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.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Zito: Good So Far, Actually and Relatively

Wow, what about that start by Zito? Seven shutout innings, only 6 hits, no walks, plus 5 strikeouts. He is at his best when he is striking out guys and not walking that many. His K/BB ratio is now over 2.0, which is where good pitchers are, and his K/9 is much over the 6.0 rate that good pitchers need to strikeout in order to be effective in preventing runs.

High K/9 and Fastball Velocity (Relatively)

In fact, he's actually been pitching this well in his previous starts this year, as shown by his high K/9 in his prior starts. He's always been a bit wild, resulting in poor K/BB ratio overall, but the sign that he's doing OK with his pitching is when he's able to continue to strike out batters regularly and keep his K/9 high, relatively, which he was not able to do while a Giant until late last season. And he has been within 1-2 K of his IP each game this season, resulting in a fine overall 7.3 K/9 for him.

When he is most effective, at least prior in his career, he was able to keep his K/9 relatively high, which he has been able to do each game so far this season. He suffered from bad luck on hits his first game, poor command and bad luck (in terms of timing and relief allowing his runners to score) in his second game. Those are what you have to put up with to get games like his third game, at least from what I have observed from looking at all his individual games started.

Hopefully he can continue this and stay consistent over the full season. It's a good start for him overall, a 5 PQS start, as he's been a very slow starter for us in the past.

And that's a good sign as that is what he did for Oakland, get a 5 PQS start early. For us, he didn't get his first 5 PQS until July 5 last season (in that 10 strikeout game), until May 30 in 2007. In 2006, his last good season, he had it in his second start of the season, and in 2004 and 2005, his third start (like this season), fourth start in 2003, first start in 2002, and fourth start in 2001.

High (Enough) Velocity

And all the reports I've been seeing says that his velocity is in the high 80's, which is where he needs to be to be relatively effective with his curveball. When he is on, he is a bit like Big Daddy Reuschel, in that he relies a lot on his defense while piling up a good amount of strikeouts as well.

But when you operate like that, you will have games where the other team just dominates you. They keep pounding out the hits that the defense doesn't get, because they just fall in. That's where keeping his strikeout totals high helps, reducing the number of possible hits, plus that usually means fewer walks too, relatively. And he needs his fastball in the 88+ MPH range for his repertoire to be effective.

Skies Are Not All Clear, But Looking Good

Ideally, though, when he is really on, he strikes out more than his IP on a regular basis, and particularly over at least a three game stretch. By that observation, he's not quite there yet, but I'm OK with baby steps as long as they are positive steps, as we still have 5 more years of his contract, and all at the highest values now, so this is when we really need him to be at his most effective (not that we didn't before, but it's two years and counting now, so we cannot wait much longer).

The good news is that he has been pitching in a way that is effective for him since mid last season, punctuated by his 10 strikeout game that showed he's back, but really started two starts before that. It just came all together in that game. And he has continued that during the rest of the 2008 season and now into the beginning of the 2009 season.

Pitching Rotation Strategy

That is the only way to show the efficacy of the strategy that the Giants is employing, and which I've been touting as a good way to build a team, which is having a full staff of starters who are capable of throwing a good start every game. For most teams, the hitters know who the two pitchers of any team's staff they would like to avoid, perhaps three pitchers for better rotations, knowing that they get a "rest" facing 1-2 of the other team's poorest starters during any series.

But with a rotation like ours, there is no rest anywhere when everyone is on. Zito, as we all know, is one of the weak links, a reputation he has rightly earned with two seasons like the ones he delivered to us so far. Sanchez is also a weak link in that he has not proven to be durable enough to last a full season as a starter at the MLB level. He pooped out mid-season in 2008, but was very dominant for that first half of 2008. But with both looking like they are in a good spot right now, plus Johnson and Lincecum showing that they refound what was lost for a couple of games, and Cain being his steady best, the other team has no easy game.
  1. Lincecum: his funky delivery, high 90's fastball
  2. Johnson: 6' 10", lefty, and pitching effectively and efficiently
  3. Cain: righty professional killer
  4. Zito: lefty with the drop-dead gorgeous curveball that is greatly enhanced by high 80's FB
  5. Sanchez: lefty with a great fastball (for lefty), mid-90's, with life and sink
When you have a whole staff of pitchers capable of dealing a DOM (PQS of 4 or 5) start a larger percentage of the time, the other team will struggle to consistently beat you, as each game will be close and tough. As I've noted in my PQS reporting, a pitcher with DOM% of 40-49% is a good pitcher (means 40-49% of his starts are DOM starts), above 50% is great, above 70% is
elite. Here is our pitcher's PQS, either seasonally or indication of potential:
  1. Lincecum: 67% in 2007, 79% in 2008; he has been 74%+ since second half of 2007
  2. Johnson: 58% in 2006, 60% in 2007, 53% in 2008; been 57%+ in 4 of 5 half seasons, last three seasons (injured second half of 2007)
  3. Cain: 52% in 2006, 56% in 2007 and 2008; been 50%+ since second half of 2006, reaching 60%+ in 3 of those 5 half-seasons
  4. Zito: he has been under 40% for the most part since second half of 2006, except for 60% for us second half 2007. But he had 40% in 2003, 47% in 2004, 66% in 2005, and 41% in 2006, showing that when he is effective and on his game, he can be a very good pitcher for us, which would be particularly deadly for us in the back of the rotation
  5. Sanchez: 45% overall in 2008, but 53% in first half of 2008
As anyone can see, whereas most teams have maybe 1-2 great starters on their rotation, we have 3 great starters with Lincecum, Johnson, and Cain, with Lincecum and Johnson being particularly dominating a large percentage of the time. Zito, when he is on, could be a team's #2 starter with his low 4's, high 3's ERA when he is going good. That is great when he's your #4 starter. To top it off, Sanchez has shown that he's capable of being a great starter, based on his first half of 2008, and it appears that only stamina is holding him back from joining Lincecum and Cain as a great starter, and he's our #5 starter. How good is that when our #5 starter is capable of, for extended stretches, pitching as well as any other team's #1 and #2 starters?

