August Has Been Kind

Last night, it looked like the Giants were going to waste yet another strong outing from Matt Cain. With the game tied 1-1 in the eighth, Cain surrendered a run, giving the Astros the lead. The Giants entered the ninth with a one-run deficit to overcome and the bottom of the order taking on the task; the odds weren’t promising. But four pitches later, Brandon Belt had singled to lead off the inning, and Joaquin Arias had ripped a double down the left field line to drive him in. A couple batters later, Hector Sanchez blooped a single into shallow center field, and the Giants took a 3-2 lead. It was the kind of game the Giants have lost hundreds of times over the past several years; except they didn’t lose last night.

August sure has been kind to the Giants. Well, in the win-loss column, at least. The Giants are now 16-10 on the month, good for a .615 winning percentage. That makes this their best month so far, which is somewhat odd considering that they’ve gone Melky-less since the 15th. But that’s the thing — others have been picking up the slack. Buster Posey should win NL Player of the Month at this point, as nobody in the majors has had a better August. In fact, this month has firmly placed Posey in the MVP race, and assuming he can finish the season well, he’ll have a strong case come voting time. If Posey weren’t putting up otherworldly numbers this month, Angel Pagan (.353/.422/.608) would probably be deserving of player-of-the-month honors. Given his extended struggles, it’s been especially refreshing to see Pagan hit a stride. In the month of August, he’s actually surpassed his combined June/July totals for walks and total bases. And then there’s Joaquin Arias, who’s posted a 200 wRC+ in 54 plate appearances. His 2012 offensive numbers are now somehow better than Carlos Pena‘s.

And like that, the Giants now have a 3.5 game lead in the NL West. It’s not huge, and it’s certainly close enough to make things interesting, but it affords the Giants some breathing room. The Dodgers have made some big splashes, most notably the recent mega-trade for Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto. While I’m confident that the trade hurts — maybe even cripples — the Dodgers in the long-term, it’s very difficult to write them off in the short-term. There’s no denying the collection of talent on the Dodgers’ current roster. But the Giants are starting to pad onto their division lead, and with 33 games to go, things are looking good.

Buster Posey, Barry Zito Help Giants Even Series

Well, that went better than I’d expected. With Barry Zito going up against a tremendous offense, I wasn’t exactly confident about the Giants’ odds in this game. Zito got off to a good start earlier in the season, but he’s quietly lost a lot of steam, and entering today’s start, he had a career-worst 81 ERA+ (that is, if you don’t count last year’s 54 innings).

But as Zito is wont to do, just as I had lost almost every ounce of faith in his ability to give the Giants something better than replacement level pitching, he came out and pitched well — and he did so against the National League’s best offense. Nothing fancy, but 6.1 innings of two-run ball — the only damage having come off the bat of the absurdly powerful Allen Craig on a pair of solo shots. Perhaps the best part? Zero walks, something that you don’t often see out of Zito.

And on another promising note, a bullpen that has been disappointing of late managed to shut the Cards down. (Actually, to say they’ve disappointed recently is probably an understatement — this is a team that’s supposed to get top-notch pitching from their ‘pen, and instead they’ve been mostly run-of-the-mill).

Anyway, Buster Posey provided the Giants with all the run support they’d need, knocking a three-run blast in the first inning off of Lance Lynn. His scorching hot second half continues…

Notes:

  •  In order to clear room for the newest bullpen addition, Jose Mijares, the Giants placed Shane Loux on the DL with a neck strain. Not sure if it’s a phantom injury or not, and I’m not sure if it really matters anyway. The bullpen just got better.
  • According to Hank Schulman, the Giants have looked into signing Lyle Overbay. In terms of what we should expect over the rest of the season, there’s not much of a difference between Overbay and Aubrey Huff.
  • I neglected to mention this, but the Giants signed Xavier Nady to a minor-league contract a few days ago. I doubt Nady will play much of any role with the Giants this season, nor should he — he’s been all sorts of horrible this season: .157/.211/.275, 31 OPS+.
  • Angel Pagan continues to heat up. He reached base a couple more times today, and if it weren’t for a nice play by Jon Jay, Pagan could’ve added an extra-base hit. Even so, he’s raised his OPS a good 40 points in the past five days.

