Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Opening Day 2009 Giants

I was just going to write a post but a long-time reader had a comment, so I thought I would build it as a reaction to his post:

Matt Mongiello: "How 'bout them bats? Who woulda thought the offense would have to bail out Lincecum on opening day?"

Lincecum Amped UP

I was thinking the same thing yesterday too, and I realized that The Kid has a history of not being able to handle the adrenaline surge of important days, like his first day in spring training, his first major league game, and now his first opening day assignment.

I had that confirmed this morning when I heard Krukow saying the same thing, as well as the KNBR morning hosts.

Bats Better 2009

About the bats, well, I've been saying that the offense is much improved with all the new additions we have from what we had last opening day: Renteria, Sandoval, Ishikawa. Plus, I think Lewis will take the next step up batting third, he's been talked about as a middle lineup hitter since we drafted him, so this is actually just part of his expected evolution and development; it just took him a lot longer to reach here than most other prospects.

I heard on KNBR that a news media person scoffed at the 2009 Giants offense, being particularly downcast regarding Lewis, Sandoval, and the rest of the young crew. I can understand that, because, frankly, the media thinks they know everything but don't. And, to be clear, the offense is probably not going to be that particularly good in 2009, though clearly heads and shoulders better than the one we had for most of 2008.

But the media person is missing the point. That person thinks a winning team looks a certain way, you have a good hitter in the 3 spot, great hitter in the cleanup spot, etc. Winning teams just need to score more runs than their pitching staff gives up, that's the point.

Or rather, our superlative pitching staff is the point, which has been my point since the Giants said that they were parting with Barry Bonds and a member of the media thought there was a lack of identity: our new identity is our pitching staff. With a staff as good as it projects, we are talking about having a .500 team, potentially, even with the lousy offense we had in 2008. So with an improved offense in 2009, the Giants should be a winning team, assuming everyone collectively performs as expected. So we don't need the prototypical offense in order to win.

I discussed this in my Hey Neukom series regarding having great team defense, which covers both pitching and fielding defense, and I showed there that a great team defense requires a much lower level of offensive support to be a 90 game winner. If the Giants pitching/defense can be as good as projected, the team can have a poor defense, in the bottom half, and still win 90 games. In fact, if the team can get runs allowed down to 4.0 runs per game, the team only has to score 4.47 runs per game, good for only 13-14th in 2008.

However, most projections I've seen has the team around 4.1 to 4.2 runs allowed per game, which requires a mid-tier offense. We don't have a mid-tier offense. So 90 wins is most definitely out of the picture.

To win 85 games with a 4.1-4.2 runs allowed per game average would require only 4.3 to 4.4 runs scored per game. Most projections I have seen has the offense generating around that many runs per game. So the team has a good chance to win around 85 games, if things go as projected.

Projections Are Not Worth the Paper It's Written On

That's been the hard lesson for me to learn over the years. Things don't always go as projected. And it does not take too much to go wrong to screw up what would be a most likely scenario. So that's why my main stance for 2009 is that the Giants should be around .500 and with some luck, be above .500 and competitive for the division.

Looking at how poorly the 1B, 3B, and SS hit for us in 2009, it is easy for me to say that Ishikawa, Sandoval, and Renteria should easily be improvements in 2009. But will they be as good as projected? Not as sure on that point, and hence why I hedge that the team is .500 rather than encouraging people to think that we will be competitive enough to try to win the division title. It will take the pitching doing very well, it will take the hitters doing as well as projected, and life just has a way of screwing that all up, every year.

And while I think Sanchez, Johnson, and Zito should do well in 2009, as they say, you never know what will happen with pitching. Can Sanchez extend his stamina enough to last longer into the season? If he can, he can be a #2 type pitching in our #5 slot. Can Johnson stay healthy AND productive? And Zito build off his good ending to 2008 and continue in 2009 where he left off, or even better, did his hard training over the off-season with Wilson help him raise his game a notch? And, of course, the usual health warnings regarding young pitchers like Cain and Lincecum, as well as Sanchez, makes baseball projections dicey at best.

Pitch Counts

Though one thing I do hate is all the complaining about Cain and Lincecum being at the top of the pitch count list. Being on the top is not the issue, the issue is whether the amount they threw is harmful to their long-term health. As of this moment, there is no study that shows at which amount over a full season is harmful, other than the commonsense that less is better.

As was noted on KNBR this morning, why is it that 30-40 years ago, we had pitchers who not only could throw 300 IP in a season, but still had a long successful career as well? Pitchers should be getting healthier, not more injury prone with time. That is not the progress of human athletes, it has always been bigger, better, healthier. Yet pitchers not only regressed, but they are getting worse than pitchers ever were in terms of pitching a lot of quality innings in a season and in a career.

Maybe it's modern pitching instruction techniques that has ruined young pitchers arms, as some suspect. Maybe pitchers should move back to old-school type of mechanics and training techniques. Lincecum is a model for that, many have noted the old school feel of his mechanics.

The team that can figure out how to do this will have a huge advantage over other teams, as their starters could go a lot more innings, allowing both a 4 man rotation and a smaller bullpen (as well as more bench players), and the talented pitchers get to pitch a larger percentage of your team's total IP for the season (however, I like the way the Giants are reduplicating the old while living with the new, because when you have a whole rotation of good, top of rotation pitchers, you end up with talented pitchers getting to pitch a larger percentage of your team's total IP for the season).

Unfortunately, it will probably never happen. It would require experimenting with your best talents, your best arms, and such risk is never taken (and I don't blame them) because if you ruin an arm, then you have to find another one and that is very hard to do. All I hope for is baby steps, maybe a team could have a manual that guides their pitchers on the best way to throw to lessen the damaging effect on your arm, shoulders, everything related to pitching. Maybe they listen to Mike Marshall's techniques and pull out some gems there, and from Tom House, and all the various people offering to teach pitching mechanics that extends longevity.

In-house Pitching Longevity Expert?

Ideally, the Giants should have someone assigned to understand the mechanics of pitching and then to learn from the well known gurus and put together all the best ideas to guide Giants pitchers. That's basically what Carney Lansford appears to be doing for the Giants regarding hitting. Good hitting can be taught, Ted Williams improved his team's hitters when he was their manager, so why can't good pitching techniques that protects the arm? And there must be ways to protect the arm so that, like Lincecum, he doesn't need to ice his arm.

Heck, if this works, perhaps the Giants can seed this knowledge through their work with The Little Giants, where they sponsor kids who can't afford little league. They can train these players with the latest pitching techniques - my son's little league team's instruction was from other parents and who knows where they got that - and if it works there, they can distribute this info for free to local leagues as well, and grow from there. It won't neccessarily help the Giants, but if there are techniques for protecting the arm that exists, and our young players are not learning this technique, the Giants can just consider this project a way to give back to the community, much like the other charitable work that they currently do and promote.

At worse, this expert would be able to identify those prospects in the draft who has a combination of talent and longevity, and be rated that much higher. Same with trading with other teams for pitchers. And similarly for signing free agents. Too bad Tim Lincecum's dad isn't interested in such a job - I had suggested long ago that he be hired as a rover instructor who would go from team to team, observe the pitchers and give a few tips on how to improve their mechanics. Obviously, he knows a little something about that, given how well his son has turned out. If he can reduplicate it with even one of our prospects, he would be worth every dollar of his salary, 100-fold.

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