Sunday, June 24, 2007


We haven’t heard the how or the why yet: just the who, what, and where:

Rod Beck.


In his Arizona home.


He was 38 and had young kids. What a horrible, appalling loss for his family. My thoughts go out to them, and to anybody to whom he was important.

For years, Beck has been the closer on my all-time favorite Giants team. How could one not like the guy? He was more like the fans than any other player I can think of. In interviews he always came across as a nice guy, honest and funny. In one interview I remember, he made the point that the players really don’t quite comprehend exactly how much money they make, saying that they think in terms of the number of years, and the number divided by a million, as in "12.6." He said that the actual numbers are just too big to fit into people’s heads.

In another interview he said that his name on his Fireman of the Year trophy was rendered as "Ron Beck."

Dusty Baker is the first person I ever heard call Beck “Shooter,” and I gathered that the nickname came from his way of staring down a hitter before, well, shooting him down. From the time he came up in 1991, he threw an awful lot, and by the time he left the Giants after 1997, he was pitching almost solely on guts. I’m not going to recount a lot of his on-field moments, but watching him get that double play out of Eddie Murray in the Brian Johnson game, after he had loaded the bases to begin the inning… well, when Johnson hit the homer, I felt just as good for Beck as I did for Johnson. There was no way not to root for him.

Beck is the closer on my all-time favorite Giants team and always will be.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Unwatchables

The “blecchh”-style noise hasn’t been invented yet that can accurately and fully encapsulate the horror that is the 2007 San Francisco Giants. Remember way back when the Giants’ biggest worry was whether Barry Bonds would bat third or fourth? I sure miss those halcyon days, don’t you? Back then the Giants had a double-play combination that was solid on offense and defense; a starting rotation with only one question mark—who would be the fifth starter?—and a healthy, again-effective closer; a longtime superstar whose every at-bat was worth stopping whatever you were doing to watch; a speedy and effective new leadoff hitter; a modest power platoon at first base; some good young pitching; and several other reasons we should be optimistic that the Giants could easily finish as high as third place.

Compared to now, those were carefree days, weren’t they? (The same could be said about the 2005 season, when they merely stank.) But now… wow. The worse they get, the more you think it’s impossible for them to keep getting worse, and the more they do so anyway. Last night’s game saw the Giants down 6-0 after two innings to the inexplicably good Milwaukee Brewers, with Tim Lincecum on the mound. First, know that I wish no success on the Brewers: I resent the Selig-induced idiocy leading to them switching leagues, and they’re still Selig’s team, no matter what anyone says, and Selig makes my skin crawl. But it’s really only worth complaining about those things when the Giants are playing reasonably well and one must complain about something.

Last night’s game ended up at 6-2, but it still brought to mind a major league Dads vs. Kids game, where the major leaguers, laughing all the way, lose 43-0, gleefully doing everything they can to make it easy for their offspring to hit and run all day long. It’s fun for everybody—which is what distinguishes it from last night’s Giants-Brewers game.

The details of last night’s Giants-Brewers game? What’s the difference? “Putrid Giants loss” tells you all you need to know. You don’t want to hear about Lincecum’s wildness or his teammates bringing dead flounders to the plate instead of baseball bats.

It’s way easier to switch over to TV shows about fictional people being murdered than it is to stick with a Giants game these days.

This team is Omar Vizquel hitting weak fly balls; Pedro Feliz whapping grounders to third with nobody out and a runner on second; Randy Winn, off his hot streak, flailing miserably for strike three; Barry Bonds popping up. It’s hit-and-run singles—ground balls hit exactly where a Giants middle infielder would be if he weren’t busy covering second. It’s Kevin Correia or Steve Kline giving up a huge base hit on the first pitch he throws; Jack Taschner giving up a key hit to the lefthanded batter he was brought in to face; Rich Aurilia or Ray Durham batting third but not hitting; curveballs bouncing crazily off the edge of the plate, getting away from Bengie Molina; the false hope generated by Russ Ortiz; knowing that a Giants rally, no matter how big, won’t be enough and won’t be sustained; and knowing, on those rare occasions when the Giants have a lead going to the last inning, that whoever comes in to close it out is not going to get the job done. And somewhere out there is a general manager, smiling in grim satisfaction, saying “I told you so,” but for the wrong reasons.

The 2007 Giants are what EEEEEE!—the concept, the website, the “almost” blog, the noise itself—is all about.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Nobody Else Can Lose Like This

It actually feels sort of odd to report the facts of last night’s game, because anybody reading this will know about it (except maybe if they read it way in the future), but while I can call the Giants’ loss neither quintessential nor typical, it is, never the less, somehow so Giantsesque that I must detail it, or at least parts of it, here. Mostly I’m going to draw on details and one-liners from e-mails and posts I made in the newsgroup while it was all happening.

