Sunday, August 21, 2005

“The Giants’ Pitchers Use Lifebuoy…”

Even with a scorecard, it’s hard to tell one player from another, but it’s become especially true of the pitchers. I said I was going to write about them soon, and I guess this isn’t all that soon, but, to be fair, I was putting it off because the entire pitching situation has been almost entirely depressing and insane. To date, we’ve seen 22 pitchers take the mound this year, of whom eight have done some DL time (and remember, we still have over a week left in August): Jeremy Accardo, Armando Benitez, Jim Brower, Jason Christiansen, Brian Cooper, Kevin Correia, Scott Eyre, Jeff Fassero, Jesse Foppert, LaTroy Hawkins, Brad Hennessey, Matt Herges, Al Levine, Noah Lowry, Scott Munter, Brandon Puffer, Kirk Rueter, Jason Schmidt, Jack Taschner, Brett Tomko, Tyler Walker, and Jerome Williams.

Of these, who hasn’t stunk? I mean on the whole; almost all of these guys have had reasonably good stretches at some point. Schmidt’s pitching well now, generally, and so is Lowry. Eyre had been doing just dandy until he got bombed in the recent Sunday game against Houston. Correia and Hennessey have had some noteworthy starts (i.e., noteworthy for being good). Munter had been doing great until, in rapid succession, he started giving up fly balls and then landed on the DL. Taschner looked good. Williams’ first start was wonderful. You could reason that Tomko and Walker haven’t been actively bad. Even Cooper hasn’t looked bad, and he’s the one you’d expect to reek. The rest of them you need to slather with Old Spice and pray.

Schmidt is probably the most worrisome. Just during the season he’s lost some speed, and the talk has been that he’ll “never be the same.” Still, his change-up has been good enough to keep hitters off balance. However, as they’ve been saying in the Giants newsgroup, you never know whether you’re going to get the Good Schmidt or the Bad Schmidt. Used to be that you’d always get the Good Schmidt, though sometimes he’d have a rough day.

Lowry came into the season without a major league loss to his name. Then he started losing like he’d been doing it all his life. His control really suffered, and the hitters weren’t buying that fabulous change-up the way they had been. Now he seems to be back on track, despite the occasional weird bout of wildness. My only question about Lowry is, what’s that thing under his eye? I thought it came from some kind of would last year, but you’d think it would’ve gone away by now.

Tomko seems to be pitching better in the latter half of the season, as he did last year, but he’s hardly a world beater. However, and maybe this is just me not remembering well enough, he seems to be throwing harder this year—certainly harder than Schmidt these days, which is sad.

Correia and Hennessey—they’re the rest of the rotation. Isn’t that weird? Remember way, way back when Rueter and Williams owned those spots, with Foppert waiting in the wings? No more. They’re dust. Anyway, Hennessey seems to be more of a “pitcher” than Correia, but that doesn’t mean he’s a better pitcher. His best has been better than Correia’s best, but his worst has been at least as bad as Correia’s. We hear Mike Krukow tell us that these guys will anchor the rotation for decades to come, but I’m not sure how forward I look to that. Indeed, if the Giants had stayed relatively healthy (and had Bonds), and if they’d actually played reasonably well, I’m sure they would have given up one or both of these guys for one or more medium-impact players.

Rueter... well, I’d like to say he was steady, and, unfortunately, I can. He was almost uniformly horrific. As has been said perhaps trillions of times over the last three or four years, he’s got no margin for error. First, he only throws about 80, and second, he cannot succeed unless his umpire gives him roughly the same treatment as Eric Gregg gave Livan Hernandez during the 1997 postseason (as opposed to what Livan did during the 2002 World Series, for which he will never be forgiven). Really, Rueter needs strikes called on pitches about eight inches outside and two below the knee. Otherwise, he’s batting practice. Granted, that’s all academic now, as the Giants designated him for assignment last week. Disturbingly, at least for him, he cleared waivers and received his release. Brian Sabean has said that he almost had a trade in the works, but I’m assuming the other GM’s laudanum wore off just in time for him to back off. Rueter’s only 34, and he doesn’t look old, but he has the air of a 20-year veteran who’s run out of tricks.

