB, 24 AB/HR
MAY: .263/.303/.500/.803, 4 HR in 118 AB, 30 AB/HR
JUN: .345/.398/.584/.983, 5 HR in 113 AB, 23 AB/HR
JUL: .284/.364/.526/.891, 5 HR in 95 AB, 19 AB/HR
AUG: .330/.391/.509/.900, 5 HR in 112 AB, 23 AB/HR

Comparable MLEs

MLEs is a well established method of translating minor league stats into Major League Equivalent statistics (from, natch, Bill James), but, of course, like all in life, most have taken from the master and made their own proprietary try at this. Most try to translate based on level, age of player, and other variables. As I've noted, there is really no knowledge to be gained from utilizing his home stats because of the severe skewing of his stats there, and thus his road stats are a better proxy for how he would have performed in AA (and thus MLE).

The closest players in age and performance to Bowker are Nolan Reimold and Steven Pearce. Reimold is the same age (Pearce is a year older) but Pearce had the higher OPS. Neither had an OPS as good as Bowker's road numbers (1.027 vs. 0.986 for Pearce and 0.930 for Reimold), but they are close enough:

Bowker: .345/.397/.629/1.027, 16 HR in 267 AB, 17 AB/HR
Pearce: .334/.400/.586/.986, 14 HR in 290 AB, 21 AB/HR
Reimold: .306/.360/.565/.930, 11 HR in 186 AB, 17 AB/HR

From Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster:

Pearce: .293/.341/.496/.837, 15 HR in 412 AB, 28 AB/HR
Reimold: .271/.324/.501/.825, 10 HR in 186 AB, 19 AB/HR

Thus according to the MLE's of Ron Shandler's methodology, two hitters who were not as good as Bowker, are expected to hit around .830 OPS with around 20-25 AB/HR power (or about 20-25 HR in a 500 AB season). Both were singled out by Shandler's method as part of a pool of the best rising prospects.

Here are their road numbers:

Bowker: .345/.397/.629/1.027, 16 HR in 267 AB, 17 AB/HR
Pearce: .333/.403/.587/.989, 6 HR in 138 AB, 23 AB/HR
Reimold: .330/.375/.546/.921, 5 HR in 97 AB, 19 AB/HR

Again, very comparable, and Bowker is on top.

Real or Not?

Given that he hit as well as two highly ranked prospects as Pearce and Reimold in AA, I think that Bowker is, if not the equal in prospect-goodness as these two, he is very close. Of course, the fear is that 2007 is the fluke and the prior suckiness he had was the real Bowker. But he is now 24 years old, 25 later this season (last season counted as his year 23 season), so he is at the right age when physical maturity and experience can start kicking in and he start hitting better.

And it was not like he was a lowly considered prospect. When he was drafted, he was considered a future power hitter. In their 2006 prospect book, Baseball America noted, "He [Bowker] has more raw power than most other San Francisco farmhands... He has premium lefthanded power, and the key to bringing it out is maintaining his aggressive approach. He had an injury-plagued career at Long Beach State, redshirting as a freshman because of problems with his right wrist, and still is gaining a feel for his all-out swing... Bowker's bat is his ticket. He's a below-average runner with decent outfield skills and a fringy arm. They played him at first base in instructional league..." He was ranked 21st that year.

In their 2008 book, they wrote: "Bowker held his own over his first three minor league seasons, but hadn't flashed the power San Francisco expected when it drafted him in the third round. The power arrived at an unlikely place last season, as Bowker finished third in the pitching-dominated Eastern League with a .523 slugging percentage. Bowker arrived in spring training last year with added muscle and began to flourish when coaches suggested he stand closer to the plate. He combines the ability to hit for average - he's a career .296 hitter - with pull power. He has strong hands and can hit good fastballs. The Giants loves his aggressive approach and work ethic. He's limited to left field because he has below-average speed and his range and arm are adequate at best..." He was ranked 9th this year.

