Giants Waste Another Strong Barry Zito Outing

There’s no getting around the fact that Bruce Bochy has done a terrible job managing these past several games, especially when it’s come to handling his pitchers.

Consider…

4/21: With the game tied at one, Ryan Vogelsong at 95 pitches, and a runner in scoring position, Bochy left Vogelsong in the game. Vogelsong struck out, and then allowed a couple runs in the seventh inning.

Yesterday: With the Giants losing 2-0, Bruce Bochy sent Matt Cain (at 108 pitches already) out for the seventh inning. He promptly gave up a home run to Ryan Ludwick, and his day was over after the next batter. The Giants finished that half-inning with the game far out of reach (down 8-0).

Today: Barry Zito was at 100 pitches. The Giants had a slim (2-0) lead. Bruce Bochy sent Zito out for the seventh inning anyway. After serving up a homer to Scott Rolen, the first batter he faced, Zito’s day was over.

In all fairness to Bochy, Clay Hensley and Jeremy Affeldt were messy in relief, and Dan Otero was horrible the day before. There’s an argument to be made that leaving Zito in the game — with a short leash — wasn’t such a bad decision. I don’t personally agree, though. After all, his previous inning had included a single and a couple flyouts to the warning track; and it’s not as though the bullpen needed more rest.

As the game goes on, the hitter has a progressively greater advantage over the starting pitcher.” This is basic stuff. Bochy has tried to milk his starters dry, and the results have not been pretty. Chris over at Bay City Ball was on to something.

Another quibble: Bochy’s refusal to use Sergio Romo in the game’s most important situations is inexcusable. He waited until the eighth inning — when the Giants were already losing by a couple runs — to use Romo. What a waste.

The Giants’ offense blew many opportunities as well: double digits in the hits column, but only a couple runs to show for it. Four times they ended the inning with a couple runners on. I’d expected that the team would draw some better luck with runners in scoring position this season, but nope. Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, and frankly, it doesn’t seem to be a matter of luck (at least, not entirely).

As for Zito, another strong outing. His ERA now stands at 1.67, which is far more than I could have expected — he’s strung four good starts together, something I really didn’t think he had in him. His command was a bit shaky in the first, but he settled down and his pitch location was excellent over the rest of the start. Lots of pop-ups and weak flyballs, and a surprisingly high amount of swing-throughs.

This isn’t the first time he’s had several nice games in a row. But I can’t help but feel confident about his pitching going forward. Coming into the season, right near the top on my list of concerns for this team was the back of the rotation; those worries have all but vanished.

Is Tim Lincecum Back?

After surrendering 16 runs across his first 13.2 innings, Tim Lincecum finally settled down and got good results, allowing one run through five innings of work.

The good:

  • Lincecum struck out eight of the 23 batters he faced, and had them whiffing on his fastballs. Of course, swing-and-miss stuff hasn’t really been the problem for Lincecum so far. Through his first three starts, he actually had a 23.2% strikeout rate; while that is the lowest he’s ever had in a season, it’s not a terribly significant dropoff.
  • One extra-base hit: a double. This, on the other hand, was a problem for Lincecum in his first three starts. In those previous 13.2 innings, he had allowed seven doubles, two triples, and two homers (that’s a .265 ISO!). That’s really been the root of his troubles this season — that he’s been hit hard. So it’s very nice to see this step in the right direction.
  • A strong first inning. Lincecum had allowed nine runs in three first-innings this season, so his not getting into a jam right away was a positive sign.

The bad:

  • Lincecum walked five of the 23 batters he faced. Control hasn’t been Lincecum’s problem in the early going — in fact, the 5.8% walk rate he brought into this start was a career-best  — but it’s slightly concerning to see him revert to these control issues. At the risk of jumping to conclusions, I wonder if this might suggest that he had been trading walks for hard contact — meaning this start constituted a change in his approach.
  • According to Brooks Baseball, Lincecum averaged 89.8 mph on his four-seamer, topping out at 91.9 mph. No improvement there.
  • 108 pitches. This is, of course, directly related to the high walk total.

