Five and a Half Games Up

The Giants caught a huge break when it was announced earlier that Clayton Kershaw would not be making tonight’s start, and that Joe Blanton would be starting in his place. The Giants definitely lucked out in the opposing-team’s-injuries department: not to be forgotten was Matt Kemp‘s absence, which left Hanley Ramirez and number-eight hitter A.J. Ellis as the only legitimate right-handed threats in the Dodgers’ starting lineup. And they took advantage of it.

Barry Zito came up big tonight, giving the Giants six-plus innings’ worth of scoreless work. He wasn’t outright dominant, but he didn’t need to be. He worked his way out of some jams, kept his pitch count from getting out of hand, and by the time he exited the mound in the seventh inning, the Giants had a four-run lead in a crucial game. You really couldn’t have asked more of Zito than what he did tonight. (I was most impressed with how he handled Hanley Ramirez, striking him out twice — both times looking — and yielding a groundout in the other at-bat). Zito’s final line: 6.1 IP, 0 R, 4 K, 3 BB,  4 H.

On the offensive side of things, the Giants wasted no time getting runs up on the board. They nearly batted around in the first inning, the big hit coming off the bat of Hunter Pence, who doubled to drive in a couple runs. There were several great at-bats in that inning, most notably from Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt. Sandoval drew a seven-pitch walk, one day after seeing four pitches in four plate appearances (it seemed as though he was making a conscious effort to see more pitches); Belt, too, worked himself a walk, after an eleven-pitch battle against Blanton (although it didn’t end up being significant, as Gregor Blanco then struck out to end the inning). Anyway, these were particularly impressive considering that Blanton entered this game with a BB/9 of 1.6; he’s stingy when it comes to allowing free passes.

Those two first-inning runs were all the Giants really needed, but they padded their lead as the game went on. Angel Pagan tripled for the 11th time this season and came around to score on a sac fly; he’s got a pretty good shot at breaking the San Francisco Giants record for triples (12). And Buster Posey added a fourth run by homering to lead off the sixth inning.

Posey, if I may go off on a tangent now, has built himself a pretty strong MVP case this season. I’m biased, of course, but I think the objective case holds up under scrutiny. Posey has now hit .327/.402/.531 in 527 plate appearances this season, all while playing good defense at the toughest position on the field. He’s hit very well with runners in scoring position, and in the situations that matter most. And he just so happens to lead the National League in TAv (a stat that accounts for some of the important stuff that wOBA ignores). Accurately assessing catcher defense is pretty tough, given the intricacies of catching, but it’s pretty clear to me that Posey is an above-average defender.

Anyhow, there will be much more time to discuss this as the season draws to a close. The main focus right now: the first place Giants. They salvaged the series win, extending their division lead to five and a half games. With 22 games remaining on the schedule (and just 21 for the Dodgers), that’s huge. Not that you needed me to tell you that. The Giants’ magic number is down to 17, and at this point, they’re all but guaranteed to make the playoffs. I’d really like to see them wrap it up before that final three-game series in Los Angeles, and it looks like they’re well on their way toward doing that. I’m nothing but pleased with how this team has performed.

Buster Posey and the Plate Appearance of the Season

Fast-forward to the eighth inning. Buster Posey is up. The bases are loaded, with one out. The Giants are down by one run. The game is essentially in Posey’s hands. The leverage index (LI) of the situation is 7.59, the second-highest it’s been for any Giants batter at any point this season. And Rafael Betancourt, who has held right-handed hitters to a .196 wOBA this season, is on the mound.

This was, as I noted, the second-highest LI of a Giants plate appearance this season. The highest was an at-bat by Gregor Blanco. That at-bat lasted one pitch. Posey’s lasted ten pitches. This was tense, folks.

The sequence: ball, taken strike, ball, ball, foul, foul, foul, foul, foul, and then…a sacrifice fly to tie the game. And you can bet Posey had at least something to do with how the rest of the inning went. Following that ten-pitch adventure, Betancourt served up a three-run homer to Hunter Pence — which ended up being the difference in the game — and to top it all off, a double to Brandon Belt.

How about that Posey? He’s sure something, eh? This was his most important contribution at the plate today, and arguably the plate appearance of the season, but he actually reached base the other four times he came to bat. An update on his numbers: .332/.406/.547, .404 wOBA, 158 wRC+. Wowza.

There were lots of stories today. Among them: Hunter Pence’s first homer in a Giants uniform, which couldn’t have come at a better time. Angel Pagan, who has continued to put together a strong August, after looking lost at the plate for a couple months. And Pablo Sandoval, who I believe is set to return tomorrow.

But you know who I’m actually going to talk about. I’m going to talk about Brandon Belt.