On the other hand, the 2008 Minor League Baseball Analyst book by Deric McKamey, rates Bowker as above average for power, average for batting average, and projects him as a platoon LF/RF, stating "Tweener outfielder with quick hands and extension that allows him to stay on baseball and hit for BA. Produces moderate power to pull field, and could help fortune with improved plate discipline. Ranges well in outfield, but possessess slightly below average arm strength."

However, they are not accounting for the Dodd Stadium effect. Both Pearce and Reimold rates a premium power hitters. And I think why he was evaluated only as a platoon outfielder is because his MLE based on his Dodd-depressed numbers places him as a mid-700 OPS hitter. If you look at his splits, he clearly does hit RHP much, much better for power:

v.LHP: .331/.390/.460/.850, 2 HR in 139 AB, 70 AB/HR
v.RHP: .301/.355/.554/.909, 20 HR in 379 AB, 19 AB/HR

And given a projected mid-700 OPS, that smells like a platoon OF. But if he can hit in the low 800 OPS overall, that is a major league average OPS for a corner OF, and makes him starter material.

The key question this season is whether the Bowker of 2007 or the Bowker of Before is the real Bowker. Obviously, with the hitting display of this weekend, that small samples will drive Giants fans giddy with anticipation. I think, given the comments by Baseball America, the depressive effects of Dodd Stadium - else his breakout season would have really opened some eyes, leading the Eastern League in OPS, rather than simply being in the top 10 - and how players who are similar to him in hitting on the road were rated much higher than he was, the 2007 Bowker was the real Bowker, and hopefully he will get a chance to show what he can do in the majors this season.

I think that Sabean needs to work harder at trying to move Randy Winn so that Bowker, Lewis, and Schierholtz get more ABs to start this season. It was risky to have done that in the pre-season as many Giants fans had clamored for, but I think all three prospects have shown enough that they deserve to get the shot to show what they can do in the Giants outfield, the time is right, now we need to find the right team to trade Winn to and get some good prospects for him.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sanchez, Ortmeier, Roberts: The Giants Win Two in a Row!

Sanchez was Sizzling

Great game by Sanchez, getting double digit strikeouts and only two walks. He's going to dominate (5 PQS for this game) when he does that. Too bad the offense couldn't get him the win, but you knew that this was going to be a big theme of this season.

He suddenly makes the decision of what to do when Noah Lowry comes back suddenly very interesting. What happens to Correia or Sanchez when Lowry returns? Presumably they were betting that Sanchez would be the odd man out previously as his spot in the rotation is where you would want to drop Lowry into once he returned.

Now, as well as Correia pitched last season, if Sanchez continues to strike out 8-10 batters a game, that would be hard to send down, if not impossible. But if Correia can pitch really well, he would be hard to send down too. I think I have a possible solution that helps all the young pitchers.

Six Man Rotation

I think the Giants should move to a swing-man six-man rotation. Have all six starters in the rotation, but when there is a day off in the week, you skip over either Correia or Sanchez, alternating. A bonus is that this limits the starts that Cain and Lincecum (plus Lowry too) throws in the season - it is the cumulative wear and tear that really affects a starter - while giving Correia and Sanchez relatively regular starts (they can be the long man out of the bullpen when they are skipped).

Assuming there is around 22 starts per 6 men when Lowry returns in May (or about 132 games) , each of the regular 3 starters will get around 30 starts in 2008, Lowry about 25 starts, Correia and Sanchez, I'm guessing, around 20 or so starts each.

And I don't think that this should be done every season, just this season so that both Correia and Sanchez gets to stay up and get relatively regular starts/work. For example, when they are skipped, allow them to pitch 2-4 innings in a game around when a regular start would be, there is always a starter only going 5-7 innings most of the time. And once in a while they pitch as long as they can go when a starter gets knocked out of the box early, like Lincecum in the rain-delayed game.

