Tuesday, May 22, 2012

ReCained Confidence Building

Over a week ago, Matt Cain said with his actions, "I ain't taking this anymore" and took things into his own hands.  As I noted in this post, on May 12th, he not only pitched a good game, he drove in 2 runs and set an example for the rest of the team by upending the secondbaseman in breaking up a double-play.  Shades of Ty Cobb!  I suggested that maybe he has redefined what it means to be "Cained" (which many fans use in describing when the Giants don't score enough runs for him - and sometimes others - to win a game).

Bochy dubbed Cain's efforts as "old school" and I wondered in my post whether it fired up the moribund Giants, which, even before Sandoval got injured, was basically playing around .500 all season.  Now, more than a week later, I think it has.

Giants Thoughts

It is not like it has pushed a massive win streak - and that would have been a better story, of course - but even in the losses, the Giants were fighting back, scratching out runs even though they were many runs back or at least getting the leading run into play.  The Giants are 6-3 since they Cained the D-backs, and out of the three losses, I would say that they tried to fight back in each loss, and while they didn't always score, like in the loss to Colorado, where they came back to tie 4-4 after being down 4-1 and losing 1-0 lead, they did get men on base enough times that they had the leading run either on base or at bat later in the other two losses.

In addition, the team had a odd streak of compiling a ton of walks in a number of consecutive games.  There was multiple games with 9 walks - I don't think I can recall a game with 9 walks.  I scanned through all the games last season, and, actually, there were a number of 7 walks games, plus an 8 walk game, so it was not totally out of the blue, the 9 walks.  But there was also a 10 walk game in this season, and the games were all bunched up together, with 4 in the last 7 games, one 8, two 9, and one 10 walk game.  I had noted earlier in the season that the Giants hitters were doing well overall, striking out less, meaning more balls put into play, plus also walking more, but this is bringing it to a whole new level.

They have also scored 4 or more runs in 6 of the 9 games.  Which, by the metric I've been reporting on for the past few years on "offensive wins", the offense was 6-3 in the 9 games since "Cained Redefined".  And that makes sense, when you put so many runners on with walks (8+), no matter how poorly you may be hitting with men on base, runners will come home, it's a volume-based numbers game the way they are playing it right now on the offense.

Oddly enough, despite the offensive surge since that game, the pitching/fielding has not responded well, they have only kept the opposition at 3 runs and under in 4 of the 9 games.  The Giants offense won 2 of the 5 games in which the pitching/fielding gave up 4 runs or more.

Lincecum On Down:  We Need Big Time Jimmy Tim!

Another interesting data point is that the Giants are 2-7 in Lincecum starts. That means that they are now 20-13 in other games. While his 17-16 last season was the team's fault, his 2-7 this season is mostly his fault.  So our team has actually been very good outside of Lincecum starts, and he has been very bad, a career first for Lincecum over his long career, he has usually been better.

And the team has actually scored 4 or more runs in 5 of those games. If he had won all those games, the Giants would have been 5-4 in his starts and the team would be 25-17, 4 games behind. He also won a 2 run game, so that would put the Giants at 6-3, and then only 3 games behind LAD.

And that is about where he should be.  In previous seasons with better offenses, he was 21-12 in 2008, 19-13 in 2009, and 21-12 in 2010. Which would put the team roughly at 6-3 in 9 games, for those seasons, similar to what he should be at this season had he been pitching like he could. Things would not look as dire had Tim been pitching like he's capable of doing.

But When Will He Come Out to Play?

I wrote most of this on DrB:  I am thinking more and more that it's mental and not physical. As many have noted, it is not like he's lost all the time, which would signify a physical issue, but most of the time he would be dominant, and then he would be suddenly not so and lose the game in that inning. All the interviews and comments from Timmy talk to a profile similar to Zito and others with this Jeckyll-Hyde performances: the Thinker.

Not that I was ever all that great, but I was decent until the pressure was on, when I became Herman Munster on the playing field. That's why I really buy into the article by Malcom Gladwell on athletes' mental state in times of pressure, talking about the art of failure.

I think that Lincecum starts thinking when runners get on, and then it is just a bad mental spiral downward once you get into that bad habit. The Giants have had a long history of pitchers who would be undone by one bad inning when the runners come running home in crooked numbers. So Tim fits right in with our history.

