Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Your 2017 Giants All-Star Break: A Few Eggs, Make Lemonade

What a difference a year makes!  A year ago, roughly, at the All-Star Break, the Giants had one of the best records in the MLB.  Since then, they have lost 101 games (including the playoffs).  My thoughts.

ogc thoughts

After the offense broke out in June of their poor performance in April/May, they returned to the badness of the start of the season.  Only Brandon Belt - who somehow always seems to be the whipping horse of Giants fan - produced out the regulars in July, before the break.  Everyone else, including Posey (even Slater, before his essentially season ending injury), hit poorly.

The pitching didn't do much better either, not as good as April/May, but at least better than their horrible June.  It is like the pitching and hitting just can't do well at the same time.  Though at least the offense was great in June, the pitching hasn't really clicked at all during the 2017 season, it has been all relatively bad compared to prior years.

Starting Pitching Been Bad

There are a variety of reasons for that.  Of course, the biggest one is that Bumgarner has been out because of his biking injury.  Blach has been decent in replacement, but he's been mostly an innings eater, perfect for the back of the rotation, not so much in replacing Bumgarner's normal production.  Not that I expected him to be a carbon copy, and a 4.59 ERA is actually decent for a rookie starter, but his great start gave me hope that he might deliver a better performance than this, with a very poor 4.2 K/9.

Cueto No Bueno

Cueto has been bad as well.  In a recent interview, he blamed it on him missing most of spring training, and not getting himself ready properly.  However, as Bochy noted when given this explanation by beat writers, said that might be true, but we're 3 months into the season now, he should have gotten into playing shape by now.  Of course, part of the reason he missed spring training was because he was busy dealing with his ailing father.  And he brought his father with him to the States to take care of him still, so perhaps he's still mentally dealing with that, and professional sports is already hard enough to play without distractions, and having a sick family member distract is a very understandable reason, assuming he's still dealing with that issue.

And distraction or lack of focus appears to be part of the answer for Cueto's woes.  His K/9 rate is up there with what he's been doing and is above his career numbers, but his walk rate and HR rate are both sky high, among the worse in his career, basically where he was when he first started in the majors.   And loss of focus would contribute greatly to a sharp increase in walks (50% higher than in recent years) and homers (also more than 50% higher), as he would make more mistakes into the zone and out of the zone, missing the corners.

Also, maybe he's not as into his "act" on the mound, as he has been in recent years.   He clearly had fun with that from what I saw of him previously.  Maybe it's not as fun with his father ailing, and he does not put as much effort into it.  Whatever the case may be, his 4.51 ERA is barely better than what Blach has contributed, which is nowhere close to what we should be expecting out of him.  That not only kills his trade value, which I had been hoping given this season, but increases the odds that he picks up his player's option, which, as much as I loved what he did last season, I did not want to commit that much to him over the next four seasons.  Hopefully the break will give his mind the rest he needs to reset and he can start pitching like he can during the rest of July (four starts) and showcase his trade value.

Moore Has Been Less

Moore has had a lost season.  He has been up and down, but mostly down, as apparently he has been struggling to thrown his normal repertoire of pitches because he added a cutter since joining the Giants, and that got him out of his normal mechanics enough to throw him off.  So he's stopped using that pitch, and has been searching for his former mechanics.

There is already talk among the beats and fans that perhaps the Giants should seriously consider not picking up his option for next season for $9M and instead buy him out for $1M.  This is ridiculous, because the assumption underlying that is that he can't even muster up a season like 2016, and unless there is something physically wrong, he should be able to do something like that, which was worth 2.0 BWar, which is worth roughly double the $8M extra we would be paying him for.   So the downside is that if he's still bad next season, as long as he can have a bounceback year and get back to a semblance of 2016, he should be able to give us 1.0 BWar, which would be production that matches his cost.  It's a risk, but I would take that type of risk, as long as the Giants don't think there is something physically wrong with him.

The Shark Is An Enigma 

How does one strike out 9.7 K/9 and only walk 1.1 BB/9 for a stupendously great 9.07 K/BB ratio, and still have an ERA basically the same as Ty Blach, who didn't even strike out half as many, while walking more?  4.58 ERA is not what one would expect.

The homers are doing him in, as he has a career high (as a starter) 1.4 HR/9 going this season, and much like his lost season with the White Sox, the homers appear to be doing in his ERA.   His H/9 is also high, so apparently when he's not striking out guys, they are making very good contact with his pitches.   His BABIP is a sky high .327, and that is his high for his career, worse since his first season as a starter.

