The Second Annual ‘We Don’t Deserve You’ Awards

gore-sfBrant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle

It’s that time of the year again! The 49ers are missing the playoffs for the first time in three years, making this a somewhat sombre edition of the WDDYAs. Thinking back over the season, it’s hard not to let the dark cloud of Jim Harbaugh’s departure distort my view. However, there were plenty of bright spots in 2014, even if you have to squint to see them. Here are the brightest:

Offensive WDDYA:

Frank Gore

2014 Stats: 255 Att.*, 1106 Yds.*, 4.3 Y/A, 4 TD, 11 Rec on 19 Tgt., 111 Yds., 1 TD

(*=Leads Team)

I remember when they announced that Gore had finally broken 10,000 rushing yards. I couldn’t believe it. Behind this offensive line? In this offensive scheme? There was no way. Gore was the greatest tragedy of the 2014 season. Rather than leading the offense to another playoff run, he became a misused instrument, repeatedly battered behind the line of scrimmage and held back from his role as the 49ers’ tone-setter. In a year when all of the team’s greatest assets vaporized, Gore faced the reality of the 2012 run being the closest he would ever get to a title, and the possibility of leaving the team he had given everything to. His response was one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen. Despite being eliminated from the playoffs, he delivered two of the most electrifying performances of his career: a 158 yard game against the San Diego Chargers, followed by an incredible 144 yard performance against the playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals. It was Frank as he had always been, patient, relentless and incredibly productive. We don’t deserve you, Frank.

Honorable Mentions:

Carlos Hyde

Very few backs could split duties with a player as talented as Gore and still stand out. The most remarkable thing about Hyde was how well he seemed to fit into the 49ers’ identity. He wasn’t perfect, but he responded to the rigors of NFL football with scads of physicality and some beautiful downhill running. I will be very excited to watch his career unfold.

Anquan Boldin

Even in an offense as dysfunctional as the 49ers’, Boldin got the job done. He put together his second consecutive 1000+ yard season, and the seventh of his career, bullying defensive backs several years his junior.

Defensive WDDYA:

Philadelphia Eagles v San Francisco 49ersEzra Shaw/Getty Images

Antoine Bethea

2014 Stats: 71 Tckls., 14 Asst., 4 Int., 1 Sk., 10 Pass D., 1 FF

Donte Whitner’s replacement was everything Whitner promised, with plenty more. His ability to hit as hard as Whitner was not in question after week one, and he was a huge part of one of the NFL’s best pass defenses. There were defensive players with gaudier numbers, or who had a more tangible presence, but nobody was as much of a surprise as Bethea. He seemed to come into his own in Vic Fangio’s system, making highlight reel plays despite being a typically low-key player. His history with the Colts was successful, if unremarkable (Super Bowl win aside), and many were concerned he would struggle to produce in San Francisco. His consistency was something the 49ers relied upon, particularly against high-flying offenses like the Eagles and Saints. I am looking forward to another year of Bethea leading the secondary. Congratulations, Antoine, we don’t deserve you.

Honorable Mentions:

Chris Borland

Had he played for a full season, Borland would be taking home the WDDYA trophy, as well as defensive rookie of the year. Borland’s brief stint as a human cyclone was something to behold. To think that a rookie could so ably step into the massive hole left by Patrick Willis was absurd to begin with. The fact that it was an undersized 3rd round draft pick with ‘t-rex arms’ only added to Borland’s epic story.

Aaron Lynch

Another rookie who nimbly stepped in to fill a major hole, Lynch had an incredible year. He didn’t put up incredible numbers, but has been recognized as one of the best rookie linebackers to play in 2014. He was asked to replace the skills of Ahmad Brooks, who spent much of 2014 having hissy fits on the sideline, and took full advantage of the opportunity. Lynch is one of many reasons to be very excited about the future of the 49ers’ defense.

Advertisements

The 49ers and Penalties

pnicardsturningpoint0922

Rob Schumacher/AZCentral Sports

I’ve been mulling over the 49ers’ issue with penalties for the last few days. As I said in my recap, the amount of flags actually inspired me to turn off the TV on Sunday. I can’t remember the last time I did that. The 49ers have lost or given up a total of 303 yards to penalties over the last three weeks, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The flags seem to have come in clusters, or have fallen at the exact worst time, making it seem like everything is going against the 49ers.