So…is Lincecum back? Perhaps, inasmuch as he’ll be an effective pitcher from this point forward. I can’t say with any confidence, however, that Lincecum will finish 2012 with better numbers than 2011. I think this very well could be the worst season of his career. Is that a big deal? Not entirely. Pitchers tend to peak at a pretty early age, and it’s not at all atypical that Lincecum is experiencing a downward trend at this age. I’m becoming increasingly worried about the possibility of the Giants offering him a lucrative contract extension, though. It’s probably not going to be worth taking on that kind of risk, particularly given that they’ve already invested in Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain.

Giants 4, Mets 5: That One Stung

Ryan Vogelsong pitched an excellent game today. Through the first six innings, that was the story. Some things happened later in the game that distracted from this story, which is a shame. But kudos to Vogelsong for another strong outing.

Anyway, there were a couple questionable decisions by Bochy that contributed to this loss…

The decision to play Aubrey Huff over Brandon Belt

Yes, this, again. The difference between Huff and Belt over the course of 500 plate appearances — defense notwithstanding — is what, roughly 20 walks? And that’s about it. Seriously. Check out their ZiPS rest-of-season projections. Based on how they’ve performed up to this point, we can expect pretty similar production in terms of singles, doubles, triples, and home runs. The big difference, at least as it pertains to offense, is the walk column. And again, that’s a significant difference — probably an extra win over a full season (and of course, potentially more, given Belt’s upside). But on a game-by-game basis, that difference is greatly masked. Hitting is volatile by nature, and some days Huff will hit well, and some days Belt will hit poorly. In other words, the decision to play Huff over Belt won’t hurt the Giants every time. Eventually, though, it all evens out. That’s what this game was. Things being evened out. This was one of those games in which the decision to play Huff over Belt really cost the Giants.

A review of Huff’s day at the plate: weak pop-up, foul out, GIDP, weak groundout. Additionally, there were a couple plays at first that he failed to make that Belt probably would have made.

The decision to send Vogelsong back out for the seventh inning

Vogelsong came up to the plate in the seventh inning, the game tied at one. A runner was on second base. Instead of putting in a pinch hitter, Bochy left Vogelsong in. He struck out, the game remained tied, and then he went out for the 7th inning — already at 95 pitches. Vogelsong labored through the seventh, but the Mets scored a couple runs. Why was this a poor decision? Vogelsong just came off the DL, and was already near 100 pitches; as a general rule of thumb, pitchers are markedly worse their third time through the lineup; and it’s not as though the bullpen has been overworked this season. At the risk of hindsight bias, I’d have to say that decision was probably a mistake.

Vogelsong still finished his day with a pretty strong line: 7 IP, 5 H, 8 K, 2 BB, 3 R. But if you remove that seventh inning, things look even better: 6 IP, 3 H, 8 K, 1 BB, 1 R. He now has 15 strikeouts in 13.1 innings. What a marvelous surprise he’s continued to be.

In other news: Buster Posey ain’t havin’ it, Aubrey Huff can’t play second base, and I despise Scott Hairston.

Matt Cain Dominates Again in Giants’ 1-0 Victory

This was one of those special games in which both pitchers were in total control for the entire night. Through the first nine innings, Matt Cain and Cliff Lee combined to record 54 outs on 179 pitches. Lee went out for the tenth inning, which was another rarity — the last time a starter went past the ninth was Aaron Harang, back in 2007. Eventually, Brandon Belt — pinch hitting in the bottom of the 11th — knocked a single off Antonio Bastardo, and a couple batters later, Melky Cabrera drove him in for the walkoff win: 1-0.

