Sunday, October 30, 2011

The (Other) Catcher

At some point during the twilight of the Giants' playoff hopes--just a few games before the Diamondbacks eliminated them on the way to a futile postseason bid--I had an unlikely moment of fan angst. In the midst of the 12-5 home run derby in Colorado (including Matt Cain's bomb to center field), as Eli Whiteside racked up an 0/5, I had a moment of panic. Who, I thought, is going to fill that offensive void in the catcher's position in 2012? (1) Who, after the Whiteside/Stewart platoon, is going to anchor the team at the plate?

It's easy to lose perspective during a 162 game season, whether (I imagine) you're a player or a spectator. And at some point between one flailing Whiteside swing and another, I had forgotten the obvious answer: Buster Posey.

But Posey still needs a backup catcher, which in 2011 we discovered to be a tricky situation. Let's assume a few things for ease of presentation: first, the Giants won't be spending free agent money on a back up catcher. Second, as last September demonstrated, Hector Sanchez is not yet ready to assume what could be a prominent backup position, depending on whether the Giants decide to transition Posey to another role (as first baseman--as if they need another car in that pile up--or as designated hitter at the interleague games at AL stadiums). 

That leaves Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart. You can't make a decision between the two on offense, even though I'd like to point out how Whiteside's OBP dropped from .327 to .220 to .118 from July to September, while Stewart's bounced from .333 to .250 to .290. While this casts some light on their season stats, Whiteside's .197/.264/.574 to Stewart's .204/.283/.592 line (AVG/OBP/OPS), the choice between who returns in 2012 will (or should) be made on defense. 

And here, I would suppose that the biggest difference has to do with their response to base running: given that their fielding percentages were about as close as the their batting averages (Eli's .991 to Chris' .986), Stewart threw out nearly forty percent of steal attempts (34 SB to 22 CS, but note the 7 throwing errors, some of which occurred during these situations, as I recall) while Whiteside caught slightly over twenty five percent (53 SB to 18 CS) (2). If the Giants won't have a bat with the backup catcher, they may as well stick with Stewart on defense.

Of course, these points are moot if assumption two doesn't hold. They could rush Sanchez because he projects potential at the plate (with that .381/.458/1.030 line in Venezuela--in 21 at bats). However, Sanchez could use more time behind the plate in Fresno (I know, it does sound like a total bummer when you say Fresno) than he would get in San Francisco, and Bochy does love those veteran players like Stewart or Whiteside. I think that we won't see Sanchez until later in the season, but if the Giants need a piece for the playoff puzzle, and Posey stays healthy, you never know if Sanchez won't be wearing an opponents' jersey.


1) Note that I almost wrote: who is going to fill the eighth spot in the line up that so often pulled rallies into the abyss? But since Posey bats clean up, this means that some other player is going to occupy the eight slot. Let us hope that he (or they) can clear the catching platoon's numbers.

2) For reference, Posey threw out around 35% of steal attempts (27 SB to 15 CS), with a .995 fielding percentage.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Rotation

During 2011, pitching was the most dependable part of the Giants, and there are many reasons to think that it will play a significant role in whatever success may come in 2012. If we could call starting pitchers reasons, then four of them--Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong--had, despite those pesky win-loss ratios, outstanding seasons. Take a look at the  National League top ten ERAs on the season, and they are all there: Vogelsong at number 4 (2.71), Lincecum 5 (2.74), Cain 8 (2.88) and Bumgarner at 10 with 3.21. Perhaps you're not convinced by ERA.  We could look at FIP, and then Bumgarner (2.67) and Cain (2.91) both rank in the top 5. Lincecum, despite an increase from previous seasons, is not so shabby either, at 3.17.

Now, of course, the numbers aren't the whole story. Or, at least, they say different things for different pitchers. Lincecum's numbers have worried some, given that they seem to show that batters are finally figuring out how to hit against him. With Cain they show how important he is to the rotation, and with Bumgarner they are the kind of thing that, barring any future outings against the Twins, show a lot of promise.

As to Vogelsong, well, where do you start? 