However annoying it might be to hear, the bottom line is that the 49ers have deserved most of them. That said, I would estimate that, after controlling for blatant homerism, roughly 35% of the penalties over the last few weeks have been what some would describe as ticky-tack, or they were on things that players from both sides commit all the time that just happened to be called. This is the unfortunate truth about penalties; they are effectively random. However, this also tells us that if the 49ers tightened things up just a little bit they could wheedle the penalties down to a manageable level.

Following the game, Anquan Boldin told the press that he wanted the officials to be held accountable, and that ticky-tack penalties were costing the 49ers wins. Boldin himself committed arguably the dumbest flag of the game, a 15 yard penalty for ‘headbutting’ a Cardinal at the end of the 3rd quarter. It was something players do all the time, but which Boldin did at the worst possible moment, as it forced the 49ers’ drive to stall in the red zone. These are the sorts of mistakes the 49ers need to stop making.

The flip-side of this penalty was a much maligned pair of flags on Dan Skuta and Patrick Willis, which helped the Cardinals eventually take the lead. Both were the result of hits on Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton, and both were flagged less for their illegality and more for the apparent violence of the tackles.

Just for a second, imagine the decision-making process of Willis or Skuta, who, seconds from their intended target, are preparing to perform a legal tackle. They can either:

  1. Stop or fall over, opting to fail at their job for no reason.
  2. Legally tackle the other player to the best of their ability, knowing that the outward appearance of violence will result in a flag.
  3. Hit the player as lightly as possible, once again abdicating their role as a hard-hitting professional football player and hoping the light hit is enough to bring the player down.

Until the league allows these sorts of game-changing penalties to be reviewed, they place the players in a bind. This affects every player in the league, as they are all being put in situations where doing their job properly costs their team yards.

When I decided to turn off the TV and not watch the rest of the game, it was primarily because the game had ceased to be entertaining. I can deal with the 49ers losing. I have done so in the past, and will no doubt do so in the future. The problem with penalties is that they add another actor to an otherwise two-piece equation. When I reexamine a flag-heavy game like the one on Sunday, I struggle to put confidence in my analysis, as nothing I conclude can escape from the influence of the officiating. I cannot say with confidence that the 49ers’ defense has underperformed, as penalties, some of them undeserved, have kept them on the field. I cannot say that the 49ers are or are not struggling, because everything they have done has been affected by penalties. Nor can I conclude that the Cardinals are a better team when their go-ahead scoring drive looked like this:

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 8.56.02 PM

Pro Football Reference

This is the thing I find most annoying about heavy-handed officiating; the game becomes less about playing well and more about being lucky.

Tim Hudson Is Immortal

huddyMichael Macor/SF Chronicle

When the Giants added 38-year-old Tim Hudson to the rotation last November, I remember thinking, ‘That’s a sure pair of hands.’ For whatever reason, that phrase stuck in my head whenever I thought about Hudson. He was a sure pair of hands, nothing more, nothing less. I was sure the Giants would, at the very least, get a decent return on their investment. For whatever reason, I wasn’t nearly as reassured by this move as I should have been. The Giants had added arguably the most consistent starting pitchers available at their price range, but it still didn’t feel like enough.

At this point, I think it’s fair to say that the Giants made a good call.

The Giants knew when they signed Hudson that they were getting a stifling sinker baller, but I doubt even they expected that a pitcher Hudson’s age would perform at a career-high level. Since joining the Athletics in 1999, Hudson’s control has improved almost every season, forcing his walk totals down as he faced more major league hitters. He enjoyed what I’m sure many considered at the time to be his peak in 2003. He was 27, in the middle of his prime years as a baseball player. He went on to earn an invitation to the All-Star game in 2004, when he walked a career-low 44 hitters in 2004, and only 19 in his first 13 starts.

Ten years later, he is even better.

In typical Hudsonian fashion (it’s a word now), Tim Hudson’s immediate impact wasn’t flashy, but it was incredibly effective. In 13 games, Hudson has allowed more than 10 base runners only once, and still limited the Mets to only 3 runs in 5 innings. His most remarkable trait, however, has been the lack of walks.

image

I don’t think anyone expected this. Brian Sabean has proven adept at getting production from older players, but somehow I doubt even he could have predicted that Hudson would perform at this level. After 13 starts, Hudson has walked only 13 batters, and leads the league with a 1.81 ERA. You might blame this on pitcher-friendly AT&T Park, but Hudson spent the last 8 years at Turner Field, which isn’t exactly a hitter’s haven. Nope, Hudson is the primary reason for his own success.