Ortmeier Experiment Begins

Even before Roberts knee was diagnosed as needing a lot of surgery, it looked to me like the Giants were going to try to give Ortmeier more chances in the outfield. This was signaled by their move to make him strictly a right-handed batter. The team needs RHH who can hit because of the of LHHs Lewis and Schierholtz in the OF.

They clearly have not been impressed with Rajai Davis, who has seen little play this season thus far except for pinch-running. I think they were preparing to let Ortmeier take over the right-handed portion of the platoon in LF with Roberts, mainly because he is one of the few power hitting players on the team, let alone among the prospects. He hit for 20+ home run power in his short stints in the majors last season.

With Roberts going down for at least a couple of months due to the surgery - so serious that he had to get a second opinion (yep, it's bad all right!) and won't know what his return time is until they dig in, check out, and clean out the knee - it looks like Lewis will be platooning with Ortmeier in LF, though I would hope that it would be more a shared situation where Ortmeier gets a few games against RHP as well. Sabean in his KNBR show today also noted that he should also see play at 1B still.

Moreover, with Rowand not healthy, the guys could be seeing more play as that plays out, including Clay Timpner, who was brought up to replace Roberts because Schierholtz injured his right shin recently. If Rowand does go on the DL, I think Schierholtz, if healthy, would be brought up to start in RF, with Winn moving to CF, and get his chance at regular ABs starting.

I assume that Davis will semi-platoon in RF in that he will get to face all the tough left-handers the Giants face. I assume the Giants will want Schierholtz to face some LHP and get reps against them so that he can hopefully develop into a regular starter instead of a platoon player, as some experts had him pegged for in prior years.

All in all, all the young OF prospects should be seeing extensive play over the next couple of months, including Schierholtz if Rowand is out. They might still bring him up anyway once he is healthy since it was only a shin injury that kept Schierholtz from being the prospects called up instead of Timpner. They might play Winn in LF in order to give Schierholtz starts in RF.

And this Roberts injury was one of scenarios I laid out before the season. Roberts can be counted on to be out for at least 2-4 weeks each year, he is just a fragile-type platoon player, which is exactly what we needed this season - not Randy Winn - because he will be giving up a lot of playing time to the prospect outfielders, whereas Winn is a horse who regularly puts in 150+ games. Hopefully one of the young outfielders will get hot and finally figure things out (or just be hot, like Larry Herndon and Danny Gladden were for one glorious rookie season), forcing the Giants to finally trade off either Winn or Roberts (you know who I prefer :^), though Winn is more likely now because, well, he's not seriously injured right now.

And the Giants win two in a row, humm baby, Go Giants!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Giants Win the Game! The Giants Win the Game!

Hey, you got to celebrate the good times, you don't know when they will come again. :^) And hey, our clean-up hitter leads the team in HR, and is now among the leaders in HR this season in the NL. Better check his syringe, er, bat!

I am posting because I heard part of the interview with Rob Neyer, of ESPN, on KNBR today. He said that as of the beginning of the season, he thought the Giants were capable of a 70-74 win season. So he doesn't understand all the talk about the Giants losing 100 games. He said even the Marlins, Nationals, and Pirates didn't lose 100 games in recent years (and he thinks the Giants have a better team). He said that is because the NL is relatively balanced, so it is pretty hard for a team, no matter how bad, to lose 100 games.

I'm Fine, How are You?

Those are good points, but in any case, I think I'm in a good position right now, a win/win/win in terms of happiness for this season. If the Giants do lose 90 to 100 games as many have forecasted, we'll get a really good draft pick in 2009, another top 5 pick, so I'm happy, that should be another good hitter to go with the guy we get in this year's draft. If we win 72 to 80 games, that's basically what I thought they were capable of, high end and low end, I'm happy, that's what I thought they would do. If they, miracle of miracles, win 81 or more games, then I'm happy because I was very wrong, they were able to do it somehow, and you know that it would involve a lot of great pitching, both starters and relievers, plus some standout hitting on the part of somebody young and developing.