First of all, Tim Lincecum just didn’t have it. Lasted 4-1/3 and was lucky to have given up only three runs. The Giants loaded the bases a lot, and not once could they come through. Not once. One such culprit, in a key situation, was Bonds, who grounded out meekly to end one of the early innings—who cares which one?

Lincecum actually retired the first seven hitters of the game, whereupon we encounter my nomination for the “Dusty Gives the Ball to Russ” moment: Third inning, Feliz makes a great play on a bunt for a would-be base hit. Mike Krukow says, “That’s the kind of plays they make during no-hitters.” Next batter, Jason Kendall: Base hit up the middle, and the party begins.

Bottom of the ninth, one out, tie game: Dan Ortmeier—in the two-hole because Freddy Lewis left with an injury in the second (after hitting into a double play for the second game in a row—hits a triple. With Klesko and Bonds coming up, the A’s have but one option, really—and even that should ensure a loss (for the A’s, I mean): walking both Klesko and Bonds to set up the double play. This they do. Game over, right? Wrong. Durham pops up. Frandsen—in the sixth slot as a pinch-hitter due to a double-switch, itself undertaken because Molina got hurt at the end of the top of the fifth—does his best Eliezer Alfonzo impression and swings feebly at three sliders out of the strike zone, missing each by an average of two feet. And I thought it was as predictable as if it had been Alfonzo. Or Todd Linden.

Anyway, to expand a little, what the A’s did seems to me to be their only strategic choice on defense, at least if the two guys coming up are any good. You walk the first guy to set up the double play… but even that’s risky, if only because he’ll almost certainly steal second uncontested, so you walk the second guy to set up the force at any base. Obviously that’s risky, too, if only because, when forced to throw ball after ball, some pitchers can’t find the strike zone. The bottom line, here, is that I feel it’s the correct strategy in that situation, but it still shouldn’t work. Even against the Giants.

Top of the tenth: Naturally the new pitcher, Hennessey, is in Frandsen’s spot in the lineup. And because of the injuries, and the fact that both Mark Sweeney and Rich Aurilia were used as pinch-hitters for the pitcher in earlier innings, the Giants have no position players left on the bench. With one out, some A’s bozo—who cares who?—gets a hit, and there’s a major collision at home plate that results in out number two. And now it’s Alfonzo who’s toasted. Then comes a fairly long pain delay, during which Hennessey’s getting antsy and needs to warm up… only we have no third catcher.

So who’s our emergency catcher? I would’ve thought it was Frandsen, but he was just taken out of the game for Hennessey. Turns out it’s… Feliz. Who has caught a total of zero major league (and, I daresay, professional) innings. So he dons the tools of stupidity.

Now who’ll play third base? We’re hearing that Matt Morris is starting to stretch, but where would he play? We have no infielders left… no outfielders left… Klesko’s at first, and lefthanded, so it won’t be him, and we’re not gonna be moving Durham or Vizquel. This leaves Bonds, Winn, and Ortmeier. Of these, only Winn throws righthanded, so it’s Winn—who has played zero infield innings in his major league career. Ortmeier moves to center field, probably for the first time ever.

And now we need a right fielder—a new player, i.e., one not moving from another position. And we have no outfielders left. Nor infielders. Nor catchers. So who’ll our right fielder be? There’s starting pitcher—indeed, we’d already heard about Morris getting ready. And… we’ve used all our lefty relievers—you know, to relieve; we’ve used all our righty relievers except… Vinnie Chulk.

So it should go without saying that our new right fielder is… Noah Lowry.

At this point I hark back first to the Kent Tekulve game in 1979, when he caught a Darrell Evans fly ball in right field to end a game, and then to late September of 1986, the Fan Appreciation Day game against the Dodgers. The game goes 16 innings. The Giants—even with the expanded roster—are laid low with injury and illness. Several guys have to play positions they’d never played before, or since. Two pitchers have to play the outfield, alternating between left and right with Mike Aldrete, depending on who’s batting. Indeed, Mike Krukow pinch-hits for Robby Thompson, who can’t swing the bat, becoming the first pitcher I’d ever seen, or known of, pinch-hitting for a position player. Later, Randy Bockus pinch-hits for Jeff Robinson (now the “outfielder”), becoming the second (and most recent) pitcher I’d ever seen pinch-hitting for a position player. In the bottom of the sixteenth, Greg Minton singles, Bob Brenly doubles, ballgame over.

Is that what would happen on this occasion? Let’s read on, shall we?

First, no, Lowry and Bonds do not flip-flop depending on who’s batting. (Bonds has, incidentally, played in one major league game in right field in his career, 20 years ago—which I know thanks to James Farrar in the group). Either way, we had four guys making their major league debuts in certain positions.