The strangest thing about watching Hudson plow through major league lineups is the thought that what has happened to him is exactly what the Giants were hoping would happen to Tim Lincecum. Hudson’s co-Tim has been awful for three seasons, but his previous success was enough for the Giants to pay too much money to re-sign him. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people talk about Lincecum ‘figuring things out’, but it stopped having meaning a long time ago. The weird thing is, Hudson seems to have figured something out, and is playing at a level he has never reached before.

As I said above, Hudson’s control has been developing since he came up in 1999, which makes it slightly less surprising that he is pitching as effectively as he has in the last thirteen games. However, the idea of a 38-year-old pitcher with 439 starts under his belt putting up career numbers is weird enough to merit examination.

Twins Series

Minnesota+Twins+v+San+Francisco+Giants+MIvW4-bvu8_lJason O. Watson/Getty Images

After 50 games, the Giants stand at the top of the MLB with a record of 32-18. 50 games isn’t enough to have sorted out how good a team truly is, but it is enough to put together a solid list of meaningless statistics. The Giants are 24-4 when scoring first! Their bullpen is the best third best in the league! They are on pace to hit 180 home runs! My favorite, however, is that the Giants are currently 6-0 against the American League. Dumb stats aside, the Giants are playing surprisingly well. I still have trouble looking at them as a truly great team, but maybe that is just some leftover trauma from 2013 eroding my faith. As I’ve said before, I’m just stoked the Giants are fun to watch. Not even Tim Lincecum getting blown up early in the game discourages me at this point.

What is truly remarkable about these Giants is how well they have weathered their recent spate of injuries. Despite losing Marco Scutaro, Brandon Belt, Santiago Casilla, Matt Cain, Tim Hudson and Angel Pagan to injuries with varying degrees of seriousness, Bruce Bochy has managed to squeeze production out of a growing list of castoffs and callups. Brandon Hicks has been mildly ridiculous, as has Tyler Colvin. The latest addition to this list is George Kontos, who opened his 2014 campaign with an inning of scoreless relief, complete with three strikeouts. It was probably a meaningless inning, but, considering how well the team’s corp of replacement players has done, it could mean the return of 2012 Kontos. When the Giants started the season, they won games without any major contributions from their biggest power hitters. They have continued to win despite losing multiple starters. Most of their success has come with some kind of caveat, which speaks to how well this team is playing despite some major flaws.

Is Ryan Vogelsong back? It sure seems like it. I wouldn’t have even tried to answer that question until his start against the Twins. He looked absolutely untouchable. The movement on his fastball was probably the greatest visual cue, but it was only one element of his lethality. His game made me giddy for one specific reason: Minnesota walks a lot. They are the third walkingest team in the league, behind Oakland and Ceveland, who Vogelsong mowed down scant weeks ago. Vogelsong’s ineffectiveness in 2013 was the result of a sudden inability to strikeout hitters, coupled with a slight uptick in walks. After posting a 2.28 SO/W ratio in 2011 and a 2.55 SO/W in 2012, his ratio dropped to 1.76. This year, it is back up to 2.42. In Vogelsong’s first four games, he averaged 3 strikeouts per game, and went 2-2 with a 7.71 ERA. Over his last six games, he has averaged 6 strikeouts per game, and has gone 5-1 with a 1.35 ERA. I will be the first to admit that I didn’t see this coming. Whether it was a mechanical tweak or some kind of renewed confidence, Vogelsong has regained his command, and is demolishing lineups once again. You can tell he’s fired up by the big grin he had on his face after finishing his outing:

Screen Shot 2014-05-25 at 1.23.47 AM

I’m just happy he’s happy.

One of the best moments of my week came when I realized that I hadn’t read or heard any stories or opinions about Pablo Sandoval’s weight in a long time (In case you were wondering, this hasn’t been all that great of a week for me). Pablo Sandoval is getting hot, and it isn’t because he lost weight. When he was heavier, he was a streaky hitter with a surprising amount of defensive agility. Now that he’s svelte, he’s… a streaky hitter with a surprising amount of defensive agility.

Sandoval has done a nice job of giving the Giants the entire range of the Sandoval Experience™. In these last 50 games, we’ve seen just how horrible and how well Sandoval can hit. His line for the first 25 games:

.172 BA/.252 OBP/ .301 SLG/ .554 OPS, 16 H, 22 SO, 2 HR

And for the last 25:

.289 BA/.310 OBP/ .494 SLG/ .804 OPS, 24 H, 12 SO, 4 HR

He is basically two different athletes. Just like the late movement on Vogelsong’s fastball, the sign that Sandoval is heating up is obvious:

That hit had no business being a home run, but that’s how Sandoval works. Hopefully that is enough to get the front office to keep him around for a few more years.

