Sunday, September 23, 2012

2012 MLB Playoffs: Analyzing the Giants pitching rotation options



Now that the San Francisco Giants have booked their ticket to October baseball, the inevitable topic of debate for the next couple weeks will be the pitching rotation. The Giants are in a tough position—but in a good way because they have excellent options to choose from. Typically a playoff rotation is only a four-man rotation so that the number one starter can throw two times in a five-game series or even three times in a seven-game set. This leaves one regular season starter riding the bench.

The Giants do not currently have any true back-of-the-rotation starter (save Tim Lincecum’s struggles that Bruce Bochy continually neglected). Instead, they seem to have a pair of aces as well as five arms who can all give San Francisco an excellent shot at winning a ballgame.


Matt Cain
Madison Bumgarner
Barry Zito
Tim Lincecum
Ryan Vogelsong
W-L
5-2
5-4
5-1
5-3
5-4
IP
65.1
61.2
53.2
52.2
49
ERA
3.04
3.68         
4.91
3.28
7.16
K
55
57
35
47
52
Team win percentage
.700
.600
.900
.667
.500
 Note: Statistics from 8/1 – 9/23; team win percentage represents all games where named pitcher started

Even though his ERA is on the high side, Barry Zito should be a no-brainer to land a spot in the rotation. His recent performance has been outstanding in that the Giants have won nine of his past ten starts. Even though he was a disaster in the previous years that he donned the orange and black, Zito has been a quintessential member of the Giants pitching staff and has earned a spot in the rotation.

Matt Cain and his perfect game have undoubtedly been a crux of the staff, as well. He and Madison Bumgarner have been relatively consistent throughout the season and were instrumental in the Giants’ 2010 World Series championship. Cain did not give up a single earned run in 21 1/3 innings of postseason work.

Although Tim Lincecum was the face of the 2010 World Series championship, his shockingly terrible season this year has landed him in the discussion for the back-end of the rotation—if not out of the rotation altogether. Lincecum’s season as a whole has been well less expected from a two-time Cy Young Award winner, but his pitching has improved over the course of the past two months and in that time period he is right in the middle of the rotation, statistically.

This leaves out Ryan Vogelsong. While that would be a difficult decision to make considering he had such an incredible comeback season last year, Vogelsong just has not been playing as well of late and has been the worst Giants starter of late (see chart above). By no means does that mean that he is bad—the Giants have some of the best pitching in baseball—it just means that he is the odd man out this time.

As for the order of the rotation, that is a more complicated question based on matchups—something that Bochy has been a wizard with over the years. Take this season for example: Bochy has made a closer-by-committee bullpen work masterfully.

Based on the combination of factors such as recent performance and previous experience, the Giants rotation should look something like this:

1) Matt Cain
2) Madison Bumgarner
3) Tim Lincecum
4) Barry Zito

Truthfully, the last two are interchangeable. Moreover, if the Giants are able to get through everybody in the first round and somebody does particularly well (or particularly poorly), Bochy can fiddle with the rotation and add Ryan Vogelsong, if necessary. Additionally, having Vogelsong come out of the bullpen as a middle reliever could be very effective for the Giants—and that’s something Vogelsong could likely do better than any other starter.

Going into the playoffs, the Giants should be very happy with what they have. This rotation may not be as concrete as the 2010 team, but nothing about 2012 has been very concrete. Nonetheless, they pulled out the National League West title. It will be exciting to see who will step up in October and how Bochy manages the pieces that he has to work with.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Barry Zito and San Francisco Giants fans: is there hope for reconciliation?



Barry Zito has given the San Francisco Giants fans nothing short of 126 million reasons to hate him. As excited as the Giants organization and fan base had been to get the former Cy Young Award winner (can you believe he used to be that good?), San Francisco quickly came to despise the pitcher who all but robbed the bank of one of baseball’s most storied franchises.

In the five seasons that Zito has pitched for the Giants (2007-11), he posted a horrendous 4.55 ERA to go with a 43-61 record in over 800 IP. That fell far short of the Giants expectations of him. San Francisco had reason to believe that there was still something left of the pitcher who had won 23 games in 2002. That said, the argument that he was overrated certainly has merit: Zito had hovered around a .500 winning percentage from 2003-06 and never had an ERA below 3.30. The Giants were expecting a miracle to re-appear from the shadows of a one-hit wonder.

Fast forward to 2012 and actually, Barry Zito has been impressive by his (albeit low) standards. As of 9/22, Zito has 13 wins and an ERA just above 4.00. But the Giants have finally become accustomed to the results they will be getting when they put Zito on the mound. It is not Matt Cain or Madison Bumgarner out there, but a mediocre pitcher who can occasionally put together good starts.