Maybe Coors Field Isn’t So Bad After All

After the way that homestand went, I was kind of dreading this Rockies series. Sure, the Rockies have been battling it out with the Astros for the title of “worst record in baseball” this season, but the last thing the Giants needed after losing seven of eight was some quality time at Coors Field. That’s like a classic setup for hitting rock bottom: you could just imagine one of those hellacious marathon games in which the Giants scratch and claw for twenty innings and eventually lose to a last place team.

Except the way these past two games have gone, I’m almost beginning to — gasp — like Coors Field. The Giants scored a grand total of 29 runs over that ten-game span at home. They’ve scored 27 after a couple of days in Colorado. No lead is ever safe here — I mean, was anybody really comfortable with that five-run lead when Brad Penny took the mound in the seventh inning? Still, in back-to-back games, the Giants have managed to avoid that meltdown, padding the score with enough runs here and there to keep the Rockies at bay.

And so an offense that looked so helpless just a few days ago has now scored 10+ runs for two days in a row; it’s been two years since that happened.

Notes:

Giants Make Moves, Lose Ballgame

Following last night’s loss to the Mets, the San Francisco Giants made a few roster moves. Hector Sanchez, who was out with a left knee strain, was activated and caught Barry Zito‘s start today. In a corresponding move, the Giants optioned Eli Whiteside back to Triple-A Fresno. Additionally, Justin Christian was optioned to Fresno, with Shane Loux reinstated to take his spot on the roster. In other words, the Giants will go with a 13-man bullpen for now. Lastly, Emmanuel Burriss, as expected, has cleared waivers and been outrighted to Fresno.

For the first time in what seemed like forever — it had actually been a monthBrandon Belt and Hector Sanchez were both in the starting lineup. The last time it happened, Barry Zito tossed seven scoreless innings and the Giants ended up defeating the Dodgers by a score of 8-0. Today’s game was like the polar opposite of that.

Zito’s first inning included three consecutive three-ball counts, followed by a David Murphy HBP and back-to-back hits from Jason “.157 average” Bay and Ronny Cedeno — although in all fairness to Zito, Cedeno’s double arguably should have been scored as an error on Melky Cabrera. Melky was able to get to the ball in time, but failed to snag it. Anyway, Zito miraculously pitched into the fifth, but ended up finishing today with the following line: 4.1 IP, 7 ER, 6 H, 1 K, 3 BB. He brought a shiny 3.89 ERA into this start, but it seems like that didn’t entirely reflect how bad he’s been. Before today, his ERA+ (90) was the second-worst mark he’s ever had over a full season, the worst being the 85 ERA+ he carried in 2008. And after today’s showing, which raised his ERA by 38 points, Zito’s ERA+ has assuredly dipped below 85.

The lone bright spot in today’s blowout was Melky Cabrera, who collected three of the Giants’ four hits. With a triple, an opposite-field ground-rule double, and a single, Melky fell a homer short of the cycle — which was refreshing to see, considering he’s been pretty quiet lately. Before today, Melky had gone 10 for 37 on this homestand without a walk or an extra-base hit.

But of course, it wasn’t nearly enough. And so the Giants finished this disheartening homestand 3-7, with those seven losses having come over their past eight games. The D’backs have quietly cut the Giants’ division lead to two games, and the Dodgers remain just half a game back. I wrote a week ago (over at Beyond the Box Score) that Arizona is still in the thick of the playoff hunt, and it’s pretty clear at this point that they pose a big threat to San Francisco. Both Arizona and Los Angeles have the day off, though.

