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.

Announcing the Winners of the Matt Cain DVD Contest

The Giants/Dodgers series is over. The Giants won all three games, scoring a total of 14 runs. Brandon Belt failed to get a hit in the series.

There were four commenters that guessed that the Giants would sweep. Of those four, nobody correctly guessed the Giants’ total runs scored or Brandon Belt’s hit total. Therefore, the winners are the first two to correctly guess that the Giants would sweep: Justin C and Jack Coppinger. Email me (giantsnirvana@gmail.com) within the next few days from the address listed along with your comment, and I’ll arrange for the DVD to be mailed to you.

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.

Giants Defeat Rockies, 9-3

The Giants, at least for now, have regained sole possession of first place, thanks to — well, everybody…

Matt Cain, in the nine-game stretch between his perfect game and today’s start: 57.1 innings, 46 K, 16 BB, 10 HR, 4.40 ERA. He hadn’t been awful. He hadn’t even been bad, really, by normal standards. By Cain standards, of course, he’d been a disappointment. The glaring problem: those ten home runs; he allowed nine in all of 2011.

But anyway, in six of those nine starts, he allowed three earned runs or fewer. In each of those nine starts, he lasted 5+ innings. His average game score over that span: 51, where a 50 is generally considered average. You could say he’d been really good in a couple of those outings, even — the Oakland and Houston starts, specifically.

But never was he outstanding. He had ventured past the seventh inning just once, and even in that start, he surrendered five runs.

For five innings today, Cain finally looked outstanding. No walks. Just a few hits. Three swinging strikeouts in the third. Lots of flyballs scattered around the outfield — most of them routine flyouts, a few hit well; none was hit well enough, though. Through five, Cain had faced 16 batters and recorded 15 outs.

And that was the story…until Cain found himself in a no-outs bases-loaded jam. With the heart of the Rockies’ order set to bat, no less. But he pitched through it. After a fielder’s choice at third and a lineout that was fortunately hit right at Brett Pill (and frankly, should have been ruled an inning-ending double play, as Pill beat Carlos Gonzalez to the bag), Cain struck out Ramon Hernandez to end the threat.

Cain went out for the seventh, and had a pretty quick 1-2-3 inning. Then the eighth came, and he sort of lost his rhythm, despite a relatively low pitch count. D.J. LeMahieu hit his first career homer, and the Rockies’ 1-2 hitters each collected singles. That was it for Cain.

The final line: 7.1 IP, 2 ER, 6 K, 1 BB, 7 H, 1 HR. Perhaps not his best start since the perfect game, but a very good outing nonetheless. Oh, and he just so happened to drive in the second run of the game.

Alas, the Giants didn’t even end up needing that much out of Cain, as the offense exploded for nine runs. Every player who batted for the Giants in this game collected a hit…except for Brandon Belt — who walked in his lone at-bat.

Notes:

  • Buster Posey’s day: 2 for 5 with a single, an intentional walk, and a two-run homer (following a bunt single by Melky Cabrera); and to top it all off, he gunned down a runner at second.
  • On a similar note, is there a better 1-2 punch against left-handed pitching  than Buster Posey and Melky Cabrera? Before today, they stood at a 228 wRC+ and 207 wRC+ against southpaws, respectively.
  • As much as I complain about Joaquin Arias, he’s done a bang up job as Brandon Crawford’s platoon partner. Would you believe that he came into today with a .313/.349/.384 line against left-handers?

2012 First Half Review: The Starters

Since there’s no baseball today or tomorrow, I figure I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a stab at a first half review. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll divide it into three segments: the starters, the offense, and the bullpen. Without further ado…

Matt Cain

Oh, Matt Cain. Where to begin? Right as the offseason was drawing to a close, the Giants signed Cain to a rather massive long-term extension, tying up roughly $150M in him through 2018. I was pleased with the deal, but as I noted, pitchers tend to a) get worse with age, and b) get injured. Cain has done neither those of things. In fact, at age 27, Cain is currently performing better than he ever has.

He’s struck out one in four hitters that have come to bat against him, which is far and away the best strikeout rate of his career. And while the strikeouts have gone up, the walks have actually gone the other direction. Of the 473 batters he’s faced this season, only 23 have drawn an unintentional walk. Put the two together, and Cain’s tallied nearly five strikeouts for every walk; that’s significantly higher than his previous best (2.9 K/BB in 2010), and it’s more than double his career rate (2.4 K/BB). Cain has also tossed quite a few memorable games this season, including one particular game that solidified his place in the history books.

Put simply, Cain has been nothing short of spectacular thus far, and his performance even earned him the nod as the National League starter for this year’s all-star game — a role which he, unsurprisingly, handled well, tossing two scoreless innings to set the pace for the NL.

Madison Bumgarner

Madison Bumgarner has pitched, well, as expected. He’s been great. The strikeouts disappeared for a while at the beginning of the season; through the first eight starts, he had only recorded 30 strikeouts. Then he proceeded to strike out ten Brewers in his next start and from that point forward, he was himself (he’s got 69 strikeouts over his previous nine starts). Overall, Bumgarner’s seasonal strikeout rate has slightly dipped, but he’s also shaved off a few walks. His control, of course, has been remarkably consistent this season; in all but one start, he’s allowed two walks or fewer.