This is why I'm not as worried about the lack of offense as others. If the team can just score 4 runs regularly, we can rack up a lot of wins and be competitive in this division. It won't take much on the offensive side to boost our winning percentage when the pitching staff is this dominant up and down the rotation.

And as far as I'm concerned, this year is all about learning about our young hitters and giving our young pitchers more experience. I want to see at least .500 because I think they are capable of that, but the main thing for me this season is learning who can be complementary players going forward and who we need to replace, either with prospects or free agents.

I also want to see how it works having a rotation so dominant up and down. If we are to drink the kool-aid and follow Baseball Prospectus's advice, you want a high K/9 pitching staff. If we have a dominating staff up and down, that will contribute greatly to that metric. And, while they are on opposite sides of their careers, I view how Randy Johnson does in our rotation, assuming he's still good, as an audition for how our rotation will look once we let him go and add Madison Bumgarner to the rotation.

As noted, with such a strong rotation, there is no rest for the other team, they will struggle every other game with one of our starters. That probably won't matter as much in the regular season where teams face you for 3-4 games, but in the playoffs, they can face you 5-7 straight times, and if our guys shut them down, they will struggle with their confidence, they will start to press. Still, I think teams see what the Giants did to the last team, so there should be some carry forward, and this weekend against the D-backs should be a good test, both because of how well we've been pitching, but also because they were a team we beat upon the weekend before.

I think we have a great chance to win the series. Of course, any series with Lincecum in it will be one where we have a good chance to win the series, particularly since he is not facing either Webb or Haren, but their middle rotation guy, Doug Davis. Then Johnson faces Scherzer, as age faces youth, and Cain faces Garland, which should be the toughest matchup. I doubt we sweep, though that's a possibility given the streak the pitchers are on (confidence and pride - in not being the one to screw things up - and talent will keep it going for a while I think), but we should win two of three, I think, and crawl within 1 game of .500, particularly with some of our coldest hitters warming up plus going to a hitter's park like Arizona.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Odds and Ends: Media

Just some reactions to what I read in the newspaper:

A's Bias

The columnist I wrote about the other day beats up on the Giants about their offense, and yet I have not seen one column about what the A's were thinking nor about how poorly they have played so far. What made them think that their starting rotation was ready for the big time after going out and getting Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, and Orlando Cabrera to boost the offense? And not that I regret it, because then the Giants ended up with him, but they really could have used a starter like Randy Johnson, who is also an East Bay native and a natural attraction since he's going to win 300 games, plus, more importantly, could have been the ace of the staff for them, or at worse #2 to maybe Duchscherer. They chose not to do that.

The A's right now, even with all the big batters they added, which, by the way, pushed top prospect Daric Barton to the minors, are averaging under 4 runs per game. Where is the vitriol for their lousy offensive performance, particularly since they went out and got Matt Holliday and Giambi? Why no nasty column? I mean, the Giants we already know will have a bad offense, picking on them when they are struggling is, well, beating a dead horse, we all knew that already, what's the big deal?

However, the A's made the huge blockbuster trade for Holliday and the nostalgic signing of Giambi to boost the offense, and neither has a homerun yet. In fact, the Giants have been pounded about their lack of offense and homers, but they currently have more than double the homers that the A's have, and they have scored about the same number of runs, 50 for the A's, 45 for the Giants: both poor, but that was expected for the Giants, not so much for the A's given their upgrades on offense.

And, despite the great ERA overall for the pitching staff, their K/9, BB/9 and K/BB are horrible, and if that continued, their ERA should soar much higher. So why not talk about how badly they are doing in those departments, particularly walks, which is over 4 walks per 9 IP. I know that this is being hammered on the Giants in their coverage, yet I don't see that at all for the A's. The A's starter walked 4 batters last night, and all that was noted was that he did that, nothing about the high number of walks, nothing about the lack of strikeouts (which I've been hammering on about how the Giants have been building right).

Walk-Aversion Has its Limits

Speaking of walks, it was noted by one writer that because Cain had a walk-free outing, he "never allowed any jams to turn into big innings." And on the surface, that makes a lot of sense, "no walks good, lots of walks bad". However, he failed to note that Cain gave up 9 hits in his 6 innings too. That's not good either, as hits are worse than walks for creating runs.