He not only knows how to feed rivalries in all the right ways ("I don't want to wear Dodger blue"), but he put up the kind of numbers that, following a long absence in the majors, made you wonder how exactly the so-called cognoscenti made decisions about who qualified for the comeback player of the year (or, really, the choice revealed their thought process: PLAYOFFS! PLAYOFFS! BERKMAN! Sure, Berkman had an off year in 2010, but Vogelsong hadn't even played in the majors since 2006). Of course, that's not exactly what his performance was about during the season. Judging by that I think we could expect two things: that his numbers won't be as stellar during the first half of 2012 (but if they are we'll take it), but that he won't have the same troubles late in the season as he did this year, which appear to be due to the workload (in 2010 he threw 95.1 innings of AAA ball, and this year he threw a combined 191 between AAA and the majors).

I don't exactly know why I spent so much time on the four starters we can expect to see next year, because it's the fifth starter spot that caused so much trouble this year: Jonathan Sanchez's stressful 5.86 walks per nine, Eric Surkamp's, uh, 5.74 BB/9 and ERA (look it up), and Barry Zito's whatever that was of a season. 

If Sanchez can't get it together for 2012, or ends up in the bullpen (or in the event that he's non-tendered, as they say, or tendered-traded), we'll need Machiavelli to help us sort it out. He'd tell us that we would want Zito to put together a good first half so that he can be traded away to a playoff drunk team before the deadline, leaving the Giants to cobble together the remainder of the season with possibly Sanchez, a post-Pacific Coast League Surkamp, a waiver signing and/or September call up--since you only need a four man rotation for the playoffs (What? Did you think Niccolò Machiavelli would settle for anything less?). It sounds crazy, but even this year people were floating the suggestion of a Lackey-Zito trade--which is a clear sign that things could be worse (Lackey posted a 6.41 ERA over 160 innings. In Boston that gives you a 12-12 record in 28 starts; with San Francisco he'd be lucky to post a win or two)!

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Postseason Quandary

Given that the Giants are not contenders in this postseason, I've worked out what might be called a 'Great Lakes' World Series scenario (and what Major League Baseball's accountants probably call the 'nightmare scenario') that would keep me interested in the playoffs:

In the NLDS, the Brewers beat the Diamondbacks, and the Phillies beat the Cardinals.
In the ALDS, the Tigers beat the Yankees, and the Rays beat the Rangers. 
In the NLCS, the Brewers defeat the Phillies
And in the ALCS, the Tigers beat the Rays.
World Series: Tigers v. Brewers

In a way, the postseason quandary ("should I pay attention to the playoffs this year?") is resolved through a process of elimination. After figuring out the teams that I would root against, I discovered that I felt that I could pull for the Brewers and the Tigers. At this point, the Brewers look poised to send the D'backs packing.

But I've considered a few alternatives if the Tigers can't pull it off. While I am indifferent to the Rays, there would be some poetic justice (or is that schadenfreude?) were they to defeat the Yankees on the way to the World Series, given that the Yanks dialed in the second half of game 162 as the Rays mounted their comeback victory for the wild card.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Plan

The plan is to write about the 2012 season of the San Francisco Giants. Which, I know, starts in Arizona on April 6 of next year, but it is necessary to start preparing now. Take, for instance, the Red Sox: they've already parted ways with Terry Francona, and the 2011 season is still warm (note that several GMs are probably wondering if it's too early to call him about next season already...). Admittedly, I'm not preparing in that sense, but I do have some spare time to ponder the significance of 2011 season and the preparations for next year.

In any case, the plan is to start by thinking, from a fan's perspective of course, about who the core players will be for the Giants going forward. Given that there are several positions where it is not entirely clear who will be standing there on opening day, I'll need to get on record about pressing issues such as whether I think Brandon Belt or Brett Pill should/could/will start at first (or left field, or Fresno, or...), so that I can either lord my predictions over who ever else gets in on the discussion, or, more than likely, make the table so that I can eat my words.

There's a 40 man roster and 25 spots, so I will do this in installments. I'll be warming up first with what is probably the easiest part of the equation: the starting rotation.