In other words, Madison Bumgarner has been Madison Bumgarner. Halfway through the season, he’s at 2.0 fWAR and 1.5 rWAR — although with that last start in Washington in which he allowed three home runs, his numbers sort of took a beating. Anyway, he’s still 22 years old, and he still never ceases to amaze me. Of particular note was that recent one-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds, a team that had feasted on left-handed pitching all season long.

Ryan Vogelsong

Before 2011, Ryan Vogelsong was somewhere on the list of the top 100 worst pitchers of all time. 315 career innings pitched, 217 runs allowed. Then he made his first major-league appearance in five years, and went on to have an all-star season, finishing out the year with a 2.71 ERA. He entered this year at age 34, with a minimal track record of success; given how good he had been in 2011, the expectation of “solid fourth starter” seemed reasonable, but Vogelsong was anything but a sure thing.

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.

Vogelsong takes the mound every fifth day for the Giants, so we’re just supposed to accept it as reality at this point. But he still makes no sense to me. In 2010, he was released by two organizations. Now he’s got the third best ERA- among qualified starters over the past season and a half. There he is on a pitching leaderboard, right between Clayton Kershaw and Roy Halladay. It’s absolutely crazy.

Barry Zito

I expected the worst out of Barry Zito this season. He was downright awful in 2011, even by Zito standards, having surrendered 35 runs in 53.2 innings. And his peripherals were no more promising, as his 5.60 FIP had marked a new career-worst. With Zito another year older, coming off a dreadful season, I figured he’d reached the end of his effectiveness.

In his debut, he pitched a four-hit no-walk shutout — in Coors Field, no less. And it was on that day that I ate crow. Zito went on to pitch two solid months to begin the season, in fact. Through May, he had a 3.41 ERA in ten starts. Then he crumbled. He ended up finishing out the first half with a 4.01 ERA, though the peripherals tell a different story. Zito has struck out just 12.7% of the hitters he’s faced, and his walk rate (11.1%) is also quite poor; not to mention, he’s got a 0.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his last six starts. If you go by FIP (5.05), Zito has been replacement level material thus far.

So despite the fact that his 4.01 ERA has come as a pleasant surprise, I can’t help but continue to have the same concerns about Zito that I had coming into this season.

Tim Lincecum

And we close it out on an especially miserable note, with Tim Lincecum. He allowed 66 earned runs in 2011. He’s allowed 69 earned runs in 2012 …through 18 starts. I had hope that after dominating the Los Angeles Dodgers to carry the Giants into first place, he had finally started to turn things around. That he did not. Lincecum closed out the first half with disastrous starts in Pittsburgh and Washington, and here we are now: Lincecum, halfway through the season, has the worst qualified ERA in the majors. This isn’t August 2010. He’s ventured deep into this mess of a season, and he has yet to return to form.

Over at Baseball Nation, Jeff Sullivan recently took an in-depth look at Lincecum’s season. Lincecum has been Lincecum with the bases empty, which seems like a good sign. I’m not sure what the root cause of his struggles are; his command disappears when runners reach base — is it mental? Mechanical? At this point, I have no idea what to expect from Lincecum. He’s an enigma. I’m almost at a loss for words. I’m cautiously optimistic that he’ll find his groove eventually, but we’re dangerously close to Brad Penny starting games for the San Francisco Giants.

Splash Hits: Matt Cain Achieves Perfection

Matt Cain And Perfection | FanGraphs Baseball
Wendy Thurm on Matt Cain’s perfect game.

El Lefty Malo – Covering Los Gigantes since 2003.
Retiring 27 Houston Astros in a row on a cool night in a friendly yard doesn’t prove anything, except that a guy with a hammer for an arm and a deep, cool reservoir inside can make baseball history with a little luck and a little help from his fast friends.”

Matt Cain is perfect « Bay City Ball – A Giants Blog
We’ve heard all of those things, and yet, start after start, Matt Cain has always been a joy to watch. In the truest sense of the word, he’s become a pitcher. And a damned good one, too. And he’s our guy. He’s still our guy. And he’ll always be our guy.”

Bay Area Sports Guy – A Perfect Game for Matt Cain
What was it like to watch Cain’s perfect game in the stands? First, it’s humbling to know we just saw something only 19 other crowds have witnessed since 1900. Second, AT&T Park felt like 2010 again — strangers were high-fiving each other and, for the first time in over a year, the crowd rose to the occasion and became part of the action again.”

50 Awesome Things About Matt Cain’s Perfect Game – McCovey Chronicles
Fifty awesome things about the Matt Cain perfect game. GIFs ahoy.

Joe Blogs: Cain Perfection
Joe Posnanski waxes poetic on Cain’s perfect game.

Matt Cain Throws Perfect Game

Matt Cain threw a perfect game tonight. I watched the game on television from start to finish and after it was all over, I had trouble collecting my thoughts. I was bombarded with all sorts of emotions — excitement, bliss, relief, disbelief…This was an event of such rarity and significance.