If the ultimate judge of a pitcher is whether or not his team gets a “W” when the lights go off after the game, Zito has been outstanding. Yes, Barry Zito with his 4.18 ERA and his 84 MPH fastball has actually been outstanding in something.

The Giants have won every single of Zito’s past nine starts. A perfect 9-0.

Granted, the Giants have managed to amass over six runs per game for Zito during that stretch but the end result is what matters, and the end result has been quite pleasing of late. Believe it or not, Zito has actually put together an impressive month of September even by a traditional pitcher’s standards, having a 3-0 record to complement an impressive 2.66 ERA and only five walks in 23.2 IP. (He still has one more start in September to blow it though so the jury is still waiting to see if the real Barry Zito will please stand up.)

Is this enough to satisfy Giants fans? Certainly not. The stress he has caused and games he has lost are still all too fresh in the city by the bay. But is there a way out for Barry Zito? Now that is a much more complicated question. If he manages to continue to put together starts that may not be stellar but get the job done, it is a realistic possibility. Especially if the Giants make a deep playoff run supported by Zito in the back end of the rotation, who knows? Baseball is a funny game that is based on one fundamental idea: what have you done for me lately.

Look no further than the demise that has been Tim Lincecum. The Freak has two Cy Young awards to his name but the Giants no longer trust the former ace who led the Giants to lose 12 out of his first 14 starts of the 2012 season.

As Lincecum has shown, the “what have you done for me lately” philosophy will get you nowhere if the results are not consistent. Recently it has been looking better for Zito, no doubt. When it comes down to crunch time will be the true test of Zito’s grit (or whatever is left of it).

Barry Zito has the power to change Giants’ fans opinion of him in the next month. If he does not do it now, he may have cemented his unfortunate legacy as the most overpaid Giant of all time.

No pressure, Barry.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Can the San Francisco Giants make a closer-by-committee system work?


Brian Wilson personified the Giants’ bullpen in their 2010 World Series championship run. The ability for a manager to turn the ball over to a shut-down arm in late-inning situations is something that should never be taken for granted—Bruce Bochy can undoubtedly attest to that. Unfortunately for the Giants, Wilson went down early in the season with an elbow injury that resulted in a second season-ending Tommy John surgery.

Currently the Giants are sporting a closer-by-committee bullpen situation and thus far, it has worked. Santiago Casilla is listed as the closer but Sergio Romo (12 saves), Jeremy Affeldt (3), Clay Hensley (3), and Javier Lopez (7) combine to have more saves than him (24).

Perhaps one reason the Giants have been so reluctant to name a closer is because their best pitcher does not have the stereotypical persona of one. Sergio Romo is sporting a miniscule 1.98 ERA and only 10 walks in 50 innings of work; however, he does not possess the blazing fastball that Brian Wilson and former Giant great Robb Nen threw. In fact, Romo’s fastball does not even average 88 MPH.

Santiago Casilla, on the other hand, throws a respectable 94 MPH fastball. In the beginning of the season, it looked like he would be the closer for the Giants in Wilson’s absence. But midseason woes—namely an ERA north of 6.00 in June and July—forced Bochy to search elsewhere for ninth inning pitching.

Naturally, Sergio Romo was the guy to turn to. After all, he did not give up a single earned run in his first 13 appearances. A couple of bad outings led Bochy to stick with a closer-by-committee bullpen for the long term.

So the real question is: can the Giants win in the playoffs with such a system? Recent World Series champions were anchored by the likes of Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Brad Lidge, Bobby Jenks, and Brian Wilson. There was no question for those teams who would be taking the ball at the end of the game, something that made such situations slightly less nerve-wracking.

Even though the Giants have managed their bullpen skillfully, San Francisco Chronicle writer Henry Schulman points out a glaring problem: only four teams since 1969 have won the World Series while three different pitchers have at least eight saves each. All of those coaches are (or will be) in the Hall of Fame.

As great as Bochy has managed the great Giants pitching staff, he is not Cooperstown-bound just yet. (But winning a World Series with a closer-by-committee bullpen might give him a strong case.)

Realistically the Giants have no option but to ride it out, and if that means a closer-by-committee team, so be it. Casilla, Romo, and Lopez are all capable of closing the deal and even Affeldt can take care of late-inning relief, if necessary. Going with whoever is hot is the best idea until one pitcher stands out...and only two of those four relievers have a realistic shot at earning the role come the playoffs: Romo or Casilla. Romo has the playoff experience and Casilla has the mentality you want from a closer.