And I understand that the pitcher has minimal control over the number of hits he gives up, as espoused by DIPS theory, but he does have some control and that is via strikeouts. Cain in his first full season struck out batters at a 8.4 K/9 rate, helping him to a low 7.4 H/9. But his K/9 has dipped from that high to 7.3, 7.7 and only 6.2 so far this season (albeit small sampling). He has likewise reduced his walks as well, at about the same rate, so that his K/BB rate has been remarkably steady, 2.06, 2.06, 2.04, 2.17.

So what is the overall result from his trying to reduce his walks, which has been high? His WHIP has increased from 1.28 to 1.26 to 1.364 to 1.368. And if he has been allowing more baserunners (per his WHIP) while reducing walks, that means he's been giving up a lot more hits. And hits hurt you more than walks.

The good news about this year is that his BABIP is abnormally high, at .328, and reducing it to .300 would return his H/9 back to last year's 8.5, resulting in a reduced WHIP back to his 1.26 of previous years, assuming he can keep his BB/9 down below 3 (currently 2.8 BB/9).

Thus, as good as he has been the past two years, he could be, at age 24, be taking the next step in his development, much like Lincecum did last year when he turned 24, towards becoming a complete pitcher. Getting his walk rate down has been his big need as a starter, and he has made progress, but this is his first time with his walk rate below 3.0 after 3 starts in the season and thus astonishingly the latest it has been that low, and amazingly enough, this is already his 4th season starting off the season with the Giants. And he was already very good the last two seasons, with ERA in the mid-3's for the most part (3.64 and 3.76), so if he is able to keep his walk rate down, while keeping his strikeout at or above where it is now, we could see Cain leaping to being considered for the Cy Young this season, with a low to mid 3 ERA.

Other Giants News

* Hinshaw down, Holm up, but Sandoval starting at catcher today. Is it a coincidence that Zito is starting today? Last season, hitters in 5 games hit only .213/.293/.311/.604 with Sandoval starting at catcher, .273/.368/.414/.782 with Molina starting 22 games (much worse with Holm catching). Then again, Sandoval caught Zito when Zito was going good at the end of the season, I wonder how well hitters hit with Molina catching for those games at the end of the season too.

* Rotation will be shifted, skipping Sanchez. Some are outraged, but he's the 5th starter, and while he did pitch really well in his last outing, it makes a lot of sense, as that does two important things: now the D-backs face Lincecum, Johnson, Cain, and Cain is better than Sanchez, plus it puts the rotation to Zito, Sanchez, Lincecum against the D-gers, whereas before it would have been Cain, Zito, Sanchez. Nothing against Cain, but I would rather have Lincecum facing them than Cain. That also moves Lincecum from facing D-Rox to facing the D-gers, which is more important as the D-Rox are struggling too, so now they face Johnson, Cain, Zito.

Then we're on the road for a week, Sanchez/Lincecum against the Cubs, Johnson/Cain against D-Rox, and Zito/Sanchez/Lincecum against the D-gers. Thus the move allows Lincecum to face the D-gers twice, instead of them avoiding him twice. I think that is a Win/Win situation, putting our best pitcher against the top team in our division, instead of missing them twice.

However, I wonder how long the drop to 11 man pitching staff will last because Friday May 1st will be the start of 17 days of playing games without a break. I would expect somebody to be dropped to the minors, probably between Velez and Torres, before the start of the road trip that begins on May 4th. And they only have two days off the whole month of May.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Correcting the Media: Giants 2009

As I do every year, I have issues with some of the "facts" the media uses in making their arguments about the Giants. Last couple of years, it has been one particular Mercury columnist, who, after getting mad in his blog at Grant's McCovey Chronicle even though all Grant did was link innocuously to an article of his that proved to be a bigger blunder than anything anyone has ever accused Sabean of doing (he urged, nay, demanded that the Giants to trade Lincecum for Rios; that would have been a fireable offense had Sabean done that), I have decided not to give him any more publicity by linking to his articles or pointing him out.

But still, the errors continue, so I feel forced to at least address these lest other Giants fans are as misinformed as he is.

Falsehood: Giants Will Never Provide Lincecum Offense

This is easy to do. I can see why he might have thought that by looking at the surface. The team was pretty bad on offense last season, no doubt. And with Lincecum's shiny low ERA, one could just imagine that his great 18-5 record was just the result of him being great every outing.

But anyone familiar with Bill James Pythagorean formula for predicted W/L record knows that such a lopsided W/L record is usually a product of not just low ERA but good offense. And sure enough, Baseball Reference showed (and I had written on this a while ago about how a starter's position in the rotation affected his run support) that Lincecum was supported with 4.57 runs per game that was consistent enough that he won 18 games and left the game with the lead 23 times in his 34 starts. Not great offense but that would put them middle of the pack if they could have done that all season. And it's certainly not bad offense, just not good either.

So his statement that "Lincecum is stuck piling up pitches for a Giants team that will never provide him with consistent run-scoring aid and comfort," is false, they already did last season, else he would not have won the Cy Young award, because writers still mistakingly think that W/L record is a huge part of being a great pitcher (I think stat-wise he was deserving, but writers take W/L into great consideration when awarding).

