Thursday, March 31, 2011

Your 2011 Giants: Play Ball! Beat LA Edition

Well, it's finally here:  opening day 2011 and the Giants fans get to celebrate all season long about our 2010 Giants World Championship.  But then there is the not so little matter of defending your title in 2011 and they face a gauntlet of road games, with 22 road games out of their first 31 games, which is a real oddity:  you would think the MLB would overload on home games to max attendance for the Giants fans at home?  Must be a D-ger schedule planner!!!

Speaking of which, the Giants get to celebrate their title in front of the D-ger homeboys and girls to start the season.  Apparently there are fans planning to fly over Chavez Ravine with plane banners to send a message to the Giants and the D-ger fans.  Many fans are planning to go in full World Champion regalia.  I only pray that cooler minds prevail and there is no violence committed against Giants fans, as there was a few years back in their parking lot.

With no stats for the season to use, I'll be relying on past performance and using PQS to provide commentary on each game.  And, of course, using the text from the MLB's Probable Pitchers webpages.

Game 1:  Lincecum vs. Kershaw
Tim Lincecum:  Lincecum has had mixed success in season openers. He was dominant last year in Houston, striking out seven in seven shutout innings. Lincecum clearly wasn't himself in the 2009 lidlifter, allowing Milwaukee three runs in three innings.
Clayton Kershaw:  Development of a slider has made the 23-year-old that much tougher for opposing hitters. He was 9-2 against the NL West and compiled a 1.55 ERA in four starts against the Giants last year, including his first complete game and shutout.
Wow, Kershaw has a new slider, Lincecum has a new slider, should be a low scoring game.  I hate when writers look at two bits of data and make a comment, you need to take a bigger picture view, plus know the history.  Lincecum's 2009 was his first opening day start and he has always had the jitters in his first time experience, well, except for his excellent start against the Braves in his first playoff game, though one could argue that he was in playoff like games all through September.  Every first he has had as a major leaguer (except for that one), he has had to get over his nerves, his adrenaline rush, and so far he has had them, including his first start in the World Series, when the playoffs got different.

I've been saying that Lincecum will be extra tough this season and I wouldn't be surprised if he gets his ERA under 2.00, which probably isn't likely, but still, I wouldn't be surprised.  He should be that much better than his Cy Young seasons, now that he got the slider to go with his changeup.  Not that Kershaw will be easy for the Giants batters, but Lincecum should be that much better, even with the home advantage for Kershaw.   I would also throw in that D-ger Stadium is one of the extreme pitcher's park forever.

Hard to believe, but Kershaw was even more consistently dominating in 2010 than Lincecum was during his Cy Young seasons, but his problem is that when he's bad, he's really bad, with a large percentage of the starts where he wasn't dominating, he had a disaster start, it was pretty much either/or for him in 2010.  And as noted above, he pitched really well against the Giants last season.

Should be a tough, low scoring team that either team can win.  I think Lincecum will be that much better, mainly because I don't think much of LA's offense, whereas I think Pablo Sandoval is back and that Brandon Belt could be the extra factor in juicing up this offense.  Of course, this is but one game among 162, so they could have zero offensive contributions.  But overall, I like the GIants lineup, particularly if Belt delivers as projected.  Still, got to give Kershaw his due and call it even, with a lean towards Lincecum.

Speaking of which, congrats to Belt for making the opening day roster and best  wishes to Travis Ishikawa for being designated for assignment.  The Giants have 10 days to either trade him or to release him on waivers.  Then some other team would get him, else if nobody is interested either way, then the Giants could assign him to the minors, but he could say then that he prefers to be released and become a free agent.

Remember, with no options, any team taking him would have to place him on their 25 man roster, so my guess is that most if not all teams will pass on him, as most have already made their 25-man decisions, and the Giants might be able to send him down.  However, I would think that he would ask for his release and try to hook up with another team, starting with Seattle, his hometeam, though that is a risk, because if nobody signs him, he has no way to stay in shape except maybe independent ball.

Another guy needing to make a decision is Marc Kroon as he did not make the roster (congrats also to Guillermo Mota and Dan Runzler for making the opening day roster).  He is reported by the Chronicle to have said he would not accept a AAA assignment, but MLB is reporting that Bochy is lobbying him hard to go down.

If he likes the team and coaches, he should stay, the Giants will cut guys if they don't perform, and frankly, I'm waiting for Mota to be that first one (well, except for Runzler who will go down once Brian Wilson is off the DL, where he was just placed) to be jettisoned, as the Giants have jettisoned non-performing relievers in the past, relatively easily, and Mota didn't really perform that well down the stretch in 2010.  I really wonder if he got the assignment because the Giants wanted most of the players who won the World Series to be on the opening day roster.  In any case, I would think that Kroon could make the roster within a month or two if he can wait; I hope he waits, I really wanted to see him in a Giants uniform in 2011.

Game 2:  Sanchez vs. Billingsley
Jonathan Sanchez:  Sanchez's previous Dodger Stadium appearance, last Sept.5, was a big one: He beat L.A. for the first time in his career, won his 10th game of the season, struck out nine and surrendered three hits in seven innings.
Chad Billingsley:  There's nothing wrong with being a No. 2 starter and Billingsley gives the Dodgers a pretty reliable one. He's averaged 13 wins and 195 innings the last three seasons and during Spring Training made strides with a changeup.
Wow, MLB don't have a photo for Billingsley! Not like he's a rook. Sanchez, while not a rook, was promoted to #2 status, one to break up Lincecum and Cain, two because Lincecum and Cain tends to pitch deeper into the game, whereas Sanchez tends not to, meaning the bullpen is rested, relatively before and after Sanchez. He's been a headcase before, letting nerves and adrenaline rage uncontrolled, so it's hard for me to say how he'll do here. Generally, he has been clobbered in LA, but as noted above, he pitched a beauty against them in LA last season, so maybe our little boy is growing up before our eyes.

Billingsley, while drafted before Cain, has been a step behind our Big Boy when comparing careers, but his PQS DOM% has been very Cain-like for years, though he had a relatively bad season last year.  But still better than Sanchez overall.  However, again, I really like the Giants lineup, particularly against RHP:  Torres, Sandoval, Huff, Posey, Belt, should be pretty nice.

I have to call it even again, but with a lean towards Billingsley, because of his career consistency and him in his home park.  One of the better Giants hitters against him is gone though, Ishikawa, but Nate Schierholtz has beat on him pretty good, so we might see an outfield of Huff, Torres, and Schierholtz in the lineup, which would add another good LH bat.

Speaking of lineups, it would be interesting to see where that goes.  Looks like it'll be much like last year, but with Belt, here is Monday's lineup:  Torres, Franchez, Huff, Posey, Burrell, Tejada, Belt, Sandoval.  I would prefer to put Pablo Sandoval in the 5 spot sooner than later, he should be better than Pat Burrell and instead of Miguel Tejada 8th, here's an idea:  bat Belt as the last position player.

He has a pretty good head on his shoulders, from all indications, and he works the at-bat pretty well, not swinging at bad pitches.  Plus, he's a good runner, so the pitchers could sacrifice with greater certainty.  Also, Bochy could also go with the LaRussa/Saber experiment and bat the pitcher 8th and Belt 9th, with his speed and discipline in getting on base, he could be like a second leadoff guy.

Game 3:  Cain vs. Lilly
Matt Cain:  The Giants will watch Cain carefully in the wake of the elbow inflammation he endured in spring. Durability has been an issue for Cain, who's one of only five Giants to pitch 200 frames or more at least four years in a row since the club moved west.
Ted Lilly:  He's not overpowering, not an ace, but he's left-handed, he throws strikes and he wins games, double figures in each of the last eight seasons. The last time he signed a big contract, he went 15-8 for the Cubs in 2007. He was 0-1 with a 6.97 ERA.
Should be another close game, the Giants and D-gers are pretty evenly matched for their top three starting pitchers.  As well as Cain has pitched, his DOM% has been lower than Lilly's until last season.  The key to Cain is that he rarely has a disaster start (check the PQS label way down below if you want to learn more about PQS terminology, there is a explanatory link in each post), whereas Lilly has been more prone to them, relatively.