Second, with Feliz behind the plate, Mark Kotsay, the runner on first, starts to try and steal, then stops for some reason. The reason becomes apparent on the next pitch, when the A’s attempt a hit-and-run. Needless to say, the batter hits the ball exactly where Durham should have been had the latter not been covering second. Right before that pitch I was thinking, “He has to get the out, and the Giants have to score in the tenth, because no way can they keep putting that defense out on the field.” But that becomes academic, since eventually the A’s come up with a two-run single, an absolute punch in the stomach—a stomach that was already on the edge of nausea. Nobody, thankfully, hits the ball to Lowry. The half-inning ends on a foul ball caught near the dugout by third baseman Winn.

It is now the bottom of the tenth. The Giants—I hate not to emphasize this—are entirely, completely out of position players. They’re now down by two runs. Catcher Feliz flies out. Vizquel gets out in some weenie way. This brings up the dreaded “man due to bat third in the inning”—not Hennessey, right fielder Lowry.

It should go without saying that not only does Lowry refuse to just go down swinging in a three-pitch at-bat. It has to be a seven-pitch at-bat, replete with the kind of foul balls that suggest that he’s zeroing in. And do you know who the A’s pitcher is who’s in the process of (a) being zeroed in on, and (b) instead, striking out Lowry, for (c) the save? Why, Alan Embree, of course.

This was, in every way, a game that only the Giants could have played, and that only the Giants could have lost. And yet it’s exactly the kind of game that should pull them together as a unit and make them go “Grrrr!” a lot and reel off, like, 14 straight victories. But no, a bunch of guys will hit the DL later today, there’ll be new faces, and the team will have no identity whatsoever.

But if I had to look for a silver lining, it would be the fact that hey, at least the Giants found a creative way to lose.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Humm Baby! It's Gonna Be Fun, Right?

by Cudgy Preep

Cudgy Preep is the new pseudonym for Bat Fastard, who discovered during a Google search that there are about 4,000 links for “Bat Fastard,” none of them relevant to him, EEEEEE!, or Almost EEEEEE! Searches on “Cudgy Preep,” however, turn up empty, which makes Cudgy—i.e., Bat—feel a lot better, albeit still generally grumpy.

Look at this team. Do you like it? I mean, if you weren’t a Giants fan, or if they were some other team nobody gives a shit about, like the Devil Rays or Cardinals or somebody (or a team nobody should give a shit about, like the Dodgers), what would you think? Would you see a team with an established superstar, a solid supporting cast, and some up-and-comers? Would you see a team with one Barry Bonds and 24 Mike Benjamins, to steal one of Gregg’s favorite blithery analogies? Would you see a team with a few seriously old farts, several past-their-primers, and no-name youngsters? What? What, I’m asking you?

Know what I see? A fairly boring team with little to no identity, especially now that Bonds isn’t being awesome. Even so, though, it’s not as boring a team as it has been the last few years. I swear. In fact, I see some entertainment value:

  • Omar Vizquel’s defense: These days he’s Johnnie LeMaster at the plate; when he becomes Hal Lanier, that glove ain’t gonna carry that bat no more. But until then, it’s fun to watch ground balls hit toward Vizquel Country, if for the footwork alone. Vizquel, kids, is one of those “Practice Makes Perfect” examples that should inspire us all to practice a lot, but doesn’t. The guy’s an acrobat with an amazing sense of timing, where the runners are, who he’s throwing to, etc. That 4-6-5 double play, last year, was genius. And those double plays he turns where he does these balletic little leaps: poetry. Or ballet. Your pick. Also he’s been barehanding ground balls a lot lately and throwing to first, or second, in a fluid motion, like he’s been doing it all his life (which he has). He does make it fun—although sometimes I wonder if he’s not doing it mostly to amuse himself, given that the overall team is so dull.

  • You gotta like these kids: I’m talking about Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, though more the latter these days than the former. Cain looked great on the mound early on: poised, confident, knowing he was gonna get you out. I think he started the season giving up 12 hits in 31 innings, something like that. Since then he’s not the same guy, which makes me wonder if he’d thrown too damn many pitches in April or something. But if he gets back into a groove, watch out: It’s a ball watching other teams’ hitters get out, again and again. I’m one of those guys who utterly aches for a San Francisco Giants no-hitter—a species not seen in 30 years—and I swear to you, Cain seemed to be going for one every time out.

    Lincecum… less so, but he’s fun even when he’s not going good. He sort of needs to get over the belief that nobody’s ever gonna hit his fastball, though, and he needs to stop throwing it groin-high, down the middle, because every time you turn around, he’s given up another home run. That’s fairly off-pissing. What isn’t, though, is watching opposing hitters trudge away from the box after striking out yet again, tossing an embittered look toward the mound, then continuing toward the dugout, shaking their heads. We never have pitchers like that.