I plan on enjoying myself this season, there should be a lot of good pitching to go around and I think one or two young hitters will do nice enough work that we can grin about it after the season. I will leave the moaning about the team to other, more talented moaners.

Did I Mention That the Giants Won the Game?

But Lincecum sure looked good last night, eh? Nothing wrong with his arm, that was a 4 PQS game, a dominating start. His only blemish was giving up 7 hits, but that was flukey given that he went 6 IP and struck out 7. That results in a BABIP around .400, and pitchers should be around .300 if they are regular. And we all know that Lincecum is above average so his BABIP should be lower, theoretically speaking.

Too bad Brian Wilson blew the save. But I think he'll be OK once he calms down a bit, I think the young guys are all amped because it's the start of the season, more so for Wilson because he didn't get a chance at a save until this game, an appearance until the game before. And as a I noted in a previous post, a scout was quoted in the San Jose Mercury by Andy Baggerly as saying that Wilson had one of the four great arms in the Giants system.

FYI, I guess the Giants passed on Jerome Williams. He came begging, hat in hand, after losing 30 pounds over the off-season, to drop from 260 to 230, for a job anywhere with any team. But no one bit, so he ended up signing with an independent league team in California. I'm surprised the Giants did not bite, but then again, they passed on Kurt Ainsworth and Damian Moss too (but we got Foppert and Walker back!).

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Magician Making Magic Again

Merkin Valdez has had a long and torturous history as a Giants player. A secondary player in the Russ Ortiz trade to the Braves, as Damian Moss was suppose to be the key player but fizzled out, he set Giants fans' hearts a flutter with his fastball and a lot of strikeouts. He was so good that at one point he got the nickname of "The Magician".

But despite various pronouncements, he didn't rise as fast as hyped nor did he even make it up to the upper levels without needing to be converted to relief, as he was suppose to be the future ace starter in Giants fans minds, though at least he was used as a closer in AAA. Sabean had set the hype in motion a few years ago when, in a pre-season interview, he listed Valdez as a prospect who could make a significant contribution to the team that season - obviously, that didn't happen.

Then the whispers of the need for Tommy John surgery emerged. Baseball America reported it in August of 2005, but then had to retract it when there was no confirmation. Then Valdez had a horrible 2006 and the Giants finally had him do TJS, which wiped out his 2007.

Which brings us to today. Out of options, Valdez was basically on the bubble but had a great spring training to remove any doubts whether or not he belongs on the 25 man roster. Of course, as a reliever, it is what have you done for me lately, and Merkin has continued to do well during the regular season thus far, opening up some eyes with his emergency start the other day. In 2 innings pitched against the D-gers, he had 4 strikeouts, striking out the side to start the game.

Bochy noted, as reported in most media accounts, "I see him sooner rather than later, as a guy helping out in the late innings." As reported by Andrew Baggarly in the April 5th Merc, "one major league scout said he considered Valdez one of the four premier arms in the organization, along with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Brian Wilson."

His emergence couldn't have come at a better time. Brad Hennessey was suppose to be the 7th inning bridge to Walker and Wilson, plus helping out with late game duties, but has been horrible in two outings thus far. Never a flamethrower to begin with, relying on off-speed stuff, his velocity is down around 4 MPH this season, as reported by Andrew Baggarly on April 5th.

Giants Thoughts

It has been a long time coming for Merkin, so this has been very encouraging thus far. If he does move into late game situations, that would make our bullpen that much stronger, with Valdez and Wilson shutting down the opposition with flames coming out of their pitches. That's the type of shutdown bullpen you need with the great starters we have in our rotation, and should result in a huge improvement in the Giants won/loss record in close games this year.