Brandon Belt came to the plate five times today. He reached base every time. Twice via the double, twice via the single, and once via the walk. When he was struggling in July, I’d have to dig deep for positives. I’ve remained cautiously optimistic about Belt all season long, but when he was struggling, I’d have to cling to the little stuff. “He made hard contact on this pitch.” “He looked patient in this at-bat.” I haven’t had to do that this month. Belt is swinging a hot bat, and the results are there.

And here’s where I digress. Today was my sixth time in the press box. Either my fifth or sixth, actually — I can’t remember for sure, and I’m too lazy to confirm. I’m going to be there on Tuesday and Wednesday as well. Anyway, the whole “bloggers getting access” thing seems to be a hot topic these days, so I feel obligated to chime in — especially since I’m one of the lucky ones. As I understand it, very few teams do this. I’ve given all of this a lot of thought, and…well…I don’t really have anything substantial to contribute to the discussion; but I will say, having media credentials has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

A recap of my day: This morning, right down the hall from the Giants’ broadcast booth, I sat down to a brunch buffet with Steve Berman (Bay Area Sports Guy) and Alex Pavlovic. We discussed — you guessed it — the San Francisco Giants, and the food (eggs, sausage, oatmeal) was delicious.

After that, I went back down to the press box where I sat — for the majority of the game — next to Steve, a guy I really admire. I struggle to produce insightful commentary on the Giants. He manages to do it while staying on top of 19 other sports as well. I owe a debt of gratitude to him, too — not only has he constantly helped me with things, but he’s also put up with hours upon hours of my boring, pointless observations as he’s sitting there next to me. If you think this blog is boring, keep in mind that you don’t get the stuff that I filter out.

(With all these positive comments about BASG, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression; he’s not perfect. He went 0-for-4 on Brandon Belt home run predictions today).

Anyhow, I enjoyed my Sunday. It’s been cool hanging out with Steve, and getting to know Pavlovic.

At some point in the game, I began to wonder what the return of Pablo Sandoval would mean for others’ playing time. And so at the post-game press conference, I asked Bruce Bochy that very question (to which he responded that he’d be mixing it up a lot). It occurred to me that this is the real luxury of having this kind of access, at least for me: I’m curious about something, and I have the opportunity to simply ask Bochy myself.

After I left the press conference room, I headed back up to the press box. As I walked down the hall, Brian Sabean and his little kid walked by. I waved hello. They waved back. This has all been quite surreal.

Giants Pythag the Cardinals, 15-0

Tonight’s game was what you’d call a good old-fashioned “Pythagging.” The Giants already had a seven-run lead on the Cardinals by the end of the sixth inning, but they went and tacked on another eight runs in the latter two innings of the blowout. The final score: 15-0. That was just ridiculous, jaw-dropping material right there. I’m almost at a loss for words, to be honest.

A few thoughts:

  • Not to be lost in all of this “Giants scoring boatloads of runs” nonsense is the fact that Ryan Vogelsong, once again, pitched masterfully. Three hits scattered over seven scoreless innings. He’s now made 21 starts this season; he’s now pitched 6+ innings 21 times this season. Dating back to his final start of 2011, he’s now tossed 6+ innings in 22 consecutive outings, which ties Atlee Hammaker for the third-longest such streak in franchise history. I assuredly sound like a broken record at this point, but Vogelsong never ceases to amaze me.
  • This is just the second time in the San Francisco era that the Giants have scored 15+ runs in a shutout. 50+ years of baseball, and they’ve only done it once before. Every position player in the starting lineup had a hit. Five had multiple hits. Crazy, crazy stuff.
  • Have I mentioned how much I love the Marco Scutaro acquisition? I have. I don’t care — I’ll blab about it again. He’s really wasted no time in getting comfortable here — he brought a .326/.375/.395 line with San Francisco into today, and that was before this three-hit seven-RBI affair. He’s now hit safely in 10 of 12 games since joining the team.
  • Maybe the most positive thing in all of this was Brandon Belt‘s performance: he a) went two for five with a double; b) didn’t strike out once; c) made contact with every pitch he swung at, in fact; and d) even had loud outs. He sure appears to be finding a groove once again.
  • The Giants are now two games ahead of the Dodgers (who are still playing their game as of now), and they’ve also really started to distance themselves from Arizona — they’re now five games ahead.

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.