  • Freddy Lewis: Way entertaining. Not necessarily good, though. He might be Deion Sanders Lite. Deion had loads of talent and athletic ability, but he never seemed to channel it properly or something. I really liked watching him with the Giants in 1995, even though, despite his age and years of experience, he seemed so green. I feel the same way about Lewis, only I don’t think he’s nearly as talented, which means he probably won’t stick for long, especially since he’s about 26 and, thus, fairly set in his ways. But if there’s been a faster Giant in the last 30 years, I can’t think of who it could be. It’s a kick in the ass to watch this guy run the bases.

  • Bonds: Loathe him, hate him, you can’t ignore him. I love how the tone of the crowd changes when he steps up, even in a nothing situation. I love how sometimes a guy just can’t throw him a strike—I mean “can’t,” not “won’t.” (The “won’t” situations are pretty boring.) I love his swing—even his little bat-waves at the plate are on the same plane as the swing, and when he’s going good, he has that way of bringing the ball right into that plane and murdering it.

Beyond that… what is there to keep our interest? Noah Lowry’s change-up? Not anymore. There was a time when I thought it might have been the best change I’d ever seen, but now it’s ordinary, like all his pitches. Ryan Klesko’s balls-out style? Who the hell wants to see his balls? Especially the balls that he hits into crucial double plays with, or the ones he lets zoom past him to the outfield wall, on those (thankfully) rare occasions when he’s in the outfield. (As I write this, for instance, he’s our right fielder, if you can imagine. I still can’t, and I’ve seen it. Somehow I would’ve excused it more easily from Winn or Ortmeier or even Bonds, but Klesko’s badly timed, ill-advised dive on a sinking liner led to a two-run triple that turned a one-run lead for us into a one-run lead for them. Something not real charming about that. Still not as bad as trying to go to third when there’s already a teammate there, then standing around till he gets tagged out.)

I dunno, these guys are just plain pissing me off. Man on third, nobody out? Other teams score the guy. The Giants don’t. Nor do they hold the guy at third on defense. That guy scores. Gregg bitches about Pedro Feliz not making productive outs, but tonight it’s former All-Star Rich Aurilia hitting a two-hopper to short, with the infield in and Lewis on third—on the first pitch. How adorable is that?

How adorable is it when a guy like Kevin Frandsen, sent in to pinch-bunt, can’t get the job done? Not too. That’s my assessment. Diamondbacks fans love that sort of thing, but fuck ’em. Give ’em a dollar. (One thousand Almost EEEEEE! points for whoever fills in the rest of the punchline.)

Know what else pickles my innards? Watching strikes called on Bonds—strikes that obviously are not strikes. Especially strike threes that obviously are not strikes. What is this, the umpires’ way of showing disdain for alleged performance-enhancing substances?

Sorry if this sounds like a bitch-fest, but that’s what it is, and I’m not sorry. I’m just tired of watching them fail to execute, fail to come through.

But to end this on a happy note: Hey, no Armando!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Roughly a Third of the Way—Whee…

The Giants right now are 27-30, so I missed the one-third cutoff by three games. That’s your fault, so let’s just stop dwelling on it, shall we?

Frankly, 27-30 is better than I thought they were going to be, though at the beginning of the year I really had no idea how bad the offense would be. I didn’t expect the starting pitching to be quite as good as it is, either—not that we’re talking about the 1971 Orioles or anything. But this team certainly is almost exactly as frustrating as I expected. But then, that’s just part of their charm—the majority, to be sure, but still just part.

So let’s go position by position in a qualitative “analysis” of what we’ve seen so far—“qualitative” because, for the most part, I don’t want to look up numbers:
  • First base—Rich Aurilia, Ryan Klesko, Mark Sweeney, Lance Niekro, maybe even Pedro Feliz (I forget): Mostly first base has been an awfully dark hole, even compared to J.T. Snow at his most average. Aurilia seems to be pretty decent on defense, but he’s not a first baseman. He’s still sort of a shortstop, but I have the feeling third base is a better slot for him. He started out hitting reasonably well, too, but except for the odd three- or four-hit game (such as last night’s), he’s been in a massive funk, the likes of which would gag Courtney Love’s inner circle, perhaps even Ms. Love herself. Now, if he batted sixth or seventh most of the time, probably it wouldn’t faze me as much as it does with him usually batting third. And it’s not just batting average, which is putrid enough: he doesn’t walk, and he’s not hitting for power. I really like the guy, but Aurilia 2007 and Aurilia 2001 are two entirely different animals. The guy probably should be a four-position backup who starts three or four times a week—or whatever his role was in Cincinnati last year. At most, he should be the more-or-less regular third baseman.