Lilly, however, has a bad history against SF, 5.57 ERA, including 6.97 ERA in two starts last season and 4.88 ERA in home games.  Unfortunately, until a late victory against LA last season, Cain has had a history of futility against the D-gers, though he normally pitched well enough to win.  Lilly has a 3.90 ERA in LA, which is slightly better than his career numbers, so he does derive some advantage pitching there (though perhaps that difference was pumped up a bit by Lilly's lengthy career in AL too).  I feel like I'm jinxing Cain, but given the difference in career results, I have to call this a close game, as Lilly is normally a good pitcher, with a lean towards Cain.

Game 4:   Zito vs.  Kuroda
Barry Zito:  After being dropped from last year's postseason pitching staff, Zito has strived to start fresh this season. He was San Francisco's only starter to work six innings twice in Cactus League exhibitions, indicating that he maintained a solid mindset.
Hiroki Kuroda:  He has added a curveball to the repertoire. He's made the conversion from Japanese star to solid MLB starter with a lower career ERA than Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka. He was 0-1 with a 3.38 ERA against the Giants last year.
Zito is making news today for being hit in his car while driving last night.  He's fine, so far, and has been released from the hospital, but this is something that could have later effects, whether concussion or whatever, so the story is not done here.  I suspect if he is not ready to pitch, the Giants would just go with a bullpen start, going first with Runzler, then Mota, then whoever.  Vogelsong is the go-to guy for a longer term stint on the DL, but for one start, and early in the season, I think the Giants will go with the bullpen route, particularly since they had been stretching out Runzler.

In any case, even without the car crash, I would have to give the D-gers the edge here.  Kuroda has been an excellent pitcher for the D-gers, posting great PQS and even pushing it up a notch in 2010, both in terms of increasing DOM% to an great 68% and reducing DIS% to a good 13%.    Zito hasn't sniffed either in years on a seasonal basis, and barely one or the other on a half season basis.  On top of that Kuroda pitches even better at home, and has pitched well against the Giants in general.  The only silver lining for Giants fans is that the Giants have a 7.47 ERA against him in LA in 3 starts.  But that was two bad starts in his first season, 2008, he dominated them down late in the season in 2010, 8 IP, 6 hits, 8 K's and 3 walks, but 3 ER, so the D-gers lost.

Giants Thoughts

I'm pretty excited by the 2011 Giants.  ESPN, using ZiPS data, has the Giants winning the NL West division with an 88-74 record, one game ahead of D-Rox.  They have 'Dres at 83-79 and D-gers at 80-82.

I still think the Giants will easily end up with 90+ wins in 2011, and I wouldn't be surprised if they win 100+ games and lead from start to finish, which I've been saying this off-season.  However, with so many games on the road initially, the Giants might fall a bunch of games behind initially so I'm backing a bit off that latter part of the statement.  But it won't take a historic run at the end of the season for them to win in 2011, whether them winning or the leading team losing 10 straight, they should be in it for most of the season.

I'm also pretty excited by Tim Lincecum and Pablo Sandoval.  I think both will come back from their poor seasons in 2010, and even outdo what they did in 2009.  Lincecum, as I've been saying, should be even better than his Cy Young years:  he added a slider at the end of last season, which now gives him a "swing and miss" pitch to both LH and RH batters now.  I would not be surprised if his ERA ends up under 2.00, earning him another historic contract after the season.

I think now is the time to sign him up to a long term contract, but I would bet that the Giants tried but Lincecum's agent refused the offer; fans forget that it takes two to get a contract done, and Lincecum's side has wanted a LOT more than the Giants have been wanting to give up, and I don't blame the Giants for not doing more.  I would bet that Posey's agent did the same as well, I'm pretty sure the Giants contacted them as well.  I think Cain is the better bet to get an extension first.

People just don't get that Sandoval is a bad ball hitter.  Especially sabers, they note his penchant for swinging at balls out of the zone, but they all then forget to look at his peripherals:  his strikeouts and walks in 2010 were right in line with his short career so far:  13.2% for K's, 7.6% for walks.  In fact, if I had just presented his K% and BB% for 2009 and 2010, but without the years, I would bet 999 out of 1,000 people would not have known which was which (it was 13.1% and 8.2% in 2009).

The fact is, the big difference for Pablo in 2010 were two items:  his BABIP and power.  His BABIP dropped to .291, after a career .350+ BABIP, and that definitely you can blame his weight on.  And as widely reported, he lost a ton of weight (almost literally :^).

The other was his lack of power, his slugging went way down, and part of that was because his HR% was cut in half.  Oddly enough, his XB/H% was still OK, at 33% after 39% in 2009, but that also reflected his lost of power, as his doubles, triples, and homers all went down.  Part of that was his big drop in hitting against LHP, but his number of HR against RHP went down as well.

But remember, he was like Panda of old in April 2010, his OPS was 1000+ and all was well, then suddenly he couldn't hit at all for anything for two weeks in May.  That was an up and down pattern that went through the entire season, and as I documented, particularly for the second half of the season, when he flew down to Venezuela to finalize his divorce and when his mother was nearly killed in the San Bruno blast.

He was otherwise Panda-esque when not dealing with personal issues in the second half:  299/.348/.495/.843, with .321 BABIP, 13.8% K%.  And I would point out that he was very Kung Fu Panda like late in the 2010 season, from August 7-30, he had 6 HR in 86 AB, .337/.367/.628/.995 in 22 games.  All this suggests that something (like getting divorce papers or getting into custody battle with ex-wife) happened at the start of May to push him down mentally.  This should not be bothering him in 2011, suggesting that he should be back to Panda of old.

Of course, nobody really knows until the season starts.  One things is that Sandoval has been hitting well in spring training, but not to his full Panda performance:  .280/.309/.480/.789, with 3 homers.  Over a full season, that is roughly 30 doubles, 5 triples, 20 HR.  This is more like the pre-Panda that we saw in 2008 and early 2009, before he busted out for the HR power.

And how can I not be excited by Brandon Belt.  However, I would advise caution to all the giddy fans anticipating Posey 2.0, because Posey 1.0 was hitting .695 OPS after roughly a month in the majors, and that is roughly around the time when Cody Ross comes off the DL.  Of course, Posey took off after that, maybe partly because Molina was traded and now he was the full-time catcher, maybe partly because it took that long to figure out MLB pitchers, Dustin Pedroia was horrible his first month before taking off.  Still, if Belt is struggling when Ross is ready, Belt will probably go down at that point.

However, if Belt starts out like Jason Heyward 2.0, he's staying up and my best guess is that Pat Burrell and Cody Ross will start sharing LF and Torres will get more rest vs. LHP, since he was horrible against LHP in 2010, though that could be an oddity since he's right-handed.  Still, I see Ross getting ABs that way, plus he might sub for Huff in RF since Huff has difficulties hitting LHP during his career, though not last season.

Also, if Belt stays up, that means the Giants will have to chose between Rowand and Schierholtz to release, and I would throw Fontenot into the mix, I think he'll be in the conversation if he's struggling.  Given that the bench will be very right-handed if Schierholtz is released and defensively challenged when Burrell is on the bench, the right baseball choice is to release Rowand.  It doesn't look like he will get his chance to show how good a hitter he is when healthy, and that once he moves on to another team, if released, he will make the Giants look bad, much like when the White Sox picked up Rios from the Blue Jays or even Giants picking up Burrell.

I think that there is an outside chance that if Mota is struggling in April, he could be the one to be released when Ross is off the DL.  The Giants might want to buy time on the Rowand decision by going with less relievers for a month or two, in case another team might get desperate enough to take Rowand off our hands.  And who knows, when Rowand is hot, he would easily push Ross and maybe even Burrell onto the bench.  But hard to do that if he's not getting ABs, that would take an OF slumping in April, mainly Torres or Burrell, I don't see Huff getting sat until later, I think his rope is longer than Torres or Burrell.

Go Giants!  Make us proud in defending your World Championship!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Your 2011 Giants: Projected 25-man Roster

With the Cactus League portion of Spring Training over, Andy Baggarly posted his projected 25-man roster and I thought I would comment.

Giants Thoughts

A major issue facing the Giants is fitting 26 major league players on a 25 man roster, plus there are players like Brandon Belt and Dan Runzler who deserve to be on the roster, sooner or later. Plus there is Guillermo Moto, who was a good reliever for us in helping the Giants win the 2010 World Series Championship.

Baggarly projects that Mota and Travis Ishikawa will win the last positions.  That means that he expects Brian Wilson to be ready by opening day and that Nate Schierholtz will be gone, probably traded since that is the rumor out there.