I have been wondering if it was his contract this off-season that triggered it, much like it did with Zito. Biggest ever contract for a right-hander, by whatever metric it was, when Lincecum signed. While winning the Cy Young is pressure, that's like post-pressure plus with the first one, there were still the doubters. It helps to play with a chip on your shoulder. But the contract puts a different pressure on that starts with the first pitch of the season.  

That would explain his agent's ridiculous request for an 8-year contract:  no team is going to give that, so it gives Tim a short-term deal and less pressure and worry.  He could end up like Sabean and Bochy, getting 2 year extensions plus option years galore.  He might be the first player in history to get a two year deal with vestable extensions for 5-6 years, as long as he pitches 200 IP the year before.

And he never had the mental toughness that Cain has shown, though that is only bad in comparison to a real tough guy. Lincecum at least would recover from his jitters due to first type of starts (where he would be un-timmeh-like) with a good start afterward. And he came through for us great in the 2010 playoffs, so it is not like he's been bad overall, just that he does have this tendency once in a while, of thinking too much when the pressure is on.  His brilliance has been to only let it affect him for that one start, that one month, before righting the ship.  This funk is the longest he's ever been in.

I'm hoping that getting bowled over that A's player is what kicks his behind and get himself over the contract and just keeping it simple and stupid, as he put it. Bochy's pointed comments are also prods, this is around the time that he brings out the cattle prods to players who had been scuffling since the start and hadn't kicked things into the gear the Giants expected.

Timmy needs the chip on his shoulder, the one that said he was too small, too whatever, to do what he does, and start taking no prisoners. He needs that diploma that the Scarecrow got in Wizard of Oz, that validates that which we all except for him sees.  He's too good a player not to figure it out, but it could be a while before we see the Timmy we know and love.

It is my opinion that once he gets over this mental kerfluffle, he'll be back to normal and be like the guy we love and expect. The question for me is how much longer. I'm hoping, obviously, the knock down gets him going, that's a pretty bad image of him, knocked down, going around.  Maybe that will be the kick in the ass that gets him going.  But we don't know how down he has to go before he rights himself.

And, of course, I could be wrong.  Tim's Dad, in an interview over the weekend, noted his extreme body changes over the past two off-seasons.  The question is whether Tim over did the weight loss this off-season, resulting in diminished velocity, which then snowballs into a hit to his confidence, once he starts struggling.  So it could be something physical, as some have been saying, or it could be the physical that most have been saying, about his small body not being able to stand up to so many innings of MLB baseball (though I doubt this as a reason because then he would not be mostly good until that fatal inning).

And most probably, it is a combination of a lot of different factors, just like with Huff where we got hints of something brewing underneath, we don't know exactly what is going on in Tim's head at the moment.  But we need him to get himself straightened out and soon, the Dodgers are building up a huge lead.

Dodgers Fast Start But Needs To Continue to Win, Lots of Season Left

I still think the Dodgers been very lucky up to now, but good for them that they have been accomplishing what they have, they have put together a great start and continued it in the face of the loss of Kemp.   The injury and loss of 2B Ellis (scary, he was hours from amputation) will test their team further, as he's been one of their better hitters, though not really that good.  They also benefited from Abreu giving them a Burrell Boost.

But their pitching rotation is pitching way over their heads, overall, except for Kershaw and Billingsley, who are about where they've been.  Harang might be about right, he did this well in SD, another pitchers park, but he hasn't been good in consecutive seasons in years.   But Capuano and Lilly have not and are not that good.  If they revert to career norms, they should fall back to the rest of the NL West.  The pitching overall has a 2.29 ERA at home, 3.74 ERA on the road.  They were 3.57 at home and 3.56 on the road last season.  Which are not like the others?

Plus, they are hitting much better at home.  This season, they are hitting .293/.365/.430/.795 (.344 BABIP) at home, .240/.311/.400/.711 (.275 BABIP) on the road.   Last season, they hit .251/.319/.365/.684 (.290 BABIP) at home, .262/.325/.385/.709 (.308 BABIP) on the road.  Again, which are not like the others?  Regression at home look inevitable, unless they continue to stay really lucky at home or if they are pulling a humidor trick at home (I really think that the MLB should just spend some bucks to hire personnel to handle the balls direct from factories to the umpires pouches, so there is no possibility of hanky-panky by any team; after the football scandals plus history of corked bats, spitballs, and PEDs, that's not a lot of money to get assurance there).