Small Samples: Giants are going to lose a lot of games in 2009

He also noted, "But the Giants (3-8) are going to lose a lot of games this season. That's almost not even a story anymore - they almost always lose and this is what they'll be until they find three or four good hitters." That's both preposterous and no-brainer, all bundled into one statement. The no-brainer is easy: of course, if you have an offense (as he noted, scoring only 3.2 runs per game) that's bad you are going to lose a lot of games. I think any fan would understand that.

But to assume everything is going to be bad, based on 11 games played, well, that ignores the whole history of major baseball. Being bad early on is not an automatic death notice. I will admit that it is not great, and does typically portend a losing season, but I think he's missing a number of points.

First, the Giants were not expected to become contenders this year. It would take a lot of good things happening - possible, but not likely to all occur - for them to contend. Playing .500 is the goal and that is still very possible if the pitching comes around and the hitters come around. Right now, I see no reason why either can't happen. Players and teams have had 11 game slumps all the time, it is just that this is happening at the start of the season. It's small sampling.

Second, if the Giants played .500 for the rest of the season - hard to imagine now, but I think still possible, and they played .500 for 4 out of 6 months last year, 2 out of 2 with basically this same team - they would be roughly 78-84, .481 winning percentage and a 6 game improvement over last year.

It is only mediots and people being unrealistic that has the Giants trying to win the division. That's possible, but highly unlikely without a lot of good stuff happening for the team. That's not a likely thing when you have 3 young starting position players, basically rookies, plus another who just became a full time starter last season (and didn't start the season as a starter), plus a 45 year old starting pitcher who has a history of injury problems and a young inconsistent lefty starting pitcher.

Third, young prospects need time to get their bearings, to feel like they belong and relax and do what they are capable of doing. They also need to be put into positions where they can succeed. Burriss is a good example of that. Batting 8th is tough on a hitter. Looking at hitters the Giants have batted there in the past a large portion of the time as well as other positions (like Jose Cruz Jr, David Bell, and others), batting 8th takes a toll on the hitter, even for experienced hitters. See how he responded once he got moved to 8th, when he started getting better pitches to hit?

That's why I've been wondering why they bat Ishikawa 6th and Rowand 7th, why not the other way around to put less pressure on Ishikawa? Particularly once Rowand started hitting up a storm coming out of the gates and Ishikawa faded? He looks like he's struggling, he has struck out 5 times in two games before today's game, where he got dropped finally.

Sandoval also appears to have been struggling so far, swinging at far more than he usually does. Today, he got moved in the order and he loses some of the struggle, getting three hits. All hopeful signs, but it's just one game, just one series. At least it is something to build off of.

Missing the Point: Davis is a Good Pitcher

Lastly, he notes that the Giants "went down so feebly against soft-tossing Arizona left-hander Doug Davis over eight innings." Well, Doug is so soft-tossing that his career ERA is a good 4.32 and his ERA in 2 of the past 5 seasons, once he became a starter full time, have been below 4, and 2 more has been low 4's, with only 1 season in the high 4's. Looks like the Giants have not been the only team that has been going down feebly against him, he's been one of the better starter pitchers in the league in the last five seasons.

Giants Thoughts

The columnist ended by noting "The Giants franchise, however, is going to take a lot longer." I'm not sure why all the big worry about the Giants. They were not expected, at least by those who had realistic hopes for the team, to be contenders unless the other teams fell to them and the NL West is won by a .500-ish team again. And it should not take a lot longer, if enough of the young players develop (particularly with how Buster Posey has been hitting), we should be looking good starting 2010 being led by Lincecum, Cain, and Posey, plus Bumgarner soon afterward.

They have a lot of young unproven position players this season, and that is a recipe for struggle, even for the best of prospects (see Homer Bailey, Anthony Reyes, Andy Marte and Andy LaRoche), and frankly, our guys, as much as I love them, they are pretty ordinary for the most part. They are not going to be the leaders for the next generation of playoff competing Giants, they are hopefully going to be the complementary players who surround the good players, as Posey and Villalona appear to be headed towards, for a good offense. This year is for learning who can help and who can't.

This seems to be part of the trend I've noticed, overall, at the San Jose Mercury since the A's started making noise about moving down south. Sure, the Giants offense has been bad, but that's to be expected at times during this season, they are full of young players. The A's, however, moved all in with getting Holliday and signing Giambi and Cabrera, they are the ones who should be excoriated by a columnist right now, they are suppose to be scoring runs in bunches and winning more games than they are losing. They are doing neither, but instead the columnist decides to beat up on the Giants instead when their best pitcher had one of his best games ever.

As I noted in the previous post, the Giants are facing a tough bunch of starters. Coming up against the Padres, they get to face Peavy AND Young AGAIN. Talk about bad luck of the draw, in five of the first games against the Padres, we get to face their top two starters twice! And after facing pretty good starters from the D-backs too.