 

The San Francisco Giants at the Quarter Mark

 

on opening day at Dodger Stadium on April 4, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.Getty Images

The Giants are 41 games into the 2014 season, with a record of 26-15. They just completed one of the biggest tests of the early season: a ten game road trip through Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. All the teams they faced made the playoffs in 2013, but they emerged at the other end with a 7-3 record. It wasn’t a world-beating performance, but the Giants played like a fundamentally sound team that is capable of winning more often than it loses. I guess the most striking thing about these Giants is the balance. The offense, starting rotation and bullpen have all gotten the job done, for the most part, and the Giants have yet to fall to pieces.

If you have read this blog from the beginning, you will have noticed that I am messing with the format for baseball. I’m still working out how I want to write about the Giants this season, but I thought I’d highlight some of the things that stuck out to me over the last few weeks:

The starting rotation has, for the last ten games, performed quite well. I had expected Madison Bumgarner and Tim Hudson to produce, and they have, but the real surprise has been the effectiveness of Ryan Vogelsong. Tim Lincecum starts are typically unpleasant adventures, but even he has improved a bit over the last few weeks. In the first 15 games of the season, the Giants starting rotation put up a collective 4.45 ERA, a total not helped by Lincecum’s 7.2 ERA. Over the last stretch, the rotation’s total has dropped to 3.26 ERA, which is partially the product of Vogelsong’s effectiveness. He managed to shake off a poor start and drop his ugly 5.4 ERA to 2.91 in four starts. Cain remains a mystery. He is the only starter who hasn’t shown tremendous numerical improvement. However, his finger injury may have more to do with this lack of change than anything else.

This is about where I see the Giants’ rotation staying. I don’t anticipate Vogelsong and Lincecum remaining totally effective, but I also don’t see Cain struggling for much longer.

The story at the beginning of the year was the offense. The Giants were hitting for power, and, shockingly, every single player in the lineup was hitting home runs. This production overrode some very poor starts from the Giants’ most powerful hitters. Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval all started off very slow, but the Giants still won thanks to Brandon Belt, Michael Morse and a scorching hot Angel Pagan. The Giants have hit 49 home runs in 41 games, meaning they have hit nearly half of their 2013 total (107) in just a quarter of a season.

Lost in this flurry of home runs was Brandon Crawford, who was quietly putting together a great string of games. He had a similar start last season, going .279/.352/.488 with an .840 OPS. The striking thing about Crawford’s start is the total reversal of his effectiveness against left handed pitching. Last season he went .269/.333/.394 against righties, and .199/.258/.288 against lefties. This season he is hitting just .184/.278/.263 against righties, and raking lefties with .410/.500/.821. I would love to see Crawford get on base a little more against righties, but his ability to annihilate left-handed pitching has proven invaluable. I’m not sure how to account for this. During training camp, Crawford was given some instruction by Barry Bonds, but to have some minor adjustments to your batting stance result in a .201 point increase in batting average against lefties seems extreme. I full expect his splits to even out somewhat, but hopefully he can find a way to step up against righties.

At this point last season, the Giants had scored 191 runs, and allowed 180. They have actually scored less this season, totaling 173 runs while allowing 144. The 8 extra runs over last season have made a difference, if a semi-imperceptible one. At the quarter mark in 2013, the Giants had lost 17 games by an average score of 3.35 runs. This season, they have lost 15 games by an average of 2.3 runs. They had 5 one-run losses in 2013, compared to 8 this season. Apart from the deluge of home runs, the Giants have been a bit more efficient offensively. The most dramatic difference in scoring and run prevention was a 8-2 loss in Colorado. Compare this with last season, when the Giants’ third loss of the season was a 3-14 shellacking by the St. Louis Cardinals at home. Although these differences seem slight, if they continue the Giants could be looking at one of their better seasons to date.

I had thought the Giants’ success might come from their solid defensive effort, but a more thorough examination reveals that the Giants are just average defensively. The Giants are ranked 14th in the MLB with 23 errors, while FanGraphs ranks the Giants at 19th in total defense, with a below-average -4.1 UZR. That isn’t surprising, as they don’t field too many defensive studs, but it doesn’t jive with what I’ve seen on the field. Crawford, Pagan and Belt have all been superb, while Morse, arguably the team’s biggest defensive liability, hasn’t been all that bad.