Giants Beat Padres 7-1, Improve to 54-42

The Giants tagged Clayton Richard for four runs in the first inning of tonight’s game and it was cruise control the rest of the way, as Ryan Vogelsong held the Padres to one run over seven innings, and Buster Posey added a three-run blast in the fifth inning for good measure. Pretty much everything went right — or at least, everything that needed to go right. The Giants’ 2-3-4 hitters each went three for four, and Clay Hensley and George Kontos combined for two perfect innings of relief. And now the Giants sit at 54-42, still 1.5 games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Notes…

Ryan Vogelsong

Ryan Vogelsong: 7 IP, 6 K, 3 BB, 4 H, 1 R.

Here’s what I wrote about Ryan Vogelsong’s first half, a couple weeks ago:

To say he’s exceeded expectations would be an understatement. Through 16 starts (110.2 innings), Vogelsong has actually managed to post a lower ERA (2.36) than he had in 2011 (his FIP, 3.72, while less incredible, is still good). The term “consistent” is often bandied about meaninglessly when discussing baseball players, but I can’t seem to avoid it in writing about Vogelsong. He’s epitomized consistency this season. Here are his innings pitched by start this season: 6.1, 7, 6, 7, 7.1, 7, 7, 6.1, 7, 7, 7.2, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7. Fifteen of those were quality starts.

And it continues…In his first start of the second half, he allowed one run across six innings in Atlanta. Tonight — his second start of the half, he made his fifteenth consecutive quality start. That puts him in company with Gaylord Perry, Tim Lincecum, and Juan Marichal. His ERA now stands at 2.26; he’s unbelievable.

Buster Posey

After today, Buster Posey has collected 3+ hits in five of his last eight games (seven extra-base hits over that span), and is now hitting .317/.383/.506 (142 wRC+) through 355 plate appearances on the season. In other words, he’s more productive than he’s ever been, which is typical for a 25-year-old star. But he missed most of last season with an ankle injury, and his health was a giant question mark coming into this year. It’s easy to take this stuff for granted. Man, is it wonderful to have him healthy and contributing like this.

And that home run he hit — ’twas no cheapie. It’s rare to see a right-handed hitter go opposite field for a homer at AT&T Park. Speaking of which, according to Baseball-Reference, the Giants had one opposite-field home run before tonight’s game. Guess who hit it?

Brandon Belt

I’m kind of sick of talking about Brandon Belt at this point, but Belt’s a pretty important topic right now, so I feel obligated to address this — especially since I’ve been one of his more ardent supporters. After Sunday’s ugly game — in which Belt went 0 for 5 with three strikeouts, I’ve moved past the “it’s just a slump” stage. I’m convinced there’s a deeper underlying problem with Belt, and I have no idea what it is. I’m clueless when it comes to hitting mechanics and the like, so I won’t bother speculating on that front. But I know a few things:

  • Brandon Belt needs to play every day
  • The Giants need production out of their first basemen
  • The Giants’ in-house options are not acceptable

I think the best option right now is just to keep playing Belt until things get really bad.

Chris Perez

With the trade deadline fast approaching, rumor season has arrived. Via Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi (FOX Sports) comes word that the Giants are interested in Indians reliever Chris Perez:

The San Francisco Giants, seeking late-inning help, are interested in Perez, according to major-league sources. The Indians could entertain moving Perez for two reasons – they are deep in relievers, and Perez likely will earn about $7 million next season in his second year of arbitration.

The Giants definitely stand to benefit from some relief help, but I’m not sure Chris Perez is the answer. He’s a “two-time all-star” and he’s under control through 2014, so he’ll inevitably get expensive over the next few years. The extra years of team control also mean he’s got relatively high trade value. He’s a pretty good reliever (150 ERA+ over the past three seasons), and he’s improved his peripherals this season (2.08 FIP constitutes a career-low — his previous best being 3.54), but the Giants would probably be wise to hold on to whatever trade chips it would take to acquire Perez.

Hector Sanchez to the DL, Eli Whiteside Called Up

Earlier today, the San Francisco Giants placed Hector Sanchez on the 15-day DL with a left knee strain, with Eli Whiteside coming up from Triple-A Fresno to replace him. Sanchez’s injury isn’t supposed to be all that serious — it won’t require surgery, and he should be fine within a week, but according to Baggs, with Sanchez likely out for a week, the Giants felt it made more sense to just DL him and go with Whiteside as the backup for the time being.

Most are likely bemoaning the return of Whiteside, and understandably so. He’s spent the entirety of 2012 in the minors, in a hitter-friendly environment, and all he has is a .292 wOBA to show for it. That said, the dropoff in backup catcher production from Whiteside to Sanchez won’t be all that significant over the course of a couple weeks. And for what it’s worth, Whiteside is easily the more advanced defender — and that difference is perhaps understated. Earlier this year, Max Marchi published an article at Baseball Prospectus quantifying the cumulative effect of catchers’ defensive skills, and he found that Eli Whiteside had saved +35 runs from 2008 to 2011 (5146 PAs) — largely because of his game-calling. By this measure, he’s one of the better defensive catchers in baseball.