Still, we have Cain against Peavy, and I think Zito has been showing good signs so far, and might be finally ready to have a well-pitched game through a whole game at home. It would be a win to split against those two. Then we face the last two Arizona starters again, Davis and Scherzer, then Jon Garland, who has been a good pitcher before. It's a tough month all the way to the end, as I noted in my last post on the schedule the Giants are facing. But if our pitching continues the turnaround started by Sanchez, we should be winning our fair share of games.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Offense After Two Series: Poor or Bad Timing?

I think the jury is still out on the offense. Obviously, the first game gave great hope, scoring 10 runs on opening day, but Suppan is really just an OK (and not opening day caliber) starter, so that was not a great indicator of how good the offense is. But the next two Brewers starters were pretty good, and they scored only 2 on Gallardo but 7 against Parra.

Then they went up against the Padres, but they weren't as bad as they appeared there. First, one needs to remember that Petco Park is one of the most extreme pitcher's park in the majors. So that is going to hurt your offense. Second, Jake Peavy and Chris Young are not chopped liver, together they are probably one of the best duo of starters in the majors on one team, up there with Webb/Haren and Lincecum/Cain. So you can expect to have a bad game against them and bad series overall having to face the two of them. Lastly, we had bad luck to end up against both of them, normally we should have been facing their #4 and #5 starter, along with their #1, but instead we got #5, #1, #2, because the Padres had a 4-gamer series to start.

Lastly, the game they should have made hay in, against Shawn Hill, was doubly against them. First, and most of all, they didn't have their heads in the game: their thoughts were really with Joey Martinez in the hospital. Second, they, for some reason, had a night game the day before (when it should have been a day game), which meant that they probably didn't get into the hotel until after midnight. The travel might have been short, but I would think that it is still tiring, and should have affected them some on top of everything.

And things probably won't get better in LA. Dodger Stadium is also one of the most extreme pitcher's parks in the majors, though not as bad as Petco. And they are facing Billingsley, Kershaw, and McDonald, three very good, if young, starters, probably their three best starters, now that Kuroda is injured.

They might get better at home against the D-backs, against Petit, Haren, and Davis (guess since the rotation is being adjusted now that Webb is on the DL), but Haren is very good and Davis is not bad himself. Petit, being the unproven starter, is the weak link there but has been good in stints before.

Then we are slated to face Peavy and Young again in the two game series against SD. Then Haren, Davis, Scherzer against the D-backs after that, which will be tough too. Then, finally, McDonald, Stults, Wolf for LA, which appears to be our best bet for winning a series this month; that's the last series of the month.

Looking at the numbers for strikeouts, albeit small samples, but it looks like nobody in particular is striking out outrageously. Sandoval is a bit over his career, but it could be small samples and perhaps he's struggling a little now too, as some commenters have said that he's swinging wildly the past few games. Still, not outrageously, well within bounds for such a small sample.

In addition, Baggerley noted in today's newpaper that Ishikawa "made several loud outs," which sounds about right, he's only struck out 4 times, which is pretty good for him, and one extra hit would put him at .263 and two extra hits would put him at .316. And it's funny how bad luck seems to follow Peavy and Young (and Petco Park).

Even Renteria, he has only struck out 4 times in 21 AB, with 2 walks, which are OK proportions. Same for Burriss, with 4 strikeouts in 18 AB and 3 walks.

But at some point they will have to produce, and produce better. They actually are OK overall, they are averaging 4.33 runs scored per game, but can't have so many high scoring games balanced with more low scoring games if we hope to have a good 2009 season, they will need to smooth out their scoring. And if our pitching had been as good as advertised, and forced the other team to pinch-hit for their great starters, perhaps our offense could have picked things up against the relievers and delivered a come from behind win. And one win is the difference between our 2-4 record and a .500 record of 3-3.

Thus, I would not worry much yet about the offense either right now. It has been a tough season so far in terms of starters we faced, and frankly it does not look to get much better the rest of the month. However, the good news is that none of the hitters appear to be overmatched by the opposing pitchers right now, except for maybe Peavy, and the balls should start falling in, therefore, for the guys who are scuffling right now: Sandoval, Ishikawa, Renteria, Burriss. I think patience is the key right now, to give us more time to properly evaluate all our young (and not so young) players.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

First Start of the Season: Not too Surprising

After everyone got their starts, the results are not that surprising and does not dull my excitement for this rotation in 2009:
  • Lincecum was amped up and didn't have good control. He has done this before: his first spring start, his first major league start, now his first opening day start. He should settle down and be OK.
  • Randy Johnson is an old pro and gave up a homer - for the first time in his 22 year career - to the opposing pitcher; otherwise he was pretty good. He shouldn't be giving up another homer to the opposing pitcher again.
  • Cain was Cain, usually good, often excellent: this time he was pure Cain sugar, putting together a nice 5 PQS start and getting run support for once (something that the #3 starter for the Giants have been getting the past two seasons).
  • Zito was Zito, unfortunately: disappointing, which is what we've been regularly getting. However, there is a silver lining in his outing: he's like Lincecum, he's lousy when he's amped up, because, belying his zen image, he is like most of us who get a bit skittish when in the limelight. The good news is that he reportedly looked good, and had great stuff. But like he has for us the past two seasons, when the pressure is on, he doesn't do very well. Hopefully he will settle into being the #4 starter, and the good thing was after his bad first inning, he settled down enough for 3 IP, 1 run, had 3 strikeouts.
  • Sanchez was Sanchez, for good and bad: he was absolutely filthy early on, 5 strikeouts in 2 innings, 7 strikeouts in 4, but then lost his focus on the #7 batter, the backup catcher, giving up 2 homers and letting that affect his pitching afterward. But he's young, he'll learn something from this and I think that's a good (though not perfect) start to what I think will be his breakout season.