The Giants’ bullpen is arguably the best in the majors, with a league-leading .210 ERA through 36 games. The ‘pen was decent last season, but had long stretches of futility. My initial thought was that the lack of good outings from the starting rotation in 2013 taxed the bullpen, but there have been more than a few short starts this season. The average length of starts for Giants pitchers has increased by only .184 innings, from 5.726 to 5.91 innings per start. The bullpen is also largely the same, with Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez and Santiago Casilla forming the core of what has been a solid group of relievers for the last four years. The Giants’ numbers are gaining a little more credence a quarter of the way through the season, but I still don’t fully trust the bullpen’s numbers.

All in all, things look pretty good. I had some small amount of faith that they would come back from the disaster that was 2013. Last season left my faith in this team so battered that I can’t feel wholly confident. We can only be thankful that the Giants games are largely entertaining, without too many errors or ugliness.

 

Padres Series

tim-hudson-mlb-san-diego-padres-san-francisco-giants1Ed Szczepanski/USA Today

It’s really, really early, but I am beginning to wonder if this is roughly how the Giants will play for the rest of the year. Uneven starting pitching, a volatile offense seems like a reversal of the last few years, and I wonder how long it will last. We’ll probably have an answer to that question by the time June rolls around. The Giants are playing some strong teams this month, and will need to stay hot if they want to keep adding to the win column.

Is anyone worried about Madison Bumgarner? He’s only had a couple of bad starts but none of them have been train wrecks. He’s still doing better than a lot of pitchers, including Tim Lincecum, but something isn’t right. He averages 6.1 innings per game in his career, but he has dropped down to 5 per start. He has given up 45 hits, almost twice what he gave up last April. He has allowed 1 hit per inning in his career, but that number has ticked up to 1.4. Perhaps the pressure of pitching out of the stretch more often is causing some kind of lapse in control, but he is throwing the same percentage of strikes (64%) as he did last year. It resembles Matt Cain’s situation, where everything seems the same except hitters are finding holes and putting pressure on Bumgarner. As I’ve said before, its a little too early to say anything definite. He had a similar stretch in September 2012, where he gave up an inordinate amount of of hits per inning and averaged around 5 innings per start, but he made some adjustments and got right before the World Series. What concerns me is that this is happening so early. I am confident that he and Dave Righetti can figure things out, but the short starts aren’t helping the team.

I can’t remember a start giving me more relief than Yusmeiro Petit’s gem on Wednesday. The back end of the Giants’ rotation is weak, and I don’t see that changing. Petit may not be able to deliver quite as well as he did against the Padres, but having an uber-efficient starter who can step in to replace Lincecum or Ryan Vogelsong is simply fantastic. Petit doesn’t eat innings, he swallows them whole them. I can’t remember the last time I saw a pitcher who was so stingy with pitches. I’m glad he’s around.

I’m struggling to find words to adequately describe Tim Hudson’s first stint as a Giant, so I thought I’d put things in context. Not a few months ago, the Giants were looking to fill a Barry Zito shaped hole in their rotation. The realistic options were Bronson Arroyo, Ricky Nolasco and Tim Hudson. The unrealistic was Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka. Here is how those options have performed:

Bronson Arroyo (Diamondbacks, 2 yrs, $23.5 million):

24.1IP, 36 H, 21 ER, 8 BB, 10 SO, 5 HR, 7.77 ERA

Ricky Nolasco (Twins, 4 yrs, $49 million):

29.2 IP, 43 H, 22 ER, 9 BB, 13 SO, 5 HR, 6.67 ERA

Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees, 7 yrs, $155 million):

35.2 IP, 27 H, 9 ER, 6 BB, 46 SO, 5 HR, 2.27 ERA

Tim Hudson (2 yrs, $23 million)

45.2 IP, 32 H, 11 ER, 2 BB, 31 SO, 3 HR, 2.17 ERA

Small sample size but still, the Hudson deal has been really, really good to the Giants. It was an easy deal to praise in the offseason. Hudson is a sure hand, but nobody knew how sure. In his game on Thursday, he looked totally in control. His sinker was working, and he was able to give the bullpen a night off. He did give up a big, fat home run to Yasmani Grandal in the 9th inning, but even that didn’t shake him too much. I took that moment as a lesson from Hudson. He was trying to encapsulate the fickle nature of baseball, and by proxy the fickle nature of the universe. Even after a start as strong as that one, Hudson wanted to show us that one mistake can loom larger than 8.2 innings of stellar pitching. We can live a life of total discipline, doing everything we can to survive, only to have one mistake dominate the meaning of our existence. Hudson was showing us how rapidly fates can change. Even when we are at our most confident and nearing the end of our task, the universe puts our goal just out of reach, and we can only ask why…

Screen Shot 2014-05-04 at 10.59.23 AM

…or he just hung a slider.

