Thursday, April 30, 2009

After a Month: 2009 Giants Looking Good

The Giants have reached .500 after a very poor start, doing it the way they are going to have to do it: with their starting pitching being at their most excellent (and usual) best. And they have had to go 8-3 to do that, after starting out 2-7, and that's after winning the season opener, so they had a bad 1-7 streak before going 8-3. After winning the first series, we then lost 5 straight games, losing those two series, before righting ourselves and winning the last four series.

The difference was that our starting pitching and offense was off (except for Cain) during that losing streak, and suffering some bad luck, early on. Then they kicked in starting with Jonathan Sanchez's marvelous duel with Haren that he won. We have played well enough that we could have had a 11 game win streak, with a break here and there, but we got some breaks along the way as well. All in all, I think it all evened out and we got what we deserved.

During this win streak, the Giants have averaged 4.0 runs per game, while allowing 2.5 runs per game. Obviously, that runs allowed will not continue for the season, but overall for the season the pitching staff is allowing 4.0 runs per game; that's a pace I think we can roughly continue, though it should rise a bit and be in the low 4's.

The offense, meanwhile, is average 3.9 runs scored per game, so .500 is where they should be. I think the offense has underperformed and hopefully will do better, though with young players, you never know. Plus, they were hurt by playing 6 games in two extreme pitchers parks in LA and SD, where they only averged 2.3 runs scored per game; scoring everywhere else, they have averaged 4.5 runs scored per game.

Clearly, when either the offense or pitching performed, we did well. The offense has scored 4 or more runs in 9 games out of 20 so far and the team was 7-2 in those games. The pitching has kept runs allowed 4 or less in 11 games, and the team was 9-2 in those games.

Offense has been adequate, but could be better

While scoring as little as last season, with the better pitching overall, that results in more wins. The big hitters so far have been Molina, Lewis, Rowand, Sandoval, and Renteria, with Schierholtz and Torres being great off the bench and Uribe being Uribe. The hitters who have been scuffling are Winn, Ishikawa, Burriss and Aurilia. Showing how things can change quickly due to small samples and only a month played, Winn and Lewis did well early on, but both have been horrible for around two weeks now, while Sandoval and Renteria have been hot recently after starting off cold and now have good stats while their stats were poor much of the season.

And some of the players look really bad so far. Lewis has a ridiculous 27 strikeouts in only 67 AB, and yet is still hitting .299/.420/.403/.823. The power he said he would be shooting for has not arrived yet, as he has no homers so far. Both Sandoval and Ishikawa have not shown much power either, so far only a homer between the two and Sandoval hit that one this week, when his bat suddenly woke up. That shows how things can change quickly early in the season, only a week ago, he was scuffling at .245/.286/.340/.625 and now he's hitting .307/.350/.440/.790.

Ishikawa and Burriss will have to pick things up, though Ishikawa should get a longer rope since he has no more options and we have no real option waiting at 1B (Guzman is doing well in AAA, but need more time at 1B before he can move up), plus Aurilia has not been hitting either, while Frandsen has been hot and Burriss has not, plus Burriss has two more options to burn. And apparently you only burn one if you are down in the minors for 20 days, so they could send him down briefly then bring him back up if he straightens out fast enough.

Pitching has been good, but could be better overall

While the team's ERA looks great, the team could get even better on an overall basis. While Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez probably won't continue as well as they have - both have had a bunch of luck so far - both Zito and Johnson have been unlucky with their results, and both should do much better going forward.

Zito I've discussed plenty, but some have soured on Randy Johnson already. The thing is, there has been some bad situations for him that should not recur often. In his first start, he actually pitched well for the most part, but just happened to give up 2 HR which cost him big time, including the crusher, a 3 run blast to the opposing pitcher, the first he had given up to any pitcher ever in his MLB career. He had another 2 HR game in his second start, plus had a lot of bad luck with hits there. His third start was great.

His fourth start was what pushed some to question him. However, I see his poor performance as understandable, he's a competitive guy, he got pushed out by the team he was most identified with and was facing them for the first time ever. He may be 45 and has nearly 300 wins to his name, but it is the rare person who does not lose control in those situations. And lose control he did, issuing 7 walks only 3.1 IP. Ignoring that game, he has pitched 15.2 innings, gave up 13 hits, 6 walks, and recorded 19 strikeouts. That's pretty good overall, the problems was that 4 of those hits were HR with runners on base, to boot. Both he and Zito should improve their stats from where they are now to much more in line with expectations, roughly low to mid 4 ERA.