The roster Baggarly projects:
SP: Lincecum, Sanchez, Cain, Zito, Bumgarner (5)
RP: Wilson, Affeldt, Romo, Lopez, Casilla, Ramirez, Mota (7)
IF: Posey, Whiteside, Huff, Ishikawa, Sanchez, Fontenot, Tejada, Sandoval, DeRosa (9)
OF: Burrell, Torres, Ross, Rowand (4)

That fits what the Giants have said in the past week or so. One is that they intend to carry 12 pitchers, which brought to a head the issue that there are currently 14 position players signed, and apparently the rumor of trading Schierholtz appears to be real and he'll be the one gone.  There is also the news that Mota had provisionally made the 25-man roster (not sure what exactly that means other than he's on the roster as of right now, but that things could change, though unclear what that change could potentially be).

Consequences of Mota winning the last bullpen spot is that Suppan and Kroon (only Schulman has reported this, Baggarly has not yet) have already said that they won't accept a AAA assignment, while Vogelsong said this organization is where he wants to be and Runzler has another option they can use.

Should Wilson's injury recur, they could hold onto Suppan or Kroon longer, until Wilson returns. I would bet on Kroon, one, because Suppan has not been that impressive, either in spring training or the past few seasons, while Kroon has been a top closer in Japan. To my view, I think this would then buy time for Kroon to prove his worth over others in the bullpen, such as Mota or even Ramon Ramirez, as once Wilson returns, someone will have to leave.

However, I am most disappointed that Schierholtz is projected to be the one going first.  The most obvious position player to go, in my opinion, is Ishikawa, which is hard for me to say because I've been one of the few Giants fan supporters of Ishikawa over his career. Belt looks like the 1B long term, plus Sandoval, among other possible replacements, are in the system, ready to take over 1B.

In an ideal world, I think the Giants want to keep Ishikawa because he proved to be a valuable left-handed power bat off the bench, plus is great defensively at 1B, but that position looks to be covered pretty well going forward.  If they hadn't brought him up early, he might still have an option to be sent down to AAA and brought back in 2012, but unfortunately, they did.  But that's water under the bridge, and the reality is that he's the guy to go first.

As I noted on El Lefty Malo, the Giants should try to keep Schierholtz.  Like Rowand, he is injury prone but when healthy, he was a very productive hitter, a great RF.  We don't know how the OF will look in 2012 and I would prefer to keep him as a cheap potential starter.  Both Ross and Burrell are free agents, and both have to prove that they can continue to hit well, to boot, in 2012.  Torres, as great a story as he is, will be 34 for the 2012 season.  Huff is probably the LF by then, but he, like Burrell, also has to prove that 2010 was not a fluke season plus he'll be 35, just like Burrell.  Age and fluke results are big question marks with these potential starters for us in 2012, and Ross is not yet signed for that season either, although he expressed his strong interest in sticking around.

If Schierholtz is traded, that suggests that the Giants don't think that he'll get over the injury hump and/or that the outfielders coming up the system - Thomas Neal, Francisco Peguero, Gary Brown, Roger Kieschnick - will be ready enough, plus maybe that they are banking that one or two of the older players will still be performing at their high level still.  And that certainly is a possibility, I was thinking more of the worse case scenario with respect to the 2012 OF situation.

Rowand Not As Bad As People Think

As much as people point to Rowand as a sunk cost, they forget that he starts each season hot, when some sort of injury takes him down. As late as August 2008, his OPS was still near 800, which is pretty good offensively for a CF. Same with 2009. Both years, a horrible September ends a season which otherwise was relatively productive for a CF, but a mitigating factor is that he started off each season with some sort of injury, which we don't know whether it affected him later in the season or not. It could also have been that he was out of shape, as he finally started trying to get in shape before the 2010 season, though only via mountain bike riding, so I don't know how that improves his overall baseball fitness, hopefully it does or he'll be doing it for nothing.  We all know 2010, but forget that he took a pitch off his head. He started off hot when he returned but was not productive eventually, and I think that head injury, plus part time play affected his overall performance.

Overall, he has been above the average OPS for a CF for that season in 10 out of the 18 months he has been a Giant.  So he has not been that bad, just not good enough, and given that his defense is not as good as advertised, he was still rated slightly above average by both Fangraph's UZR, as well as Baseball-Reference.com's Rdrs.  That plus his offense being slightly below average (in terms of OPS) makes him an average player, and average players are worth something in baseball.

Of course, I understand that Rowand is not worth $12M per year, which is not what an average players gets, but he's not an unrecoverable cost either when he is about an average player.  He is nothing like Russ Ortiz when the D-backs dropped him, he was having all sorts of injury problems and wasn't even an average starter.  Rowand at least was average, with the caveat that when he's good, he's very good, but when he's bad, he's been very bad.  And that is the impression he leaves with most Giants fans because he ends the season on the steep downside, even though, if you examine his time with the Giants, he's been a valuable player about half the time.  I think injury and lack of conditioning contributed to his problems as a Giant.

Ideal Scenario:  with Ross out, Rowand hits like he has before, forcing himself into the outfield rotation with Burrell, Torres, and Ross when he comes back, plus then Huff should Rowand still be around when Belt is ready to come up.  With Rowand hitting well (hopefully) but healthy because he's playing less often, by mid-season a team will be desperate enough to trade for Rowand to be their starting CF, with the Giants chipping in $9M of the roughly $18M left on his contract.  At which point, the Giants can bring up Brandon Belt.

Or, if Rowand is not hitting well, then the Giants finally release him, knowing that they gave Rowand a good shot to prove himself, and wash their hands by releasing him and bringing up Belt.

Still, ideally, I would rather keep Schierholtz around because I think he can be an average producing RF, even if his HR power does not come, he can produce a lot with hits even though he don't walk much, and, once again, fans fall into the trap that just because he's not a good player, he's not a valuable cog of the team.  Not every starter is average, the way the MLB is set up, it is extremely hard to have every single starter on your team be above average, there will always be players below average.  That is why an potentially average starter like Schierholtz holds value for me.

Ishikawa, while I think he can be a very useful starting 1B for certain teams which gets their offense from other positions, is replaceable by Belt and a number of other players.  He is a useful player off the bench, but the 25-man roster crunch is so severe that if the Giants are unable to unload Rowand, even if he is hitting well, they would lose both Ishikawa and Schierholtz anyway.  I think you try to hold onto Schierholtz, who is relatively more valuable than Ishikawa for the Giants right now, first.

The Giants should hold onto at least one of them, in any case, because they can be valuable power bats off the bench, plus both have been good baserunners in seasons past, particularly Schierholtz, giving the Giants a power/speed/defense lefty combo off the bench.  Frankly, if I had the choice, I would think strongly about whether the Giants really want to hold onto Fontenot, although that would make it very hard for DeRosa to make it into games since an injury to either MI once he is in would force the Giants to play an OF as an MI.

But as the Cody Ross injury shows, sometimes things sort themselves out before you have to make a decision.  In any case, I'm excited that the season will start in a few days.

Go World Champion Giants!!!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Your 2011 Giants: Big 6 Prospects

I am selecting, in honor of the Big 6 himself, Christy Mathewson, the top 6 prospects of the Giants farm system, in my estimation. I would rather focus on the ones who are most likely to do significant damage for us up at the major league level at some point in the future, with some plus factor for doing it sooner than later.

As far as methodology goes, I don't really care to predict the players most likely to contribute this particular season, as that usually include players who make a utility contribution; most teams do not get a significant contributor (like a new starter) from the minor leagues each season, let alone 6, 10, or 11 of them.

And, frankly, most people who do these sort of stuff focus a significant amount of their ranking on whether a player is able to make the majors that season or not.  So, to be a little different, I try to focus more on the future potential rather than closeness to the majors, partly because that is the fun of prospect watching, part because I don't observe any of the prospects on the field, as others do.

What I do provide is my thoughts and analysis after reading through various available sources of information regarding the Giants prospects, including all the lists out there (which was captured quite nicely by Crazy Crabbers here).  And, as noted, I lean more towards potential than closeness to the majors.

And to add to the Crabber's bounty, here is the Minor League Baseball Analyst's Top 15:

  1. Brandon Belt, 1B
  2. Zack Wheeler, RHP
  3. Francisco Peguero, OF
  4. Gary Brown, OF
  5. Thomas Neal, OF
  6. Charlie Culberson, 2B
  7. Tommy Joseph, C
  8. Jarrett Parker, OF
  9. Brandon Crawford, SS
  10. Jose Casilla, RHP
  11. Chuckie Jones, OF
  12. Ehire Adrianza, SS
  13. Michael Main, RHP
  14. Heath Hembree, RHP
  15. Chris Dominguez, 3B

I love reading the Minor League Baseball Analyst, whole-heartedly recommend it.

