Best Series Ever

Didn’t that all seem a little too easy?

The Giants scored in the first inning of the first game of this series, and never gave up their lead. They were never winning by a significant margin, but the way Madison Bumgarner was pitching, even two runs of support was enough to feel comfortable. Heck, even after Sergio Romo coughed up a solo homer to make it a one-run game, Javier Lopez came in and shut the door immediately. Just like that.

Last night’s game wasn’t entirely a walk in the park. But once again, the Giants got some runs up in the first inning, and never looked back. There was one moment in that game — one brief, isolated moment — that was cause for concern. Tim Lincecum was missing some spots in last night’s outing, so I was slightly worried when he worked himself into that sixth inning jam. Matt Kemp came up, representing the tying run. But in an instant, he smoked the second pitch into right field, and it was caught. And then there were two outs, and Jose Mijares came in to pitch against Andre Ethier — who is essentially Brandon Crawford when it comes to hitting left-handed pitching. Aside from that brief moment of tension with Kemp at the plate, it felt like the Giants were in total control the whole night.

And then the same happened tonight. Except tonight was a walk in the park. The Giants put three runs on the board in the first inning, and then Matt Cain took the mound. Cain retired the first seven hitters he faced, and then five of the next seven hitters he faced. Through five innings, the Dodgers were scoreless. And in the sixth inning, the Giants tacked on another three runs. By the end of the seventh inning, the Giants had a seven-run lead. Even when the Dodgers kept chipping away at that lead in the eighth inning, never did it feel like the Giants were actually in danger of relinquishing it. And Joaquin Arias, of all players, drove in five runs.

Not even a month ago, the Dodgers came to town and ripped the Giants’ collective heart out. The Giants had a three-game lead in the NL West before the series began, and by the time the Dodgers were gone, so was sole possession of first place. It was a gut-wrenching series, the kind that leaves a bad taste in the mouth for weeks. The first game was stolen by the Dodgers in the tenth inning, on a Hanley Ramirez home run off Sergio Romo — sound familiar? And in the subsequent two games, the Giants were shut out. The Dodgers scored 14 runs, and that was 14 more than the Giants. In that series as a whole, in their own home park, the Giants only scored three runs.

This was the polar opposite of that experience. There were runs, leads, wins. There were inconsequential homers hit by Hanley Ramirez off of Sergio Romo. The Giants waltzed into Los Angeles a second-place team, and they’ll exit with a modest first place lead.

Given how that last Giants/Dodgers series had gone, I was very nervous about the prospect of the Giants facing the Dodgers on the road. But it went well, shockingly well, and without much stress at all. It’s truly difficult to overstate how amazing this series was. Man, that felt good.

Well, That Didn’t Help

Tim Lincecum’s outing started in typically rough fashion today, as the Nationals tagged him for two runs in the first inning, and worked up his pitch count to 38. He was actually pretty sharp at times in today’s start, but by the end of the fourth inning, he was in the midst of his third go-round at the Nationals’ lineup and already up near 100 pitches. So that would do it for him.

There’s no question that today was all about Melky. But had Lincecum pitched well, and the Giants won this game (and the series), it would have been a heck of a lot easier to forget about Melky, even if only for a while. Today’s game was especially painful because five of Lincecum’s six second-half starts had been good — one more start like the one he had on July 14th, and I probably would have been ready to toss aside any concerns about Lincecum. Should we be as concerned about Lincecum as before?

In the later innings of this one, it looked like the Giants might be able to put together a comeback. They had runners on second and third with no outs in the eighth, but only managed to score one run. And in the ninth, when Pablo Sandoval appeared to have popped out to end the game, the ball dropped and Hector Sanchez came around to score. Suddenly, the Giants had Buster Posey up at the plate, representing the tying run.

And he struck out. And they lost. And that’s just how it goes sometimes.

There are a few silver linings though (not that they outweigh today’s unfortunate news). Among them:

  • The Giants scored four runs on a day that Stephen Strasburg started against them.
  • Brandon Crawford reached base a couple of times, and has now hit safely in eight consecutive games.
  • Gregor Blanco, taking over in left field for Melky, had a multi-hit game. He had gone 21 at-bats without a hit before his single in the sixth inning.
  • Pablo Sandoval went two for four with a walk.

Tomorrow’s a new day. A day off, in fact. Much needed.

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.

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.

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.