The trade of Williams to the Cubs still ticks me off. It still doesn’t make sense. I have to believe that the Giants ended up writing him off as a headcase or an attitude problem, because their decisions about him this season have bordered on the irretrievably insane. His first start of the year was terrific. Then he didn’t pitch for about 10 days, during which he got shoved into the bullpen, which apparently weirded him out. Then he got bombed in his next start. Next thing you know, he’s in Fresno, trying to Find Himself, for reasons I have yet to fathom. And there
he stayed, until the Giants packaged him with David Aardsma—a recent first-round draft pick whom the Giants thought would be the Next Big Thing—and sent him to the Cubs for LaTroy Hawkins, who, after a couple of decent-to-good years with the Twins, wore out his Chicago welcome in a hurry. I honestly think that even one of these guys was too much for Hawkins (even if Hawkins had done well), and I have the feeling that most other major league GMs could have gotten Hawkins for one of those guys, or somebody else entirely who wasn’t as good. On the other hand, I have the feeling that Aardsma’s main contribution to the game, when all is said and done, will be his spot ahead of Hank Aaron in Major League Baseball’s all-time alphabetical roster. Williams, I think, will be a stud.

Foppert, too. Randy Winn’s been badmouthed in the newsgroup somewhat, the general sense being that he’s not an “impact” player—i.e., he ain’t nothin’ special. I don’t know yet. He’s been an All-Star (because someone has to be chosen each year from Tampa Bay), and he seems to be kind of an exciting player. However, because he’s not a pitcher, I’ll focus instead on Foppert here. Seemed to me that the Giants trumpeted his praises about as much as those of Matt Cain, if not more. Clearly Foppert was going to be our next Marichal, with his devastating speed and control. His major league performances generally didn’t bear that out, but sometimes a horrifying injury will do that to a guy. I know you have to give up quality to get quality. Sometimes you even have to give up quality to get LaTroy Hawkins. But while Foppert didn’t impress me overall, I just think it was nuts to trade him. Give the guy a full season at the big-league level first, you know? Apparently it’s still generally believed that Foppert will raise a lot of eyebrows, and it grieves me that the Giants seem to be tired of pitchers like that.

You may not remember this, but a lot of folks, not just in the media (local, of course) but even a great many fans, considered it a foregone conclusion that the Giants had the division wrapped up—even without Bonds. I never understood that, mainly because they’re the Giants, for whom no form of success is a foregone conclusion, but no matter. Anyway, one of the reasons for the unaccustomed optimism was Armando Benitez, last year’s Florida closer, who was, as they say, lights out. Granted, he comes with a rotten postseason reputation, as J.T. Snow could tell you, but that kind of thing doesn’t worry me, given that you have to get to the postseason before you can worry about succeeding in it. Not that I’ve ever been crazy about Benitez, but his signing sure should’ve been a load off our minds. He took an alternative approach, though, which was to get hit very hard before that train ran over his hamstring. (Amazingly, he’s back now, after surgery wherein two tendons had to be reattached to the bone.) It strikes me that the injury had to be present, possibly weeks beforehand, but he probably figured he could play through the pain and keep getting diathermy, or whatever players get for hamstring injuries these days. But even more than his devastatingly bad performance to that point, his four-month absence hurt the Giants even worse, to the point where I’d probably rather have Felix Rodriguez back than the guys who’ve been saving games (or not) in the meantime.

Brower couldn’t do the job. Herges had already shown he couldn’t do the job last year, so at least he wasn’t much of a factor.) The Giants even brought up Accardo—and Felipe Alou threw him into a key save situation in one of his very first games (possibly his debut), and of course, Accardo failed, which made Alou look like an idiot. Eventually he settled—and in my opinion, this is settling—on Tyler Walker, whom my sister calls “Piggy” because he looks like he should be a pig farmer somewhere. I still don’t understand this decision. (In fact, I found it surprising to begin with that Walker making the club out of spring training apparently was a foregone conclusion.) I’ve said before that the Giants should have learned by now, if only from the horrendous Herges experiement, that the save statistic is gaudy and nearly meaningless, and that they need to stop letting it seduce them. But no. Assuming Walker comes back this season—he just went on the DL yesterday after being largely responsible for the Giants blowing a 4-0 lead in the ninth on Friday and losing then and there—he’ll get his twenty-some saves… and I daresay the Giants will have the nerve to be impressed. Look how well he filled in for our expensive, injured closer! Please. If you’re going to be a team’s closer, just about the only way not to get twenty-some saves is to get bombed every time out. Walker did have an amazing moment earlier, when he entered a game with the bases loaded in the ninth inning and struck out the next three Detroit hitters, the first time (at least since they began recording saves in 1969) that had ever happened. But aside from that, there hasn’t been a lot of “there” there. He sure doesn’t seem to fool a lot of guys; nor—except for three Tigers—does he overpower them. At best, his control is nothing special. And yet, when the Giants acquired LaTroy Hawkins, they made him the eighth-inning guy, not the closer.

