93 Wins, Tim Lincecum, and the Postseason Roster

Greetings from the Petco Park press box, where hahahahahahaha I can’t believe the Giants actually won that game. Okay, sorry, I’ll pull myself together — I just watched the Giants wrap up their 159th game of the season. They pulled off a pretty spectacular comeback win, but Tim Lincecum pitched poorly (more on that later); and this was my last chance to see the 2012 Giants in action, as I won’t be able to make it to any postseason games. So, ultimately, it was a bittersweet day.

This game was, in a word, eventful. Let’s start with Lincecum, the latest concern as the Giants look ahead to the playoffs. He’s sort of pitched better in the second half, with 3.93 runs allowed per nine innings since the all-star break — compared to a first-half RA/9 figure of 6.70. Except, he sort of hasn’t. (And, really, how hard was it to improve upon those dreadful first-half numbers anyway?)

Lincecum got off to a promising start today, with a 1-2-3 first inning. He followed that up with a scoreless second inning. Okay, so now we’re rolling. In the third, he walked Everth Cabrera, who proceeded to steal second and third. And then the Padres started to do their damage: Logan Forsythe homered on the eighth pitch of his at-bat to put two runs on the board. It wasn’t a good pitch, but it wasn’t exactly a meatball. It was on the innermost part of the top of the strike zone, and really, it was pretty impressive that Forsythe was able to get around on it.

But Lincecum wasn’t done there. In the fourth, he served up a leadoff homer to Yasmani Grandal, on a pitch placed squarely over the middle of the plate. In the fifth, he walked Everth Cabrera, who again proceeded to steal second and third, only this time he came around to score on an overthrow to third from Hector Sanchez. And in the sixth, once again, Lincecum served up a leadoff homer on a pitch right down the middle.

Lincecum finished his day with the following line: six innings, four hits, four strikeouts, two walks, and a whopping three homers allowed (at Petco Park, no less!). I guess those two walks were somewhat of a silver lining, and hey, he drew a couple walks himself. But it’s pretty hard to feel confident about Lincecum starting a postseason game at this point. According to Andrew Baggarly, it would have taken a “truly bad” showing from Lincecum for him to forfeit his spot in the playoff rotation. I’m guessing that today’s outing, bad as it was, didn’t do the job. And, like it or not, the Giants have no better options. The Reds have mashed against left-handed pitching to the tune of a 106 wRC+, the third-best mark in the majors. Suffice it to say, a Barry Zito start against that lineup would probably not end well. (And while we’re on the topic, I’m not sure what value Zito is going to have as a reliever.)

Given the uncertainty surrounding the Giants’ starters, and Bruce Bochy’s own managerial tendencies, it’s odd to see that the Giants are leaning toward putting 11 pitchers (instead of 12) on the postseason roster. Bochy loves to mix and match with his bullpen, and unsurprisingly, Giants relievers have the lowest average innings pitched per appearance of any ‘pen in the majors. In fact, no team is particularly close. Coming into today, that mark stood at 0.86, with the next lowest being the Mets bullpen’s mark of 0.91. Given his style, I’m guessing he’d have more use for an extra arm than a designated pinch runner. Plus, as @SFBleacherGirl points out on Twitter, the Giants could play as many as three games in Cincinnati’s homer-happy home park; in other words, pitching will come at a premium.

Anyway, back to today’s game. The Giants got thrown out at home twice in the same inning. Hector Sanchez, as noted earlier, threw the ball over Joaquin Arias’ head in an attempt to gun down Everth Cabrera, which allowed him to score. Gregor Blanco struck out with the bases loaded. Ryan Theriot was caught stealing second to end the third inning. There was just a lot of sloppy baseball played by the Giants in general.

Yet they entered the ninth inning with just a one-run deficit, and against one of the toughest closers in the majors, they miraculously mounted a comeback. The sequence: Xavier Nady solo homer, Francisco Peguero single, Hunter Pence two-run homer. Sergio Romo came in, closed the door, and that was that — a 7-5 Giants win, salvaged rather miraculously. The Giants have now won 93 games, their most since 2003.

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 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.

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.

Is Tim Lincecum Back?

After surrendering 16 runs across his first 13.2 innings, Tim Lincecum finally settled down and got good results, allowing one run through five innings of work.

The good:

  • Lincecum struck out eight of the 23 batters he faced, and had them whiffing on his fastballs. Of course, swing-and-miss stuff hasn’t really been the problem for Lincecum so far. Through his first three starts, he actually had a 23.2% strikeout rate; while that is the lowest he’s ever had in a season, it’s not a terribly significant dropoff.
  • One extra-base hit: a double. This, on the other hand, was a problem for Lincecum in his first three starts. In those previous 13.2 innings, he had allowed seven doubles, two triples, and two homers (that’s a .265 ISO!). That’s really been the root of his troubles this season — that he’s been hit hard. So it’s very nice to see this step in the right direction.
  • A strong first inning. Lincecum had allowed nine runs in three first-innings this season, so his not getting into a jam right away was a positive sign.

The bad:

  • Lincecum walked five of the 23 batters he faced. Control hasn’t been Lincecum’s problem in the early going — in fact, the 5.8% walk rate he brought into this start was a career-best  — but it’s slightly concerning to see him revert to these control issues. At the risk of jumping to conclusions, I wonder if this might suggest that he had been trading walks for hard contact — meaning this start constituted a change in his approach.
  • According to Brooks Baseball, Lincecum averaged 89.8 mph on his four-seamer, topping out at 91.9 mph. No improvement there.
  • 108 pitches. This is, of course, directly related to the high walk total.

So…is Lincecum back? Perhaps, inasmuch as he’ll be an effective pitcher from this point forward. I can’t say with any confidence, however, that Lincecum will finish 2012 with better numbers than 2011. I think this very well could be the worst season of his career. Is that a big deal? Not entirely. Pitchers tend to peak at a pretty early age, and it’s not at all atypical that Lincecum is experiencing a downward trend at this age. I’m becoming increasingly worried about the possibility of the Giants offering him a lucrative contract extension, though. It’s probably not going to be worth taking on that kind of risk, particularly given that they’ve already invested in Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain.