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.

On Those Melky Cabrera Extension Talks

As of this writing, Melky Cabrera leads the major leagues in hits; frankly, nobody’s even all that close, as Melky has a seven-hit advantage over the next-best in hits, Derek Jeter (67). Overall, Melky is hitting a red-hot .369/.412/.556 on the season, good for a .417 wOBA and 168 wRC+. It’s nearly June, and here we are, with Melky Cabrera in the top-ten in the majors in wRC+.

Naturally, with all of the buzz Melky has created, the topic of contract extension talks has come up. Cabrera is set to hit free agency after this season, and he’ll only be 28 years old. Do the Giants really want to let a player like that walk away?

Maybe.

In 2010, he was the laughing stock of baseball. He barely slugged .350, wasn’t much of a threat on the basepaths, and his defense was poor at best.

Then 2011 happened. And he collected 200+ hits en route to a .305/.339/.470 season with the Royals. He had a couple things going for him: for one, he was 26 years old, which would qualify as a typical breakout point. And secondly, he had been a productive everyday major-leaguer at age 21, something that should be recognized. At an age when many promising future stars are playing A-ball, Melky was in the majors putting up league-average numbers. Yes, that was quite a while ago, but that tells me that there’s an underlying special element to Melky; it’s something that takes a lot of talent.

Still, I was among the many that felt Melky’s 2011 season was an outlier of sorts — that he was a slightly below average player playing a couple notches above his true talent level. And, clearly, I was wrong. You can only learn so much from a couple month’s worth of play, but Melky’s .400+ wOBA is evidence enough for me to conclude that 2011 was more than just a fluke.

Many have made note of the fact that Melky’s success has been rooted in his batting average on balls in play. Through 2010, Melky’s career BABIP stood at .290. Since then, he’s maintained a .350 BABIP. There’s a tendency in the baseball community to dismiss all BABIP fluctuations as products of luck and randomness, but that’s a gross misapplication and oversimplification; in Melky’s case, I think it’s just flat-out false. While Melky is obviously not going to continue seeing 40% of his balls in play fall for hits (his 2012 BABIP sits at an astounding mark of .406), his dramatic improvement in this area shouldn’t be dismissed. BABIP is dependent upon factors of luck, but also upon skill-related factors like speed and type/strength of contact. Melky’s improvement, while probably boosted a bit by luck, signals that he’s hitting the ball harder and probably running harder, too. In fact, this is right in line with all of the news about his improved fitness level following his dreadful 2010.

ZiPS projection system has Melky posting a .331 BABIP over the rest of 2012, which seems pretty reasonable. That’s not ridiculously high, but at the same time, it’s a significant step up from league-average BABIP. I think Melky has done enough over his last 900 plate appearances to warrant an adjustment of expectations.

That said, I don’t think that Melky Cabrera is a superstar. I think he’s an above-average player. And it makes sense that the Giants are considering handing him a contract extension. If we’re talking 2/$20M or 3/$25M, the figures that Matt Klaasen suggested, I see no reason why the Giants shouldn’t hammer out a deal. In light of Melky’s phenomenal start to 2012, I don’t think those figures are all that realistic, though.

If we’re talking Aaron Rowand money, um…no.

It sounds like Brian Sabean is taking the perfect approach with Melky. According to Andrew Baggarly, Sabean has said that the “stars would have to align” for the Giants to extend Melky during the season, but that it hasn’t been ruled out. Sounds good to me.

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.

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.

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.

Behind Madison Bumgarner, Giants Snap Losing Streak

The story today was Madison Bumgarner. Nothing — missed calls, sloppy defense, a lack of run support — was going to get in his way. That’s what it felt like when he worked through that messy fifth inning. And when he rebounded from a leadoff error in the sixth — an inexcusable miscue between Angel Pagan and Brett Pill that put Aramis Ramirez in scoring position — to shut the Brewers down. But the lasting image was when he stepped up to the plate in the fifth inning — following a futile one-pitch at-bat from Conor Gillaspie — and lined a double into left field to tie the game at one.

All in all, he turned in yet another stellar performance on the mound, allowing one run through seven innings of work, as he improved to a 2.31 ERA (3.61 FIP) on the season and carried the Giants to a 5-2 victory. In four of Bumgarner’s six starts this season, he’s gone 7+ innings without allowing more than one run.

Obligatory reminder: he’s 22 years old. His first five starts alone put his 2012 season among the best by a 22-year-old Giants starter. Is there any question he can work his way up to #1 on that list by season’s end?

  • Five runs…feels like it’s been a while, eh? It has. Last time they scored five runs in a game was back in Cincinnati, nine days ago.
  • Hector Sanchez, who entered this game hitting .233/.244/.302, finally got things going with a pair of doubles (one of which nearly went over the centerfield wall for a homer). These were his second and third extra-base hits on the season, respectively, and needless to say, it’s great to see a game like this out of Hector.
  • Melky Cabrera had a quality game as well, with a couple hits (including a triple) and some very good glovework in right field. He’s now put together four consecutive multi-hit games, which has brought him up to a .364 wOBA this season. At this point, it seems pretty clear that I was wrong about Cabrera — something I’m very happy to say.
  • Angel Pagan has now hit safely in 19 consecutive games; however, he’s also now gone 16 consecutive games without a walk. I do wonder if he’s slightly altered his approach, becoming more hacktastic for the sake of preserving his hitting streak. It’s not likely, but it’s worth throwing out there. And while we’re on the subject of walks — the Giants had another walk-less game today, keeping their season total at 65. That’s third-worst in the National League.

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.