Saturday, April 14, 2012

Belt Tightening

I find that there are a number of positions regarding Belt that seems to pervade Giants fans.  And like a Venn diagram, many fans hold many of these positions.

Prospecting as Science

The first stance seems to consider prospecting to be a science.  And there are two angles on this.  The most pervasive one is the "Belt is a proven hitter, he should be starting," with the underlying assumption that the person holding this opinion knows that Belt is a proven hitter.

Prospecting is still very much an art.  An art that while fans can hold the right opinion sometimes, most of the time, they don't really know that much.  Not that they can't hold their opinion, I certainly will hold onto my opinion, and I know I'm no expert, nor do I think it is a science.

But a lot of these fans seem to think that prospecting is a science apparently perfected by themselves and they are right and everyone else is wrong:  #FreeBelt!

Prospecting as Science, Corollary

A corollary to this first stance, the second angle on this, is that while the fan is not the expert on prospecting, they assume that the Giants have perfected the science of prospecting.  If that were true, there would never be a mistake made on any trade, any prospect let go, any free agent signing, really, since if you extend that out further, it should mean that free agent assessment should be perfect too.

Again, prospecting is still very much an art, still a very human process where mistakes can and will be made, the question is how much.  To which, I would note that during the Sabean era, he had not really traded away any prospect that Giants fans should regret:  Francisco Liriano is probably the best, in terms of best season performed, but his injury history is why he was let go in the first place; in terms of long term value, Keith Foulke is probably the best traded away, which is not too bad a record for a GM with such a long history as GM.

Teams still cannot say for certain how a player will turn out.  Neither can fans, no matter how vociferously they complain about their team in the Internet.  You can say that odds favor a player, but ultimately, you cannot say for certain that any particular prospect is sure thing, there are levels of gray to each prospect could derail any prospect.

And teams, as supported by scouts and coaches, can only foresee so much.  There are often depths to a prospect that is unseeable until they step into the box in a major league game or take the mound.

Why Prospects Fail

There are various reasons why a prospect might fail to do as well as one hoped, based on their minor league performance and talent assumption by the various prospect ranking experts, like Baseball America.

First and most of all, there is a huge leap in talent moving from AAA to the majors.  The pitchers are that much better at avoiding mistakes and throwing strikes, so the guys a hitter might have feasted on in AAA are much fewer in the majors.   And the hitters are that much better at hitting mistakes and avoiding balls, so the guys a pitcher might have dominated in AAA are much fewer in the majors.

Another is that there is a mental leap that has to be made by the prospect, even if he has the talent to be a major leaguer.   I don't know how many prospects I have read about where it is said about him, "He thinks too much" or "He just needs to stick to 'see ball, hit ball'" or "He just needs to trust his stuff and throw his pitch."  I don't know how many times I have read prospect quoted as saying "I started hitting once I left behind my error/bad AB/bad pitch/ bad anything before and focused on being in the moment, and not forcing things".

One particular example I remember is Travis Ishikawa, who had a number of instances of needing help to move forward.   He was struggling in AA, particularly with Dodd Stadium screwing with his head (I still think that stadium helped kill some of our marginal prospects hopes of figuring it out and making the majors), and he took the religious route and decided to put himself in God's hands and not think about it. He went from struggling to get above .700 OPS in 2006-2007 to hitting .291/.382/.462/.843 in AA and .310/.370/.737/1.107 in AA in 2008, and hitting well in the majors, .274/.337/.442/.768, in about two months of play.

Then in his big chance in 2009, he was blowing it, hitting .188/.250/.248/.496 up to May 10th, at which point Bochy said that Travis wasn't going to start regularly anymore, and that kick in the ass got him going, he got over his mental issues and started hitting, in fact, Bochy didn't sit him during that period, only when Pablo could only play 1B due to an injury.  From May 11th to when they got Garko and benched Ishikawa again, Travis hit .307/.350/.487/.837 with 7 HR in 150 AB.

All in all, prospects will do well in the minors and despite this flaw or that flaw that might appear to exist, they get the call up to the majors and then the petrie dish that is the MLB will either support that prospect or kill his prospects.  It is just like in nature, you shove the baby bird out of the nest and either they fly or they don't, it is pretty much simply like that.  Except for the dire results if the prospect does not fly, he just gets sent back down to the minors to try to figure it out again.  That does not mean that the team was wrong to bring up the prospect, he appeared to be ready, and he proved not to be.