  • Matt Cain was unbelievable during this homestand: 18 innings, zero runs, three hits, 15 strikeouts, one walk. Now keep in mind that he did all of that in under 200 total pitches. Seriously, give it a moment to let that sink in — incredible pitching. He becomes the first San Francisco Giants starter with back-to-back shutouts since Livan Hernandez, back in 2000. The last time any pitcher allowed two or fewer hits in back-to-back complete game outings? 1994.
  • Cliff Lee became the first pitcher to throw 10+ scoreless innings against the Giants since Joe Niekro, back in 1983. (Johnnie LeMaster was the Giants’ leadoff hitter in that game.)
  • I’ve become an Angel Pagan apologist, but there’s little excuse for his failed execution in the ninth inning. And his reaction to the bunt sign (h/t @bubbaprog) was Tejada-esque. That double play (which caused a ~15% drop in win expectancy) was huge. On the other hand, he also happened to demonstrate a few of the reasons why I like him: in the first inning, he led off with a single against Lee, and went from first to third — excellent baserunning — on the Melky Cabrera single that followed. And in the 11th inning, he reached on an error. Nothing special, but he put the ball in play — and the result got Brandon Belt in scoring position. That’s the great thing about a hitter that rarely strikes out (he has two strikeouts in 54 plate appearances thus far), particularly one that never — er, rarely – grounds into a double play. One of the areas in which Pagan consistently adds unnoticed value: reaching base via errors. If Pagan strikes out in that situation, Melky doesn’t hit that walkoff single….By the way, Pagan has collected a hit in all five games since I wrote this (and three of those games were multi-hit games).
  • Javier Lopez‘s strikeout of Jim Thome, beautifully pitched: +.195 WPA. For all the complaints this offseason about how much money the Giants gave to Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez, I wouldn’t have felt confident about Dan Runzler coming out to pitch in that critical situation. (For the record, I’m with Lefty Malo and Hanging Sliders on this one — the Lopez contract made sense; the Affeldt one didn’t).
  • That Antonio Bastardo pitch to Melky Cabrera that resulted in the walkoff single wasn’t necessarily a great pitch (it was left over the plate), but it was down in the zone and Melky had a tremendous approach lining it over the second baseman for a hit. It was his third hit on the night, and even though he’d cooled off a little over the past several games, I’m still feeling very good about him this season. He looks like a completely different player than he was pre-2011.
  • Clay Hensley is turning out to be the latest great, cheap bullpen addition. He’s only pitched a few innings so far, but his stuff really seems to translate well to the bullpen. For a non-guaranteed contract with a base salary of $750K? Excellent.
  • The Giants grounded into four double plays in their first 11 games. The Giants grounded into four double plays tonight.
  • Via GN contributor Daniel Rathman: “The starting pitchers combined to record 57 outs tonight. The winning pitcher recorded one.” Yep, wins are stupid.

The offense has reverted to its old ways, but the Giants are rolling anyway: three consecutive series wins, and 6-3 overall since they left Arizona.

Oh, That Offense

Kevin Correia, who’s been the quintessential replacement level pitcher over the last two seasons, held the Giants to one run today. Through six innings, the Giants only managed three hits — two of which were singles, and one of which should have been a single, as Brandon Belt was luckily called safe trying to stretch his hit into a double. The Giants got runners on base in each of the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th innings, but squandered every one of those opportunities. They couldn’t even get Angel Pagan home after a leadoff triple in the eighth.

Overall, the Giants’ offense stranded nine baserunners in a performance reminiscent of last year’s team, and snapped their four-runs-scored streak in the process. On the bright side, Pagan had some very good at-bats today (working the count full in four out of his five plate appearances), and the results were there — a walk and another triple. Additionally, Brandon Belt, who made his first start since last Sunday, went one for three with a double and a walk — which I’d suppose earned him another start for tomorrow’s game.

On the pitching side of things, Ryan Vogelsong looked good in his return to the mound. After a six-pitch first inning, he ran into some trouble in the second when his command seemed to falter a little; the Pirates were able to tack a couple runs on the board there. After that rough patch though, he settled down and was pretty exceptional from that point forward, retiring 12 consecutive Pirates at one point in the outing. The final results: 6.1 IP, 2 R, 7 K, 3 BB. The Giants’ rotation put together some terrible starts at the beginning of the season, but the trio of Matt Cain/Barry Zito/Ryan Vogelsong really shut down the Pirates this series: 22.1 IP, 4 ER, 22 K, 4 BB. They’re the Pirates, but whatever. Very good pitching nonetheless.

Tim Lincecum will start for the Giants tomorrow as they begin a three-game set against the Phillies. He’s looked awful all season long, and accordingly, people are hitting the annual Tim Lincecum panic button as early as ever. I’m not worried yet, but tomorrow’s start should be a very interesting one to watch.

