Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pitching, Pitching, Pitching (Defense)

Thinking about Zito and Peterson got me to thinking: I am totally sold on pitching as the key to long-term baseball success. Once a good base is built, you just have to stoke the fire with key additions afterward. A good pitching staff also takes the pressure off the offense so that they don't have to be good, but just good enough, and you can build off of that base as well. And a good defense helps saves the team from unnecessary mistakes when the ball is in play.

I've written before about the Baseball Prospectus study that found that K-rate, great closer, and great defense are strong characteristics of winning playoff teams but it was only now that I made the connection to the three true outcomes: homers, walks, and strikeouts. And the Giants are actually being built on these pillars.

The Giants showed their knowledge and focus on walks and strikeouts with their draft last years of Bumgarner and then Alderson. Both had beyond excellent K/BB ratios and both struck out a lot as well.

That's one thing people forget when they complain about the Giants selection process: that you can only select from what is available, not what you would ideally want. There are compromises made with every decision, every player they select.

So you need to look beyond the trees and see the forest that is growing on the team. The pitching staff has been totally, and I mean totally, re-built on power, stuff, and strikeouts. Cain, Lincecum, Sanchez, Wilson, Sadler, Hinshaw, Valdez. In addition, a study in The Hardball Times found that high walks is OK for a pitcher as long as his strikeouts are high enough, in fact, that's better than any other combination given a K/BB ratio above 2.0 being the limiting selection factor. That, combined with a park that depresses HR hitting, particularly for left-handed hitters, gives the Giants a staff high on strikeouts, relatively low on walks (or low enough), and low on home runs given up. That will result in a lot of home wins once our hitting catches up with our pitching.

Ay, but that's the rub, eh? Positionally, people have been rightfully complaining prior to this year. But with the emergence of Lewis and Bowker, and potential ascendency of Schierholtz and Frandsen, plus Villalona and Posey in the outer wings, the lineup could be totally rebuilt, and nicely so, in a couple of years as well.

Rebuild

There has been a lot of harping over the Giants not rebuilding soon enough. But that's the hand dealt you when you pay Barry Bonds $20M+ per season: you have to play to win each season and you can only chose from the dreck in the free agent market that other teams decided that they didn't want, at least at those prices. When you are not dealing with premium free agents, you are going to get burned frequently, and even when you do, you can get burned.

There has also been some saying that a re-build is not impossible while winning, pointing to the A's and Braves as examples. There are also 5 year olds who write symphonies (Mozart), pre-teens who go to college and become doctors before they reach high school, and people who can speak a zillion languages while earning a doctorate. Good for them.

But look over the history of baseball. Rebuilds are not pretty, they are normally very messy and requires many years, sometimes dozens of years, before they return to playoff competitiveness. That is part and parcel with how the MLB draft works relative to the other major sports: you can't regularly pick up a new starter in the draft who can help you the next season. Lincecum was just that unique. It normally takes even the best prospects 2-4 years to reach the majors, perhaps a few more to actually be good at it, and the majority of prospects take 4-6 years to reach the majors to "stay".

Rebuilds normally take 5-7 years to do properly. Even the Braves and A's had to do the same. The Braves, to set themselves up for this long line of success, went through 7 years of agony with Bobby Cox as GM, before he righted them. Prior to that, they had gone through 18 years of mainly mediocre play, though there was pockets of goodness.

The A's went through 6 years of hell to get where they are today. Their "re-build" of the past few seasons was more of a reload because they were not brought down by a team of veteran players and cannot be compared to a veteran Giants team that had few young assets to trade away like the A's did. They are in a different part of the lifecycle of an MLB team, so it is incorrect to compare what they have done the past few years with where the Giants are.

And to give an example closer to our hearts, Sabean was able to rebuild the Giants quickly after he was made GM because he had a young, valuable player he could trade away for key parts and a young, valuable player he could build around. Still, prior to that was 6 years of mostly below .500 play, except for the year they signed Bonds.