Huff Haters and Huff Haters in Non-Hater's Clothes

Then there are those who just hate Huff and would rather start Belt irregardless.   The open haters are clearly obvious.  To those I would note that Huff batting peripherals in 2011 was not much worse than 2010's and not that out of line with his career numbers, though I will admit there was a slight but clear decline.  Still, he's a career .800+ OPS hitter, and when he is right, he will hit.   You just don't shove that aside for an unproven - and that is what Belt is right now - major league hitter.

Then there are those who say they don't hate Huff, but list a number of reasons not to like him and prefer Belt over him.  Lack of upside is one I've seen, and to that I say, show me a guarantee that Belt would hit .800+ OPS if he were given 600 AB.  Just because he is a young highly ranked prospect does not mean that he will ever hit .800+ OPS.  There was never any upside to Andy Marte, Andy LaRoche, Sean Burroughs, and various other hitters who were as highly ranked as any prospect and could never put it together.  And people are still waiting for Delmon Young to show the upside that he supposedly had, he's been good enough to be a major leaguer, but he is not the star that everyone expected him to be, not even close.

Another I've seen is that Belt is supposedly heads and shoulders better defensively than Huff.  According to the Fielding Bible's stats, Huff was good for 6 runs saved in 2010 at 1B, in 821 innings played there and in 2011, he was good for 4 runs saved in 1032.2 innings played there.  Belt had 1 run saved in 203 innings there, or roughly 5 runs saved rate in 1015 innings, which is basically the save defensive rate or marginally better, but certainly not a reason to play him over Huff at 1B.  If Belt wants to start, he needs to outhit Huff or Schierholtz or Pagan, it is pretty much that right now (Cabrera's hitting too good to think about outdoing him, and Blanco hasn't really gotten a chance yet, I don't think).

Free Belt:  To Go to AAA

As I noted, I have an opinion too about Belt.  If it were up to me, I would have just put Belt into AAA.  But I can see why the Giants put him on the 25-man roster, he hit so well during spring that fans would have mutinied had they done that.   But I've seen too many Randy Elliott-type of performances to be too overly impressed by spring stats.

In particularly, looking at Belt's spring stats, his BABIP was unsustainably high, nobody could do that over a full season, even the fastest players and best hitters.  So I adjusted his overall batting line stats down to a more reasonable BABIP level and I basically came down to a batting line in 2012 spring that was very much like his batting line in 2011, with similar batting peripherals.

If you'll remember, with his peripherals in 2011, he went on to have a pretty bad major league batting line, the only shining part of it was his home run rate and total.

The way I see it, it is very simple equation supporting my opinion:  Brandon Belt has not figured out yet how to avoid striking out in AAA, so how can he hope to avoid striking out in the majors?  AAA pitchers cannot pitch to spots and they make a lot of mistakes, which apparently Belt can handle very easily, as we can see from his batting line in AAA that makes many fans drool.  But he also struck out over 30% of the time in the minors as well.  If AAA and AAAA pitchers can school him a large percentage of the time, then just imagine how badly major league pitchers can school him!

Now, he can walk a lot and hit for homerun power, so he could become a Rob Deer type of player at 1B, except with great defense:  low batting average (due to high strikeout rate), high-ish OBP (due to low batting average but with high walk rate), and high enough SLG and OPS to play 1B OK, 800-ish OPS, which, by the way, we can already hope to get from Huff at 1B.  Aye, but there's the rub:  who among the Giants fans wanting Belt to start at 1B regularly even know who Rob Deer is?  Do you want a Rob Deer, or would you rather have a, say, Joey Votto, who plays good 1B defense, runs the bases well enough to steal a fair amount (which Belt did in the minors and he was on pace for around 10 SB in 2011 had he played a full season) , plus have a monster batting line?  Got your attention now?

