Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Shaping the Narrative

In many ways, spring training is about narratives. Teams, players, journalists, bloggers, all shaping the ways that we think about the new season. How a team responds to its accomplishments or failures of the previous season. How the new players fit, how the veterans are ready to make yet another effort, how the struggles of the previous years are redeemed on the field in the new year. In short, the narrative shapes our expectations for the next 162 games, and ever optimistically, even more.

Because spring training has to be about something. It's not really about a team winning or losing, as long as they aren't embarrassing themselves. It's not, for most players, really about numbers, or at least until somebody discovers the Aubrey Huff algorithm (q.v. 2011). The narrative shapes how we read those numbers, and what we should expect them to mean--even if we know that there's not much such small sets of data, accumulated against uneven levels of competition, could mean.

And now, with less then two weeks left in spring training, it's time to start thinking about opening day, who's going to be there, and what they're going to accomplish. Time for progress reports (Baggarly's is pretty good), yardsticks, and keen or not-so-keen observations. Everybody wants to win, but it's not going to happen (especially for you, Arizona Diamondbacks...). And, many of us, who write or are trying to write about baseball, we want to possess those keen insights, but much of this is still pre-season nonsense. For those with the not-so-keen observations, at least there aren't many consequences.

That being said, a few observations. 

First, To Health
I haven't been blogging about the Giants for long or else you would all know that Scott Cousins came very close to ruining my first trip to Paris. Now you do. But truthfully, the shock I experienced while checking up on the Giants during the early morning of May 26th pales in comparison to the way that he ruined Buster Posey's season. I think I opened this discussion in an indirect, anecdotal attempt at humor because Posey's recovery is one of the central and potentially unnerving aspects of the Giants' 2012 story.

Fortunately, it seems that Posey is recovering apace.* Which is good, since his bat is supposed to be the solution to the sluggish 2011 offense (not that I'm inclined to think that they should have thrown millions of dollars at the free agent market for insurance). Nevertheless, he has yet to put some full-time strain on his reconstructed ankle, and that leaves many questions unanswered, especially about where he'll be starting: how many games at catcher, how many at first base? If I can acclimate to the strong possibility that Brandon Belt will start the season in AAA, then it doesn't really bother me that Posey might be taking at-bats away from Huff.

By contrast, the Giants just seem to be coming around to, or at least publicly admitting, what seemed to be obvious with Freddy Sanchez: it's (almost very) likely that he's going to start the season on the DL. Ask Bochy:
“We’re down to two weeks here and he hasn’t gotten out there yet,” Bochy said. “We’re still optimistic that we will get him out there, but each day that goes by the possibility grows a little bit that he’s not going to be ready.”
The last serious question mark is Ryan Vogelsong, who has had some back trouble, but who is apparently on course for starting in mid-April. After listening to my friend Mark talk about Clay Buchholz's troubles over the past year, I'd prefer not to think about how difficult back problems can be.

When the Numbers Matter...
When you're negotiating with Matt Cain's agent. 

With that aside, let's face it. The numbers only matter for a select group of players. And, by 'select group of players,' I mean non-roster invitees. And by NRIs, I only mean Gregor Blanco, who is the only one with a strong shot at making the team (see also my previous post)--although we will probably see Hector Sanchez, Heath Hembree, and Eric Surkamp later this season. Given that there are still two weeks left, and that making Blanco a member of the 40-man club requires cutting somebody else, I think that this is about as obvious as Bochy can get:
“He’s done all he can do to make this club,” Bochy said. “I can’t give you anything definitive, but he’s been as good as anybody.” 
Since a .444 average and seven stolen bases aren't enough to really make a case for Blanco, Alex Pavlovic did some schmoozing with some Venezuelan writers (or some kind of research) and came up with some of Blanco's Venezuelan league numbers: 
The last six seasons there, he had on-base percentages of .429, .444, .464, .461, .419, .465. 
Sure, it's not MLB level competition, but it would be great if those numbers translate into above average regular season play. Let's not forget that he's posted a career .358 OBP. The only people who might be worried by Blanco's ascent must be Angel Pagan and Nate Schierholtz.

...And When They Don't Matter
The numbers may not matter so much for the battle of first base, and for the contenders over the remaining infield spots after Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Crawford (and F. Sanchez, if/when he's healthy). This year it matters if you bat right-handed. Ryan Theriot has not been very impressive, though the upside is that his lackluster performance gives you a good reason to root for Crawford's success. Nevertheless, right-handed Theriot might just be there, sitting on the bench, come opening day.

Brett Pill continues to post consistent numbers, meaning that he can hit (.282 AVG) but won't walk (.293 OBP). I don't care if he gets hot and finishes spring batting .478, his OBP will still only be between .479 and .485. First base, should Huff falter, belongs to Brandon Belt.

Finally, Something About The Bat Wiggler
A few days ago, The Miami Herald reported that the Giants $12 million investment in having Aaron Rowand sink a competing National League franchise--or at least in having him beat out Scott Cousins for the last roster spot on the Miami Marlins--may come to naught. Clark Spencer reports:
Only Rowand is off to a poor start statistically. He has gone just 1 for 20 (.050) but said that’s par for the course for him as far as spring training is concerned.
“My spring training averages throughout my career have been [lousy],” Rowand said. “It’s not like I’ve never been in this situation in spring training, where I’m not getting hits. I’ve had some of my best years when I’ve had really bad spring trainings.”

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/03/16/2696618/battle-is-on-for-miami-marlins.html#storylink=cpy
And he's had some terrible years, like when his .222/.254/.259 spring stat line foretold his .233/.274/.347 stat line during his last (and partial) season for the Giants. At least he's somebody else's [lousy] outfielder now. But if you're concerned, and think he should be making himself a [lousy] Marlin, since the publication of the Herald's article he's raised his stat line to a searing .100/.182/.133. Maybe his agent should have called the Astros.

* The number of ingrained metaphors oriented around walking, stepping, and progress is starting to feel oppressive.

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