    Klesko, meanwhile, has kind of been this year’s Todd Greene: a power-hitting dude without home runs. Granted, it took Klesko less time to hit his first of the year than it took Greene last year, and Klesko even waited less than a month to hit his second. Indeed, I’m filled—to about the quarter-full line—with the hope that Klesko ‘s gonna move into the power-hitting mode he needs to be in. I mean, it’d be nice to have a legitimate power threat in the lineup other than Bonds. Then again, it’d also be nice to have a legitimate not-hit-into-a-key-double-play threat, too. The guy can hit, though.

    His presence makes me wonder how bad the Giants need Sweeney. That is, I wondered that more often early in the season, when the Giants still had Niekro. (And let’s not talk about how often I wondered how bad they needed Niekro.) But if Klesko begins to pick up most of the starts, Sweeney’s presence will make more sense—assuming he starts hitting. He’d been something like 4-for-8 as a pinch-hitter—wonderful stuff—but 1-for-18 as a starter, or numbers to that effect. And I suppose I should think of him more as an outfielder than a first baseman, but I’m not sure either appellation applies. He’s not Kleskoesque in the outfield—luckily, almost no one is—but let’s just say he’s not on this team for his glove, which makes the lack of offense all the more frustrating, even given that he hardly ever plays. The dude’s historically a very good pinch-hitter, though, which provides enough juice to want to keep him, and yet I wonder if he really provides anything on the field, at this stage in his career, that Dan Ortmeier doesn’t.

    Niekro is back in Frenso, possibly for good, having been outrighted last month. He’s the kind of guy who’s easy to pull for, but clearly he just can’t hit big-league pitching well enough to keep a job for a long time. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back with the Giants, but I don’t know why it should happen unless he spends about two months hitting .750 with power.

    Overall, Aurilia and Klesko would be an adequate platoon combination, you’d think. Or maybe you wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. I think their respective proportions of games started needs to lean toward Klesko, and I imagine it doesn’t because of the fear of other teams’ late-inning lefty relievers. Also, does anybody else mentally address Klesko as “Klezzy” or “Klezbo”? I sure hope not.

  • Second base—Ray Durham, Kevin Frandsen, Rich Aurilia: I guess Durham has pretty much been Durham: hot, then not, then hot, then not, with some nagging-injury-related bench time sprinkled in here and there. Though he’s capable of the occasional glaring misplay, he’s looked pretty solid afield, especially if you don’t count the two errors he made the other day (and I don’t, because I didn’t see them, so they didn’t happen). I’d probably be fairly pleased with the guy if he hadn’t started out the year as the cleanup hitter before spending the rest of his time in the five-hole. I’m not sure where he should bat, though. He’s not a leadoff hitter anymore; maybe second or sixth would be best.

    Frandsen surprises me with his hitting every so often, which is bad because he doesn’t do it often enough not to surprise me. Sometimes I get him confused with Brian Dallimore, which is unfair because Dallimore almost always looked overmatched. Maybe it’s the way Frandsen sometimes looks overmatched, plus the occasional bonehead maneuver—more prevalent last year than now, admittedly. This time around he’s played second, short, third, and left, which is okay with me because current-day 12-man pitching staffs (and God knows the Giants can easily go to 13 every so often) make it necessary for bench players (and even some regulars) to be versatile. You know who I liked in Frandsen-ish roles? Guys like Greg Litton and Steve Scarsone. Sure, if you look those guys up, you’ll note that either of them could’ve broken loads of strikeout records if given the chance, and you’ll also note that neither of them was exactly Brooks Robinson out there, but they were fun. Especially Litton, with his cannon of an arm. Scarsone was more like Litton Lite. I’m hoping Frandsen won’t wind up being Scarsone Lite, or the Giants fans’ whipping-boy.

  • Shortstop—Omar Vizquel, Rich Aurilia, Kevin Frandsen: I really don’t care what the numbers say, because they show Vizquel to be a pretty average shortstop. I just don’t believe that. He gets to balls nobody else can, and he improvises like nobody else can. He’s simply too good out there. The appellation “The Out-Maker” isn’t entirely ironic. Would that he could still hit, though. It’s taken a long time, but the Giants have finally started batting him eighth. I’m sure he hates it, but it seems to be a better spot for him than second or, heaven help us, leadoff. The guy’s 40, an age at which most ballplayers, even good ones, are spending more time at home with their kids. Vizquel’s got probably another year or two after this, but not as a Giant—not if he keeps hitting like this. But he sure is fun to watch in the field. He’s the anti-Batiste: I expect him to make a successful play on every ball hit near him.