Not only that, but hitters are hitting him like a power hitter, as overall, his ISO for hitters is 198.   That is just too many mistakes going into the hitters' wheelhouse.  There is no good reason for hitters to be hitting him that well.

I assume this is still part of the adjustments Samardzija has been making with the Giants Pitching Brain Trust.  When you are learning, you tend to make more mistakes, and it seems to me that was what was affecting him a lot with the White Sox, as they worked a lot with him too.   I thought that he made a lot of progress last season, and the great K/BB ratio suggests that he's still working on other lessons given him this season, with the poor ERA a sign that he's still struggling with parts of those lessons.

Looking at his game by game stats, there seems to be three distinct phases:

  • Phase 1:  Starts 1-5:  He had a 6.32 ERA, and hitters were hitting him hard, .269/.338/.487/.826, with a .329 BABIP and 218 ISO.  And he had good enough peripherals, except for the homers:  31.1 IP, 32 hits, 10 BB, 35 SO, 6 homers.
  • Phase 2:  Starts 6-12:  He had a great 2.98 ERA, and he was mostly containing the hitters, .259/.265/.422/.686, except for the power (163 ISO), though he got his homer-itis down, with only 4 homers in those 7 starts.  49.1 IP, 48 hits (for very high .355 BABIP), 1 BB, 59 K's.
  • Phase 3:  Starts 13-18:  He had a 5.17 ERA, and the power output flew sky high as his strikeouts went down, with a .269/.283/.494/.777 for a 225 ISO (whole teams were hitting him like good sluggers).  In 38.1 IP, 42 hits, 3 walks, 33 K's, but 8 homers, for a nearly 2.0 HR/9 (goal is under 1.0 HR/9).   

Admittedly, very small samples, but still, they represent three different results.  In Phase 1, he was doing his thing and it wasn't working well.  In Phase 2, he was able to get his control and command down pretty well, but kept on missing badly on occasion, when the hitter would make him pay, with with so few runners on, not many runs scored.  In Phase 3, it appears that he adjusted his style to strikeout less guys in order to induce less contact, which worked in reducing his BABIP down to the normal mean, but ended up with him giving up even more homers.  If it was just the hitters adjusting to him, then I would think that his BABIP would have gotten worse.

Hopefully Phase 4 begins after the ASB.  The coaches will break down what's working and what's not, and he will clear his mind of some of the clutter of the season.   I would just let him continue doing what he was doing when he was going good and work from there, letting him consolidate the learning of this season, and stop changing him, which will only lead to more mistakes.

As I discussed when we first signed him, I view the signings of him and Cueto as a pair of matching bookends.   Cueto is the co-ace to pair up with Bumgarner for the first two seasons, while the Giants work on Samardzija to get him up to ace level performance.   As much as we are paying him, salaries in baseball today is such that we are only paying him for slightly better than average WAR production, roughly short of 2.5 WAR, which he more than delivered last season, and is falling short of this season, but over the two seasons, should be pretty close to break even.

I was hoping for quicker results, but I guess the Brain Trust had its work cut out with the Shark.  Still, we have some time still, the rest of this season, for him to figure things out going forward.  That's why I'm against any of the talk about trading him off.  They seem to be getting close to figuring him out, and just need to fine tune some things to get him there.

And there is no rush to get rid of him either, we will still need him in future seasons, as even if Cueto opts to stay, Cain will be leaving the rotation before the 2018 season, and perhaps soon, and Beede has been having growing pains in AAA this season, leaving Blach as the only alternative there, unless Suarez can continue to develop.  If Samardzija is traded, that's two rotation spots we need to fill, and if Cueto does decide to opt out (ominous that he complained about the lack of Latin players on the roster; ironic as there was plenty not that long ago), that would be three spots.

Thus, I don't see how the Giants can trade off either of Moore or Samardzija, as some have suggested, that's just too many rotation spots filled with question marks, and even if they could sign a free agent, they will have great leverage on the Giants (something Sabean hates) with that many spots open, and only Blach, Beede, Suarez, Stratton as possible starters.  Plus, there is the possibility of Cain being re-signed after the Giants buy him out, but, as I think his time with us is done.

Cain is Not Able

I was totally wrong about Cain.  He appeared to be figuring things out last season, just before he got injured, but that apparently was a mirage, as he has not been good, even in short stints, this season.  Nothings shows this more than his very poor 5.3 K/9 for the season and 1.39 K/BB ratio.  And he did have a nice 4 game stretch in April, after having a full spring training where he wasn't doing well but was excusing it by saying that he was working on things for the season.