Bochy will not have an easy job deciding who gets to start the ninth inning once October baseball rolls around. But if anybody in today’s game is capable of pulling it off, Bochy is the guy. Will it work? That remains to be seen, but as the Giants organization has become accustomed to while dealing with injuries, the game is as simple as working with what you have.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Derek Jeter: the Captain, the record breaker, and a baseball icon


Surpassing the legendary Willie Mays in any category is astounding, and Derek Jeter did just that on September 14 at Yankee Stadium. The Yankee great passed Mays for 10th most career hits all-time. Think about that for a second… Only nine players in the history of baseball have gotten more hits than DJ in their career. Needless to say, this is another huge accomplishment that the Yankee shortstop has accumulated over the course of his 18-year career.

Now before we delve any further into Jeter’s career and accomplishments, take into account that this perspective is coming from someone who is a Giants and Red Sox fan. You would think that I would be the last person to give Jeter credit for his accomplishments. Even though I am not particularly thrilled as a Giants fan to see Mays drop in the record books, Jeter has earned every one of his 3,284 hits.

No explanation is necessary for the hatred lack of affection that Red Sox fans like myself have for the so-called “Evil Empire.”  The fact is, Jeter has five World Series championship titles to his name and is in good position to make a run at number six. The Red Sox, on the other hand, won their first World Series in 86 years less than a decade ago (2004). Regardless, here is why I have nothing but the utmost respect for the Yankee captain.

In an era riddled by steroids, Jeter’s name has never been in the PED discussion. He has not been a prolific home run hitter but found a way to get the job done at a high level without the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Ironically, Jeter has won more championships than the trio of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Jose Canseco combined. Granted, the Steinbrenner ownernship has outspent every MLB team since 1999 and the 2011 Yankees payroll on Opening Day was over five times greater than the Kansas City Royals.

Jeter’s individual achievements in one of the largest spotlights in all of sports are nothing short of sensational: 13-time All Star, five-time Gold Glove Award winner, four-time Silver Slugger Award winner, and a career average well above .300. He is indubitably one of the top shortstops of all time and a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Perhaps my conviction on Barry Bonds’ lack of Hall of Fame-worthiness has garnered Jeter more respect with me. You can argue the length of a baseball season whether or not Bonds and PED athletes deserve a spot in Cooperstown but one thing is certain: they tarnished the game and nearly a decade of baseball.

Jeter is the bright spot that shows steroids are not necessary to perform at a high level; talent can combine with a strong work ethic to get more than just mediocre results. Take for example the increase in no-hitters over the past couple years, something invariably connected to the fact that hitters are not ‘roided up. What does that say? Pitchers have always been good, but PEDs powered their 95 MPH fastballs over the fence much more than they should have been. However, Jeter has been steady before, during, and after the era, hitting .320 and above consistently throughout his career. Take this season for example: at age 38, Jeter has posted a .323 average and is nearing his eighth season of 200-plus hits.

Jeter’s on-the-field heroics have been coupled with a model attitude off-the-field, as well. “The Captain” is always one to preach the team concept, play through injuries, and commend his teammates before himself. It is very difficult not to appreciate his attitude, even as a fan of a rival team.

Not only that, but baseball has become more of a “business,” leading to lessened loyalty between a player and his team. Back in the days of Willie Mays and Yogi Berra, players consistently spent nearly their entire career with one team. Even today, Albert Pujols had been considered such a player…until he left St. Louis for the nice beaches and large paycheck in Los Angeles. Yet Jeter has remained a Yankee (although that is at least in part due to career salary earnings of $220 million—second most among all MLB players since 1985).

To the chagrin of the rest of baseball, each and every time that Derek Jeter has stepped in between the white lines, he has donned the Yankee pinstripes. The one time in his career that Jeter’s contract negotiations did becomes public, Jeter was “angry about it…the negotiations were supposed to be private.”

He respects and has certainly done his part to maintain the integrity of the game to its players and fans. As baseball’s darker hour begins to drift away, baseball still needs players like Jeter at least as much as players like Jeter need baseball.  

The reality is that the kid who was drafted by New York as a teenager has embodied everything that baseball is supposed to be. You will not catch me rooting for the guy come the playoffs, but I can say without question that I respect everything about the Yankee shortstop.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

2010 vs. 2012 San Francisco Giants


The Giants are looking to make another deep post-season run. Although they are currently sitting atop the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers are biting on their heels. It remains to be seen whether or not the Giants can hold onto their lead after Magic Johnson and the Dodgers’ front office decided to take on over $250 million in three players (Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford).

Regardless of the blockbuster trade, the Giants organization and fan base still has something the Dodgers do not: the sweet aftertaste that came with a 2010 World Series championship. With that in mind, how does this years’ Giants roster compare to the 2010 World Series champions?

The chart to the left shows a comparison of the 2010 World Series and the current 2012 rosters (after I have widdled down the current 40-man roster to the players who would presumably be on the 25-man roster). One readily apparent difference is the discrepancy between continuity among pitchers and position players. Lincecum, Cain and Romo highlight the eight pitchers who have remained in the orange in black. Barry Zito, of course, was a Giant in 2010 but his 14 losses and 4.15 ERA earned him a spot as a spectator in the World Series.

Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval are the only position players whose names appear on both rosters. While that isn’t such a bad thing considering both are 2012 NL All Stars and Posey is an MVP candidate, it does show how inconsistency and big contracts have plagued the Giants offense over the past couple seasons.

When you compare the overall offensive firepower, which team has the advantage? On paper, the combination of Brandon Belt, Marco Scutaro, Xavier Nady, Angel Pagan, and Hunter Pence stack up only marginally better than Aubrey Huff, Edgar Renteria, Pat Burrell, and Aaron Rowand. Cody Ross provided an unquantifiably tremendous boost to the Giants against Roy Halladay and the Phillies as well as throughout the playoffs. Sandoval’s abysmal 2010 performance—something he has since rebounded from—is something that also needs to be factored in. He and Posey are both better players than they were in 2010. Strictly based on lack of offensive talent, the 2010 team put together an amazing run.

Comparing runs per game, the current team (4.36 runs) edges the 2010 team (4.30) by less than a tenth of a run. Of late, the Giants have been playing some of their better baseball, going 32-20 since the AS Break; by contrast, the 2010 team was below .500 in August. The 2012 squad has scored less than three runs only twice in the past 16 games.

An interesting indicator of the Giants’ offense is their tendency to get shutout by opposing pitchers. Even though the 2010 team clearly had a more powerful lineup, they still managed to get shutout 16 times by their opponent. How about the 2012 team? Thus far, only six times have they put a bagel on the scoreboard after the last pitch of the game has been thrown. This is a better representation of the two offenses.

Neither team is particularly great but the potential of the 2012 team is greater. Ross, Uribe, Renteria, Huff, and Burrell put together an incredible run and were able to pick up the slack if one of them was having an off-game. However, Pence, Sandoval, and Posey lead the way this time around and Brandon Belt has the ability to do something Cody Ross-esque if he continues his upward trend after gaining the trust of manager Bruce Bochy.

It’s a tough argument to decide which team is better and the difference is probably in the hands of Melky Cabrera, who is a huge question mark when he comes back from a PED-postive induced suspension. If Cabrera comes back and is even 80 percent as good as his juiced-up self, the 2012 team has a definite edge offensively.

2010 Player
BA
HR
RBI
2012 Player***
BA
HR
RBI
Buster Posey
.305
18
67
Buster Posey
.325
19
85
Aubrey Huff
.290
26
86
Melky Cabrera
.346
11
60
Freddy Sanchez
.292
7
47
Angel Pagan
.284
8
52
Juan Uribe
.248
24
85
Marco Scutaro**
.329
2
24
Pablo Sandoval
.268
13
63
Pablo Sandoval
.287
8
50
Pat Burrell
.266
18
51
Brandon Crawford
.248
4
41
Andres Torres
.268
16
63
Brandon Belt
.275
5
46
Edgar Renteria*
.276
3
22
Joaquin Arias
.277
4
30
*injury shortened, **stats after trade to Giants, ***stats as of 9/7

While Pence has 19 home runs this year total, only two have been for the Giants. This highlights the biggest problem of the 2012 team: power. Only two players on the current team have more than 10 home runs.

Home run totals by San Francisco’s HR leader by year
Call it the “Curse of Barry” if you will, but since number 25 hit 45 home runs in 2004 the Giants have had little success with the long ball, something that can be attributed to the lack of power hitters, steroids, and sheer size of AT&T Park.

Keep in mind that from the time Bonds was acquired by the Giants in 1993 up until 2000, the slugger never had less than 33 home runs. Since 2004, the Giants HR leader has never reached 30.

The Giants are getting by with fundamentally sound small ball. Well, what other way is there to score runs if you cannot hit the ball out of the ballpark, right?

