Pagan is back.
Pagan is back.
I haven’t watched the Giants in a little while. I have been on vacation with the family, two days removed from any baseball news. If I wanted to hear how the games went, I could either wait for the Chronicle to reach the remote lake town we were staying at or glue my ear to the speaker of the defunct radio in our cabin and try to pick out Jon Miller’s voice from 150 miles of static. Instead of investing my attention in a couple of ugly losses, I spent my time drinking a lot of beer, swimming around in the lake and fishing for trout.
There was a big forest fire a couple of valleys away from the cabin, which meant the lake was inundated with smoke and ash. It didn’t prevent us from doing anything we normally would, but it meant the lake was full of charred flakes that floated on top of the water and it was hard to see beyond a few hundred feet. The sky would usually fill with smoke in the morning as I was reading the sports pages, turning the sunlight a menacing shade of red.
With the baseball season drawing to a close, the Giants are coming closer to the end of what has been an intensely unpleasant period of baseball in San Francisco. Losing stretches, hitting droughts and awful starts from the rotation have a blinding effect. If the Giants weren’t in very last place, it might be easier for us to look around and be thankful for our team. In a few years, the memory of this season will give way to 2012 and 2010, but for now it is an ugly reality. It is unnerving to swim in a lake filled with ash or wake up to skies filled with smoke, but it didn’t keep me from enjoying myself.
After all, we could live here, and have to root for this team. Even if the Giants are bad for a while, we will still have the pleasure of going to to AT&T park to see them. Y’know, the place where this happened, and this and this and this. Being thankful for last season’s glories is difficult when the team is bad, but those glories will be what sticks in our minds in the long run. The 2013 season will end, the haze will lift and we will hope that whatever burned down the Giants this year cleared room for something better.
All we can look for at this point is a steady climb out of the cellar. The Giants will be facing mostly NL West opponents over the next couple of weeks, and will have an opportunity to end the season on a high (or medium) note. Vogelsong’s back, Belt is still hot and this Petit kid showed a little something on Tuesday. Oh, and maybe try and beat the Dodgers. I sure hope they beat the Dodgers.
Henry Schulman’s column on Wednesday was one of the many lengthy comparisons between the Nationals and the Giants that were written during this series. Both are teams overshadowed by the successes of their free-spending divisional rivals, frustrating many a sportswriter by not performing up to the standards that were set in 2012. When fans glanced over the 2013 schedule, they no doubt oohed and ahhed at this series, seeing it as a preview of a possible NLCS matchup. Most people writing comparisons reflected on the weirdness of two wholly disappointing teams colliding in a series that had no impact on the postseason or on the division leaders at the forefront of the National League. Thinking back, however, this series was more important than most let on. The Nationals and the Giants are talented teams that never hit any kind of winning rhythm; big bats and arms that, for a multitude of reasons, never got going in 2013. Those of us still watching the Giants are starved for anything to cheer for, whether they be stifled comebacks or ninth inning heroics. While many baseball bloggers are performing postmortem examinations on the Giants, we are looking for signs of life.
Game one felt genuinely meaningless. A showdown between two of the most talented young lefties turned into a bullpen battle, starting the series with a dud. Neither starter did remarkably well in the four innings they pitched; the Giants did a good job of working counts, forcing Gio Gonzales to pitch a lot. The bullpen couldn’t keep it together; Bochy ran out some of the better pitchers (no Zito) but still couldn’t keep the Nats’ slightly hotter offense off the board. The rain delay was just long enough to dissipate any steam the Giants had built up. Arias’ failure to grab two RBIs in the 8th inning despite racking up four hits is another example of the fundamental difference between hitting and hitting with runners in scoring position. His four hits, interestingly, all came on the first or second pitches of each at-bat; his flyout on the first pitch in the 8th wasn’t a lack of discipline as much as an unsuccessful installment in a day of aggressive hitting from the Giants’ utility man.
No matter how bad this team looks, their come from behind wins early in the season show what this team can do with a run deficit. There haven’t been many comebacks lately, but the hope still remains that the Giants will not fall flat after their starter gives up the lead early in the game. Whether or not Tim Lincecum was having a bad day or was just unlucky isn’t as important as what the offense was able to do against a solid Nationals bullpen. It was great to see the team not give up; even Zito got on board, only allowing one baserunner in two innings of relief. All that said, I couldn’t keep myself from wondering what would have happened if Lincecum hadn’t hung that pitch to Rendon. Would the Giants have stormed into the lead in the 8th and 9th? Would Belt have hit another home run? Or would this have been another low-scoring affair that the Giants lost because of some bad defense? These sorts of questions aren’t productive or useful, but neither is lamenting Denard Span’s rally-crushing catch in the 9th.