That is what I want from Brandon Belt, a difference making offensive 1B playing great defense as well. He's not going to do that until he figures out how to avoid strikeouts from AAA starting pitchers.  So put him down there, quit listening to the fans rushing AT&T Park with their pitchforks and torches, and tar and feathers, and let him first figure out the pitchers down there while the coaches work with him on his batting stance to fix that hole that apparently all major league pitchers brag about in the major league bathrooms, writing it up on the walls, because Belt has rarely ever performed consistently well in the majors over an extended time yet.

OT Sidenote:  Just want to Bitch a Little

I see a lot of reporters crediting this site or that blog author for noting some historical fact, like 1-hitters or home runs hit or whatnot, but for the past 6-9 months, I've been seeing more and more of our local reporters noting the Giants record when the team scores 4 runs.  Well, I have been covering that fact here at my site for the past few seasons and I have not seen any credit given me, which bugs me a little.

Obviously, I don't need to see it every time, as that would be weird, but it would have been nice to have been mentioned once in print by somebody, and I read almost everything (probably 99%) written or blogged about by all the local scribes, so I'm pretty sure I didn't miss it, plus I assume somebody here would have noted a mention to me, had I missed it.  

Not a big deal, but given that journalists are held to higher ideals about crediting sources and all that, I'm just disappointed in the lack of professionalism on their part, considering since they did give credit in other instances.  I mean, if all us bloggers were equally screwed, that, at least, would be equally unfair.

Just a bit grumpy, so perhaps that is it:  my teeth and chin took a header into my concrete driveway yesterday during lunch, as I slipped on it.  There is a distinct smell to teeth shattering on the pavement.  I scraped one hand in the process, and hurt something in my other wrist (it don't hurt when I press and rub all around it, but when I maneuver my hand, I feel pain in my wrist area).  I have a huge goose egg under my chin, making me an Asian Jay Leno for a few days (that is blood red, so I'm a beauty in public).  And when I look in the mirror, I feel like I'm 10 years old and singing, "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth...."

Amazingly, no bone broken (my record is still intact, even if my front teeth are not) and apparently no concussion, or at least nothing strong enough for the doctor to tell me to avoid falling asleep.   I definitely should not (and did not) drive yesterday, but today, I think could have done it.   I think I bruised the bone structure between my mouth and nose, as it hurts to blow my nose.  I spit out a lot of blood immediately afterward but not too much bleeding the rest of the time.

Considering what could have happened, I think I was pretty lucky, probably because it happened so fast that I had no time to brace myself, which probably would have been worse for my teeth, face, and bones, particularly in my arms/hands.

I feel pretty good (except when my tongue touches where my tooth used to be, I probably lost a quarter of it; it also got shoved to a different angle, I think) overall, except when I rub/blow my nose and occasionally reaching for something with that hand (or moving it around), and I actually hurt more from doing a lot of pushups the other day, when I was out on a business trip and unable to sleep, so I did a lot of pushups to try to tire myself out (didn't work), and my arms/pecs just ache!

Oh Zito, My Zito

What the hell, I'll comment on Barry Zito, since Shankbone was surprised I didn't gloat (he noted that on DrB's).  Nothing to gloat about really, in my mind.  This is what I expect from him, there will be days where he just dominates the other team into a few hits but few strikeouts too, and there will be days he just gets hit all over the place.  That's BABIP at work, at the hands of the baseball gods who giveth and taketh away, at will.   He just happened to not walk anyone, so his pitch count was low enough to get the complete game this time.

I'm happy as hell he didn't walk many, and if he can continue to do that, that would be great.  It would have been even better if he had struck out 9-10 batters like Cain did (1-hit, 11 K's, what dominance!), though he has done that before too.  I'll maybe gloat if he's still doing great at the All Star Break, but expect his normal ups and downs, which is great for us back in the rotation (just not for the money he is paid).

15 comments:

  1. Willie injury: cause for concern? And take care of yourself OGC, I'm from Texas so I don't get to see many games. I rely on your analysis for forming my opinions and arguements with these Astro and Rangers fans.

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    1. Whenever you lose your proven closer, it is always a cause for concern, as we found out when Nen went down. Or any MLB team who loses a long-time closer.

      It can be on par with losing, say, your star starting catcher, but not as clearly damaging to your efforts, as you usually have a lot of options to turn to in order to make up for the loss of a key player.