Compared to the 2012 team, the 2010 champs look like they could be the Bronx Bombers… Yet all that matters is run total on the scoreboard, and the current team is on pace to score more than the 2010 team. Again, AT&T Park is at fault to a degree: the Giants have hit nearly three times as many more home runs on the road than at home. Being third in the league in average is something that can definitely muffle the lack of power in the lineup. At least for that reason, they should get a slight edge offensively.

In terms of pitching, there is no real comparison. The 2010 Giants gave up a mere 583 runs (3.59 runs per game) over the course of the 162-game season whereas the 2012 team has already given up 561 runs, or just over four runs per game. This is not solely a reflection of the pitching because the Giants’ defense is not good as it was in 2010. And again, let’s not diminish the pitchers that the Giants are sporting in 2012. Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and Madison Bumgarner are anchoring a rotation that is trying to hide the 14 losses and 5.11 ERA of two-time Cy Young Award winner, Tim Lincecum.

Clearly, the Lincecum and Wilson of 2010 led arguably the best pitching staff in baseball—a hard standard for any team to live up to.

So overall, it does appear that the 2010 team was slightly better than the 2012 team. But if the upward trend continues into the playoffs, that may very likely change. And this should not be a disappointing tune for the Giants faithful because October always seems to be filled with unlikely heroes. Brandon Belt, Xavier Nady and Hunter Pence are three players capable of putting it together once the playoffs roll around.

The Giants still do have work to do. New Dodgers owner Magic Johnson made it clear that he is going to battle for the NL West title in the all-to immediate future. If the Giants make the playoffs, they will have to face the Reds and Nationals—clearly some of baseball’s best teams. Cincinnati and Washington do have a combined 9-4 record against San Francisco this year, but they have little recent playoff experience. Furthermore, the Giants are capable of defeating new-look Cardinals (without Pujols) and Braves headed by Brian McCann and a nearly-retired Chipper Jones are for the Giants.

If the Giants can make it to the playoffs, they will be ready to compete well into October baseball.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Why Buster Posey Should Win the 2012 National League MVP


Buster Posey’s return from a horrendous season-ending injury last season has been nothing short of sensational. The collision at home plate with Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins drained any hopes the San Francisco Giants had of defending their 2010 World Series championship. One play put the opportunity for the Giants to even make the playoffs well out of reach.

Concerns arose as to whether Posey could even return to baseball the same player. (Cousins has not been the same since either, having grown up dreaming to play for Giants.) He was the rookie catcher who put down the fingers for the best pitching rotation in baseball—and the champions. The future of the Giants was dangling in the wings of a kid who was not even 25 years old at the time but the catcher has battled as the organization and fans expected he would.

Fast forward to today and Buster Posey is at worst the second favorite National League Most Valuable Player candidate behind Pittsburgh Pirates phenom Andrew McCutchen.

McCutchen has put together an MVP-caliber season for the Pirates. McCutchen’s 24 home runs and 80 RBIs are impressive. Even though Giants star Melky Cabrera still has a shot at the batting title, McCutchen is currently leading the league in average (.344) and runs (91) .

But Buster Posey’s numbers stack up very well against the Pittsburgh outfielder. First, his average is a solid .329. And playing half of his games at the pitcher’s friendly AT&T Park while managing 19 home runs and 83 RBIs is at least as good as McCutchen’s numbers.  Don’t forget that Posey has been absolutely tearing it up of late. In the month of June, he hit .381. Last month he probably cooled off a bit, right? Well yes, if you consider .371 a drop to mediocrity.

Posey and McCutchen are very even statistically, and the final stretch of games could determine the fate of the MVP trophy. But if they are as (or more) even than they currently are, the MVP trophy will be in the hands of the first San Francisco Giant since none other than Barry Bonds. Why?

For one, it is the rare occasion that an MVP award is given to a player whose team does not make the playoffs. Barry Bonds’ 2004 season and Larry Walker’s 1997 season are two prime examples and both had absolutely incredible seasons. McCutchen is not on that level and not far and away the better player.

Contrastingly, Posey has propelled the Giants into playoff contention. Although he had some help from Melky Cabrera up until the suspension, Posey is the threat in the middle of the order that helps the Giants put runs on the board—something they have perennially struggled to do. Combine that with his scorching hitting of late and sportswriters will remember that Posey was a difference maker in a postseason run and McCutchen on a Pirates team that was in a division with two better teams than them.

Nobody has forgotten the extreme odds Posey was facing this season. The Giants were hoping for more than a mere shadow of their catcher who had fallen to injury in 2011 and got an MVP candidate.

In the end, the award is for most valuable player. The Giants won the World Series with Posey, failed to make the playoffs without him, and are on their way back to October baseball because of him.

This article was originally published on B/R.