Ideally the pitching could have been better, but overall I am happy with the results. All the pitchers looked pretty good except for a few problems, problems I would not expect to continue for the whole season, though obviously Zito will have to be watched.

Go Giants!

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.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Giants Big 6 Question for 2009

The 2009 Giants come into the season with hopes that has not been seen here in what seems like forever. Of course, that hope is all relative, as most just hope that we reach .500 in 2009. While I think that is the most likely scenario, I think the scenario where we contend for the division title is not a pipe dream, that we are not that far away from that scenario. It all depends on how the questions below are answered by the 2009 Giants.

Big Six Questions for 2009 Giants

As has been my tradition, each year I've been honoring Giants great, Christy "Big 6" Mathewson (there were no player numbers back then, but he got nicknamed with what New Yawkers called one of their firetrucks) by going through a number of Big 6 lists. Today, with the start of the official baseball season staring us in the face, I will go over my Big Six Questions for 2009 Giants.
Q1. Young Position Players: Ready for Majors?

I think its clear that how well the Giants do in 2009 is inextricably tied to their young hitters. Not that the pitching isn't as important, or even more important, but their level of expected performance can be projected relatively reliably, whereas how the offense does can vary widely. Thus, while the pitching looks to be a very good unit in 2009, it will be the offense that determines how far the Giants will go.

Will Pablo Sandoval hold up defensively enough at 3B? Can he continue hitting? Will Fred Lewis be able to power up batting 3rd instead of lead-off? Will Ishikawa be able to hit well enough, both overall and against LHP? How will Burriss hold up at 2B, can he hit well for the season?

Now the Giants will be covered to a certain extent: Aurilia and Bowker would be sufficient at 1B, plus there's the wild cards of Jesus Guzman and Phelps; Frandsen could take 2B or 3B, should either falter there; Schierholtz could take RF should any OF be out for an extended period, with Winn moving to the injured player's position (unless, of course, he's the injured party). Still, the projections for the young players are relatively modest - understandably so. And based on projections, the Giants look to be at .500 or under. And that's with the pitching staff pretty much fully accounted for, performance wise. That is, there is not much room for over-performance among the pitchers to boost the Giants above .500, looking at their projections.

Thus, the only way the Giants can hope to make the playoffs is if the Giants offense can deliver more than expected. And that's basically tied to the young players because we know what we can expect from Winn, Molina, Renteria, and Rowand (though the latter two could have an upside surprise). Thus, can Sandoval, Ishikawa, Lewis hit 15-20 HR in 2009? Can Burriss do as Lansford asked and hit for more power? Can they deliver roughly 800 OPS instead of the low to mid 700's OPS projected for them? Can they field OK overall? Can they be the little engine that could?

I think that the offense will surprise fans this year, and that we will have some good things to cheer about regarding our young starters. However, most probably at least one of them will fail, and we will have to go to someone in the minors to pick us up.

Q2. Barry Zito: Finally There?

As crucial as Zito doing well previously was, he is even more crucial in 2009, even as he takes the mantle of 4th starter in our rotation. Because we pretty much know that Lincecum, Johnson, and Cain will do well up top, and Sanchez can easily be a #5 starter (if not much better), and hold their own, our 2009 season's success could hinge on how well Zito does in the #4 spot.

If he does as poorly as he has done overall in the past two seasons, we will probably be at .500 or below. However, if he does as well as he did for an extended period at the end of 2008, he could win in the mid-to-high teens, and the team probably would end up over .500 for the season.

The good news is that his length of success last season was longer than in 2007, plus, as I noted in a number of posts, his strikeout level increased to levels not seen for him since his early career. In addition, reports were that his velocity had returned to early career velocity of around 87 MPH, which supports the premise that 2009 could be a good year for him overall. I think he can do it.

Q3: Jonathan Sanchez: Ready for Breakout?

As the #5 starter, he could pitch as badly as he did in 2008 and still do OK for us. However, if he can continue the excellence he showed with his sub-4 ERA before tiring in 2008, then he could win in the mid-to-high teens for us in 2009. As his PQS scores last year showed, he can be totally dominating when he is on. And he was on for an extended period from May to June, once he got over early season problems. His success is not as crucial as Zito because, well, we still have Zito for another five seasons at around $500.

Q4: Will Affeldt and Howry be like wall?

A major weakness of the Giants in 2008 was their bullpen. While Romo and Hinshaw had nice performances, besides Wilson, the bullpen was relatively bad or in poor health, resulting in numerous leads inherited from the starters being blown. A prime example of that was Tim Lincecum, who would have had 22 wins last year had the bullpen not blown five of his leads. Affeldt and Howry are here to fix that, but both have question marks.