Game three was the sort of game that gets you thinking the Giants have finally reached some kind of turning point. Hector Sanchez and Brandon Belt went far beyond what was expected of them, scoring all of the Giants’ runs with two homers in a decidedly un-Giants-like display of clutch power hitting. Sanchez’ down-to-the-last-strike home run was remarkable, but so too was Crawford’s ridiculous play to keep Bryce Harper off the bases. It was clear that the team was smarting from the game before; their stifled comeback returned, manifesting in a few terrific at-bats and a homer that almost wasn’t. It is good to have Sanchez back; he was a skilled, durable catcher in 2012 and it is nice to see him working his way back into the good graces of the Giants.
Ever since Brandon Belt arrived on the Major League scene, he has been the center of a torrent of criticism and adoration. His occasional transformation into a talented hitter is never enough to remove him from the crosshairs of frustrated fans, while his defenders often claim that he is only a few weeks, months, seasons away from becoming a consistent power threat. The unfortunate reality of Brandon Belt is that his place at the center of Giants discussion makes his actual contribution difficult to distinguish from the salvoes of praise and/or hate launched at him.
The first layer of Belt-related conjecture that must be discarded is any obvious personal like or dislike which informs how fans feel about him. Anyone following the Giants is aware that Belt is a strange, Olive Garden loving, weirdly-proportioned baseball player, but the fanbase seems split on whether these traits are endearing or obnoxious. To some, his self-described awkwardness indicates a lack of confidence, to others it is adorable. Belt’s overall goofiness is often linked with his struggles as a batter; something about it rubs people wrong and makes him appear less competent. The problem is that neither point is relevant when assessing his value; too often people bring up whether or not they ‘like’ him as a function of his value as a player. There are good reasons to criticize Belt and even better reasons defend him, but none of them have to do with his Twitter foibles, physical makeup or offseason activities.
I have a poor understanding of defensive statistics, but anyone that watches the Giants knows that Belt is an excellent first baseman. There are statistical analyses that prove this, but it is evident even to casual fans that his range and skill with the glove are excellent. He has the lowest amount of errors among starting Giants infielders, and makes as many highlight-worthy plays as his co-Brandon at shortstop. This is the most understated element of what Belt brings to the team, but it is also the most significant. His strength as a defender was as crucial in the 2012 playoff run as anything Crawford and Scutaro were able to do. His occasional defensive mistakes usually lead to a flaring-up of Belt hatred, but this is more of a case of scapegoating than anything else.
Belt’s bat is disproportionately important to his critics. He is slightly above average in SLG (.431) and OBP (.345) in his career, while his batting average has floated around .260 since 2011. He is also in the top-five home run hitters on the team since getting called up, hitting just one less (13) than Hunter Pence and Buster Posey in 2013. He has been second on the team in walks, taking 54 in 2012 and 39 so far in 2013. Despite these factors, a lot of the hype around Belt’s abilities made many critics view his development unfairly. Fans are not satisfied with his ‘potential upside’ if the team isn’t performing well.
One significant knock against Belt is how often he strikes out. He led the team in 2012 with 106 strikeouts, getting K’d in nearly 26% of his at-bats. Again, this is something that feeds into perception. A strikeout is a far more memorable out than a groundout or flyout, and Belt has stuck himself in the minds of fans as a player lacking plate discipline. Although this strikeout rate is ugly and often frustrating to watch, it does not undo his value when it comes to getting on base. Belt is also slightly above average with RISP, hitting .259 with a .494 SLG, versus the team average .249 with .373 SLG. Despite his free swinging, Belt can be an offensive asset.
The Giants are having a rough year of poor pitching, streaky hitting and bad defense, but Brandon Belt is not truly a cause for any of it. Although he may frustrate some fans, it is important to keep in mind everything he has done while costing the Giants relatively little. He is making $530,000 this year, which is less than Guillermo Quiroz, Chad Gaudin and even Joaquin Arias. Although he will be looking to get a much better contract in the future, the Giants are getting tremendous value out of him as-is.