2011 Giants Big 6 Prospects

In years past, it would have been hard to fill out the list without people who don't really deserve to be on the list. There would usually be a number of them who was a huge question mark on what type of contribution they will make at the major league level ever. And that is not a knock on the Giants farm system in the past, per se, the general rule of thumb is that the farm system at any time has four players who will make a mark in the majors in their career, 2 starters, 2 utility/relievers, but the Giants were even having problems with even 2-3 who look like sure things at times.

But 2011 is different again, just like 2009 and 2010, and we have a lot of players. We are starting to built up a lot of depth in the system and that will impact the majors over the next 2-4 seasons. The Giants were able to accomplish this because it had a lot of high picks in 2007 to boost this up, and made a number of astute selections in 2008, as if they had high picks, in selecting Gillaspie, Kieschnick, and Crawford, players who at some point were expected to fall in the first round, some early in the first. And 2009 had a number of excellent early picks in Wheeler, Joseph, Dominguez, and Stoffel.  And 2010 had a number of excellent picks in Brown, Parker, Rosin, Hembree, Kickham, Chuckie Jones,

This year, it was pretty clear who the top 2 were but like last season, there were a lot of prospects who could make one of the four three spots, and I will list them in an honorable mention section.

Here are the Big 6 I've selected for 2011:
  1. Brandon Belt:  He is the best by far, has a lot of potential plus he's basically in the majors sooner than later.  His story is well known:  Giants overdraft in Round 5 where many thought closer to Round 10, the former pitcher had his swing reworked suing new video tool leading to him leading the minors in a number of stats across the three levels he played in 2010, including AAA.  Showing surprising stolen-base prowess to go with power, he used the whole field while being disciplined enough to take walks at high rates.  Some have called him a left-handed Buster Posey and Will Clark said that Belt has a better swing than he did.  Should be in the heart of the Giants lineup for most of this decade, the Decade of the Giants, hitting for good (20-25 HR) power and average (plus high OBP), probably in the #5 spot (Sandoval, Posey, Belt).
  2. Zack Wheeler:  He is the best pitcher by far, in a system left almost barren by quick promotions of pitchers in recent seasons.  He would be more highly ranked on most Top 100 overall prospect lists if he did not miss half the season due to a torn fingernail; yet, still, many ranked him roughly in the 50-75 range in their Top 100 list.  High strikeout rates due to mid-to-high 90's heater, he also got an extremely high percentage of ground balls.  He also has a good slider and power curveball.  Good mechanics seals the deal, he's a potential #1 starter.  Belt only beats him out because Belt is SOOO close to making the majors.  
  3. Gary Brown:  With speed to challenge anyone - he reportedly can get to 1B (as RHB) as fast as the best LHB - he can get to many balls in CF that other cannot.  This also helps in elevating his BABIP plus is handy for stealing bases with abandon.  Most analysts said that he's plus plus in defense in CF but that his jittery batting stance scared off most teams despite him leading the Big West in OPS, not just last year, but over the past seven seasons, which included Evan Longoria's breakout season (his ISO also beat out Longoria too).  The major negative that anyone can throw at him is his lack of walks in 2010 in college, but they are ignoring his high walk totals when he was not that good a hitter his first season on college and the walks he got, albeit small samples, but still a significant percentage, in pro ball in 2010:  he had 6 walks in only 54 PA, that's 11%, which is good.  He's my guy to watch for 2011, I think he will prove that he knows how to take walks plus do all the other stuff the experts say he can, and if so, he can rise fast, like Belt in 2010 and Sandoval in 2008, and be pushing for the majors by season's end.
  4. Francisco Peguero:  I've never been impressed with him but the major prospect services have, so I have paid attention to him.  Baseball America says that he has the best blend of power and speed in the Giants system.  He has plus plus speed, which helps him provide plus plus defense.  With Brown around, he's probably headed for RF, which he has played in the minors.  Doesn't walk a lot, but like Sandoval coming up the minors, he has kept his strikeout rate down low against pitchers much older than he is, so that bodes well for him climbing up to the majors.  His coverage of the plate has been very good, as he exhibits good bat speed.  He'll be in AA in 2011, most likely, but could be pushing for the majors by season's end with another good season.
  5. Heath Hembree:  Reported 100 MPH in college, the Giants fixed up something with the RHP's delivery and he went from walking 18 in 29 IP in college to outright dominating in the Arizona League, striking out 22 in only 11 IP, but more importantly, 0, zero, nil, nada, walks.  BA says that he profiles as a premium closer and that is what I'm thinking too.  Brian Wilson won't last forever nor stay here forever, so Hembree would be someone we could groom to take over in 2-3 seasons, should Wilson not be around at that point.  At worse, Hembree could be a shutdown set-up guy, which can be almost equally valuable sometimes.  
  6. Rafael Rodriguez:  He is on this list because he's a true 5-tool talent.  As much as people want to complain about his 2010 season, that was his 17 YO season, and it would be too much to expect him to dominate out of the chute, especially since he's playing against much older guys, most 2-4 years older than he is (and more experienced).  Yet, his strikeout rate is not that high, around 19%, which means a contact rate of 81% when you ideally want to see the batter at 85% or above.  That should come with time and experience.  His power too.  Meanwhile, he's learning the nuances of fielding and with his strong arm and his speed, he probably could play any of the OF positions when he reaches the majors.  He's expected to make his full season debut in 2011 in low-A Augusta.
Now I can see people scratching their head about the last two.  Again, I lean towards potential and not closeness to the majors.  If the majors were valued more in this ranking a lot of other players would have been in the mix, for as noted, the Giants have been doing well in stocking the farm with players with potential in recent drafts and they are rising up close to the majors soon.  They will be my honorary mentions, basically in order.

Honorary Mentions
  • Nick Noonan:  He didn't break out like I thought he would last season, but he was hampered by recurring hamstring problems.  Also, they redid his batting mechanics, using the same video system they used to redo Belt's and the results were very positive:  he started driving the ball and generating better bat speed.  The Giants are talking about moving him back to SS, and if he can field decently there, his offense would carry the day. I think he's someone to keep a close eye on, as well as Brown, they could be pushing on the majors by season end, even if he ends up back at 2B, I think he's on the verge of putting it together as a batter.  Probably repeats AA, but could join bottleneck in AAA by season's end, on merit.
  • Ehire Adrianza:  In the past decade, he probably would have made the list, but the team's system is deepening, as I noted.  He reportedly could field SS in the majors now but his offense is what he needs to improve on.  Still, people need to remember, he was only 20 YO last season in a league of 22-24 YO pitchers, and yet he still held his own with the bat, 20% strikeouts/80% contact rate: remember, San Jose's background ups strikeout rate for hitters.  And he gets a good amount of walks too and flashes the speed to use them to steal bases.  He's probably going to repeat in SJ, particularly if Noonan is at SS in AA.
  • Brandon Crawford:  Also with major league ready defense at SS, like Ehire, he just strikes out way too much.  Breaking his hand didn't help either.  Maybe he'll try out the new video system and take a leap, like Belt and Noonan.  Should be SS in AAA for 2011.  
  • Tommy Joseph:  Probably best power-hitting prospect and he did not disappoint, 16 HR in 436 AB as 18 YO in low-A Augusta, but struck out a lot too with few walks.  C but a lot to learn and scouts felt 1B was his eventual position. 
  • Thomas Neal:  The projection systems love him, think he can be solid regular starting OF this season in majors.  He took slight step back in 2010, but I blame EL for sapping his power, which was his plus tool, much like how Ishikawa suffered there (and Crawford, for that matter).  I think he'll be better in AAA playing LF, where he'll probably be in 2011.  
  • Eric Surkamp:  He's healthy and looking to continue where he left off:  leading Giants minor leaguers in strikeouts again.  Got to love anyone with more than 1 K per inning and K/BB of almost 5, but since he's doing it as a polished pitcher, and not via one or two great knockout/strikeout pitch, he'll have to prove it at every level, like Pucetas.  I would expect him to start in AA and to move fast to AAA, he could be our 6th starter alternative by then if he continues to dominate like this.  
  • Charlie Culberson:  Breakout season, finally (and remember, only 21 YO in 2010), continued doing well in AFL.  Now he has to repeat, probably plays 2B in AA, but very exciting burst of power, would be great to have at 2B (or maybe even 3B, where he played in 2009).
  • Chuckie Jones:  Had great start to pro career with an offensive explosion but 61 strikeouts in 165 AB is a huge question mark.  Still, hit very well as 17 YO in AZL, 2-4 years younger and less experienced, so I would cut him huge slack on the strikeouts for now.  Huge power potential, idolized Pujols growing up, grew up in area, St. Louis was ready to draft in next round.  That's why better for teams to overdraft players they like than risk losing to another team.
  • Jarrett Parker:  5 tool potential put him high on some Giants prospect lists.  Nice package overall, still have to see more, as he had a down season in college in 2010.
There are many other prospects who I would normally at least produce a blurb on, but I've been busy lately and don't have time. DrB has a very good list at his site, and just continue reading all the stuff he followed that up with, lots of great info there.