 

Preseason Fears and Regular Season Realities

 

hudsonstretchMichael Macor

I’ve been putting off writing about the Giants for weeks. I’ve been busy, but I’ve also been lazy, and the longer I put off writing, the less I wanted to do it. Without going into great detail about why it’s taken me so long, I thought I’d kick off writing about the 2014 season with the things that worried me most about this incarnation of the Giants. After last season, I found myself struggling to be optimistic. The Giants front office made some smart moves, offsetting the expensive resigning of Tim Lincecum, but there wasn’t any reason for me not to look at this team as a slightly altered version of the same roster that went 76-86 last season. Here were the things that concerned me most, and how they’ve worked out so far:

The Bullpen

It’s pretty hard to be totally confident in any bullpen, but the Giants opening day ‘pen was… well…

Sergio Romo

Santiago Casilla

Javier Lopez

Juan Gutierrez

David Huff

Jean Machi

Yusmeiro Petit

…it wasn’t exactly inspiring. A couple of unknowns, some reasonable gambles on Petit and Machi, but, other than Lopez and Romo, nothing I would describe as a sure hand. However, after 25 games they have a 1.87 ERA. Romo, Machi, Lopez and Casilla have been nails, while Gutierrez and Huff have showed improvement after some early struggles. The Giants have been far from dominant this season, but the bullpen hasn’t been the problem.

Matt Cain

Last season, four out of the Giants’ five starters struggled to contribute. Three of those four remain on the roster, but only one of those three seemed like a likely candidate for a comeback. Of all the Giants’ problems in 2013, Matt Cain’s rough first half was the hardest to understand. Despite having the same velocity, control and roughly the same statistical production, he couldn’t seem to give the Giants a chance to win.

So far, he has been erratic, but not terrible. He’s been knocked around by the Dodgers and Rockies, but has also thrown some great games. His FIP is basically right in line with his ERA (4.54 FIP to 4.35 ERA in 5 games). The jury is still out on Cain; he hasn’t done enough good or bad for me to say that he is ‘back’. However, unlike Lincecum or Vogelsong, he still has all the tools that made him an incredible pitcher two seasons ago.

The Back End of the Rotation

Tim Lincecum is making 17 million dollars this season. He has a 5.96 ERA. When the front office announced the Lincecum deal in the offseason, I wrote about how far-fetched the Giants’ hopes were. He has given fans very little to hope for, but San Francisco still adores him. He isn’t really contributing, but it still feels like he has a place on the team. At this point, I have stopped hoping that Lincecum can return to his dominant self. Now, I hope that he can be an above-average starter. His outings are usually short and full of stress, but he will be given every chance to get himself together. In terms of raw value, the Lincecum deal is starting to look like a bust. However, much like Cain, it remains to be seen whether or not he can eventually produce when it matters most.

I remember listening to the radio in the offseason after Vogelsong was resigned. The hosts were talking about his 2013, calling it an “aberration” that, baseball gods willing, would be corrected in 2014. However, I don’t think that this is the best way to look at Ryan Vogelsong. His career has taken him from being the very worst pitcher in baseball to an ex-pat trying to make something of himself in Japan, to an All-Star and World Series champion. It was his success in 2011 and 2012 that was aberrant, if anything. This is what makes Vogelsong’s story one of the coolest I have ever encountered, and it is why I have trouble looking at him as someone who can ‘figure things out’ and pitch well again. It feels weird to write this, as Vogelsong just had his best outing in a while against Cleveland, but he had good starts last year too. I would like nothing more than for Vogelsong’s crazy story to continue, but I can’t be too hopeful.

Left Field

After the Giants picked up Michael Morse, I asked my friend, a Seattle sports blogger, whether he could get over his Super Bowl giddiness and offer an opinion:

Me: Do you have any opinions on Michael Morse?