      Luckily, we have a lot of players who have a skill set to take over. Casilla did take over last season. I like Romo skill-wise, but don't think his arm would hold up. When we signed Affeldt, one analyst was saying before the signing that Affeldt is a cheap closer-to-be signing, since he got the skill set for a closer but you are paying good reliever prices, so I would be OK with him there.

      That should the options for the first half of the season.

      At mid-season, by that point, we will have a better idea of how good Dan Otero is and how well Heath Hembree is doing in AAA. If either is excelling, that adds two more names to the list if nobody has grabbed the job by the beard.

      And Thanks, I appreciate your salutations and will continue to try my best.

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  2. First, OGC, let me wish you quick and complete--except for those teeth, which won't regenerate--recovery from your fall. From your cogent comments on Belt and mass Belt-mania, I infer that your brain is happily intact. You're more generous than I, however, in ascribing attitudes toward Belt to more basic beliefs that prospecting is a science; I ascribe the great bulk of them to a wind tunnel effect, in which a strong flow of gassy opinions in a given direction simply vacuums bloggers' judgments along with it. The bloggers themselves have had a mediocre record of picking winners over the past few seasons, as the often passionately supported Fred Lewises and John Bowkers and Kevin Frandsens have proved with other teams to have the lasting power of the snows of yesteryear. Not so with the Giants management, who have scrapped or slighted no position players I can think of, who have had robust success with other teams. Were this not so, I'd be readier to listen to arguments vis-a-vis Belt that the Giants don't know how to evaluate position players, or that the team's judgments are tainted by personal animus. Since it is so, however, I'm inclined to give Sabean and Bochy the benefit of the doubt as to how best to handle a promising but raw Belt so that in 2013, if not in 2012, he can become a star for the Giants.

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    1. Thanks campanari, appreciate the kind words.

      Ha ha, yeah, don't forget the outrage of the Giants selecting Posey over Smoak.

      Yeah, the Giants talent evaluation team has been very good in determining who to keep and who to let go, both position players and pitchers.

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  3. This is a simle arguementof player vs team. What is best fo Belt is not whats best for the team. He needs more developing as OGC has pointed out in other posts. But the teams need him fo his bat and the pressure he puts on Huff t perform. I'm of the position to always do whats best for the team but in this case I say just send da man back dow to AAA and start Nate. Use Blanco as the 4th guy and when/if Belt appears ready then its just like a trade. He's espected to become a PILLAR of the team. We've become spoiled lately like MCC posted a while back because our top prospects have graduated at an extreme rate. Belt isn't even a 1st round pick so its kinda a miracle he made it this far!
    Also I worry about the man's mental. Up and down, sit and start. Hard to find a rythm. And we're gonna need the offense to prop up the pitching a tad more in these coming years with the injury/age thing creeping in our staff.

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    1. Thank you Andre for your cogent comments, yes, you are right, team vs. player issues are very strong in this case.

      I don't know if spoiling is the right angle, I think fans just think they know prospects better than the team, see above for examples of Fred Lewis, Posey/Smoak, etc.

      Yes, it is a miracle. And yes, I'm a little worried about his mental state, but not enough to complain yet.

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  4. Hope you've healed up soon. Belt is indeed a Venn diagram, I like that one. For me, they have really mismanaged this thing, but its baseball, not a spelling bee. If a prospect doesn't have inner confidence the majors will crumble him fast. I really wish the day they talked about the hole in the swing they just optioned him. Sure they would have taken heat, but then the situation has clarity.

    I think Sabean is hoping Belt is the guy they think he is, and Bochy is just being a grizzled vet. Asking him to do anything else is just banging your head on the wall. Last year he raved about him, this year he is very cautious. Vets will get rope and rooks will not. Unless you bring a stellar defense to a critical position like Crawford does. The difference between Huff and Belt at 1B is a bit exaggerated, Huff has done quite nicely there.

    I think you have identified the key with Belt - the strikeouts. That is the prove out rook line as well.

    Zito with only 1 walk in 2 starts. Not bad at all. The next 3 games are the real test though. He's teased before, I expect the epic meltdown until proven otherwise.

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    1. Thanks! I'm just thankful that I'm not more injured, I feel blessed that worse didn't happen.