The wunderkinds - Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez - have picked up the team and pushed them to .500 with their great pitching. Don't have much to complain about there, other than the walks, which could stand to be improved. While Cain and Sanchez should regress to the mean, they should be offset by Johnson and Zito doing the same by getting better, evening out each other.

The relief corp could use one or two lifting their game, particular Howry. But he's been having a bit of bad luck too, in terms of hits given up. But given how much less relievers throw than starters, that can and do last throughout a season. However, he has pitched well in 8 of his 10 appearances, so it is not like he's been that bad, just that he needs to continue to do well and avoid the big blowups that causes a loss. I also like the addition of Matos, he's got a power arm (one of many in our system) that has some prospect books tout him as a potential closer; you can always use more of those in the bullpen - Wilson obviously is the closer, Howry has pitched as well as a closer during much of career, and Affeldt some thought has closer potential.

Looking Forward: May

With only two days off, they will be playing 29 games in May, which will be a tough stretch. However, they start off with good matchups against Colorado: Johnson vs. Ubaldo Jimenez; Cain vs. Jason Marquis; and Zito vs. Hammel. Jimenez and Hammel have not been good so far. After a great first start, Jimenez has been awful and it does not look like he's getting any better, though it should be noted that he faced the two best offenses of the NL, LA and Chicago, in those three starts; he could get healthy facing the Giants lesser offense. However, Johnson should bounce back with a good game, I think, and that could be a competitive game. And Zito gets a break drawing Hammel, who has not been that good a pitcher in the majors thus far. Cain should beat Marquis in his sleep.

Beyond that, things will get tough as the team will be playing 17 straight days (including the above Colorado series), facing on the road, the Cubs for 2, Colorado for 2, and D-gers for 3, then we come home for 3 against the Nats and 4 against the Mets before the first break. Cubs have been not been tough so far, but they have a potent offense, as do the D-gers, and Mets (though they've been scuffling despite good stats overall, probably mainly because Jose Reyes, their leadoff guy, is scuffling, relatively, as is David Wright too). So only 5 easier games out of those 14 games, during that stretch after this weekend.

Then we end the month tougher. We go on the road and face SD for 3 and Seattle, which has been a surprise at 13-9, for another 3. We then come home for 3 against the Braves, who can be tough, and St. Louis, who is tough, a stout 14-7 so far.

Looking back at last year, they had a similar experience in April: started out poor then roar back to finish close to .500, at 13-16. However, they had a rough May, going 10-17. So May looks to be a key barometer for how the team will look later in the season.

They were 8-12 last year at the 20 game mark, so that's a 2 game swing improvement right there so far. If they can do that in May, then they would end up 13-16 in May and 23-26 overall.

They really weren't that bad most months in 2008. They were at or around .500 in April, June, August, and September. It was May and July that killed them in 2008, going 18-33 in those two months, 54-57 in the other months. Those were months where they faced a lot of teams in the other divisions. But once Sandoval and Ishikawa joined the team in mid-August, the team has been at around .500 since then. If they can just keep their record around .500 all May-long, that would be a huge improvement over last season.

Keys to May

Keys will be continued improvement from Johnson and Zito and continued excellence from Lincecum, Cain, and Sanchez. I know: Duh! That's the key to this whole season.

Also, we will need Ishikawa and Burriss to start hitting, though I'm more hopeful for Ishikawa than Burriss, right now, as Burriss is striking out a lot more than usual, whereas this is within Ishikawa's normal batting range (which is not good, but for Burriss, this is new territory for him). And, of course, everyone else hitting pretty much the same, though of course, Molina will be falling back at some point, he's no 900+ OPS hitter. That is where the young players could start to pick up the slack.

I don't mention Winn because he's been such a pro, a steady player throughout much of his career, so I expect him to start hitting like he can at some point. But if he don't pick it up soon, hopefully Bochy would start resting him more often and giving Schierholtz starts in place of him. Even if he starts hitting, I hope Schierholtz starts to get more AB, as he has hit well in limited play so far, it would be great to see how he does with more AB.