  • Third base—Pedro Feliz, Rich Aurilia, Kevin Frandsen: Feliz just isn’t very good. Indeed, if you said that to Giants fan/baseball writer/blogger Steven Rubio, he’d provide plenty of evidence that Feliz is not only not very good, he’s the worst regular third baseman in the world, rating at or near the bottom of every important offensive category. Dave Flemming is the only Giants broadcaster I’ve heard speak my thoughts on the matter, namely that Feliz just doesn’t seem to have a plan when he goes to the plate. (Flemming, however, recently modified that view to “Whatever plan Feliz has, he doesn’t stick with it during an at-bat.) Maybe it had never struck me before, but until Feliz came along, I’d never seen anybody make so many outs with so few of them being productive. Get that runner to third with a ground ball? Forget it—time to smack a two-hopper to the third baseman. Get the guy home with a fly ball? Sorry—gotta whiff. It’s hard to take, over and over and over and over, and while Feliz seems like a nice enough guy and all, I would be thrilled to see him dealt, assuming we don’t send along, say, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain in the process. If the Giants can somehow jettison Feliz (and somehow wind up with a good bat), I’d be okay with Aurilia playing third most of the time. (Then again, even if they keep Feliz, I’m not sure I’d mind seeing Aurilia playing third most of the time.)

  • Left field—Barry Bonds, Dan Ortmeier, Todd Linden, Mark Sweeney, Pedro Feliz, Ryan Klesko (hee!), Fred Lewis: Supposedly it’s Bonds’ left knee, the one that didn’t endure three rapid-fire surgeries, that’s giving him trouble now. And today I heard something about shinsplints and swollen ankles. Whatever hurts, it hurts a lot, because Bonds isn’t Bonds right now. He had an astounding April and a puzzling May, and his June, thus far, is nothing to write home about. He’s got 12 dingers at this writing and is nine behind Aaron, and he’s generating a lot more hate messages than offense right now. He’d been hitting home runs like a house afire (see
    for specifics), and now he’s hitting them like Sweeney. Good thing he’s still drawing walks. Oh, he’ll have the occasional two-for-three game with a line-drive single and a double to the base of the center-field wall, but mostly he’s popping up and hitting ground balls into the shift. And striking out. Does that mean the league has figured him out? I don’t know. He sure doesn’t look right, though.

    Ortmeier has hardly been a revelation, but he’s gotten some timely hits, including his first two major league home runs. He’s a switch-hitter who throws lefthanded—not often you see that—and he seems to play a decent outfield with a decent arm and decent speed. I’d like to believe he’s a significant upgrade over Linden. How can he not be?

    At bat, Linden looked like he didn’t even know what planet he was on. Talk about not having any evident plan at the plate. He seemed to have it backward, routinely taking strikes, swinging at balls, and, well, reeking. Once it reached the point where he even looked stupid on defense, finally the Giants made a decision and cut him loose. I think they thought he’d clear waivers, like Niekro—and so did I—but for some reason the Marlins, either desperately needing a body or believing they could reclaim him, picked him up, perhaps to serve as the welcoming committee for Armando Benitez. Whatever progress Linden may have made last year, he lost that and more this year. Maybe he’ll be a decent player some day—just not with the Giants. But don’t worry, Giants fans: he’ll haunt the hell out of us, probably by OPSing 3.000 against the Giants and dropping the fly ball that put the Dodgers into the postseason.

  • Center field—Dave Roberts, Randy Winn, Todd Linden, Fred Lewis: I don’t know if the team’s really feeling Roberts’ absence. He sure didn’t hit at all—except for a booming home run the day before he went on the DL—and he didn’t reach base often enough for steals to really be a factor. He seemed to do just fine in center field, and I like the kind of player he’s supposed to be: pesky, base-reachy, disruptive-speedy. It feels as though he’s been out since about April 10—or maybe he just hasn’t done enough to remember all that well. I sure hope he heals up and does whatever the Giants hope he’ll do. As a Giant, I mean.

    In Roberts’ absence, Winn has been manning the post. I guess the Giants really don’t like him much as a center fielder, and indeed he gets mixed reviews. I’ve never had a problem with him out there, and I thought his fairly rotten 2006 season might have had something to do with him never knowing where he was going to play from inning to inning. I’m not sure he’s really a right fielder, though—he’s probably best suited for left field, but that’s where Bonds hangs out. Winn had a brutal start to the year and has picked up tremendously, helped in no small part by a 20-game hitting streak. I’d like to believe he’ll keep hitting. I mean, while he’s not the same guy the Giants picked up for the last couple months of 2005, I do think he’s capable of putting up pretty good numbers, and when he’s hot, nobody’s hotter, even Bonds.