Of course, first, they have to start scoring more regularly to win, but people forget that D-ger Stadium is one of the most extreme pitchers park in the majors, topped probably by only San Diego's and Detroit's stadiums, so any team's offensive weakness would only be magnified there. I don't think we will get a good view of the team's offensive capabilities until we get a month's worth of games under the belt. And despite the cries of fans over the starting vets, I expect the young players to get plenty of play all season long.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Sky is Falling: Lincecum Pitching After Rain Delay

There has been much consternation over the Giants usage of Tim Lincecum in yesterday's game. The media coverage has been virtually the same: Giants were careful all last year plus this spring with his groin problem, then, CRAZY MOTHER OF GOD, they re-use him again after the long rain delay. Even the evil spawn of hell, the L.A. D-gers, didn't trot out their starter again after that delay, they basically burned one of his starts.

I can understand why people are upset. It goes against the grain of what's taught today about how to handle pitchers. Lincecum is "the Franchise (tm)". The Giants are losers anyway (so their thinking goes), why risk our best pitcher.

This Orange is Not an Apple

Here's where I disagree with the herd mentality that sometimes runs roughshod over anyone who disagrees in baseball. They forget that each player is an individual and that each season is different, and generalities, while nice for judging things in general, can fail when examining an individual player. They don't know how to figure out for themselves when things don't follow the "rules".

The Giants weren't just being careful with Lincecum last season, they were studying him and how his body seems to react to things and trying to figure out exactly what they had with him. They worked with him to learn how he does things, and they shared what they thought were best practices but, from what I can tell, deferred to Lincecum and his father on other matters regarding how they do certain things. Particularly once things went south, there was not a lot of urgency to just throw him out there for just a couple more starts just for the purpose of throwing him out there.

So once they figure that they had a good bearing on what they got and reached a trust level of what Lincecum was saying about his body, why not pull him out of the last two starts? Particularly since it allowed them to evaluate other starters for 2008?

Plus, it was his first full professional season: why not give him some added rest? A lot of young pitchers get overused early on, why not shut him down early if you can? I recall Bochy talking about a study that showed that overuse of young pitchers in their first season can cause problems in the future.

But that didn't mean that the Giants will do this forever or that you can't use your pitchers. They were spending his first season learning about the wonders of Lincecum. At some point the learning ends and you take the training wheels off and see what you can do with this young buck. That is this season. People don't seem to realize that.

And guess what? This season is not like last season. He has a year under his belt now. The Giants have a better understanding of what they got and what he can do. They point out his groin problem in spring, but really, what player DOESN'T get shut down, particularly a player they are counting on greatly for the regular season, when they have a groin problem, or even a hint of a groin problem?

Different Does Not Always Mean It's Bad

So I understand how easy it is for the media and fans to criticize. The Giants are not following the "tried and true" path and in life, when you do that, you get criticized. But if they had followed that road in the first place, they would have passed on Lincecum just like the 9 teams ahead of them, and probably picked up Daniel Bard like all the experts were saying they would.

Lincecum is different from most any other pitcher. It's time for people to realize that. If you always treat him like a porcelain glass, you won't ever find out what he can do, what his full potential is. That is the danger of the trend to babying pitchers, you get more and more restrictive that you don't know whether the pitcher could do more. There are silly risks and there are calculated risks. Letting Canseco pitch was a silly risk. Letting Lincecum pitch was a calculated risk.

In addition, they didn't force him out there. They consulted with him. Ultimately, he's putting himself and his career at risk if he does something that don't feel right physically, like Foppert did when he didn't admit to his pain and continued pitching until he was left with no choice but to get TJS. If The Kid felt like he could do it, why not let him, he's been doing it for years now.

He's a Super Freak, He's Super Freaky

And that's the thing that has bothered me from the moment, almost, that the Giants selected him. He's clearly like no one before. He long throws the next day after starting a game. Nobody does that but he's been doing that apparently forever. He doesn't feel enough pain to need to ice his arm. Almost all pitchers need to ice their arms after starting - the only pitcher thus far that I have heard could get away without icing his arm is the pitcher many often compare him to, Roy Oswalt.

As he said after the game, "People have called me a freak of nature before," said Lincecum (1-0). "Now they have another reason to call me that."