Who knows, if Nate hits well enough, we might be able to trade Winn for some prospects during the season, because while I think Winn should warrant draft picks when he goes free agent, I have a feeling teams will pass on him and wait until after the arbitration period to sign him without giving us anything, because the Giants should not be offering him arbitration. It would be nice to be able to get something, anything, for him as we should not be aiming to win the division this season, but rather seeing which prospects are future starters and which ones aren't.
To boot, he's our best bet to trade. Both Rowand and Zito's contracts are too big. Molina don't really have a replacement, though we could throw Sandoval back there and see what happens, but if he fails, then there's no one in our system until Posey is ready. Johnson we might need next season. Howry is another possible trade, but he's here to boost the bullpen. Winn's contract is up at the end of the year, plus we have a replacement already on the roster, Schierholtz.

4 comments:

  1. Good summary of April. I'd like to add these observations:

    The Non-platoon Platoon at Firstbase:

    First of all, who does Bochy think he's fooling? Tough lefty, not not-so tough lefty pitching equals Aurila in the line-up, who, according to Mike Krukow on Comcast, has a "great at bat" when he dribbles the baseball to an infielder. Pathetic.

    This brings us to the "begs the question" argument of how a young player will ever learn to hit lefties if he never sees them. Okay, Bochy, fess-up. You don't think Ishikawa is really everday material. Welcome to the club. But I'd rather have proof, thereby giving the guy in question a chance to prove the skeptics wrong. It's not as though you have some hitting machine in Aurilia. (I knew this B.S. would happen the moment they re-signed Aurilia, bless his soul.)

    If Bochy's going to be honest and have a platoon at 1B then bring up Guzman, seasoning or no. He cannot possibly be as boring as a one-dimensional (only plays 1B), slow (DP machine), and past his prime (we still love you from the Bonds years) Aurilia. Yes, Aurilia's stats were great last year. My job review was great last year, too, but I still have to pony up this year---we all do.

    The Non-rotating Rotating Outfield:

    SFChron had a good article on Schierholtz today. Bochy is quoted as saying the Winn will be in there "most of the time."

    Bochy, hast thou eyes but cannot see that (a) Winn has been pressing lately and (b) Lewis's confidence on defense is destroyed? Can't give these guys a day or maybe two to sit, reflect,work on their mechanics? Want to trade Winn at the deadline, eh? Well, who's going to want him with a hideous BA?

    Fellow fans, Winn is 35. This is the age when steroid-less athletes begin to decline. We can still get excellent production from Winn, but not in 150 plus games. 120 is more plausible. Give him a rest, Bochy. Play Shierholtz some more.

    Lewis is 28, going onto 29. He is who he is. Good average hitter with doubles and triples but definitely not 20-30 HR power. Don't except much more upside, especially not on defense. He can catch the ball at best and has a good arm, but simply lacks the instincts to take the correct route to the ball, to judge balls hit right at him, behind him etc., etc. We eat his erratic defense because he can hit.

    BUT---rest the guy when he's the object of derision and contempt because game after game, he's struggling on defense.

    Finally, Burris looks better RH than LH. I'm sure Langsford, who's awake, is on to that. Burris's defense is excellent. Much better than utility player Frandsen could give us, gamer or no.

    Sandoval seems to have a excellent learning curve. He's hitting much better, with more power (albeit doubles not HRs), and his defensive is starting to make me a believer. I didn't think he could ever handle Third. Way to go Panda. I also think that Sandoval's HR power will develop in a couple of years much as Adrian Gonzalez, who started out much the same way.

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  2. I think it is more than coincidental that Sandoval's hitting picked up after he got a game at catcher. And in the larger season sense I think that Sandoval as Zito's catcher has a lot of benefits. Chief among them is that Molina has tailed off pretty badly the last couple of years, getting a day off every has to help him stay fresher for the late season. And the more time Sandoval gets behind the plate the better the Giants options are for the long term.

    I really like your analysis in general, and am quite optimistic that the Giants can end up over .500, being at .500 at this point with several players underperforming is grounds to believe they can get better.

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  3. DProfessor, thanks.

    Per your observations, I honestly believe that if Ishikawa was hitting like he was last season and not as poorly as he has so far, we would not be seeing as much of Aurilia starting.

    With young players, confidence management by the manager is a key skill to have, and you don't build up a player's confidence by throwing him out there against a tough left-hander when he's already struggling against RHP. I would have a much bigger problem if Ishikawa were hitting over .300 with power and this were happening. But Ishikawa has been struggling.

    I think we should see less of Aurilia on this road trip, Ishikawa is starting to come out of his early slump, he's hitting .286/.355/.357/.712 over his last 14 days, .333/.429/.417/.845 over the past week.