Notes:

  • The 13-man bullpen is excessive, but I think it makes sense for the Giants right now. They’re about to start a three-game series at Coors Field — and knowing how those games tend to go, it’ll be convenient to have an extra arm in the ‘pen. After the Colorado series, they’ll begin a four-game set at St. Louis, against an offense that has been historically good thus far — so again, it makes sense to have some extra help. Besides, Justin Christian had been utterly worthless during his brief major-league stint.
  • The only non-Melky to get a hit was Brandon Belt, who obliterated a ball into right field for a triple. He later deposited a ball into the bay, but it was foul (and he ended up striking out on a weak-looking hack).
  • For someone that hasn’t played third base since 2008 (when he was with the Toronto Blue Jays), Marco Scutaro has filled in pretty nicely there for Pablo Sandoval — he made a couple good picks there today. And this was just the first time since joining the Giants that Scutaro has failed to get a hit. It occurred to me that I never got a chance to write up my thoughts on the Marco Scutaro trade, so to quickly sum it up: I loved it. I don’t think the Giants gave up much of anything in Charlie Culberson, who couldn’t even muster a .700 OPS in the PCL; and in return, San Francisco got a decent and necessary contact bat that can play third, short, and second without looking silly.
  • Have we reached the point where Andres Torres is having a better season than Angel Pagan? Torres is hitting .238/.352/.323, 94 wRC+. Pagan is hitting .272/.317/.389, 94 wRC+. And there’s no question that Torres is the far superior defender.

2012 First Half Review: The Position Players

Yesterday, I looked at how the Giants’ rotation fared in the first half. Today, I’ll look at the position players — the offense.

Melky Cabrera

Melky Cabrera came over in a buy-high sell-low trade of Jonathan Sanchez, and wasn’t expected to repeat his excellent 2011 season — which was far and above what he’d done on the baseball diamond in the years prior to that. Instead, Melky has actually improved upon last year’s performance. He’s currently second in the National League in batting average, sixth in OBP, and top-15 in slugging. The near-.400 batting average on balls in play has a little to do with that, but at this point, I think it’s safe to say 2011 Melky was real. The Giants have had to handle Buster Posey with care, and they lost Pablo Sandoval for a while, but Melky Cabrera has been a constant for the Giants all season long, putting up a .353/.391/.519 while appearing in 83 of the team’s 86 games. The focus now, with Melky’s impending free agency, is signing him to a contract extension. The front office is going to have a tough decision to make…

Angel Pagan

Angel Pagan, the other outfield trade acquisition, has also proven a solid addition thus far. He got off to an unbelievably rough start, but managed to rebound quite well. Unfortunately, he failed to finish the first half strong, carrying a .488 OPS over his final 94 plate appearances before the all-star break. He’s ultimately been slightly above average with the bat, and he’s also been a pretty efficient basestealer (15 SB, 2 CS). His defense, on the other hand, has been a series of misadventures; but in all fairness to Pagan, Andres Torres isn’t exactly an easy act to follow.

Buster Posey

After the Scott Cousins collision last season, Buster Posey was a major concern (at least for me) going into the season. How would he hold up behind the wear and tear of catching on a regular basis? Would he be as productive as before? Fortunately, Posey essentially picked up right where he left off. He’s as productive as he was last year prior to the injury, except he’s hitting with significantly more power. Plus, he’s continued to provide steady glovework behind the plate. As the season continues and the Giants head toward the stretch run, they would probably be wise to give Posey some more rest in lieu of some of these first base starts.

Gregor Blanco

Along with the two aforementioned outfielders, Gregor Blanco has given the Giants one of the more productive outfields in the majors. Another brilliant minor-league pick-up, Blanco has added considerable value in the field, at the plate, and on the basepaths. Like Pagan, his production tailed off a little as the all-star break approached, but as with Pagan, it’s too early to hit the panic button. On another note, Blanco’s range in right field has been particularly convenient given Pagan’s defensive struggles.

Brandon Crawford

Crawford has been a polarizing figure of sorts since the season began. The Giants committed to him as their starting shortstop for one reason — his defense; and Crawford’s defense has been anything but perfect (through 77 games, he’s committed 12 errors). But he’s also made some great picks at short, and in spite of the occasional bobbles and miscues, he’s been above average in that facet. His bat, expectedly, has left a lot to be desired. But the .268 wOBA is oddly tolerable from a plus defensive shortstop. Fangraphs has him at 0.8 WAR through 274 plate appearances, which is a hair below average production. Perhaps it’s a generous valuation, but overall, Crawford has certainly been okay.

Ryan Theriot

Ryan Theriot has been Ryan Theriot.