Affeldt had his one and only really good season in 2008, though he was showing good signs of figuring it out in 2007. Most analysts before the Giants signed him said that he was a good speculative for saves because he was closer material. If so, he and Wilson could make games a 7 inning game. But, again, this is not set in stone, what if 2008 was a fluke?

Howry had almost the opposite problem, in that 2008 was his one and only bad season in a long while. Previously, he was one of the best relievers in the majors for a long stretch of time. If he can return to some semblance of that peformance, then along with Affeldt, the Giants have reduced the game to just 6 innings. But what if 2008 was the start of his decline phase of his career?

If both do as they appear capable of doing, perhaps the bullpen success rate for Lincecum would rise, so that instead of losing 5 leads, he lost only 2 leads, which would add 5-10 wins overall to the team in 2009 versus 2008. And the Giants have some backup in case either falters. Romo and Valdez delivered very good performances, albeit over short stretches of time, in 2008; Hinshaw, Matos, and Sadler are close to figuring things out, plus, if need be, Bumgarner and Alderson most probably would be ready to relieve by mid-season (which would be an emergency type of call up as the Giants know that their long-term value is in starting).

Q5: Will Bochy be rehired?

I haven't been totally impressed with Bochy. But I haven't been as dissatisfied as many Giants fans appear to be. Contrary to the hype, I haven't found him to be anti-young players. He has given them plenty of opportunities to show what they got, particularly at the end of the season when the team was pretty much out of contention. How can anyone accuse him of this today when his pitching staff is overwhelmingly young. And just because he hadn't given young position prospects much chance, the fact is, until the current crop of young prospects being given a chance this year, none were really good enough to warrant an extended chance, none were ever on anybody's top 50, top 100 overall prospect lists. Just because they were young did not mean that they were good.

The main reason I would keep Bochy around is because of continuity for the young players who would make the team in 2010. When there is a new manager, the young players will be put under additional pressure to perform and impress the new manager in 2010 instead of being themselves. Why give the players an additional obstacle when most managers have minimal effect over the win/loss record?

Still, if the team falls on its fact and suffer another season like the last two, I think it would be time to change the manager, as it would have underperformed. This team should be closer to .500 than what it did the last two seasons. I like that he has integrated many young prospects into most of the pitching staff, but I would have been more careful with the young starters (though I don't think that what he did deserved the outrage it generated), so he's not perfect. I can only OK with him around again as long as he doesn't screw things up.

Q6: Will Sabean be Rehired?

I think Sabean should be rehired, even if the team tanks. The team is nearing completion of its rebuild. I like what he has done, particularly with the pitching staff. Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times did separate studies on the factors that lead to team success in the playoffs, and both, though using different methodologies, came to the same conclusion: pitching and defense are they keys to playoff success, core to a baseball team, while offense is just hygenie, as it does not add value in the playoffs, but rather is context (using Geoffrey Moore's terms for businesses), which means that while it is useful, it is not core to winning in the playoffs.

In addition, the prospects he has collected appear as if he had read BP's book and followed it. He has focused on high strikeout pitchers, which are tied to playoff success, and got a closer who seems to have what it takes to be a very effective closer, another key. And he has usually gone for strong defensive position players when possible, he is known for shooting for defense when possible. In particular, speed players tend to be better defensive players. In addition, the only offensive stat that is remotely tied to playoff success is stolen base attempts, not stolen base success rate, which to me shows that speed and aggressive play is a key to playoff success, and these are shown by stolen base attempts.

In any case, I think Sabean has already earned the chance to get an extension to guide the Giants over the next two years. The pitching staff is nearly rebuilt, almost to perfection, and the starting lineup is starting to shape up pretty nicely, and should be ready within 1-2 seasons. The team should be contenders starting in 2010, and if Sabean do the right things, the Giants should content at least to the end of its mortgage, in 2018, led by Lincecum and Bumgarner on the pitching staff. Thus, Sabean has to figure out by 2010 who the right manager to guide the team over the next decade should be and put that person in place. That, for me, is the litmus test on whether he should be given an extension beyond 2011 or not.

Giants in 2009

I am going fanboy for the rest of this post, I normally would do this in a different post, but the season starts tomorrow (rain willing). During the offseason, I've been mainly going over what scenarios appear likely, what projections others have put together regarding the Giants and what that means for the Giants in 2009. Now I'm going to discuss how I think things should work out in 2009.

I'm excited by the whole team. Obviously, the pitching is to die for. If Zito and Sanchez can pitch to potential and Johnson stays healthy, the pitching staff could end up with a collective ERA under 4.00. I think Zito and Sanchez can do that, and even if Johnson proves to not be healthy or productive, I think Joe Martinez and Keven Pucetas are close enough that when and if Johnson prove to need replacing, they will be ready to come in and produce adequately enough.

The bullpen if everything falls in place, could be a monster. Obviously, Wilson, Affeldt, and Howry would have to do what is their potential. But if Romo can come back from his injury, Hinshaw can improve slightly on his walk rate, and Valdez can stay healthy, the bullpen could be as rock solid as LA's was in 2008. This, I am not as sure of, but I think overall will be 1) an improvement over 2008's bullpen, and 2) good enough to keep the starters' leads safe.

