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.