      Yeah, I know that's your feeling. Obviously, we agree to disagree. But there is rarely clarity in life or in baseball. Sometimes the student seems very close to learning that you push on, only to find that a plateau was hit and frustratingly so.

      I see you and DrB wondering about the split between Sabean and Bochy. Maybe it is all hokey, but from Baggerly's MiSFits book and other reports I've read, they are pretty close and work decisions together. And Sabean always talk about consensus. So it is my feeling that, basically, it is what it is.

      I think that they both believe that Belt is close, and that is why he is up. However, he wasn't as close as they thought, striking out so many times that they needed to pull him aside and get his mind clear. So if you want to blame them for missing that, I guess so, but as I noted in my post, I don't think that you can ever know until you know, by putting him in and seeing if he sticks to the wall. I see no inconsistency with this scenario, no dichotomy of opinion between Sabean and Bochy.

      That is what happened, mostly, last season, as well, I feel. They kept him up for extended periods of time, trying to get him going, before they felt that it would be better that he was in AAA, whether for his sake or the team's sake or both.

      You say vets get rope, but both Huff and Schierholtz are hitting right now (both have good OPS), whereas Belt is not, if anything, it would be Pagan who should be the sacrificial lamb to the Cult of Belt, he's not hitting at all either.

      I feel that they are giving a lot of rope to Crawford because he earned it. He actually had much better batting peripherals in the majors last season than Belt, in fact, what he did is what I want to see form Belt, low K%, high BB/K ratio. Not only that, but he solved a key mechanical problem late season and did well not only at the end of the season, but in the AFL as well, he earned the rope that he got from Bochy, being named starter. Though I'll admit that his defense is what makes him playable vs. LHP.

      Sounds like through the grapevine that Belt is being a young colt and bucking now, unwilling to change, whereas he accepted it before. Not sure why he's doing that now, maybe he is feeling like he's not getting enough credit for changing and improving himself, and to some extent, that is probably true. Still, I think anyone who understands baseball knows that all the great instruction in the world is worthless, as well as the talent in the player, unless he is willing to accept the learning. For that, he get a lot of credit, in my mind, for changing himself into a Top 20 prospect, you can't do that unless you had the talent in the first place, the instruction just brought it out, so hopefully that is not something holding him back.

      Sometimes it just takes a prospect time. Matt Williams took three years to figure things out, Will Clark figured it out from the first major league pitch he saw, from Nolan Ryan.

      I was OK with pushing him last season to the majors to see how good he really was, and I was OK with how they handled him the rest of the season, trying to give him a lot of chances to stick, but he really failed a lot, for the most part. I see why they might have kept him up too, this season, they wanted him to go to winter ball and he did that, plus he hit well in spring training as well.

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    2. I see some people say that teams should know by the time spring training comes along who is on the 25 man roster, but to me, I don't agree.

      Players figure out things during the winter that wasn't as evident previously (Torres, Blanco) plus other players show up out of shape or just plain not ready for MLB ball. There are a lot of human factors, underline human, that can happen, whether the above, or the player just spazzing under the pressure and pitching his way off the roster, like Wilson did the season he had a spot made but blew it.

      I think these people rely too much on numbers and don't understand the human aspects of baseball life very well.

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    3. Oh, these people use this rationale for why the Giants should just install Belt as the starting 1B.

      But as I noted in my post, the strikeouts really are a bad sign, do we really want a Mark Reynolds type of hitter, I would not be satisfied if that is all we got out of Belt.

      If the Giants think they can fix this in the majors, that they are that close, I can live with him up here and not learning in AAA. But if the team ends up 5-10 games behind by the end of April to mid-May, I would rather put him down in AAA to work on whatever hole he needs to close.

      To me, the Giants and any other team (and I assume this means all other 29 teams) who don't just hire someone for $100K who knows what that hole is and knows when Belt is screwing up, and just have that guy follow Belt all around AAA, working on the right mechanics, is being penny smart and pound foolish. That's very little money to throw at this problem, period, and the payoff is huge if we get a .300+ hitter with power and HR power, and who walks a lot and don't strike out much. The payoff is exponential.