But it is almost like he injured himself somehow after the San Diego game or during the Reds game that started his debacle stretch of the season.  Only one start after that with over 4 strikeouts.  And homeruns galore, 11 given up in those 12 starts, 63.0 IP but only 31 K's but also 27 walks.  That added up to a 7.00 ERA and .928 OPS, as well as a .360 BABIP.   As poorly as Blach has pitched in recent games, Cain has been horrible, and most likely will be the pitcher leaving the rotation when Bumgarner returns.
Though, to be fair, in Blach's last 6 starts:  6.95 ERA, 33.2 IP, 50 hits, 4 homers, only 20 K's, but at least only 8 walks, still for a .932 OPS and .380 BABIP, which is pretty much as bad as Cain has been.  So perhaps the Giants will allow Cain to finish up the season as a starter, though they did skip his last start of the first half in order to throw Cueto out there, upon which he pitched even worse than how Cain had been pitching.   Based on this, I would be OK with letting Cain finish up the season in the rotation, if they want to respect him in that way, though obviously the best thing would be to DFA him and let Blach pitch and learn.  The decision will be interesting.

Plans for the Rest of the Season

The Giants are in prime draft position for next season:  they have the second pick, currently.  Too bad it wasn't for this season, as then we could have gotten Hunter Greene, he would have been an interesting prospect for the Giants to have.

In any case, I'm all for trading off Cueto and Nunez, and perhaps others (Span? Pence?), but not any of our homegrown guys nor our rotation, as I assume the plan to do reload and try to get into the playoffs again in 2018.  Trading off beyond those two don't really make any sense unless we get back something more than what we gave up, and since we'll be trading with playoff contenders, that type of trade won't make sense for them to do.

I assume both are tradeable.  At this point, I don't even need much, even though I once harbored dreams of getting a nice batch of prospects for Cueto.   Then the team would be set up for staying in prime draft position.

With Cueto gone, our rotation would be Bumgarner, Samardzija, Moore, Blach, and Cain.  With Moore, Blach, and Cain struggling to find a way to be good, there should be enough poor performances there to keep us near the bottom, and thus near the top of the draft.  In addition, both Bumgarner and Samardzija have their own question marks.

Bumgarner is no guarantee to bust out of the gates as his usual self, as he has a recent history of poor starts to the season, plus he really hasn't had any spring training preparedness to be starting the second game of the second half.  It would not be surprising if he is rusty in his first few starts back, which is just fine for this scenario.  Then he could work himself into his usual MadBum shape sometime in August and finish strongly to lead into 2018.

Samardzija, in addition, has been horrible in his last five starts.  There is no guarantee that he will get back to what he was doing in May and June, nor what he was doing for much of 2016 (he did finish 2016 with a 3.66 ERA in the second half and had a 3.14 ERA on June 17, before a bad 8 start stretch from then to early August, 6.99 ERA, killed his overall ERA).  Interesting how the wheels came off this season on June 16, while it came off on June 22 last season.  For 2015, it was June 2nd.  June 1st for 2014.  June 8th for 2013.  So that seems to be a thing for him, but the good news is that he usually comes back sometimes after that.

With Nunez traded, then the lineup would be Span (may as well not start Gorkys anymore in platoon), Panik, Belt, Posey, Pence, Crawford, Hwang, Hernandez (since Slater is out for the season, basically, Parker isn't ready, and Williamson was just sent down to AAA).  Hwang and Hernandez are question marks, and Span has been up and down, with him being really down against LHP.  Plus, Pence and Crawford have not been hitting as well as expected, and Panik has been up and down.  That is not a recipe for a strong offense, and relieving our budget of Cueto would allow the Giants to pick up a free agent starting LF next season.

Your 2018 Giants

And running through our options for 2018, it is no slamdunk that the team will be playoff competitive next season.

We will need Bumgarner to return to normal, while both Samardzija and Moore pitch more like their good selves and not their bad selves.  We'll also need some growth from Blach and probably Beede (Suarez?) for the back of the rotation to be respectable.  Sure, they are all reasonable on a one-by-one basis, but adding up all those probabilities will leave a lot of scenarios where the rotation will falter in some way.

The lineup would look as good as expected in 2017, but will players return to prior norms and not repeat 2017?  Will Pence be like he was before?  Will Crawford, who is not as far into his 30's, be able to duplicate peak year production of 2015-2016?  Will Panik ever get back to his goodness in his first full season?  And hopefully Belt and Posey will be as good as usual.