Not that any of this really matters — again, the difference between Whiteside and Sanchez over a few games is minimal at best. The bigger implication of this injury is how it affects Brandon Belt. Just yesterday, Bruce Bochy was asked if he believed Sanchez’s bat is preferable to Belt’s. His answer?

“Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. Wouldn’t you?”

It’s difficult to infer exactly what Bochy means by that statement, but it is quite telling. Hector has been receiving steady playing time at the expense of Belt, and frankly, at the expense of the team. When Hector catches and Posey plays first, the Giants are worse off both defensively and offensively. Belt (110 wRC+), by all accounts, is a better hitter than Sanchez (78 wRC+). Posey needs his rest obviously, but it’s gotten to the point where Hector is starting nearly as many games as Belt. In July, Hector has started five games; Belt has started six. If it’s merely for the sake of giving Posey rest, why not give him actual rest by letting him sit on the bench? And if it’s not merely that — if it’s to get Sanchez’s bat in the lineup more often — then why?

So the silver lining here is that Hector’s injury opens the door for Belt to get consistent playing time at first base the next couple weeks. He’s been scuffling lately, but this might give him ample opportunity to seize back an everyday role — a role which he really shouldn’t have to fight for. The good news is that there’s just no way Whiteside will get the kind of playing time Hector has been getting. These next couple weeks could prove to be very important, though. There’s already talk of the Giants trading for a first baseman, or Belt himself being traded with the deadline approaching.

Thoughts on the Giants’ Sweep of the Astros

Yesterday, the Giants completed a three-game sweep of the Houston Astros at home to begin the second half. It’s no extraordinary feat — the Astros are now 9-35 on the road this season, which is shockingly terrible (especially considering that they have a winning record at home). But there’s something to be said for winning the games that are supposed to be won — and the Giants did just that. Now they have a 1.5-game lead in the NL West, as the Dodgers continue to slide.

I was lucky enough to get into the press box for yesterday’s game, and a few things stood out to me:

– Brandon Belt drew a couple walks in four plate appearances, taking a very good approach in his at-bats. He doesn’t look like a player that’s been scuffling, that’s for sure. In the first inning, he “drove in” one of the Giants’ three runs by drawing a bases-loaded walk — in four pitches, no less. That’s the first time the Giants have drawn a four-pitch bases-loaded walk in almost exactly a year; Mike Fontenot did it on July 14, 2011. It’s not like it’s a pure reflection of a hitter’s plate discipline — it’s pretty clearly in the hands of the pitcher. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Belt was the first Giants’ hitter to do this in the last year. And it’s not like he stands up there just watching every pitch go by. In his fourth-inning walk, he was swinging on a 2-0 count.

He’s struggled over the past two weeks, and people have taken notice. But it’s been two weeks, and nothing looks off to me in terms of his approach/swing. It’s completely ordinary for a good major-league hitter to go through some rough two-week stretches; hasn’t he earned the benefit of the doubt at this point? I mean, if he were to go through an extended slump, I’d understand the concerns. In any event, it was nice to see Belt reach base a couple times yesterday and contribute to what turned out to be a crucial run, even if he did take an “0-for-2.”

– On the opposite side of things, Brandon Crawford had some extremely ugly at-bats yesterday, his sixth-inning walk notwithstanding. Following Belt’s four-pitch bases-loaded walk in the first inning, he swung (and missed) at Norris’ first offering. Then he swung at the second pitch, fouling it off. And then he swung at the third pitch, and once again missed. A pitcher walks in a run on four pitches, and Crawford comes to the plate and strikes out on three pitches to end the inning.

That wasn’t the only instance, either. In the fourth inning, Bud Norris began by walking Nate Schierholtz and Brandon Belt. Back-to-back walks to lead off the inning, and what does Crawford do? He comes up first-pitch swinging, of course, promptly flying out.

– There’s a pretty fascinating symmetry if you compare Emmanuel Burriss’ 2011 stats to his 2012 stats. He’s put up terrible numbers this season, and they’re just as terrible as they were last season. It should go without saying, but he is not worthy of a roster spot on a major-league team, let alone the #2 spot in the lineup.

– As a general rule of thumb, I try not to complain much about lineup construction, seeing as it doesn’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. But having Belt (.360 OBP) bat in front of Brandon Crawford and [insert pitcher here] is absurd.

– The most important development of this series, of course, was the return of good Tim Lincecum. Eight innings, 11 strikeouts, one walk. Vintage stuff. Needless to say, that was highly encouraging to see, especially considering that the primary concern coming into the second half was Tim Lincecum.