Can we please stop talking about Belt? If you like him because you think he is weird and cute, fine, but don’t rage against those who don’t see him the way you do. If you hate him because he strikes out a lot, okay, but don’t blame him for the team’s problems unless you want to sound foolish. Let’s all just be happy with the defense and hope that he can work out a way to strike out less. Until that does or does not happen, there is nothing more to say.
It has become very popular to look back on where this season began and talk about how we see it ending. Looking over my posts from the first couple months is a sad exercise; all I can do is shake my head and say “You had no idea how bad it would get.” The problem was pitching, and only pitching. The lineup was bailing the team out of jams, the bullpen was rock solid, but the rotation was getting rocked by Colorado and Arizona. A few months later, the Giants got four excellent starts from their resurgent pitchers, but only managed to squeeze two wins out of the series. Yes, it was the offense once again making bad starters look like Cy Young candidates, but it was also a genuine lack of focus and investment in what probably felt like a futile exercise for many Giants players. No matter how many fans claim that San Francisco is still “in this” proverbial “thing”, the logic of a losing season seems to be working on the team.
After Madison Bumgarner made an offhanded remark about Pablo Sandoval in his post-game interview, a lot of writers began to speculate about the attitude(s) within the Giants clubhouse. Watching the team fall so hard after a championship has been difficult for fans, but it has also eroded the positive outlook of many of the players, making the oft-discussed chemistry of 2012 difficult to rekindle. The rotation has improved, but they are also the most salaried members of the team. Bumgarner and Matt Cain know what is expected of them, and are working hard to develop and stay productive. Tim Lincecum and Chad Gaudin, on the other hard, are hunting for a lucrative contract. Lincecum is also very competitive and no doubt felt a strong personal desire to improve after his struggles, but he is working hard primarily to prove his value to any team that will take him in the offseason.
With the postseason out of reach, the Giants’ motivations have fractured. Players who are looking at a long tenure in San Francisco want to preserve everything that is worth preserving, hoping to contend in 2014 or beyond. Outside of this “core”, the players are looking towards their individual futures. If there is friction in the clubhouse, it is between the players trying to deliver some wins to the fans who will be buying their jerseys for the next few years and the players playing lackluster baseball for a struggling team.
This depressing denouement to the world championship run is frustrating not because the Giants won’t be going back, but because the games are no longer fun to watch. With each tooth-grinding Pablo Sandoval strikeout or botched double play, San Francisco turns towards the impending football season. Too often during the last few weeks starters have put in seven or eight innings of work only to lose due to some sloppy defense or a bullpen meltdown. Even the Giants’ competitiveness as athletes has so far failed to galvanize the team and help them play as if this season mattered.
We are all hoping the Giants can go on a win streak, or shut down the Dodgers or something else equally enjoyable, but the team’s play of late shows their lack of motivation. If they can put together a few wins, and maybe catch the scent of a playoff berth they may start to play with the passion that has been dormant through 2013. Bruce Bochy called a meeting before the final game of the Brewers series, encouraging the team to relax and have fun. The pieces are there for the team to win more games than they lose over the final stretch of the season, but it will take more than some speeches from the skipper. Maybe Vogelsong… nah, don’t get excited. Let’s just see what comes.
That was weird, wasn’t it?
After a two month string of mind-numbing losses, the Giants racked up two more against a team they shouldn’t have been playing in the first place. It was fun in a weird way; the Giants were going up against a contender on the road with two questionable starters, but didn’t let that phase them. For the first time in a while, the team didn’t look like it was beating itself. There wasn’t a lot of offensive production, but the Giants stayed within range of the lead and even managed to get there a few times. No, it wasn’t a resounding victory against a better team, and in no way did it show the Giants to be a team capable of surging into first place, but it was clear that between the White House visit and winning in Philadelphia, the team is beginning to wake up.
The team that took out Chris Archer in game one was the team that Sabean invested in during the offseason, and held onto at the deadline. Brandon Belt and Hunter Pence backed up another awesome start from Madison Bumgarner, and the Giants added a game to their “streak” of road wins. Bumgarner allowed ten baserunners but the Giants played through it, stifling any kind of rally with a strong defensive effort. With so many injuries leaving both the outfield and infield in a state of flux, it was nice to see the team remember how well it can perform defensively. It was clear that the Giants were determined not to let go of the momentum the built up against the Phillies.