And I still don't understand the hate on Belt.  The latest complaint I've seen is how inconsistent he is.  Over the last three seasons, 2015-2017, on a monthly basis, with at least 23 starts in the month, out of 14 months (and I'm counting this July even though he's not at 23 games started yet, but is hitting .994 OPS), he only has one month under .714 OPS, only 2 months under .766 OPS, and only 4 months under .799 OPS, which is pretty good.  It is not as great as the leading offensive hitters in the majors, sure, but 1) we aren't paying him at that level, 2) he brings a lot of defensive value (roughly 1 win per season with his defense per DRS over the 2015-2017 period), 3) he's still the second best hitter on the team behind Posey, no matter what anybody has said about his offense, he led in OPS in 2013, was injured a lot in 2014, was second to Posey in 2015, led the team by a lot in 2016, and is second to Posey again in 2017.   His offense is the least to complain about in our lineup, there are a lot more disappointments among Pence, Crawford, Panik, 3B (except for Nunez), and LF (except for Slater), plus the bench, except for Hundley.

Still, it seems like a lot of the issues the team has been having are BABIP related and thus some hope for regression to the mean in 2018.  It is just that it seems to be killing both hitters and pitchers alike, for the most part, so is it BABIP bad luck, or the inevitable decline that age brings?

Hence why we need a burst of prospect magic dust by holding onto this primo draft position.  No team should play to get to this position.  But since we are here now, why not take advantage of it and just float along for the rest of the season?

Even if the Giants play decent .500 ball the rest of the way, the team will still end up 70-92.  That would have given us the 8th pick last season.  And just to get to .500 overall would take a .653 winning percentage the rest of the season (a 105 win-rate for a season!).  If the Giants play at the same poor rate for the rest of the season, they are headed for a 101 loss season.  One of the beat writers (or many more) noted that the Giants are so far behind right now that it is the worse we have been behind since the 1902 New York Giants.  And their winning percentage right now might be riding high, after their recent winning streak boosted things, as they were battling for the worse record overall at that time.

May as well play the hand dealt us and keep to the bottom, like we did in 1986, the last time in recent memory the team played so badly overall.  That netted us the Will Clark pick that turned the franchise around.  Don't muck around and try to win more, like they did in 2013 at the end of the season, pushing themselves out of a Top 10 overall pick.

Of course, even top picks are not slam dunks, but they are as near as we will ever get with anything in baseball.  And as I noted in my business plan, that's the way a team can rebuild, by losing and losing badly, like the Braves did before in the 80's to build the base for the 90's.

So I hope the Giants management take it easy with the team and the roster.  Trade away guys who might not be around anyway, in Cueto and Nunez.  If contenders really need a reliever, I would be willing to trade away older relievers Strickland, Gearrin, Kontos, Osich, even Melancon, in the right deal (netting a good prospect for little money; and must keep Dyson if this happens).  Relievers are not fungible, but we have a lot of young talent in the minors, bring them up and see what they can do as a reliever.  If anyone would take Span without much money sent along, trade him.  Same with Pence, as much as I would prefer to keep him, but cutting a big salary will open up options on free agency for 2018 (with Cain and Nunez salaries off, plus perhaps Cueto and others).  

Play the young guys more, by platooning with the older guys, or just start them (Hwang in 3B, young guy in LF), that's win-win, as we saw with Arroyo and Slater:  if they struggle, they should learn from the experience, and at worse, the Giants have a better handle on their actual MLB value, and if they hit/pitch, then you got another nice player.

Slater looks like he can be a nice complementary player, for example.  One has to think that his poor player recently was due to him already dealing with some pain from the muscle he eventually pulled off his bone, he probably had already injured himself and kept it quiet until it ripped off.  Too bad on the timing, but he should be given a great shot to win a spot in spring training for 2018, if not a chance to start in LF.

6 comments:

  1. I would like to present a theory that other teams have been able to steal the giants signs consistently this season, even at times that giants do not seem to think so. Teams will go off and get multiple hits in a row. Sometimes on pitches that are not mistakes but a nice slider on the corner or a high inside corner fastball, and you see the other team turn these pitches around. It just seems that this happens way to often. Not much we can do about the umping, but it seems as if some umps are taking great pleasure at calling strike 3 on some of our hitters, on full counts, during a rally, on pitches that are not even close. Giants have enough trouble on their own, they do not need the other teams to get umpire charity. Over the years it may even out, but this year the giants must be down quite a few games do to bizarre calling of balls and strikes. None of that would make the team a contender but they could have a record that is better than it is at this time. The big question is, can Bochy cause this team to do the opposite of what happened after the 2016 all star break, or is this team doomed.