 Brandon Belt

Brandon Belt’s season can arbitrarily be divided into three segments:

  • April 6 to June 10: .224/.340/.328, 141 PA
  • June 12 to June 23: .441/.568/.882, 44 PA
  • June 24 to July 8: .179/.195/.282, 41 PA

Belt was so blistering hot over that 11-game span in mid-June that he completely destroyed any doubts I may have had about him — at least for the time being. Overall, he’s had a solid season — and hopefully, given consistent playing time in the second half, he can start to produce consistently.

Pablo Sandoval

Pablo Sandoval picked up where he left off in 2011 — that is, until he broke his other hamate bone in early May. Upon his return, Sandoval’s power numbers took somewhat of a hit, and it’ll be interesting to see if that continues. In any event, while healthy, he’s inarguably hit very well (133 wRC+). The real disappointment — if any — has been Sandoval’s defense. Last season, he had a pretty strong Gold Glove case; this season, he’s been mediocre at best.

Joaquin Arias

Joaquin Arias had a 51 wRC+ in Triple-A last season. But thanks to the Giants’ miserable middle-infield situation and the hamate injury that kept Pablo Sandoval out for several weeks, Arias has seen a lot of playing time — 54 games in total. Arias is the proverbial replacement level player, and he’s performed like it.

Nate Schierholtz

With the emergence of Gregor Blanco, Schierholtz has seen his playing time dwindle — and it’s probably for the better. He’s more or less been the same Schierholtz of 2009/2010 — a useful but dispensable fourth outfielder.

Emmanuel Burriss

I don’t know what’s sadder — the fact that Emmanuel Burriss has an ISO of .008 or the fact that it’s actually an improvement over last year.

Hector Sanchez

It’s easy be tough on Hector Sanchez, who’s drawn all of two walks this season. But it’s important to remember that he’s a) a backup catcher, and b) 22 years old. In light of that, his performance has been perfectly back-up catcher-y.

Ryan Vogelsong Leads Giants to 4-0 Victory

For seven innings today, Ryan Vogelsong was at the top of his game. Through the first 4.1 innings, in fact, he was perfect — sending each of the first thirteen hitters straight back to the dugout. Seth Smith eventually broke up the perfect game bid with a single into right field, but that would be the only hit off Vogelsong on the day, as he promptly coaxed a double play out of Josh Donaldson and proceeded to tack on another couple scoreless innings. He needed to face only 22 batters to record 21 outs. For a guy that’s had a rollercoaster of a career, this is quite probably the best game he’s ever pitched; the game score — 79 — marks a new career-best.

Both teams were scoreless through six, but the heart of the Giants’ order came through in the seventh, with Melky Cabrera, Buster Posey, and Angel Pagan combining to drive in four runs. And that would be all the Giants needed, as Javier Lopez and Clay Hensley were shut-down mode in relief.

Notes:

  • I hate the idea of Brandon Crawford batting second in the order. It’s a common-sense thing — why give one of the team’s worst hitters the second-most at-bats? That said, it is nice to see Crawford starting to find a groove. It’s worth noting that he’s been somewhat unlucky to this point; after today, his line is up to .233/.276/.342 on the season. I don’t think he’s much better than that, but he’s certainly capable of fighting his way to a .270 wOBA and smoothing out the defense, and that’ll at least be a step up from the replacement level production he’s given the Giants thus far.
  • Angel Pagan has gone hitless once in the last 31 games. After that one horrible week to begin the season, Pagan has managed to bring his numbers up to .304/.353/.462 — and he’s eight for nine on stolen base attempts. It’s made his frequent defensive gaffes a bit more tolerable.
  • What a godsend Gregor Blanco has turned out to be. In not even 100 plate appearances, he’s already posted 1 WAR. He’s currently getting on base at a clip of .416, and he’s drawn a walk for every strikeout. He’s also swiped four bags and looked solid with the glove. Aside from the lack of power, he’s pretty much the whole package, eh? Another brilliant minor-league signing.
  • Speaking of which, three players in today’s starting lineup — Blanco, Arias, Vogelsong — were originally acquired via minor-league free agency; nothing extraordinary, but it struck me as noteworthy.
  • Quick — who leads the majors in multi-hit games? You can’t go wrong with either M. Cabrera — Melky and Miguel are now tied for the major-league lead in multi-hit games, at 19. For all the problems with the Giants’ current infield, I’m feeling pretty good about the Cabrera-Pagan-Blanco trio in the outfield.
  • The Giants signed Brad Penny to a minor-league contract. This is a guy who averaged 3.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 31 starts last season, so I’m (understandably) not expecting much. At the very least, I hope he isn’t needed in any important situations.

