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.

Brandon Belt Has Arrived

Over the past six games, Brandon Belt has put together a modest little hitting streak, during which time he’s collected eight hits — three of them homers — and drawn four walks. Not to mention, he’s only struck out in three of his 24 plate appearances. It’s only six games, but his performance over the last week has been enough to bring his overall seasonal line to .250/.364/.412, good for a 112 wRC+. While that perhaps still falls short of some of the lofty expectations we all had for Belt coming into this season — the power numbers in particular are disappointing — he’s been as good, overall, as we should have reasonably expected.

First of all, his 112 wRC+ is pretty solid compared to what other first basemen have done this season. National League first basemen, as a whole, have a 103 wRC+ for the 2012 season (.251/.328/.430). In terms of total offensive value, Belt has been better than guys like Albert Pujols, Freddie Freeman, Carlos Pena, Adrian Gonzalez, and Kevin Youkilis, to name a few (also, he’s tied with Mark Teixeira at a 112 wRC+).

And overall, Fangraphs (fWAR) has Belt’s 2012 production valued at 0.8 WAR over 165 PA. It’s important to be cautious in citing WAR over such small samples, but Belt’s fielding value (+1.3 UZR) is well within reason; in other words, he’s not just benefiting from some fluky defensive metrics here. If Belt could simply maintain his established level of production for 2012 over 600 plate appearances, he’d be a ~3 WAR player. (Of course, Belt likely won’t reach the 600-PA mark.) I’m certain that if I were told at the beginning of the season that Belt would perform at a 3-WAR pace, I’d have happily taken it.

It’s also worth noting that Baseball-Reference (rWAR) has Belt at 1.1 WAR, which translates to 4 WAR over 600 plate appearances. That’s especially impressive when you consider that Baseball Reference’s WAR doesn’t give players the same replacement level boost that Fangraphs does. Put on the same scale as Fangraphs’ implementation of WAR, Belt’s 1.1 rWAR translates to something like 4.7 WAR over 600 plate appearances. (Though in this case, the defensive value prorated over a full season is generous).

Anyway, it obviously remains to be seen how Belt will perform over the rest of the season, but that’s beside the point. I think it’s safe to say that he’s been good this season, and that there’s little reason to be disappointed with his overall production. For all the concern about his playing time, Brett Pill is in Triple-A right now and Aubrey Huff is on the DL, so that shouldn’t be much of a problem going forward. What the Giants have on their hands right now is a 24-year-old first baseman with strong defensive skills and a .335 wOBA in a year in which National League first baseman have collectively posted a .328 wOBA. While I’m still holding out hope that he’ll increase the power production as the season progresses and eventually climb up to a .350 wOBA (as projected by ZiPS), Brandon Belt has arrived.

Brandon Belt and Strikeouts

Brandon Belt hasn’t started his season as most would have hoped, as he currently boasts a .227/.346/.330 line. He’s had solid on-base numbers to this point, but he’s failed to hit the ball with much authority — in fact, he has yet to hit his first home run of 2012. Additionally, he’s striking out at a rather high clip — 26.2% of his plate appearances have ended in a strikeout, compared to a league-average of 19.5%. The strikeouts have especially plagued Belt of late, as he has K’d in 9 of his last 19 plate appearances.

In light of Belt’s disappointing performance, I think it’s worth point out a few things.

For one, strikeouts aren’t such a bad thing. Plenty of great hitters strike out at relatively high rates, and it doesn’t prevent them from having success. Given his patience and power potential, Belt fits the bill for a player that could go this route. (And it’s not as though he’s striking out at Mark Reynolds rates.) In fact, it’s pretty refreshing to see a hitter like Belt on the Giants — strikeouts and all.

Since 2007, the Giants rank:

  • 12th in the National League in K%
  • 15th in the National League in BB%
  • 15th in the National League in wRC+

If their recent offenses are any indication, the Giants seem to love hitters who don’t strike out a lot, even if it’s often at the expense of drawing walks. Recent acquisitions like Melky Cabrera (12% K rate) and Angel Pagan (14.4% K rate) reflect this approach. (And, for the record, I like both Melky and Pagan a lot, and I’d say they’ve proven to be solid hitters).