RainBeard: I do, but they are currently on the 60 day DL.

He pretty much summed up all my fears about Morse. In the best case scenario, the Giants had signed a slow hacker with little to no plate discipline who was likely to miss a lot of the season, but who might be able to hit a few home runs. His line thus far:

.288 BA, .338 OBP, .589 SLG, .927 OPS, 17 RBI, 6 HR

The power was expected, but his production this early in the season in a pitcher’s ballpark like AT&T has been fantastic. He hasn’t really been tested defensively, but he has been producing enough to make up for his weakness in left field. I am still holding my breath for the seemingly inevitable injury woes, but it’s impossible not to be happy with the impact Morse has had on the lineup.

Gregor Blanco hasn’t been able to do much with his reduced playing time, but he doesn’t have to outhit Morse to be useful. His role as a late-inning defensive replacement means his value is tougher to approximate.

Second Base

A little over a year ago, I was tending bar on Fillmore, having a debate with a regular about Marco Scutaro’s new 3 year contract. The regular made the then-irrefutable claim that no matter how well Scutaro was hitting, he was a tough out and would find his way on base. With the NLCS fresh in everyone’s mind, Scutaro’s age seemed like an irrelevant detail. We know now that no matter how he approaches his at-bats, Scutaro will most likely not be a big part of this season. Enter Brandon Hicks.

About five seconds after I opened Hicks’ FanGraphs page, he hit a three run walk-off home run, sealing the Giants’ sweep of Cleveland. He played a grand total of 10 innings at second base before coming to the Giants, and there frankly isn’t much to go on statistics-wise. For the first few games of the season, I was bracing myself for his productivity to fall off, but it hasn’t. His line:

.222 BA, .386 OBP, .422 SLG, .808 OPS

Obviously, it is still too soon to draw any major conclusions. Nick Noonan had a nice start as Scutaro’s replacement last year, but it didn’t last. However, Brandon Hicks is hitting for power, and getting on base. Brandon Hicks is hitting for power, and getting on base. Brandon Hicks is hitting for power, and getting on base. Maybe if we keep saying it, it won’t stop.

 

A Good Memory

jerryrice

Heinz Kluetmeier/SI

It has been a rough week. The cooldown after a boring Super Bowl is always annoying; we are so primed for the game that anything that isn’t unbelievably stimulating feels like a waste of time, beer and dip. It has been particularly rough for 49ers fans, who not only watched an NFC West rival win it all but now have to live knowing that, had the NFC Championship gone the 49ers’ way, there would have been a Super Bowl parade in San Francisco. However, baseball is nearly upon us. The doldrums between football and spring training always seem to go on forever, and I thought it necessary to unearth a pleasant San Francisco memory.

On April 9th, 2010, 49ers legend Jerry Rice stood on the pitchers mound at AT&T Park. Former 49ers quarterback Steve Young waited behind the plate in half-squat, watching as Rice loosened up.

The pitch was high and outside, but they weren’t done. Going against every fibre of his perfectionist self, Rice ran a half-assed route off the mound. Young hit him with the baseball between 1st and 2nd base as the crowd chanted “JERRY”. Rice and Young headed back for the dugout.

And then the Giants won the World Series.

(Watch the video here)

Maybe this is a thing. Maybe they can organize a three point contest between Dwight Clark and Sergio Romo at Oracle? Or have Matt Cain bean Pete Carroll with a fastball during the next 49ers-Seahawks game? Get on it, people.

Checking In With The Giants

romo49ers

I haven’t written about the Giants in a while. I’ve been trying to puzzle out why, but I think the reason is pretty basic. Last season was difficult and weird, but mostly difficult. There were some incredibly awesome games mired in months and months of one or another part of the team malfunctioning and dragging the Giants down. Apart from the no-hitter, Yusmeiro Petit’s almost-perfecto, Barry Zito’s last pitch and this game, the 2013 season is one I am eager to leave behind.

As such, I was not all that excited to write about the Giants’ offseason. There was a lot of online hand-wringing about the Giants’ moves (and non-moves) over the last few months. The team we saw stumble to 76-86 is coming back, almost to a man. Most of the Giants’ moves happened early, before big-name free agents started to get snatched up by eager teams. What additions were made seemed conservative, given the talent available on the market. It was a strange offseason; so many ball clubs were willing to take chances and overpay that the Giants were priced out of a lot of free agents.