Rebuilds from an aged core takes longer than rebuilding once you have a young team. As a result, Giants fans need to give Sabean time to do the rebuild before they toss him out, because firing him would automatically push us back to point zero, back to Go, and there is no guarantee that the new GM would not take that as a mandate to tear things down. Which would be galling to me because we are so close to being done.

Giants Rebuild Almost Done

Unnoticed by many, the Giants have been re-building since 2005 when they started the changes by adding Noah Lowry and Brad Hennessey. It started rolling good when Matt Cain was added, and the dam burst open when Tim Lincecum was added. I've been writing about this sea change for a while now in the pitching staff and hopefully more people believe me now.

The pitching staff rebuild is pretty much done. There are really only tweaks necessary, and we have re-inforcements coming up in Henry Sosa, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Alderson, Joe Martinez, as well the all the young Augusta pitchers who did well last season who moved up this season, and the return from injuries by Waldis Joaquin and Dan Griffin, two nice fireballers, as well as relievers like Sergio Romo (led minors with 14.4 K/9), Brian Anderson, Kelvin Pichardo, and Daniel Otero. We should be set for the future, and the Giants continue to troll for pitching in the draft, even this year, after the first four picks were of position players, the next 8 picks were spent on getting pitchers.

This was re-confirmed for me by the statement by Gary Huckabay of Baseball Prospectus that I recently wrote about. Hitters don't normally come out hitting. They follow a steady progression that works like clockwork, and you cannot speed up the clock. Still, there is no guarantee that after sitting on that egg for 4-6 years, even for the best hitting prospects, that anything will happen.

Pitchers are very similar to that but different in a key way. Just like the hitters, there is no guarantee that after nursing that pitcher through the minors, even for the best of the pitchers, that they will figure things out. In addition, there is the hidden, ticking time-bomb that is their body, that might suddenly "Foppert" your top prospect. However, as Huckabay noted, once you are a pitcher, and not a thrower, you are done developing, move to the major leagues now or you are just wasting a precious resource, a pitcher's arm. And that can happen quickly, look at Lincecum, Sanchez, Accardo, even Foppert, they all ascended quickly to the majors.

The upshot of this is if you have an organization focused on pitching and can either find and develop pitchers quickly, rebuilding would be on a faster time table than it would be if you either focused on hitters or split your focus. To rebuild quickly, you need to focus on pitching.

Sponsored by the Committee to Keep Sabean

This is why I've been advocating for Sabean and why I wanted him to get a two year extension. He has been re-building while trying to win with Bonds. And you can only do so much when the free agency selection is lackluster and poor draft position (which happens when you win) leaves you struggling to find legitimate prospects.

Hence why their decision to focus on pitching, pitching , and more pitching was genius. That focused their scarce and very low-odds resources (draft picks) on a position where even if they fail, they might still get a good reliever out of it, whereas position player failures are pretty much a failure, bench players don't play the key role that relievers do today. And pitchers can fill any number of positions on a roster, whereas position players are very limited. And as noted above, once they become pitchers, development is done, and that can happen at any time, and not take 1,000+ plate appearances, or whatever number it is that it takes hitters to learn to hit in the majors.

And now the starting lineup is starting to look good and rebuilt: Molina at the plate with Posey in the wings, Bowker at 1B with Villalona in the wings, Frandsen at 2B with Noonan in the wings, Gillaspie in the wings at 3B (some thought him the best hitter in college), Burriss at SS with hopefully Crawford in the wings, Lewis in LF, Rowand in CF, and Schierholtz in RF, and Horwitz looks pretty good so far as a 4th OF plus now Fairley and hopefully Kieschnick waiting in the wings, maybe Antoan Richardson, EME, and Bowker if/when Villalona comes up at 1B (and that's not written in stone yet, he apparently is still taking balls at 3B). In addition, I haven't writen about him yet, but the Giants are apparently close to signing a young OF who has been compared to a young Vlad Guererro; I'll write more when he's signed on the dotted line.