In itself, that’s probably a good thing, as Hawkins stank as the Cubs’ closer. Supposedly he just doesn’t have the mental makeup. And after a very snappy 1-2-3 in his Giants debut, he gave up a grand slam to lose a game, and he never got any better. Then he went on the DL. Since his return, he’s been better, though not actively good. I’ll always remember this guy, though, for being just excoriated by Cubs fans upon his return to Wrigley. Even Giants fans don’t get that nasty. I kind of hoped Hawkins would take out a full-page ad in the Chicago Sun-Times consisting mostly of a huge photo of his right hand extending its middle finger. If he doesn’t feel that way even now, he’s a bigger man than I. Either way, I’m pretty sure he’s a taller one.

The guy I think has been a surprise—Krukow even has touted him as perhaps the Giants’ MVP—is Eyre. He’s been awfully stingy. This has to be his best year ever, and he’s 33. It’s well known that he suffers from ADHD, so I’m wondering if his treatment has played a large part in his success this year. I’d like to know what he thinks on the matter, because if indeed his meds, or therapy, or whatever, have helped him this significantly, he certainly has to be somewhat of an inspiration to others with ADHD. And I’m telling you, ADHD ain’t no joke.

Another surprise has been Munter, who, for all I know, may not pitch again this season. He’s a big ol’ guy, and they call him “Herman,” which is kind of funny (once or twice), but he doesn’t overpower the hitters. When healthy, at least, he just makes them hit into double plays. I imagine he has the inside track on being next year’s seventh-inning guy, on the theory that Hawkins (or Eyre) and Benitez are the top of the bill. The Giants have also gotten some pleasant appearances out of Accardo, who looks like a Frosh-Soph player and who’d been closing in Double-A before his first call-up. He throws hard and his ball moves. I’d be surprised if he made the club out of spring training next year, but I figure on seeing plenty of him, unless we trade him and, say, Munter for the next Michael Tucker.

Aside from Eyre, the principal Giants lefties have been Christiansen and Fassero, neither of whom should scare anyone except Giants fans. Though he looks at least 10 years older, Fassero’s “only” 42, and while I wouldn’t characterize him as “through,” I also wouldn’t characterize him as “effective.” (Plus he has a surprisingly high voice. I kind of expected more gravelly tones.) Like Chad Zerbe before him, Fassero has done whatever the Giants have asked—that is, he’s pitched in whatever role they’ve needed; he hasn’t succeeded whenever they’ve asked, though, and I can’t imagine he’ll be around next year. Why should he when—I suspect—Jack Taschner almost certainly can do at least as well? (Taschner’s not with the club right now. Got sent down—I mean, they had four lefthanded relievers for a while.) Meanwhile, Christiansen doesn’t strike people out, walks too many, and gives up too many ringing base hits. That’s really a shame, given how good he was when the giants acquired him in 2001. His injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery have changed his career path dramatically.

Because Walker went on the DL, Cooper came up, after being outrighted just a few days ago. I remember him having an impressive spring last year, then later coming up, getting bombed, being released, and pitching in Korea. What he’s doing back here, I’ll never know. However, he started against Roger Clemens and pitched well in the only game I’ve been able to attend this year, and he got his first major league hit, which is one more than I’ll ever get. (Actually, it wasn’t him pitching well so much as the Astros hitting poorly.) They’ve since used him a couple of relief outings, to little avail. I think he’s up here because somebody has to be.

Other guys like that have been Levine and Puffer. Levine, in particular, had a very good spring, and yet again the Giants were seduced: I don’t know if they’ll ever learn to view a good spring by a mediocre player with suspicion. He came up, got hit, got hurt, came back, got bombed, got outrighted… but at least he isn’t Puffer, whom I’d remembered—falsely, I’m sure—as an effective, hard-throwing middle-reliever with Houston. Instead, he took the mound with that weird sidearm/submarine delivery and served up batting practice a couple of times. Let us just say that a September call-up for either of these guys should, by all rights, surprise me.

Herges started out not horrible, then stopped getting people out altogether, then got traded to the Diamondbacks, who canned him within days. This wasn’t a huge surprise, given how awful he was last year. What was marginally surprising was how wretched Brower was. Talk about batting practice. The Giants simply waived him one day—I gather they didn’t want to designate him for assignment so he wouldn’t have to wait 10 days to get a job. And indeed he didn’t. He went to the Braves, did well in Leo Mazzone territory (with a 3.57 ERA), and then they designated him for assignment just now. I had guessed that he was about to be traded, probably to the Giants, but Bobby Cox has said he's trying to get him through waivers to Triple-A.

Well, I think I covered all of the Giants’ pitchers this year, which is more than I can say about the hitters. (I left out Brian Dallimore, Adam Shabala, Justin Knoedler, and Tony Torcato—there’s just not much to say there.) I keep telling myself I can’t believe how bad this team is, but now that I’ve taken a closer look at their personnel, it should be pretty evident, shouldn’t it?

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