As I noted before, the sad fact about prospects is that the vast majority will fail to become a major leaguer at any point, and an even smaller percentage ever become the starters we all love and follow.   That's part of the reason I keep my list to 6, it is just so hard to make the majors as a starter that the Top 6 typically are those who make it.  Still, part of the fun of prospect hounding is when prospects like Jonathan Sanchez, Pablo Sandoval, Sergio Romo, Brandon Belt, rise up the system fast and make the majors.  Unfortunately, there is no way to know who will make that rise, you have to monitor and observe and hope for the best.

Sad Story of Angel:  Continued

Unfortunately, sometimes real life intrudes on our revelry.  Angel Villalona, who probably would have made the list somewhere this season, if not for his murder charge, is still being prosecuted for the murder that he was accused of doing.  His visa has been revoked and I believe he was able to post bail and stay out of jail, living with his family, while the preparations for the trial continues.

Until there is a gun with his fingerprints on it, I don't see how he will get convicted, as there are as many people saying he shot the fatal shot as there are people who swear to his innocence because he was near them when the firing happened.  Too many people on both sides for the truth to be exposed in the courtroom.

The odd thing is that if he is able to be found not guilty, assuming the trial is over sometime this year, he'll still be only 21 YO for next season and probably would be OK in San Jose, eventually, once he goes through instructional league to get back into baseball shape.  However, given how fat he got previously as a pro, I would fear that he has gain a tremendous amount of weight while sitting around in jail and now at home.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Your 2011 Giants: Questions About the Giants

Once upon a time, a reporter innocently asked the crowd if there were any questions that anybody would like answered.  I, in ogc style, had a multi-page reply, which he had to reply to and note that I would not see all of them answered. 

Sigh, I thought that was pretty obvious, but I guess he's got to be sure and assume the lowest common denominator.

Still, that is a good exercise to do, I think, and so I'll just post them here in the ether's equivalent of the message in the bottle, and if any writer out there with access to that type of information could answer, then great, and if not, I am no worse for asking, I still don't have an answer.  If you don't ask, you don't get.

Questions About the Giants
  • What exercises did Lincecum add to his routine vs. the offseason last year, that will help him be better conditioned late in the 2011 season?  Or did he just return to his prior exercise routine?  Does he plan to use his slider and changeup more often in 2011?  Does he feel any worse for wear from all the extra innings?  Is he ready to have a sub-2 ERA season?
  • To what does Cain credit for his leap forward in 2010 vs. prior seasons?  Trust in stuff? Maturity? Pounding the zone?  Is he any worse for wear from all the extra innings?  What is he doing to ensure he can repeat his 2010 performance in 2011?
  • What did Jonathan Sanchez do this off-season in order to hopefully not tire out in the 2011 playoffs?  Working on any new pitches? What was best advice that Randy Johnson gave him?  What does he think enabled him to take step up in 2010?
  • What did Barry Zito do this off-season that is different from prior off-seasons?  Did he do any exercises with Brian Wilson?  What pitches are he working on for 2011? 
  • What did Bumgarner do this off-season to make sure his arm holds up in 2011 and beyond?  How was his arm this off-season, was it any different from previous seasons?  What did he do to try to take another step up in 2011?  Learn a new pitch? Try different approach to batters? In Posey, he trusts?
  • What did Santiago Casilla do this off-season to ensure that 2010 was not a fluke, and revert to prior performance levels?
  • Did Lopez figure out what to tell Bochy to get Boche to use him against RHB as well as LHB?
  • Did Runzler work on any new pitches to help him do better in 2011?
  • What did Posey do this off-season to ensure that he won't be gassed at the end of the 2011 season, as he recently noted he was for the 2010 season?  What key lessons did Posey learn from his first season as major leaguer that he can improve upon or will help him in future seasons?
  • Did Brandon Belt feel gassed at the end of his first season as a professional, particularly in the AFL?  Does he think he would have advanced and learned more had he signed sooner after being drafted in 2009 and got more playing time?  Or does he think there was no effect?
  • Did Huff continue the new exercise routine he used to get in shape for the 2010 season, in order to get in shape for the 2011 season?  What does he think caused him to have such a bad year in 2009 vs. how great he was in 2008 and 2010?  In particular, what went so horribly wrong with Detroit?  Did Giants help position him on defense better than other teams?
  • Now that Freddy Sanchez is older, has he changed his exercise routine for his off-season to prepare for the 2011 season?
  • Why was Miguel Tejada one of the last position players to show up for spring training?  What did he do in the off-season to prepare for the 2011 season that accounts for his age?  Is playing 150+ games every season too wearing for him at his age?  Would playing 130-140 games keep him fresher later in the season?
  • Suggestion for Sandoval, have the Giants travel people arrange for him to get the meals that he normally would get from his personal chef when he is on the road, from the hotels that they are staying at.
  • Did Sandoval do any fielding practices at 3B over the off-season, or was it mainly fitness?  What was Barry Bonds most helpful advice?  How much time did he actually work with Bonds?
  • Did Burrell get more help from Giants coaches and teammates on positioning in LF than he did in Philly?  The advanced fielding stats says he was very good defensively out in LF with the Giants, to what or who would he credit that to, if any?
  • What did Torres do over the off-season in order to minimize his hamstring problems?  What will be the first thing(s) he buys with his new contract?  When he says he is in his best shape ever, can he quantify that in any way?  Qualify that, how so?  
  • What is Schierholtz doing to prevent himself from getting injured so frequently?  I have noticed that he would be killing the ball for a long while, then the nagging injuries come and he isn't that good anymore.  I hate to see him lose his edge, but I fear that is hurting his chances at a starting position and want to see him become a starter someday.
  • What does Cody Ross think is the reason he did not do that well hitting with the Marlins last season?  What did he do during the off-season to ensure that he returns to prior levels of performance for the Giants in 2011?  A big drop was due to less power, does he know why his power dropped?
  • How is Zach Wheeler's fingernail, healthy?  Worked to prevent repeat in 2011?  Did he do anything different to prepare over the winter? Learn anything from fellow Giants pitchers regarding preparing during the offseason for the regular season? Worked on any new pitches over the off-season?  
  • What did Gary Brown do over the off-season to prepare for 2011?  Does he now wish he signed sooner, had he known something that he learned as a pro (if there was something, what was that something)?  What is his philosophy regarding hitting, his approach to each AB?  Did the Giants change his batting stance, which was jittery in on-line videos?  How did he learn to hit like that?  Did coaches try to change him before? What does he see as his value add as a hitter? As a CF?  Will he start out in San Jose or Augusta?
  • Questions for Bruce Bochy or Brian Sabean:  given that many position players also pitched in the high school and college ranks, do you think the game will evolve to where position players are developed into situational relievers who can come in for a pitcher and get someone out, while the pitcher takes over the fielding position and returns to pitching after that batter?  What are your thoughts on a 6-man rotation, could teams move to that strategy late in the season by adding a good arm via trade or promotion, which would rest up the current rotation during the regular season?  Given that AL teams have an advantage over NL teams when playing at home because they have a good DH and the NL team typically don't, do you think that NL teams will evolve to have super-utility players who can help narrow that advantage in the World Series by being used as the DH? 
  • How long is Neukom hoping to manage as owner?  Is he already recruiting a successor owner among the billionaires in the SF Bay Area?  Does he have a successor picked out?  What is his end game now that SF has won a championship? 
I warned you it would be long. :^D

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Consistency in Starting Pitching Key to Repeated Playoff Success

I tweeted a lot of this, and then realized it would be better if I wrote a post on my blog.  :^)

Andy Baggarly tweeted:
Reds were NL's highest scoring team last year. Bumgarner facing their A lineup. And he's thrown 3 perfect innings thus far w/4 strikeouts.
Madison Bumgarner handling Reds easily is prime example of what I've been blogging about for years now, pitching is better than hitting in terms of consistency.