  • Right field—Randy Winn, Fred Lewis, Todd Linden, Dan Ortmeier: I’m not really sure what’s going on with Lewis and Ortmeier. Lewis seemed to be the guy they brought up to replace Linden, and Ortmeier appeared to come up mostly because Roberts hit the DL, but they’re both getting a fair amount of playing time, especially Lewis, who’s exceptionally fleet afoot. I think he might be a worse outfielder than Linden, however, and that’s problematic. He also has a long, looping swing that concerns me—I don’t see how he can hit a fastball. But he’s managed a couple of off-field home runs and some slashy hits. He’s even been stealing bases—something he’s supposedly not all that good at. In fact, I think his first two steals involved third base. He seems to be an exciting player, but he might be hitting too high in the order. Even so, he seems to have an idea at the plate. Still, he’s 26—older than Linden—and unlikely to improve a lot. I’d love it if he did, though. Shortening that swing might be a good start.

  • Catcher—Bengie Molina, Eliezer Alfonzo: They’ve hyped Molina’s superhuman lack of footspeed. They’ve hyped his hitting with two outs and runners in scoring position. So far he’s lived up to the hype. Not to focus on the negative, but indeed this dude might not be able to win a footrace against Smoky Burgess at his fattest. Indeed, even J.T. Snow—dubbed “D.P. Slow” by some in the Giants newsgroup—could lap this guy. You’re not even sure Molina will score from second on a double—maybe not even from third. He looks like he’s jogging, but maybe that’s his top output. It’s really something. Meanwhile, they say he handles the staff very well, and he does seem to fight for his pitchers. He’s let more pitches get by him than one might like to see, however. Still, as skeptical as I was when the Giants signed him, I’m more or less a believer now.

    Alfonzo hasn’t shown the absurd inability to catch pitched baseballs that we all got to know and loathe last year. He’s thrown a few balls into center field, though—in attempts to catch base stealers, I mean; not just as random acts. At the plate… well, what he does is, he gets big hits in two, three games in a row, then drives me bats by utterly, utterly failing to produce for weeks thereafter. He’s got that sort of Felizesque strike-zone judgment, and you know what happens a lot? When he swings and misses at strike one, you know his at-bat will only last two more pitches, both to be swung on and missed. So I usually cringe a lot when I see him come up as a pinch-hitter. Especially in the middle innings, given that the Giants have only two catchers. I mean, what’s up with that?

  • Starting pitchers—Barry Zito, Matt Cain, Matt Morris, Noah Lowry, Tim Lincecum, Russ Ortiz: This is the closest the Giants have come to having an actual strength, and it’s got to be their best rotation, one through five, in years. Zito’s having trouble reeling off more than one or two good starts in a row, which I suppose is what most people have expected of him. We all know he signed a ludicrously fat contract, and his signing has been hailed by Baseball Prospectus, among other folks, as the worst, dumbest free-agent signing of all time, including other sports and even non-sports. I don’t see it that way. The Giants knew they were going to lose Schmidt, and they felt they needed an ace, or reasonable facsimile thereof. They know they overpaid for Zito: Brian Sabean has said as much—It’s as though he was trying to say that the market required overpayment. All that said, though, I don’t care how much they’re paying Zito. All that matters is that he perform. I think he’s doing reasonably well, considering that he’s going up against number-one starters a whole lot. His control is not what I’d like it to be, though, and it’s hard to feel very confident when your team’s starting pitcher rarely breaks 85 on the gun. In three years he has a good chance of becoming Kirk Rueter—but will it be the 2002 model or the 2005 model? There’s a big difference. On the other hand, before becoming Kirk Rueter himself, Rueter never won a Cy Young. I don’t think Zito’s Cy was any fluke—he just hasn’t been nearly as good since. Either way, I have no reason to think he won’t end up being a solid Giant. Granted, for the money they’re paying, fans tend to want him to be a spectacular Giant, but, again, I don’t care about the money.

    Cain started off looking like a Cy Young candidate, but lately he looks more like Sean Young. True, Sean, even now, is still a visual treat, but I’d be very surprised if she gave up less than a hit per inning. Cain, early on, was giving up roughly a hit every three innings, but from the day the Phillies roughed him up for the first time all season, he hasn’t been the same guy. His control is terrible—how the Diamondbacks scored only three runs off him last night is beyond me, since he seemed determined to just get it over with and shatter the season record now for walks allowed. I also don’t understand how he doesn’t strike more hitters out. He sure gets a lot of two-strike counts, but unlike his immediate elder, Lincecum, he doesn’t finish off the hitters nearly enough, especially for a guy who seems to be trying to strike out everyone. He throws an awful lot of pitches, and maybe this has contributed to his fastball dropping from about 96 to about 92 lately.