As a quick aside, apparently it was Pagan’s decision to stay at third base on that Melky Cabrera grounder in the third — he didn’t see where the ball had gone at first. Not that it would have made a difference…:

“He said he didn’t see the ball. He came up, apologized. He said, ‘I just didn’t see where the ball went at first. I hesitated, then I didn’t want to go.’ Normally on that ball you score,” Bochy said. “That’s a big run. Didn’t really change the game but at the same time these are some of the small mistakes I was talking about that we made today that came back to haunt us.”

Barry Zito Solid, Giants Improve to .500

When Barry Zito loaded the bases in the first inning, then subsequently allowed a two-run single to Neil Walker, it was looking like Monday’s Zito was all but history. But he settled down with a 1-2-3 inning in the 2nd, and was ultimately great the rest of the way. There were some hiccups on defense — including a couple errors at the hands of Pablo Sandoval — but Zito ended up giving the Giants seven solid innings with three runs allowed (one of them unearned). I was a bit surprised when Bruce Bochy sent Zito out for the seventh inning, as he was at nearly 100 pitches; and I can’t help but wonder how much Brian Wilson’s absence factored into that decision. But I have to hand it to Bochy there, as Zito managed to escape the seventh completely unscathed, retiring the top of the Pirates’ lineup in order. His velocity chart was particularly interesting, as he amped it up in the later innings (although “amping it up” to 84 on the radar gun isn’t necessarily impressive).

So, kudos to Zito. He’s started off his season like this: 16 innings, two earned runs, eight strikeouts, one walk. And I never could have imagined Zito stringing a couple starts like this together. In fact, this is the first time in Zito’s 13-year career that he’s ever begun a season with back-to-back starts of 7+ innings pitched — which is pretty amazing. Will it continue? Probably not (at least, depending on how you define “continue”). I don’t expect a lot from Zito, but he’s more than proven that he’s capable of mediocrity. And that’s all the Giants need from the fifth spot in the rotation. Plus, to echo Josh, the lack of walks from Zito thus far is a pretty encouraging sign.

As for the offense, they extended their 4+ runs scored streak to a whopping eight games, which is the team’s longest such streak in five years. This didn’t come as much of a surprise, of course, as Charlie Morton was on the mound. When it comes to left-handed hitters, Morton essentially throws batting practice. They’ve hit .335/.415/.530 against him for his career, and last season (which was his best season), they hit .364/.460/.500 against him. The Giants’ starting lineup, one through nine, was composed entirely of left-handed/switch hitters.

Angel Pagan, who I expect will start to heat up, finally collected a couple of hits (single, triple) and stole a base. Aubrey Huff, hitting out of the cleanup spot, was downright terrible today — three groundouts and a strikeout. Of all the hitters in tonight’s starting lineup (excluding Zito), Huff was the only one who failed to reach base.

In the ninth inning with the game tied at 3, following a single, Bochy made the ridiculous decision to send Ryan Theriot to the plate against Chris Resop to bunt — instead of pinch hitting Brandon Belt. Theriot failed to lay down the bunt, and eventually worked the count full. Then he singled. Of course, that doesn’t justify sending Theriot (an awful hitter, especially against right-handers) up to the plate in lieu of Belt. Bochy used a couple pinch hitters tonight, going with Gregor Blanco and Ryan Theriot, and leaving Belt on the bench the entire game (although it looked like Belt would have come to bat had Burriss not singled).

It was poor decision-making — not utilizing Belt, though it didn’t end up mattering. Belt hasn’t started a game in a week, but he’ll apparently be starting tomorrow’s game. His playing time for the next week or so could be determined by how he performs tomorrow, so hopefully he pulls it together. He’ll have the benefit of facing Kevin Correia.

Anyway, with that 4-3 walkoff win, the Giants are now .500, and things are really starting to roll. Ryan Vogelsong makes his return to the mound tomorrow.

Matt Cain’s Best Start Ever

Let’s see here…

This was Cain at his absolute best: the location, the movement, the pitch selection…all at the top of his game. And he was just cruising; only once did Cain need 15+ pitches to get out of an inning (that came in the sixth, in which James McDonald broke up the perfect game). It was really something special. As far as near-perfect games go, this was incredibly close. Had Brandon Crawford been positioned ever-so-slightly to the left, that McDonald single would have been just a groundout.