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    1. Interesting! Thanks.

      That would explain a lot. And Samardzija did note that he was tipping off pitches when he was with White Sox, maybe he's doing it again.

      And I would not be surprised if the umps are squeezing the Giants. Have think MLB brass is not happy about Giants welcoming Bonds home, and I just read a nasty gram article from a Chicago baseball writer, which represents for me the angst that the MLB is having. So the umps could be taking it upon themselves or taking orders from above.

      And from an overall business perspective, the MLB brass has to be upset over the TV situation in LA, and anything that can be done to smooth their path to the playoffs and build demand in that region would be considered, I would think.

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  2. sounds cynical, but you make some good points, and maybe some reasons as to why this is happening. I hate to think baseball really does this type of thing on purpose, and for some kind of gentle retaliation, but when I see some teams retaliate for minor things on the field, it does not surprise me.

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    1. Yeah, I see your point, its a bit cynical.

      But we know that referees and umpires have favored the superstars while making it hard for rookies, so it is not like it is an isolated phenomenon that there is bias in calls in any sport. Jordan walked so many times, but didn't he look great otherwise? To not see that there could be someone or some team that causes a lot of ire, and that an umpire could take it upon themselves to bring that player or team down a notch, is to not see what has gone on in the game from the very beginning when players took out other players (see Ty Cobb), much like how ice hockey was played before, say, Gretsky.

      I will agree that I went too far to say that the MLB would ask the umps to do this. Like they would listen, they had been asking the umps for years to have a standard strike zone and they would not comply. That's why Aldersen tried to get rid of a lot of them when he was in that position, and the fact that he failed shows the power umps have in this game, for better or worse (I think worse, too many of them are affected like the Stanford Experiment with guards as authority figures).

      And to your point, thanks for making that point, there is a culture of retaliation in baseball, perfect word, from hitting hitters on the other team when your guy is hit, or when your guy is taken out with a dirty slide, or when the batter just enjoyed his homerun a little too much for the pitcher.

      The game is steeped and seeps with retaliation, another good one is when the other team steals with a big lead, they will usually get their comeuppance at some point.

      And I would bet that all the umpires grew up in this environment, they were baseball players once upon a time and know all the unspoken retaliation rules. And would therefore take it upon themselves (I would refer again to their tendency towards authoritarianism) to punish anyone who they feel like deserves punishment.

      Again, I point out that Chicago opinion column. I know that's not isolated. I know that there are a lot of people still upset with Bonds. You can see it with the Hall of Fame vote as well. So I can easily see that there are a number of umps who don't take kindly to the Giants exalting Bonds and very publicly taking him to their bosom, and embracing his greatness. And I would include the umpires as part of the general public. Heck, even among Hall of Famers, they are divided between those accepting Bonds and those condemning Bonds.

      So it is easy for me to see that umpires are just as divided, just as vehement about Bonds doping charges, and in this culture steeped in retaliation, there will be that voice from the gut that tells them to call the close calls for the other team battling the Giants.

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  3. lets hope that could be the case, and there is not some underlying Pete Rose type of financial gain from some of these horrendously flawed calls. Now the major place they can still control the game is with balls and strikes.

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    1. Yeah, with all the history of gambling and lifetime bans, I can't see any umpire taking that risk. In basketball that referee is probably already forgotten by most, but in baseball, that umpire's name will live in infamy and repeatedly brought up as an example to other umpires not to gamble.

      But I just think that too many umpires are incompetent and/or just don't care. And this has been going on for decades now. It is much like teaching, the union protects the incompetent ones, which maligns the ones who are really good and professional. The union don't realize that protecting everyone should not be their mission, because if enough of your group becomes incompetent, management will find another way to fulfill your function.

      And with all the new technology, like PitchF/X, soon they will lose the job of calling pitches, meaning that great framers like Posey will lose a lot of their value, and really, once AI can identify movement, the tech could call safe and out calls as well, plus foul versus fair, homerun vs. in play, with a human arbiter (I assume the MLB will dismantle the umpire union with these moves, then go non-union for these arbiters) eventually being integrated, as someone who can step in when the tech is conflicted or not sure.

      It might be mechanized, and so baseball will lose some of its atmosphere and cache, but I don't think that I'm the only baseball fan sick and tired of bad umpires making bad calls, and acting like petulant children on the field (we have enough ball players acting like that). They are not the reason we go to games, they are at best the condiment, but, really, the game will go on if there were no umpires to screw up calls.

      Delete

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