Ace Starting Pitchers' Consistency
That is, for ace level pitchers, consistency is something you can rely on relative to hitters. It goes back to the old metric, the Quality Start, and how many a pitcher gets. I've been studying PQS, Pure Quality Start, a new saber version of the Quality Start created by Baseball Forecaster, on my site, and if you look at starting pitchers, you see that the elite aces consistently (again, relative to hitters) have quality starts. 

Consistently a large percentage of starts, 50% minimum by my eyeball for the best starters, the best, elite Ace starters like Tim Lincecum in the 70%+ range, are quality starts for the best pitchers.  That is the closest you can get to consistency in baseball.  Hitters go on hot and cold streaks, but even the best hitters can have a poor week or two or three.  That is what dogged Barry Bonds reputation for years until 2002's playoffs.  And when a series is over in a week to 10 days, any hitter can be rendered impotent by the opposing team.

Consistency in the short term, however, is much more likely with ace-level starting pitchers like Lincecum, Matt Cain, and looking good for Bumgarner (and hopefully Zachary Wheeler once he develops fully).  When your team can count on you to throw a quality start every 2 out of 3 starts (or 67% dominant starts - DOM - per PQS terminology, only elites do that), even against good scoring teams, that is very good reliability and consistency.  If you have a rotation like that, you can count on a quality start in 3-4 out of 5 games, 4-5 out of 7 games.

And teams compile a great record in DOM games.  Baseball Forecaster compiled stats on DOM and found the ERA to be 2.39.  As you can see in my study (side bar) about pitching wins and losses, the Giants were 65-23 when they held the other team to 3 runs or less and in the NL, 908-278.  It is not like basketball or football, where the best teams can win 90% of the time, but that works out to 74% of the time (65/88) for the Giants, 77% of the time for NL teams, which is dominating for baseball.

Of course, that winning percentage assumes some average to bad pitchers in the mix for the other team, but at minimum, it sets a very high standard for the opposing team to match up with the Giants playoff pitching rotation.  And not many teams lineups will pass through our gauntlet of ace-level starting pitchers easily.

BP Research Confirms Starting Pitcher Dominance
And this is confirmed by Baseball Prospectus' study of Playoff Success in their Baseball Between the Numbers book (for some reason it is out of print already).  When they examined the correlation between having three good starters and winning in the playoffs, it was one of the most significant that they found, among the metrics they examined.  And this correlation was even stronger when the team has a good overall starting rotation:  the only metrics stronger was having a good closer (per their WRXL reliever metric) and yielding a low opposing team batting average (which is best accomplished by having a very high K/9).  Their study shows the competitive advantage of having a great rotation.

And the PQS DOM stats shows the mechanics of how that works out when a team has that advantage.  The top pitchers are much more consistent in throwing a DOM start (yes, we all know this intuitively, but the PQS DOM stats gives a number to it).  When you have a rotation of them, you have a great chance to win roughly two-thirds of those starts.  Again, it is not like football or basketball, but that is dominating for baseball.  Compared to, say, simply a good rotation, where you only get DOM starts in roughly 40% of the starts.

Having such a good rotation won't win you series every season you get into the playoffs.  But it surely improves your chances of advancing greatly when you consistently get DOM starts in 67% (or more) of the starts vs. 40% of the starts for a simply good rotation.

Not Just Great Starts, Avoiding Bad Starts
And it helps not only in terms of more DOM games, but it also helps in reducing DIS (or disaster) starts.  When a pitcher has a disaster start, in their study, they had a 11.19 ERA.  That pretty much guarantees a loss for your team.  Good pitchers still have disaster starts (DIS) sometimes.  Sanchez had 18% last season, Bumgarner had 22%.  Elite pitchers like Lincecum and Cain had  DIS% of 18% and 6%, respectively (Lincecum had off year, had DIS% of 6% in 2009, 0% in 2008).

Thus, by having a good to great starter with high DOM%, you increase your chances of a well pitched start.  But the flip side of that is that also means less starts where you can possibly have a DIS start.  Those who can keep their DIS starts at a below 20% rate are among the best in the majors, and those below 10% are the elite.

PQS analysis, both DOM% and DIS%, helps to explain how having so many good starters in your rotation gives your team a competitive advantage in the playoffs.  Great DOM% makes it easier to win any particular start of the pitcher, but great DIS% also keeps your team in the game by keeping the score close, and giving them the opportunity to win a tight game.  The more DIS starts you have, the more games you pretty much automatically lose.

The Ying-Yang of Dirty:  Why I Wanted to Keep Him
Jonathan Sanchez is an example of how inconsistency, particularly a poor DIS, hurts a starter's ERA.  Over the past three seasons, he has been 45%Dom/31%DIS in 2008 (5.01 ERA), 41%DOM/24%DIS in 2009 (4.24 ERA), and 48%DOM/18%DIS in 2010 (3.07 ERA).  Clearly, progress with reducing DIS starts has helped his ERA, even though his percentage of DOM starts have not really increased.

Here is why I have been a Sanchez supporter over the years when people want to trade him.  In 2008, first half, he was 53%DOM/21%DIS, which put him among the best starters in the majors, before tiring out in the second half.  He screwed up his mechanics early in 2009, but in the second half, when he was going good, he had a 60%DOM/13%DIS.  In 2010, he had no excuse for his poor first half (33%DOM/22%DIS) but he turned it on by walking his talk with a stellar 67%DOM/13%DIS in the second half.  As I noted, 70%+ is what the elite starters do.

If he can do that consistently over a whole season, you got yourself an elite starter to go with Lincecum and Cain.  If he didn't tire out during the playoffs, we might have won series in less total games played.  If he does do that consistently, he would fit right in between Lincecum and Cain in terms of DOM/DIS PQS proportions.

This is why I argued to keep him while people were asking me when we should trade a starting pitcher to get a hitter.  He could be an elite starter, and is for long stretches of the season, though not over an entire season yet.   That makes our rotation that much more powerful a gauntlet for the other team to get through in the playoffs.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

My Serious Doubts About Giants Insider(s)

Recently there was a huge controversy about Barry Zito in the SF Chronicle.  Bruce Jenkins wrote that a Giants insider told him the following:
... here's a message to all those fans who have seen enough of Zito: He's walking a very fine line within the organization.

A source close to the team indicated Tuesday that there is "exasperation" with Zito, that his status as the No. 5 starter is "definitely not safe," and that the team would even consider buying out his expensive contract before Opening Day if that's what it takes to say farewell.

Zito has the rest of spring to either resurrect his worth to the Giants or show an opposing team that he'd be valuable in a trade, according to others familiar with the situation.
That just brought out a lot of Giants fans out of the woodwork agreeing and saying we should just move on and get rid of Zito.

Giants Thoughts

I had wrote about Giants fan's misconceptions about Zito previously when this happened, but didn't really address the issue about the insider much previously.  But it really bothered me and a column on The Crazy Crabbers about fans giving Sabean and the Giants a honeymoon period got me thinking further on it.  Here is what I wrote there:
I think the problem for a lot of people is that they have believed that they know better than Sabean, when they should just be quiet and let Sabean and the Giants do their stuff, they are the people who need to give the Giants a honeymoon period.
I think it's legit to complain if there is anything that don't make sense, but a lot of people complain about something when there is nothing to complain about. Like the whole Zito controversy, once that came out, they leapt upon it like starving rats on a crust of bread, and talked about dropping Zito for nothing, just to be rid of him, and would rather start someone unproven like Tanner or over the hill, like Suppan, instead.
If there was any proposed move this off-season that would jeopardize the Giants chances to repeat the greatest, it is the proposed move of releasing Zito for nothing. Not only would we not have gotten as a good a performance from the replacement, most likely, but the odds would be great that one of our competitors, particular the Dodgers, who seem to love collecting Giants castoffs (perhaps because Colletti don't trust Dodger scouts?), and the Padres, as Zito is from the San Diego area and lives in the LA area. He would sign for the minimum with them and provide pretty good performance at little cost.
So not only would those fans (and apparently a Giants insider or more) shoot themselves in the foot for the team repeating in that regard, they then boost the chances of one of our competitors at the same time, as Zito would be one of the better starters for the Padres and an improvement over in the #5 spot for the Dodgers, pushing them up while also pushing us down.
Then again, these are the same people who, at one point or another, suggested that the Giants should do one of the following or the team is doomed and/or stupid: 1) trade Lincecum for Rios, 2) trade Cain for Prince Fielder or Rios, because he's a "loser", 3) trade Dirty for Corey Hart, 4) trade Bumgarner for offense, 5) select hitter instead of Bumgarner in the draft, or 6) select Smoak instead of Posey in the draft. Any of those happen, I'm pretty sure the Giants don't win the World Series championship in 2010, yet they still think they are smarter than Sabean.
That just sticks in my craw:  that this was planted by an insider with the media.  Most people who wrote about this agree that a Giants insider leaked this in order to motivate Zito to do better.