Winning is Closer Than It Seems In the Mirror

Even this season, things are not as bad as they seem. Without Roberts stupidly trying to play when he was not physically up for it, the Giants might have won a few of the games he started in. As it is, after he finally went on the DL, the Giants are 30-35 since then.

Correia's injury and replacement by Misch, also costed us a few games there as well. Teams rarely have one starter ready to take over when there is an injury, let alone two (Sanchez had already taken over Lowry's spot in the rotation). That is why re-treads like Sidney Ponson and Jeff Weaver constantly get another chance to start for a major league club, starting pitching is a premium in the majors today. Correia's return should boost the Giants going forward.

In addition, Vizquel's injury and replacement by Bocock probably also costed us a couple games as well. Bocock was absolutely horrid as a hitter, then he got worse, as he at least was able to take walks initially and had a decent OBP, in the mid .300's, for a month of April if I recall right. He would have been justification for Bochy to bat the pitcher 8th, he was just that overmatched. And he did the best he could, so I don't blame him, he had not seen one pitch above Advanced A ball when it counts prior to this season.

The only silver lining there was that Emmanuel Burriss did get his chance to play just before Vizquel returned. More importantly, he has gotten better since then, which is good because Vizquel is starting to give Bocock a run for his money, and not in a good way. I can see Vizquel getting more rest in the coming weeks.

Add that all up, and the Giants look capable of playing .500 for the rest of the season. Not a great rallying cheer, but it is still worlds better than the "sky is falling" chant that many fans were screaming prior to the start of this season.

And with some key additions - hopefully by subtraction, nothing against Winn but we need to see Schierholtz sooner than later, and hopefully a team will be desperate enough to not only take his salary but give us a good prospect in return as well, and Vizquel will probably be DLed soon to allow Burriss to start, better than humiliating him by DFAing him or benching him - plus the return of Correia, and hopefully Valdez soon, the team might be able to get above .500 from that point on.

As I've been saying through the off-season, expect to lose. The most you should hope for and demand to see is progress and development as the season unfolds. They can only crawl before they can walk, and walk before they score a run. But it has been exciting to see Lewis, Bowker, Wilson, and Sanchez develop like they have, and to see successes here and there from Correia, Burriss, Horwitz, Denker, Taschner, Valdez, Hinshaw, Sadler, even Yabu, though he's not one to count on in the future.

Go Giants!

3 comments:

  1. why do you say we cant count on yabu?

    ReplyDelete
  2. also, with Zito losing yet again I have a question.

    Lets say in a year or two we're improving and are now a competitive team. Do you think that the giants will admit that Zito is a total bust and just sit him all together? 2-11 wouldn't cut it for any team in MLB. Do you see them saying, hell we paid him 18 per we gotta start him even though we know we're going to lose today?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Exciting to see Yabu succeed with the team but I would not count on him being around when the team is ready to start competing for the division title again.

    As badly as Zito has pitched, he has been no worse than any other team's #5 starter. Worse case scenario, we have him be our #5 starter, going against other #5 starters. There is still value in eatting up innings on a regular basis.

    He is basically that now, that is why he has such a bad record, he's going against the other team's aces, for the most part, whereas if he were facing the other team's bottom half starters, he would probably have an OK record.

    Hopefully the Giants will reconfigure the starting rotation in the second half and have Lincecum face the aces, then maybe even Sanchez right now, Cain, Correia, then Zito.

    I still think that Zito can turn things around, but, yeah, even if he doesn't, I think the Giants will throw him out there until he cannot even throw a good start out there. I don't think we are there yet, but I understand the frustrations, I thought he had turned the corner but he seems to have regressed.

    But with the poor start today, I am wondering if he is going to Ed Whitson on us and be unable to pitch at home, which would suck totally.

    I really think the Giants HAVE TO GET Rick Peterson in here, in some way, shape, or form, to see what he can do with Zito. Since they think alike, perhaps he can help Zito get over the mental problems having that huge contract has had on him. That is, be more Zen.

    ReplyDelete

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