There was a lot of good in game two; the team continued to play lights-out defense, determined to help Lincecum keep up with a dominant David Price. This was exemplified by Posey’s play to take out Wil Myers after an errant throw from Arias, a momentum-saving effort that felt a lot more significant than simply keeping a runner off of the basepaths. They also played around a fairly ridiculous strikezone, curated by “Neckless” Joe West, which helped Price work out more than a couple of jams that might’ve otherwise resulted in runs for the Giants. San Francisco seemed to be poised for the win until the tenth inning, when Bruce Bochy decided to put in Jean Machi. It was a strange decision, considering his surgical use of three different pitchers the inning before. Instead of giving Romo a chance to keep the game going, Bochy let Machi load the bases on three walks and give up a walkoff single. Normally this would mean a manager would hesitate before using the pitcher again, but if George Kontos was any indication we will probably be seeing Machi even more now.
If there was one game in this series I was sure the Giants would lose it would be the one started by Guillermo Moscoso. He managed to hold the Rays at bay for four innings, inducing what seemed like sixty flyouts (it was actually 14). Once again, the team failed to capitalize on anything, going 2 for 10 with RISP and stranding 7 runners. I have to commend the Giants for not totally losing it against a much better team. The games were close ones and pretty fun to watch, but the same old problems cropped up and kept the Giants from taking advantage of the Rays’ mediocre bullpen.
The Giants put their giant foot down. They can’t lose every game, after all. This series felt devoid of importance but had plenty of fun and weird, enough to override the trauma of remembering that Delmon Young still exists and plays for a major league baseball team. The Giants won in two totally different ways, which is my clumsy attempt at describing a laugher and a tense pitching duel back to back. There was some very memorable play from a couple of callups; Brett Pill and Roger Kieschnick brought ten hits and seven RBIs with them from Fresno, and made a lot of fans wonder why we went with Jeff Francoeur in the first place (here’s why). No doubt there will be a lot of “lighting in a bottle” talk now, but it is only tiny lightning in one of those mini-bottles they give you on airplanes.
Why do the Giants insist on rolling Zito out on the road, or at all? In his last ten starts, he has lasted six innings or more only twice, both times at home. That doesn’t feel far off from Mike Kickham or even Eric Surkamp, when you think about it. Game one was a poor showing; Zito, Guillermo Moscoso and Jean Machi handed the game to the Phillies, allowing seven runs and fourteen baserunners. The Giants struggled to score against a guy who constantly looks like he is one traffic ticket away from bursting into tears. I can only chalk this up to some kind of “so-long July” game; the Giants were giving us one last taste of effortlessly inept baseball before saying enough is enough.
So much ended during game two. The Giants broke out of their home run drought with two shots from a couple of overdue players. Brandon Crawford (!) and Brett Pill (!!!) both took J.C. Ramirez deep in the 7th, adding to what was already plenty of cushion for the still-dominant Chad Gaudin. The Chadmiral also managed to bump up his batting average with an RBI single that extinguished any hope Philadelphia might have had. The Giants jumping all over a team that was making lots of mistakes was nice to see; too often this lineup has fallen flat against mediocre pitching and fielding.
Over the last two months the Giants have conditioned fans to assume the worst in most situations. The Giants have a runner in scoring position in the ninth? Of course they ground into a double play. Sergio Romo loads the bases with no outs on the road? Of course they aren’t going to make it out of the game alive. Whether it was some tremendous luck or the team finally taking themselves seriously, they gutted out one of the better pitching duels of the year. There were some ugly mistakes but plenty of good plays to make up for them. It was another game with lots of hits but only a few runs, but that has been the Giants’ story for a while.
In a couple of weeks our memory of this series will be distorted. Whether it was two bad teams falling and one falling harder or it was the point at which it became fun to watch the Giants again remains to be seen. It felt good though, didn’t it? The Giants seemed to rediscover the winning combination of good pitching plus clutch hitting, the formula for which was no doubt carved into the bench of the visitor’s dugout at Citizen’s Bank Park by Pat Burrell during the 2010 NLCS. No, this does not mean the Giants are any more ‘in it’ than they were before, but that’s okay. Brian Sabean decided to keep the team together; it probably won’t lead to the playoffs, but it might lead to some more fun games. Fingers crossed.