The offense I think will be better than most think. Winn and Molina should be veteran rocks again. Renteria should be a huge improvement over 2008's SS, even if he does as poorly as he did in 2008; I think he will do even better, because he showed that his offensive skills were undiminished in the second half of 2008, showing that his overall numbers were a victim of a very poor start in 2008.

Rowand I am not as sure of, but assuming he can stay healthy, he should be able to better his numbers of 2008 and be a plus CF offensively. Given his gamer attitude and professional pride, I think he realizes that his health is what he needs to earn his contract and not get all these fans saying he's a bust, and that shame will drive him to produce what he is capable of in 2009, much like how Winn, after initial fans' discontent over his contract, won the hearts of Giants fans.

The young players will overall be better than projected. Lewis should be improved by not having to deal with his bunion on his operated foot anymore (he still has a bunion on his other foot, though his new Nike specially designed shoes are suppose to protect it) and being freed to use his power. He has demonstrated that he can bring the power when the occassion needed it, like those grandslams.

Both Burriss and Sandoval have had excellent strikeout rates coming up the minors and kept it up in the majors. That bodes well for future success in the majors as hitters for the two of them, though Burriss still needs to improve his power to truly be effective offensively. I think it's his defense that will keep him around longer to allow him time to figure out how to hit for more power. Sandoval is simply a good hitter and despite his free swinging ways, because he has the skill to square up even the best pitched balls, he will continue to hit for a high average and not strike out that much; whether he walks more will depend on how willing pitchers will become in terms of giving him a free passes, even if they were not intentional. Still, it would not surprise me if he figures out how to take more walks somewhere along the line.

Ishikawa appears to have worked diligently to figure out the areas of weakness for him as a batter and while he still strikes out more than one would like, he has shown that he knows how to take walks coming up the minors, and obviously has shown that he has tremendous power. His hitting against LHP has not been that bad, there are plenty of left-handed power hitting 1b in the majors who do a lot worse against LHP. And he plays great defense to boot, at a key position. It would not surprise me if he supplants Molina as the clean-up hitter by mid-season, though I would not expect it.

Nonetheless, I think the odds of all of them succeeding together is very slim, to think that they will is a pipe dream. The key, however, is that I am saying that overall the team will do well, and I think it can because we have a lot of backups ready to contribute in case someone falters or underperforms for whatever reason.

Schierholtz has been ready do start for two seasons now, covering both Lewis and any extended injury (like Rowand; I think if he injures himself like he did in 2008, they will just sit him on the DL for a long time to heal properly). Frandsen as well, when not injured, and he can play 2B and 3B. Aurilia should be able to hold the fort for a while at 1B if the needs arises. The J's, Jesus Guzman and Josh Phelps, should be able to pitch in as well at 1B if needed.

The old guys are covered too. If anything should happen to Molina, I think the Giants would not hesitate to move Sandoval behind the plate for the rest of 2009 and bring up Frandsen to start at 3B. In any case, Posey looks ready to start for us in 2010. Schierholtz protects the whole OF. Even Renteria is covered as Burriss would slide over to SS and Frandsen would start at 2B. There is a lot of fail-over switches that can happen should something bad happens to anyone in the 2009 Giants starting lineup.

Thus, while I would not predict that the Giants will make the playoffs, neither would I not be surprised if they do, they are capable of winning the division, it is a matter of players performing to their potential and putting everything together as they have shown in bits and pieces over the years, that and the likelihood that most NL West teams will be around .500 much of the season, including the analysts' favorite, the D-gers. When you are that close, a good run at the end can win the division for you, much like how teams have won the NL West the past couple of years.

At minimum, they should be around .500. I would be disappointed if they are still losing enough to get a Top 10 pick overall. I would fire Bochy if that happens.

And, while I would give Sabean a two year extension whether the team does well or not in 2009, I would put him on notice that any future extension will depend on him having the right manager in place to guide the team going forward from 2010 on. Expectations will be higher going forward, and he should put the manager in place that he believes can keep the Giants winning over the next decade, whether that be Bochy or whomever.

He has done a good job assembling a farm system full of talent, now he has to find the right person to guide them to the finish line, and if a World Series Championship is not attained during the Lincecum-Bumgarner era, then it would be time for new blood at GM (as well as managing partner).

Speaking of whiom, I like the changes that Neukom has put in place for the Giants in his short time at the helm. I think he can lead us, finally, to a World Series Championship. He is making sure that the Giants have the money to fund development and the infusion of talent it needs to move forward. He has authored "The Giants Way", which will guide the entire organization, from top to bottom, on how he expects things to be done. He is willing to get the money if there is a good prospect out there. I think if there was another young strong hitter available as a free agent (his Barry Bonds), he would find the money that enables the team to bid for him.

He has been better at marketing the Giants to fans than Magowan ever was. He didn't succumb to the "new boss, shows who's boss" style of management and didn't clean house just to clean house, just because he can, he's being deliberate in his decision making. He has publicly supported his GM but has stopped short of saying he'll be around necessarily, next season. I've been greatly impressed.

Play Ball! Go Giants!

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