Release the Insiders Instead
The Giants hopefully will clean out their organization of such insiders who don't understand the Giants or baseball that well.  I have gone over how stupid a move it would be to do this from a baseball standpoint.  What I realize more and more in connecting the dots is that this insider is possibly in a position of authority or influence, and thus the Giants might actually be considering this stupid move.

Worse, if this was just a stunt to motivate Zito, I'll bet now that person is (or persons are) patting themselves on the back because Zito has been great ever since then.  However, it was and still is the wrong move, Zito frankly has a fragile ego and he has not dealt well with the stress and expectations that the contract placed upon his shoulders.  He only started figuring out how to handle it emotionally at the end of the 2008 season, after nearly two years after signing.

Adding more stress and strain is maybe a good move with a young man still learning to be a major leaguer, it could be something he builds off of, but for someone like Zito who is already on the downside of his career, this could be something that shoves him closer to his retirement.  Why risk that when we still owe him so much money?

And the thing is, as I noted in the other post, Zito is actually very valuable to us right now given our rotation, he gives us a solid rotation, top to bottom, something probably 26-27 other teams would love to have, is reliable for a full season of starts plus roughly 200 IP.  Ask the Twins if they would rather go with Francisco Liriano's up and down Russian Roulette with their ace starter, they might prefer Zito's constancy and reliability.  Or how about the Brewers who just lost their ace Zach Greinke (he hurt himself playing pick-up basketball).

I'm just counting my blessings that Zito was not affected this time.  We might not be so lucky the next time the Giants insider speaks again.

Serious Doubts About Giants Management
This is my first serious doubts about Giants management since Peter Magowan retired.  I have been generally positive towards Giants management over the past few years because, whether they actually had a plan, a Giants Way, or not, I liked the direction the franchise was headed in and the pieces that were being put into place.  And I do believe that they have a plan, but that we are just not privy to all the details.

At minimum, Sabean has been saying for years now (I believe since the 2002 World Series, at minimum) that baseball was undergoing one of their foundational shifts that happens about once every generation, and that the game would be moving towards pitching, fielding, and speed, and that this would be their general template for success in the future.  And it appears that they have executed on that plan very well up to now, not without hiccups, but the best plans work around hiccups and handle multiple scenarios in order to maximize the chance for success.  Their 2010 World Series Championship is excellent proof that their plan is succeeding at a high level.

But this leak is shaking my confidence.  At minimum, this means that there is an insider who thinks that he can shake players up by going anonymously through the media.  This "success" with Zito will only embolden this person to do more of this sniping through the media.  Who knows what other idiotic statement this person might make in the future that screws up one of our players, or worse, perhaps insults one of our top stars into not wanting to sign up long-term with us.

What If This Causes Lincecum to Not Want to Sign Long-Term with Giants?
For all we know, one of our young stars (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez) might sympathize with Zito and decide that they don't want to be with the team long-term where insiders can snipe without penalty in the press like this.  Players are funny in that way, they will circle the wagons when management comes after one of their own, even if they might understand the point of management, given that Zito is the highest paid and yet did not throw one pitch during the playoff run.  Admittedly, I'm not privy to inside info, so maybe management has already spoken.

Worse case scenario, this insider is high up the food chain in a position of authority, or really bad, is one of the guys making decisions.  If this is so, what type of horrendous decisions might be made in the future with respect to the Giants?  This leak does not generate confidence on my part that Giants management got it all together or is as united as they had appeared to be.

This instead makes me think one or more of them got a big swelled head after winning the 2010 World Series Championship and think that they can do no wrong.

I Will NOT Ignore Stupid Moves, I Will Point Out the Emperor's New Clothes
If that is what they think, they are wrong, they can do a lot of harm, and while I believe the Giants are currently positioned very well for making the 2010's the Decade of the Giants, I think stupid moves can be made that will ruin our chances of accomplishing such a lofty goal and title.  And championship or not, I will point out such stupid moves as I see them and I know other bloggers and fans will do the same.

They do not get carte blanche with me, no honeymoon period.  I lived through the 70's, 80's, and heck, the 90's and 2000's, and I want them to strike while the iron is hot and win as many championships as they can and do the best that they can.  I believe that they are in an excellent position to add at least one more championship this decade, and could win more depending on how things work out with top prospects Brandon Belt, Zack Wheeler, Gary Brown, Charlie Culberson, Thomas Neal, Francisco Peguero, Ehire Adrianza, Brandon Crawford, Nick Noonan.  I do not want that window of opportunity jeopardized in any way.

My Confidence in Management is Shaken
This Zito sniping incidence could just be the first such incidence.  Zito's improved performance might convince this person that this is the way to do things in the future.  It is not, players don't like getting blasted in the press, particularly by management or insiders, and if Sabean's administration gets that reputation, free agents, whether outside or inside, will try to avoid the Giants when they can.

For the first time in a while, I am worried about our team's future, and for me that sucks because I should still be high from the World Championship that the Giants won in 2010.  This media snipe against Zito was a stupid move and because it appears to have worked, we might see more stupid moves like this.  The scarier thing is that this might be someone in management and is a sign of future stupid moves.

To Restore my Shaken Confidence, Neukom Would Have to Speak Up
Until Neukom comes out and says something publicly about this, and perhaps take some action, even if unknown action, the silence besides both Sabean and Bochy publicly stating that there is no such insider feelings tells me a number of things.

First, Neukom's silence is tantamount to agreeing with the sniper, particularly since no action has been taken that we are aware of.  If this is something not condoned under his watch or in his organization, then he either publicly would have said it already, or it would have leaked out that he said it internally and quietly.

Second, no action means that the sniper will feel free to do this again, because there was no consequence to his or her action.  And again, it is the same as supporting the sniper.

Third, there will be some players who view this the same way I do.  The team would have poisoned their relationship, or in the case with younger players, their budding relationship, with their most prized assets.  That is no way to run an organization, not for long-term success.

It might work in the short term, but any disrespect directed towards players by management will probably not be forgotten by the players, it could bite management in the ass at some inconvenient point in the future, like when trying to negotiate a long-term extension with one of our young stars.

That player could legitimately ask management if something embarrassing like that might happen to him once he sign a big contract.  And Giants' management would be able to say that only Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy spoke out about it, not anyone else.  No player would want that to happen, so then the Giants' price for an extension with that player could go up at that point if they decide that they might want to check out free agency and ask for more to sign on.

Why would this Giants insider risk all these negative consequences?  Does this person want our team to implode?  Team chemistry is very hard to concoct, but the 2010 Giants had that wonderfully in spades.  Hopefully this will not disrupt that chemistry or harm us in any way in the future.  But I worry that this could backfire at some point in the future.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Give Bob Mariano a Long-Term Contract NOW, STAT!