Plus, as I noted before, after May 31st, they play 19 of 25 on the road, with series on the road in Colorado, Philly, and SF, plus Oakland has been tough at home and the Angels should be tough at home by then.  They also play the Angels at home.  Their easiest series will be against Mariners on road and ChiSox at home.  Even if they won 4 of 6 at home, if they are 9-10 on the road, they are 13-12 for that period.  More likely, they should lose more - due to tougher competition - and end up below .500 for that period.  The Giants need to catch up in June and with Pablo returning in early June sometime, hopefully, that's our best chance to get much closer.

Plus, few teams can maintain a 19-4 home record.  Playing at that rate, they would end up 67-14 at home and should run away with the division and probably end up at or over 110 wins.  If they were playing well on the road, then maybe, but they are only 10-9 so far on the road.  So their home record won't stay at such a high winning percentage.

And it is still early enough in the season that their great start can fade in dominance.  If they played .500 the rest of the way at home, they are only 48-33, which results in a final season record of 89-73, assuming they play .500 on the road the rest of the way.  That should not win the division.  However, if they play .600 at home, 54-27 would be their home record, 95-67 their overall record, and they probably win the division.  So they still have to play well the rest of the season in order to win the division.

They have also been lucky in the 1-run game category.   Few managers can achieve an overall winning record in 1-run games, like Bochy has.  Overall, most teams regress to .500 (just a nature of the beast).  Mattingly was 23-21 last season or +2 over .500 and currently sits at 12-6 or +6.  Is he one of the rare managers?  Maybe, but Gibson was +12 last season and now is -6 this season, so it is not easy to do.  If Mattingly regresses in any way for the rest of the season, that will drag down their overall record and bring them closer to us.

Still, 7 games down is a lot at any time in the season.  They could regress but will they regress enough?  If they regress back to zero in 1-run games, that would bring them back to us, we would only be 1 game down, assuming everything else is the same.  But that is a lot to assume, some regression yes, but not full regression (which would balance his +2 last season with a -2 this season), which zero would roughly be.  Hopefully we can get half of that lead back via their regression in this stat, but the D-backs last season not only did not regress, but he lengthened it.

Kung Fu Panda To Save the Day?

Getting back Pablo should help us a lot too, because he's been one of the few hitters in our lineup to hit with men on base.  With high OBP in front of him, assuming Blanco and Cabrera continue to get on regularly and Bochy bats them Cabrera, Sandoval, Posey 3-4-5, we should start scoring a lot more runs once he is back AND he is hitting normally, which includes Panda Power.

People forget, but hamate bone removal normally takes out power plus being out makes him rusty.  It took him 11 games back to stop his drop in OPS and start hitting like he can, another 16 games to hit his first homer.  And most hitters suffer some loss in home run power coming back from hamate bone removal surgery that lasts longer than 16 games.  I think it helped that he is a switch-hitter, but now he's missing both, which is a rarity, but seems like a certainty that power will be reduced, given the history.

Lincecum's return, I think, is probably more crucial than Panda's return, but both together would make our team look a lot more formidable.  As noted above, the Giants have actually been a very good team outside of Lincecum starts, 20-13.  We should be less than 5 games behind right now, less still had we had Panda around.

People worry about the sky is falling without putting things into context:  the sky is falling because we are missing our two best players' performances, Sandoval because he's on the DL, Lincecum because he's on the mental DL.  Most teams are lousy without their best hitter and pitcher, very few teams recover from that because most teams don't have an equal replacement waiting patiently in the minors.  Most teams put in replacement type players - Arias - or suffer with the bad performances - Lincecum - and scuffle along.  Playing .500 is actually pretty good, and we are actually above .500 since Sandoval went down.

Still, this can't last all season if we are to hope to make the playoffs, particularly to win the division title, since the wild card system makes things harder.  Still, as long as the Giants make the playoffs as a wild card, we will be in better shape than most teams, because we have a rotation of good to great pitchers.  Sure, we might use Lincecum or Cain or even Bumgarner in the wild card game, but then we can still put up a rotation capable of DOM starts in the first series, no problem, so this new system will not really hurt the Giants chances in the playoffs, just weaker teams who are forced to pitch #4 starter types like Blanton in the playoffs.  The Giants really only have to worry about making the playoffs, and once we are in, we have a battle tested rotation in Lincecum-Bumgarner-Cain, plus either Vogelsong or Zito coming in.

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