Giants Top Brewers 4-3 in Extras

This is a graph of Tim Lincecums strikeout-to-walk ratio through the years. Ignore that last data point if you want — he’s only thrown thirty innings this season — but the trend is still the same. He peaked in 2009, when he was 25 years old. At this point, I think it’s pretty safe to expect Lincecum to never reach that point again.

Now here’s Matt Cain‘s graph. Again, ignore that last data point if you want, but the general point is clear: even as Cain has gotten older, he’s kept on goin’. He’s now 27 years old, and he’s already passed the point where he should’ve began his decline. Cain’s track record speaks for itself, but one of the main things that stands out to me is that he hasn’t started to drop off yet; in fact, one could argue that he’s improved. After today’s performance, his K/9 is at a career high, his BB/9 is at a career low, and his ERA is at a career low. Small samples be damned, his ability to stand the test of time has been wonderful, and it’s not something to take for granted. While Tim Lincecum’s future (both as a Giant and in general) is up in the air at this point, Cain is here for the long haul. After Madison Bumgarner‘s excellent start yesterday, there was a lot of talk about how Bumgarner had claimed the title of “most reliable Giants starter” or “best Giants starter so far.” Whatever it was, I think Cain stated his case pretty clearly today.

Cain didn’t get the win though, of course. But the offense did just enough to give the Giants the series victory. A couple players in particular stood out to me with their hitting today, and obviously they’re the two guys I can’t shut up about: Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera.

Pagan extended his hitting streak to 20 games, though he’s been getting by with a lot of .250/.250/.250 performances (meaningless 1-for4s). Today wasn’t one of those, as Pagan had two hits — one of them a well-struck double down the first base line — and got the Giants a very important run in the first inning by beating out a double play. Oh yeah, and he stole a base. His OBP is still in sub-.300 territory, but whatever. Fueled by an early power surge, he’s been above-average hitter thus far (105 wRC+). He dug himself a sizable hole at the beginning of the year with that first-week slump, but he’s already worked his way out of it and then some.

As for Melky, he put up a 1-for-5 — but that was only because he was robbed of a double in the tenth inning. Both of his hits — the actual one and the would-be one — were to the opposite field, too. In case you haven’t noticed, he’s pretty good at this opposite-field hitting business: since the start of 2011, he has 61 opposite-field hits.

And unlike Pagan, he’s been excellent with the glove: today’s notable was that 11th inning double play — he robbed Jonathan Lucroy of a bloop single then proceeded to double up Corey Hart at first base.

Pagan, meanwhile, continues to disappoint with his defense. I’m not sure if an average centerfielder catches Travis Ishikawa‘s ninth inning game-tying double. But I’m certain of the fact that Pagan is capable of getting to that ball if he takes a better route, and I also have no doubt that Andres Torres would have made that catch.

Entering the season, I felt the Giants had a top-notch defense; so far, that hasn’t been the case at all. Melky has been better than expected, and Emmanuel Burriss has shown a bit more range than I thought he had. But other than that, they’ve been utterly disappointing. Especially with the easy stuff — the routine plays. Bobbling grounders, failing to communicate in the outfield, et al. That’s exactly why I’m not too worried about this, though. I don’t think the Giants are fundamentally flawed on defense — it’s not as though they’re not getting to the ball in the first place, for example; they’re just making a few (costly) mistakes here and there. In other words, I don’t expect this to be a lingering issue.

Anyway, the Giants came away with the W, and sloppy as they were at times, a win is a win. Considering their next stop is LA, for the 18-10 Dodgers, it’s a good thing they were able to rebound and grab a couple wins to end this homestand.