Belt, as a high-walk high-strikeout hitter, represents a shift from this kind of hacktastic approach that so many recent Giants hitters have shown. He’s not too passive at the plate, either. According to pitch f/x data, Belt swings at 25.1% of pitches out of the strike zone. The league average is 28.3%. Belt also swings at 74.9% of pitches within the strike zone. The league average is 61.3%.

That’s not an overly passive hitter. That’s a selective hitter — one that waits for good pitches to hit, and then swings away. As long as Belt continues to employ this selective approach, I expect him to come around eventually.

Belt has come to the plate 107 times this season. It’s far too early to start worrying about him, especially considering that he hasn’t been that terrible. He’s currently at a 91 wRC+, which, while poor for a first baseman, isn’t approaching Eric Hosmer or Ike Davis levels.

So, just be patient. Especially with the power — there’s not much to conclude yet from Belt’s early power outage.

Tim Lincecum Struggles As Giants Fail to Get the Sweep

Over their previous five games, the Giants had drawn 33 walks — 31 of them unintentional; this is a team that’s been all about swinging at the first pitch, putting the ball in play, and avoiding strikeouts at the expense of working the count and drawing walks, but for once, it seemed as though they had begun to adopt a more patient approach. Sunday’s game against Bartolo Colon — who had walked eight of the 237 batters he’s faced this season — presented this team with a good test.

And at first, it looked like they would fail that test. Gregor Blanco struck out on three pitches to lead off the game. Brandon Crawford then struck out on three pitches as a follow-up. Melky Cabrera popped a ball up into left field that fell for a double, but Buster Posey grounded out to end the inning. It was going to be an afternoon of quick see-ya’s and weak contact.

But in the second inning, Angel Pagan got the Giants on the board by way of some excellent baserunning — first by barely stretching a single into a double (he’s now hit safely in 31 of his last 32 games), then by tagging up twice on flyouts.

The Giants scored their first two runs via the sacrifice fly, bringing their running total to seven sac flies over the last four games. They had seven sac flies through their first 36 games. Hey, if they’re not going to get hits with runners in scoring position, at least they’re finding other ways to get the runs in.

Except, those would be their only two runs on the day, as Colon held them in check for five innings — and, in the process, racked up the strikeouts. Colon had struck out five hitters over his last three starts, but managed to K seven Giants in his five innings of work.

The fifth inning was particularly ugly, as the Giants failed to capitalize on a bases-loaded less-than-two-outs situation. Angel Pagan worked the count full, then struck out looking on an inside pitch which — to Colon’s credit — had some beautiful movement. Then, in an at-bat that featured some pretty bold and arguably ill-advised two-strike takes, Belt eventually did the same thing: struck out looking on a 3-2 pitch.

As for the pitching side of things, that wasn’t too pretty either. The A’s are one of the worst teams in baseball when it comes to hitting right-handed pitchers; as a team, they’ve hit .211/.289/.333 against righties, with an AL-worst 75 wRC+. Today was as good a day as any for Tim Lincecum to give the Giants one of his trademark dominant outings. And through the first three innings, he was. He was throwing strikes, getting whiffs, and keeping hits to a minimum. In the first inning, he struck out the side — all three of ‘em swinging. In the second, he retired the side in order, tallying a fourth strikeout. In the third, he pitched out of a two-out runner-on-third jam, getting Cliff Pennington to ground out.

But in the fourth inning, it all unraveled. Seth Smith and Josh Donaldson hit back-to-back singles. Daric Barton drew a six-pitch walk. And with the bases loaded, Lincecum fell behind to both Kurt Suzuki  and Colin Cowgill, eventually serving up RBI singles to both of ‘em. Lincecum eventually got out of the inning with a Pennington foulout; but the damage was done: four runs on four hits, two walks, and a grand total of 41 pitches.