The reason I struggled to address this is because it merits reexamining the 2013 season. The question is, are the Giants as bad as they played last year? Around June, once the World Series giddiness wore off and the Giants being bad became the norm, I would have said yes. The team seemed irreparable, and the season looked lost well before the Dodgers streaked into 1st place.

Having taken a little distance from the season, Sabean’s actions make a little more sense. From where I sit right now, I don’t think the Giants were as bad as they played in 2013. The front office didn’t do much to add strength to the team, but they addressed some of the more glaring problems of last season. The addition of Tim Hudson means another steady hand in the rotation, which was the first thing to run off the rails last season. Matt Cain should be able to bounce back, and Madison Bumgarner seems to get better every season. Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincecum are the biggest questions. Lincecum was given a fairly generous deal, and the Giants seem content to bet on him to improve. They have less faith in Vogelsong, but given how 2013 went, that isn’t really surprising.

Michael Morse was the only other major addition. The Giants were hoping to get some power without breaking the bank. Carlos Beltran and Shin-Soo Choo were never really options, and Morse has enough pop to make up for his lack of defensive skills.

I don’t hate what the Giants have done so far. Their problems last season started with the rotation, and I understand Sabean betting on Lincecum to change up his style and become more consistent. I’m also fairly averse to blockbuster deals; I’m really happy that things like this didn’t happen to the Giants, or this, or this. A lot of things need to go right for the Giants to contend in 2014, but a lot more would have to go wrong for them to repeat the travesty of last season.

The Hall of Fame Shouldn’t Matter

hofPaul Buckowski/Times Union

The Baseball Writers Association of America released their voting results today, electing Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas to Cooperstown, and I don’t really have an opinion. Or, rather, I don’t really care. Maybe it was my upbringing in a largely non-baseball household, or the fact that I’ve never been to Cooperstown. When I lived in New York, I made plans to take a road trip to Cooperstown with friends a few times, but like most young people plans, they fell through. I think the real reason I don’t care is that the process that elects former players to the Hall of Fame feels irrelevant.

Every year since I started watching baseball there has been controversy, inconsistencies and debate around the Hall of Fame vote, and every year it gets a little more nauseating. Maybe I’m missing the point, but I have never really enjoyed projecting whether or not a player will go to the Hall of Fame. It just seemed like the worst possible way to enjoy a team sport. I understand that it is the offseason and, no matter how hot the stove gets, there isn’t much to talk about, but putting my hopes in a gaggle of sportswriters to do the right thing doesn’t seem like a good way to spend my time.

The mandate of the BBWAA, at least as it has been conveyed to me, is to uphold a semi-unspoken set of criteria that are supposed to preserve the ‘purity’ (or ‘legitimacy’, ‘validity’ etc.) of the history of baseball as it is represented at Cooperstown. It isn’t clear what role statistics, a player’s relation to the media or their importance to the identity of a given baseball team plays. Grant Brisbee has done a great job pointing out some of the weird inconsistencies in this year’s ballot, showing that the animus of a sportswriter might be a tacit but otherwise important deciding factor in the vote.

I suppose the larger point I would make is that allowing a group of sportswriters, many of whom we don’t read or care about, decide who represents the history of a sport we consume and enjoy seems increasingly pointless. The role of a sportswriter has changed in the last twenty years, and their position as curators of Cooperstown should change too. That is not to say that this process or the Hall of Fame should be done away with entirely, but it shouldn’t be as important. When anyone can create a blog or join in a discussion on the merits of any player online, the voice of ‘traditional’ sportswriters becomes far less impactful. You can certainly argue that, as sports blogs and online discussion platforms take over, something is being lost, but the fact remains that those changes have happened and aren’t going away.

The first baseball player I truly enjoyed watching was Barry Bonds. Reading over the debate around this year’s ballot, I realized that I didn’t really care whether or not he got 75% of the vote this year or any other year. It would be nice, but it wouldn’t make the games I went to as a kid more enjoyable to think about. Nor am I afraid that Bonds or any other player would be forgotten. From where I sit, I can look up the ERA+ of pitchers who played before my grandfather was born. I can access archival images, videos and text that preserve a player as well as any plaque in New York. I have little doubt that this will increase in the coming years. The Baseball Hall of Fame is a good framework for the history of the sport, but as time goes on it will become just one of many synapses connecting fans to the past.

I do not want to diminish the player’s desires to reach Cooperstown, or the honor a Hall of Fame election represents, but there should be many ways to honor a player that go beyond the opinions of some bitter writers.