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    4. As I was trying to say above, I would expect the epic meltdown from Zito. That is part and parcel of all that is the Zito Giants experience.

      My main difference from everyone else is that I'm also saying expect the rainbows and unicorns as well as the meltdowns, he is the ying and yang of pitching, it seems, his fate at the hands of the pinballing baseball BABIP gods. Some games he will look dominant, other games, he will be someone's batting machine.

      I can accept that, that is still valuable to us in the rotation, and right now, he's been much better than Lincecum has.

      That's the beauty of having such a stellar rotation. Not every starter will have it going at all times. There will always be somebody scuffling. But with a great rotation like the Giants, they normally have 3-4 starters going well at any time, which keeps us in the win column more often than not.

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  5. Boom goes the dynamite! MadBum locked up, with club options to boot. Even though this extends into the start of the season, I gotta say this rates the offseason as an absolute success.

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    1. Yes, and hopefully they can continue it next off-season, there is already talk of extending Posey and Lincecum after the 2012 season.

      And as I've been pushing, hopefully there will be talks of Cabrera extension, as that would mean that he continues hitting and looks like a keeper. If that is how this trade works out, this is remniscent of the Watson for Snow trade, where we got a good 1B long term for a pitcher who didn't have much left for us.

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  6. I agree that some fans are overly strident regarding Belt and far too overly assured of his imminent success (which I agree is far from a sure thing). That said he does represent one of the best potentials for offensive improvement in the lineup and for that reason I would just start him for a half season at least and see what happens. Personally I'd do this at the expense of Nate and put Huff in LF with Schierholtz playing regularly as defensive replacement and spelling the other three OF once a week or so.

    That said, what I really wanted to remark on is your comment that Huff's peripherals were not much worse in 2011 as 2010. I don't know what peripherals you're thinking of but this statement is flat wrong. He showed significant to catastrophic decline in several key peripheral components. The biggest of course is that his walk rate declined from a career high of 12.4% in 2010 to his career norm of 8.1% in 2011. This of course had a lot to do with the .080 drop in OBP. His K rate went up about 2%to 15.5% And in the batted ball area we saw a couple other significant things. First and foremost his LD% dropped over 2% from 18% to 15.9% (a drop which almost exactly paralleled his drop from his great 2008 year to his disastrous 2009), while both his gb and his infield FB rates increased 2%. All three of those numbers suggest a serious decline in making hard contact, which leads to his biggest peripheral decline: his HR/FB were chopped in half, from 14.4% to 7.8%. The overall picture is pretty clear, he went back to being less selective at the plate and saw a corresponding drop in hard contact. Now personally I'd still start him over Nate because I think there's more potential in Huff to give us overall value, but I'd keep a sharp watch on him and a short leash because it's certainly possible that he's reached (and passed) the end of his productive career and Nate's defense and speed bring enough value to even out the equation.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Roger.

      I guess I should make it clear I was talking "old school" periperhals, meaning contact rate (or strikeout rate) and walk rate.

      As you noted, his walk rate was around his career norm, which was what I was trying to say, not that it was not down from 2010, but that it was within his career norms. That was another mistake on my part.

      His K-rate, while I would consider it to be above his career norms and thus a lessening in his skill in avoiding strikeouts, 15% is the rate that the best hitters match or beat, and he wasn't much worse than what the best hitters do. So I felt his skills have not deteriorated much and, in any case, still profiles as that of a good hitter.

      About LD%, I would note that I have not seen the LD% to be a very consistent percentage, year to year, so I'm not sure that much could be said about that. But your analysis looks spot on about what he was doing, looking over his career, I find that he struggles being the "key" hitter in the lineup and does best when he's just one of the gang, which frees him to swing loosely and use his skill at hitting.

      I agree with your recommendation on how to approach his usage by Bochy. But given that his strikeout rate is still pretty good, I personally would give him more rope to get going.

      Hard to say what is best. Robin Yount wasn't that good a hitter his first season (then again, I think he was 18-19) but he worked his way to a HOF career. Matt Williams struggled for a few seasons in the majors before finally figuring it out. Could he have figured it out faster playing in the majors? Don't know.

      Thanks again, always appreciate your comments.

      And I probably should watch what I write while I'm concussed some. :^)

      Delete

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