Lincecum wasn’t exactly hit hard, but his command was all over the place, and it was more or less the same struggles we’ve seen out of him all season long. We’re now nine starts into the season, and Lincecum’s ERA is still over 6.00; he’s had one quality start, and even in that outing he walked four hitters, and only struck out five. DIPS says he hasn’t been all that bad — his FIP is at 2.93, which is identical to his career mark. But I have a hard time buying into the notion that he’s been as good as his underlying peripherals would suggest, and while I still expect him to bounce back, his command (paired with the dropoff in fastball velocity) is a very serious concern at this point.

  • The Giants struck out looking eight times on the day, which is uncharacteristic of this team. Entering today, only 22% of their strikeouts were looking — which puts them in the bottom-10 in the majors. In fact, when Crawford struck out looking in the seventh inning of yesterday’s game, it had ended a streak of 21 consecutive swinging strikeouts.
  • Aside from his sac fly, Belt had a rough day at the plate, as he accounted for three of the Giants’ strikeouts. It’s only a matter of time before Aubrey Huff takes back the starting first base job.
  • Melky Cabrera accounted for four of the Giants’ eight hits on the day, as he extended his season total to a major-league-leading 20 multi-hit games. His hits today weren’t especially impressive — a grounder that found a hole, a pop-up that dropped in for a double, and a couple bloops — and he’s bound to slow his pace eventually, but that’s not to take away from what he’s accomplished; he’s now within inches of .300/.400/.500 territory (currently hitting .353/.396/.497).
  • Bruce Bochy continued his trend of leaving pitchers in the game too long. After Shane Loux had already given the Giants two scoreless innings, Bochy left him in the game to hit in the sixth inning, and he gave up a two-run shot to Josh Reddick upon coming back out for a third inning of work. For a manager generally lauded for his handling of pitchers, Bochy’s been unimpressive in that regard this season — to say the least.

Marlins Sweep the Giants

On the day it was announced that Pablo Sandoval would miss the next six weeks with a broken hamate bone in his left hand, the Giants didn’t do much to raise spirits. In fact, these last three games against the Marlins have featured some pretty shoddy baseball on their part:

  • The Giants scored five runs this series. They managed to strand 23 baserunners in this three-game set. They drew a grand total of five walks. As promising — by which I mean “potentially acceptable” — as the Giants’ offense looked at the beginning of the season, they’ve fallen back to earth. Over their last few sets (Reds, Padres, Marlins), they’ve averaged 2.7 runs scored per game. Yuck.
  • After collecting a couple hits in back-to-back games, I have to think the whole Brandon Belt fiasco is actually nearing its end. He’s raised his overall line to .292/.370/.396 (120 wRC+), and given that the Giants are starved for run production right now, I think Belt has finally reached the point where he’ll be given regular playing time. At least, I hope so. What a relief that would be.
  • With today’s 0-for-2, Brandon Crawford‘s numbers have dropped to .208/.228/.338. That’s a 43 wRC+. At least his glove is…oh, six errors on the year already? I’ve been pretty back-and-forth on the issue of Brandon Crawford. It took a while, but I eventually warmed up to the idea of him as starting shortstop. I’m not hopping off the bandwagon yet, but I’m close. He’s gotten off to a miserable start this season.
  • This was Anibal Sanchez‘s fourth career start against the Giants. In 31 innings, he’s now allowed four runs. 24 strikeouts, five walks.
  • This is only the second time the Giants have been swept at home in the last year. The last time? Another ugly series against the Marlins.
  • We’re a few days into May, which means there’s a lot of baseball left. This Sandoval injury is by no means a nail in the coffin for the Giants. But things are looking pretty bad at this point. They’re already five games back in the NL West, and that alone feels like a lot of ground to make up (of course, there are also a couple wild card spots up for grabs). They’ll need to somehow tread water until Sandoval’s return; with near-automatic outs slotted in at third base, shortstop, and second base, that’s an unenviable task. These next few weeks could very well be disastrous. One can only hope that today was the low point of 2012.
  • With today’s performance, Ryan Vogelsong brought his ERA/FIP down to 3.42/3.43 respectively. Through four starts, he’s quietly remained great at the back end of the Giants’ rotation, which was far from a sure thing heading into this season. At least there’s that.

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.

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.