So if he says that his arm feels good and that he is good to go, that he had done this before when he was in college without ill effects, why not let him go? Why not pitch him? If he is a freak of nature, we should take advantage of it, not baby him.

Sign On the Dotted Line Please

One thing that I hadn't beaten the drum much on this off-season, and for that I apologize, was the Giants signing Tim Lincecum to a long term contract that buys out his pre-free agent years, like they did with Noah Lowry and Matt Cain. And I don't think that is going to happen, which is probably why Sabean hadn't said a word about it all off-season, because he probably broached the subject with Lincecum and was re-buffed. That wouldn't surprise me.

While Lincecum is not super-greedy - else he would have had Scott Boras as his agent - he does want good money because he thinks he is worth it - and there's nothing wrong with that, none of us can argue with that. That's why he held out to get the same bonus money as the #10 got the year before - if he held to slot, he would have gotten about $200,000 less. The Kid wants to be paid what he thinks he is worth.

And Lincecum revels in showing up people by outdoing expectations. He's been doing that much of his life now, judging from the chip on his shoulder that shows up in interviews when they ask about his size. I think any of us would be the same, having others publicly doubt you and your abilities. Like in the movies when two people are talking about a third person and then the third person yells at the two of them, "HELLO! I'm still in the room!" It must feel like that to get burned in public by the media.

But he's not dumb either, he's actually very smart and hard-working. He knows what he wants and he works hard to get it. He did that all through college, figuring out how to improve on the main complaint about him, which mainly dealt with him walking too many. He wanted a certain dollar figure (I believe it was $1M) in the amateur draft before we picked him (I think it was Cleveland) and they wouldn't give it to him, so he just came back and won the Golden Spike award for the best college player in the national.

And I see him doing it in the majors too. The latest example being him adding another pitch to his repertoire this spring when he pitched well enough last season to be a top pitcher in the league. Adding another effect pitch could push him from "only" being a top pitcher to being one of the elite in the majors. How many other pitchers would rest on their laurels and be content with just being very good. He aspires for greatness, much like Cain does too, that's why I think it's stupid for anyone to talk about trading either one.

So I can see him having a dollar figure in his head and the Giants probably were pushing a contract similar to Cain and Lowry's plus some inflation, and I would bet that the chasm between those numbers were great enough that Lincecum said, "hey, I believe in myself and that's too low. I'm going to add another pitch and show you that I'm worth every freaking dollar that I am asking for."

Of course, it could be that the Giants don't totally buy the freak act either, at least at the GM level - the rumors were strong this off-season that some in Giants management think that it would be better to switch Lincecum to being a closer like Papebon - and so they don't want to offer such a big contract to a player whose arm and/or shoulder could blow out just like that. Perhaps it is they who want another year of "kicking the tires" to see how Lincecum's body holds up to two years of major league baseball before they commit to a long term contract.

In any case, I think that there will be no contract, because if he becomes as good as he appears to be capable of, he will probably get the highest contract ever given any second year player, whatever that is. It will be "shades of Barry Zito" but I think it will be worth every penny and more. He not only thinks differently, but he is different, and should not be treated like he is like anyone else ever in history: he isn't, he is as unique as they come.

Body Whisperer

The key thing to me is that he listens to his body. He has, with his father's immeasurable help, crafted a pitching motion that puts relatively less stress on his body than other pitchers. So less that he is able to long throw the next day if he felt like it. If his body breaks down, it will not be because of him being small, it will be because that's just the limits of his body.

Just like it is just the limits of his body when any pitcher 6' 5" or taller has his body break down. Being big doesn't mean that he gets a pass on physical problems: being bigger just means he can take more punishment, he is built more like a horse and thus can get away with more stress on his body, given that most pitchers today don't pitch like they did 40-50 years ago. Lincecum's body clearly takes very little punishment compared to others, else he would not be able to throw the next day, else he would have to ice his arm immediately after a start. Why can't everybody see this?


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