I will admit first that when the Giants hired Bob Mariano as the hitting coordinator for the Giants farm system, my reaction was "Meh, another failed minor league hitter becoming a hitting instructor, he didn't even make the majors, what is he going to teach our hitters?"  Then the great Andy Baggarly wrote an article about the geniuses behind Brandon Belt's transformation and, Frank Viola, I've turned 180 degrees on Bob, give him a long term contract now before another team tries to steal him.
Until recently, it hasn't been hard for a hitter to get ahead in the Giants' system. It's the biggest criticism of Sabean's 15-year tenure: In all that time, the Giants haven't drafted and developed a single position player to represent the club as an All-Star. The dry spell mostly had to do with poor draft position, including an ownership directive to punt the occasional pick and steer bonus savings to the major league payroll during the Barry Bonds era. 
The few decent hitting prospects to enter the Giants' system -- Todd Linden, Dan Ortmeier, Lance Niekro, etc. -- all seemed to wash out, collecting like driftwood in a tide pool. 
Posey, the fifth overall pick in 2008, illustrated the value of drafting high. And Belt is poised to represent a triumph for a rebounding player-development system. 
In just one season, farm director Fred Stanley and hitting coordinator Bob Mariano helped Belt transform himself from a lightly regarded college senior with a crouched, closed stance and metal-bat swing to a hard-hitting force who flew through the system. 
"When I got to (instructional league), I knew something would change with my stance," said Belt, a fifth-round pick in 2009 out of the University of Texas. "I wasn't sure what was going to happen. Bobby Mariano worked with me every day, raised my hands, opened me up a little bit. That completely changed my entire world right there. I was able to see the ball better. I was able to pull the ball, hit it the other way -- pretty much everything. 
"They're doing that with everybody now." 
Mariano uses a subscriber-based video system that can freeze-frame a young player's swing and compare it, point by point, to major league hitters. It's a way to persuade struggling prospects to change a hitting style that might have served them well in college or high school. 
Mariano said he breaks down tape of All-Stars such as Chase Utley, Robinson Cano and Joey Votto to demonstrate "the importance of what we describe as being 'short to long.' Keep that barrel in the zone a little longer so you don't have to be perfect." 
It's a valuable tool. No matter how good a piece of advice might be, it won't do any good if the player doesn't fully buy into it. 
Belt bought in from Day 1. And now Mariano has an even better visual aid to show the kids on the farm. 
He has Belt and Posey right in front of him. 
"Brandon Belt has the best pitch recognition I've seen in my six years here," Mariano said. "Just great aptitude. He's like Buster in that he's able to make adjustments from pitch to pitch, from at-bat to at-bat. He sets up like Posey. The hands and center of gravity are the same."
One of the interesting techniques to teaching that I recall is using visualization, and I've heard of the use of this to help hitters become better.  The idea is that seeing a good hitter or video of when you yourself perform a good swing, over and over, will result in muscle memory recall that will result in better swings when you actually swing in game situation.  I recall one of the A's hitters really behind that technology but I don't see a lot of mention about it in the interviews I read.  Mitchell Boggs is the name that comes to mind, but I think that's the name of a pitcher in the Cards farm system, so maybe it was that first name (oh, Mitchell Page?).  Anyway, I'm a believer in visualization and that is part of the functionality of this subscriber-based video system they are using to freeze-frame and break down swings, which is not mentioned in the article.

Obviously, the main functionality is enabling prospects to see how the good hitters do it.  As noted above, Mariano has broke down the swings of hitters like Chase Utley, Robinson Cano, and Joey Votto, to demonstrate "the importance of what we describe as being 'short to long.' Keep that barrel in the zone a little longer so you don't have to be perfect."  And, of course, now they have Posey and Belt as examples, which will probably drill the point home even stronger for the prospects, as they are people they actually played with and would feel free to talk with them about how they do it.

Of course, it would be even better if they did this with Barry Bonds' swing.

Nick Noonan Excitement

What I  was also really excited about was the start of the article by Baggarly, which noted prospect Nick Noonan:
Nick Noonan hit a wall. Once a top prospect on the fast track, he had a miserable year at Double-A Richmond that included a stubborn hamstring injury and a badly bruised psyche.
He went to the Giants' instructional league in September determined to remake his swing. And he knew what template to use. 
"I watched Brandon Belt," Noonan said. "I raised my hands. I opened up my stance. I started tucking my front knee to get my weight back. It's 180 degrees for me. I think I'll be able to drive the ball this year."
He was one of the prospects I was really high on last season, but he had a really down season.  However, one of the rules Ron Shandler's books have taught me is that once a prospect exhibits a skill, he owns it.  The crucial thing after he owns it is whether he can repeat it again, it is there, but it just needs to be brought out of him.

Noonan exhibited the good discipline of a good hitter in the second half of the 2009 season, taking a lot of walks and not striking out much, and this new tool appears to have helped him.  Hopefully 2011 will be the season I was seeing for Noonan in 2010 before failure and injury ended it.

Other Prospects to Watch

And there is nothing like a guy breaking out like Brandon Belt will do for encouraging the rest of the Giants farm system's hitters to at least try out the system.  Noonan, if he improves as he suggests in his comments, would cement that inclination and motivation, I would think.

Other hitters who have exhibited the ability to avoid strikeouts well, besides Noonan, include Emmanuel Burriss, Ehire Adrianza, and Rafael Rodriguez (EME was good but he went free agent last off-season and I think he signed with the Mariners).  There are others, I'm sure, but these came to mind first and I don't have time to research all the others, maybe another day in a follow-up post.  But these guys are the ones high up the system whereby we might see results this season in terms of breakouts.

It would be great if either Noonan or Burriss breaks out like Belt because that would fill out starting 2B need in 2012 after Sanchez's contract ends.  Basically, from a financial viewpoint, the Giants will have to let go of all their bigger paid veterans in order to be able to afford to keep most of their young stars like Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, Wilson, Sandoval, Posey beyond their 6 years of control.

Burriss is the closest and the one thing holding him back, well, besides getting injured all the time, is his inability to hit for power.  True, if he could take walks, that would help too, but if that hasn't happened by now, it is probably not going to happen.  However, power is a matter of technique and bringing that out of him.  Carney Lansford tried hard to convert him but failed and went back to the Rox, crying about his experiences here.  But he noted that Burriss has very strong forearms which Burriss was not using at all in his swings, resulting in very little power.

From a hitting perspective, it is the difference between Andres Torres before the Giants and Torres with the Giants.  He was an admitted "slap" hitter because coaches he had didn't know any better, saw a guy with flying speed and taught him to slap at the ball in order to get on base and use his speed.  He realized his time in the pros was nearing an end if he didn't change things.  He sought out the advice of a swing coach, who basically taught him Ted William's methodology from his book, and now, while he does strike out way too much, he gets on base adequately overall and, more importantly, hits with good power.  Burriss should really be bothering Andres all the time and picking his brains, he would be a good template to follow, because he's fast approaching the point at which Torres made his drastic change for the better.

Noonan, however, has exhibited the ability to take walks, part of his difficulties has been that he has been much younger and less experienced than the players he's been playing against.  Nothing wrong with that, many players are like that, probably means he won't be a star, but he can still be a very solid regular if he can put things together and a team can always use players like that.  Contrary to many fans' demands, not every player on a roster has to be a star for the team to win or to win the World Series.

Ehire is perhaps more critical because we will need a shortstop who can hit well enough to go with his superb fielding.  Both Crawford and Adrianza got the glove, but they need to show the hitting.  Ehire has shown the discipline before in an age appropriate league, but he has struggled relatively since, though nothing as bad as Crawford.  If this training can bring his hitting out, we should give Bob a lifetime contract.

Rafael Rodriguez is more of a long term project but he could zoom up fast if he picks up things fast.  5 tool prospect who has shown good ability when playing against guys his age and experience range, he hasn't looked as good in recent seasons facing older competition.  His big minus right now is power, but recall that Sandoval didn't start showing his power until he turned 22.  RafRod is still only 18 and most scouts feel that his power will come with age.

A better hitter than Angel Villalona (how good our system would look today if only...), in terms of avoiding strikeouts, RafRod could zoom up the system if he can use this technology to leapfrog the competition.  His ability to hit was the only tool that scouts really were in disagreement about, not all felt that he would solve that.  It sounds like this system might help him with that.

I guess another this system might help is Conor Gillaspie, who is known for being more of a pure hitter but one who didn't hit for much power.  If he could boost his power, that would make him more of a candidate to move up to 3B in the majors, and particularly 2B, which is the position many feel he would end up at when he was drafted.

Great Giants Accepting of Different Ways of Doing Things

It is very exciting to hear that the Giants are getting into such technology.  Whoever is responsible for this, whether Neukom, Sabean, or Mariano, should get credit for trying bleeding edge stuff like this, which as I noted, is really just improvements on prior technology and techniques, like the A's hitter I noted.  However, visualization is not an accepted technique, there are those who do not believe that this works,

Hopefully the success of Belt will be followed by other successes, maybe Noonan, maybe others, and more prospects will be willing to give this a shot.  It will probably not work for everyone, but being open to different ways of doing things is a good trait to have, you just need to move on to the next thing if that don't work for you.  Still, I'm excited enough that if Mariano is responsible for bringing this into our farm system, I hope the Giants give him security in a long-term contract sooner than later.

Especially before Sheriff Ned, Giants-wannabe, tries to hire Mariano away.

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