    I would rather be 12-11 with Aurilia in an apparent platoon, than 8-15 and Ishikawa strking out left and right against LHP. We should have a full season to see now he does against LHP, patience is the name of the game here.

    And if a player is tossed to the side after one month of poor play, then we would soon be left with a team with few players on the roster. Players go through one month slumps all the time.

    Winn may be 35 and at age where ballplayers being to decline. But that's not the only age at which players fade. Players start fading after they turn 30. The better ones last to 35 but basically position players start fading in their 30's, though I will admit that 35-36 appears to be the cliff that most players succumb to.

    Still, how do you know when it happens? He was 32 years old in 2006, and if you take his time in SF in 2005 as an aberration, he was batting around .267/.332/.393/.725 in 2005-2006. Using this logic, we should have dumped him sometime late 2006 or, at worse, after his poor .272/.315/.407/.722 April in 2007. However, we all know how he did in the rest of 2007 and then 2008, his OPS has been good, around 800 OPS since then.

    So when is it a career ender or when is it just a minor slump?

    And Lewis, sure, maybe his defense is erratic, but when all is said and done, his speed is so good that he's actually average defensively among LFers. As Lefty noted many a time about this, most LF are statues out there, especially relatively to Lewis.

    And if we rest both Lewis and Winn, who are we putting in, Velez? I have to think Velez makes Lewis look like a gold glover in comparison on defense.

    I think Frandsen would have been adequate at 2B. In fact, in his short MLB time at 2B, his UZR is 3.5 and 9.9 on a 150 game basis, so he's actually a pretty proficient fielder, worth about a win (10 runs) if he played a full season at 2B at that level of play (he had 77 games there, 56 starts, 520.1 innings).

    And I trust Frandsen to be a better hitter than Burriss right now, Burriss really should be in the minors working on his defense at SS and on hitting for more power using Lansford's tips, instead of trying to figure things out in the majors, while we see what Frandsen can do in the majors as a starter, as Frandsen is getting old, but Burriss is still young. And Burriss was already fading fast in terms of offense in the spring by the time the start of the season came, so I was not surprised by his slump, he benefited from an early hot spring facing the scrubs, then sucked as he faced mainly the starters deeper into spring training.

    If I had the call, I would have installed Frandsen as the starter. Burriss had a .370 BABIP in spring; it was only .318 in the minors. If he had that in spring, he would have had only 26 hits, a .299 BA, .358 OBP, .379 SLG, .737 OPS, which is not that great. He benefited from luck early on.

    If we find out Frandsen is a worthy 2B starter, then Burriss could have been kept on the SS path for 2011, after Renteria's contract ends. At worse, both are good 2B, and since Frandsen would have been established, he could have been traded, or even Burriss. Now, neither would warrant much in a trade.

    Yeah, Sandoval seems to figure things out pretty quickly, makes me very hopeful, plus he has hit 2 HR in the past week or so. It just goes to show how things can quickly change within a month.

    And the good news is that he's walking more as well as hitting for more power, so despite a much lower BA, his OPS is exactly the same as last year's. Add on top of that the good news on defense lately, it's all good.

    Tom, thanks. I think Bochy's as superstitious as any player. Molina too. Even he has to see that for whatever reason, Zito has sucked with him behind the plate.

    And, in any case, as you astutely note, Molina has faded late in the season, so giving him a regular day off early will keep him fresher later into the season.

    About Sandoval, I think it's like he said, it's silly to think that he's going to forget how to be a catcher by not catching during spring training or much during this season.

    I think keeping his catching skills is good as that will give a lot of options to the team going forward, plus we don't know if he'll be our 3B for the future, we'll have a better idea after this season. He could become a great utility guy he plays all around and gives people rest plus be our DH during AL games, he can still compile 400 AB doing that, I think,

    Yeah, I feel pretty good about the Giants for this season given how a number of players have underperformed, though I should note that they could still continue to underperform and we don't have great options in the minors, besides Frandsen.

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  4. Velez? No! Not that! Lewis may run some funny routes to the ball, but for the most part, he catches it. Et tu, Eugenio?

    Personally, I think that Winn should be the rotating outfielder. With Rowand showing that he is a good player but definitely not a star, he, too, needs to sit for 30-40 games. Winn's the best defensive outfielder on the team and the one who can be trusted in all 3 positions.

    I love Pablito's improvement on defense. He proved a lot of doubters (like me wrong). Good for him and our Giants.

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