As the game progressed, the anticipation grew exponentially. More nervousness, anxiety, excitement. By the seventh inning, every pitch had me on the edge of my seat, holding my breath.

I say this having watched no other perfect game from start to finish, but I can’t imagine a more nerve-wracking perfect game. Cain was so dominant tonight that it was almost his undoing, odd as it sounds. Nobody was reaching base, but since Cain was racking up the strikeouts — 14, to be exact, he also had a pretty high pitch count going. Through seven innings, Cain was already over 100 pitches on the night, averaging 4.9 pitches per plate appearance. I can’t remember exactly how many times he ran the count full, but every time it happened, I feared it would all end.

That wasn’t it, either. There was the ball Chris Snyder crushed into left field — I figured there was no chance that wouldn’t leave the yard. There was the magnificent diving catch Gregor Blanco made in the seventh inning to preserve the perfect game; even as Blanco was chasing that ball down and going in for the dive, I figured it was all over. It got to the point where even the routine grounders were moments of intense anxiety.

But Cain did it. With a little luck, a little help from his defense, and a whole lot of Matt Cain-ness, he retired 27 Houston Astros in order. And yes, they’re the Houston Astros, a 26-36 team, but they’ve also managed to put up league-average numbers against right-handed pitching this season – it wasn’t exactly an easy offense to tackle.

Anyway, I’m still trying to digest all of this. There’s an article up at the ESPN SweetSpot blog posing the following questionDid Matt Cain throw greatest game ever? That’s the kind of territory we’re in right now. That’s the kind of performance we all just witnessed. Matt Cain, ladies and gentlemen. Matt Cain.

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.

Matt Cain Dominates Again in Giants’ 1-0 Victory

This was one of those special games in which both pitchers were in total control for the entire night. Through the first nine innings, Matt Cain and Cliff Lee combined to record 54 outs on 179 pitches. Lee went out for the tenth inning, which was another rarity — the last time a starter went past the ninth was Aaron Harang, back in 2007. Eventually, Brandon Belt — pinch hitting in the bottom of the 11th — knocked a single off Antonio Bastardo, and a couple batters later, Melky Cabrera drove him in for the walkoff win: 1-0.

  • Matt Cain was unbelievable during this homestand: 18 innings, zero runs, three hits, 15 strikeouts, one walk. Now keep in mind that he did all of that in under 200 total pitches. Seriously, give it a moment to let that sink in — incredible pitching. He becomes the first San Francisco Giants starter with back-to-back shutouts since Livan Hernandez, back in 2000. The last time any pitcher allowed two or fewer hits in back-to-back complete game outings? 1994.
  • Cliff Lee became the first pitcher to throw 10+ scoreless innings against the Giants since Joe Niekro, back in 1983. (Johnnie LeMaster was the Giants’ leadoff hitter in that game.)
  • I’ve become an Angel Pagan apologist, but there’s little excuse for his failed execution in the ninth inning. And his reaction to the bunt sign (h/t @bubbaprog) was Tejada-esque. That double play (which caused a ~15% drop in win expectancy) was huge. On the other hand, he also happened to demonstrate a few of the reasons why I like him: in the first inning, he led off with a single against Lee, and went from first to third — excellent baserunning — on the Melky Cabrera single that followed. And in the 11th inning, he reached on an error. Nothing special, but he put the ball in play — and the result got Brandon Belt in scoring position. That’s the great thing about a hitter that rarely strikes out (he has two strikeouts in 54 plate appearances thus far), particularly one that never — er, rarely – grounds into a double play. One of the areas in which Pagan consistently adds unnoticed value: reaching base via errors. If Pagan strikes out in that situation, Melky doesn’t hit that walkoff single….By the way, Pagan has collected a hit in all five games since I wrote this (and three of those games were multi-hit games).
  • Javier Lopez‘s strikeout of Jim Thome, beautifully pitched: +.195 WPA. For all the complaints this offseason about how much money the Giants gave to Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez, I wouldn’t have felt confident about Dan Runzler coming out to pitch in that critical situation. (For the record, I’m with Lefty Malo and Hanging Sliders on this one — the Lopez contract made sense; the Affeldt one didn’t).
  • That Antonio Bastardo pitch to Melky Cabrera that resulted in the walkoff single wasn’t necessarily a great pitch (it was left over the plate), but it was down in the zone and Melky had a tremendous approach lining it over the second baseman for a hit. It was his third hit on the night, and even though he’d cooled off a little over the past several games, I’m still feeling very good about him this season. He looks like a completely different player than he was pre-2011.
  • Clay Hensley is turning out to be the latest great, cheap bullpen addition. He’s only pitched a few innings so far, but his stuff really seems to translate well to the bullpen. For a non-guaranteed contract with a base salary of $750K? Excellent.
  • The Giants grounded into four double plays in their first 11 games. The Giants grounded into four double plays tonight.
  • Via GN contributor Daniel Rathman: “The starting pitchers combined to record 57 outs tonight. The winning pitcher recorded one.” Yep, wins are stupid.

The offense has reverted to its old ways, but the Giants are rolling anyway: three consecutive series wins, and 6-3 overall since they left Arizona.