    Morris has had some terrific starts, which comes as a surprise to me. He’s way up there among the ERA leaders, which leads me, as a Giants fan, to wait for the other shoe to drop. If you told me last year that he would be the team’s ERA leader on June 6, 2007, I might well have wept, picturing a team ERA well in excess of a million. Had you told me, however, that his ERA would be 2.66 after his last start, I might well have plotzed. It’s as though… it’s as though… I don’t know if I can say it… it’s as though he’s… the team’s… ace. Indeed, if no Giant is elected as an All-Star starter—and maybe Bonds will be, maybe he won’t—Morris should receive plenty of thought as a managerial selection, as should Molina.

    Lowry’s had some hard-luck losses, but then again, this team doesn’t hit. You shouldn’t be a 5-5 starter with a 3.28 ERA, should you? (Nor should you be a 2-5 starter with a 3.54 ERA, if you’re Matt Cain.) It bugs me that while he doesn’t walk that many, he doesn’t strike anybody out, either. If we wanted that, wouldn’t we bring back Rueter?

    The guy on the staff getting the most press these days is Lincecum, and with good reason, even though his ERA is half a run higher than any of his rotation mates. He strikes out about a batter per inning, doesn’t walk many, doesn’t give up a lot of hits… indeed, he surrenders just over a baserunner an inning—so why’s his ERA over four? Probably because he gives up home runs at an alarming rate. If everything else pretty much remains status quo and if he, I dunno, keeps the ball down more or something, nobody’s gonna touch him. Of course, I’m afraid of saying stuff like that because of the dangers of Earnest Praising, so maybe I should stop now.

    Lincecum came up when Ortiz went on the DL, and it was pretty obvious that the former would not only have to stay but would also require a place in the rotation. It would be fair to consider Ortiz the odd man out, and indeed he is, at least as a starter. He was a great story in the spring, a reclamation project coming back after an absurdly bad 2006 season. Indeed, his first few starts weren’t bad—even when he was busy giving up five runs against the Dodgers, he still struck out seven and nearly completed the game. However, he gave up more than one hit per inning in all his starts, and that’s trouble, despite the fact that he didn’t walk many. So now he’s had four relief appearances and hasn’t been scored upon yet. However, he faced two Phillies the other day, retired them both, then left with a forearm injury, so who knows?

  • Closer—Armando Benitez, Brad Hennessey: There are yak herders in Buna-Tufi, New Guinea (assuming they have yaks there) who know how I feel about Benitez and how delighted I am that he’s gone gone gone. The guy left here with a reputation for being a choke artist and a whiner, and he did nothing to dispel either notion.

    On Grant Brisbee’s McCovey Chronicles blog I said, “Don’t sweat the Benitez deal. We already know he’ll haunt us as often as possible, though because the Giants will only play the Marlins roughly six times a year (until the Marlins decide they can’t stand him anymore either, and he goes to the Dodgers), he won’t haunt us as a Marlin nearly as often as he haunted us as a Giant. If we accept it rather than dread it, we’ll be marginally less miserable. And since we’re Giants fans, what more can we hope for?” (Well, one thing we could hope for is… reports are that not only is Eric Gagne pitching very well for the Rangers, he’s also on the block because the Rangers suck. I shudder to think who we’d have to cough up in exchange, though.) (Note to Sabes: Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, not around my eyes, look into my eyes and… you’re under. Feliz Feliz Feliz Feliz Chulk. And… you’re back in the room.)

    Hennessey seems to be the closer pro tem. He could give up fewer hits without making me upset, but mostly he’s looked pretty good, and he’s striking out more guys lately. Is he “closer material”? Well, let’s forget everything I’ve ever said about “closer mentality” and “do we really need set roles?” and all that stuff, and pretend that every team definitely needs a guy they can turn to to slam the door in the ninth. Is Hennessey that guy? How the hell should I know? What, you people think I’m an expert now? How fair is that? You never did before! Either way, he’s the best candidate on the big-league roster (and was, even before the Benitez deal). I don’t detect the Atlee Look on his face—a look that was tattooed (painfully, no doubt) onto the countenance of Benitez and, before him, would-be closers such as Matt Herges (though not necessarily Tyler Walker). I’m willing—as if I have a choice in the matter—to wait Hennessey out.

  • Other righty relievers—Kevin Correia, Vinnie Chulk, Scott Munter, Randy Messenger: Well, Munter only pitched an inning before getting sent back down, so he doesn’t count. Correia, though, is our latest walkoff loser, having surrendered a predictable game-ending home run last night. He strikes out lots of hitters, doesn’t walk that many, doesn’t even give up all that many hits—so why don’t I trust him? Maybe it’s the timing. Maybe it’s the home run, along with two others. Whatever it is, I don’t think he’s a closer in the making.

    Nor is Chulk, whose ERA—I still can’t believe this, because I would’ve guessed twice as high—is 3.24. He doesn’t walk anybody, doesn’t give up that many hits—so why does he stink? He’s pitched well since I seriously (and very Earnestly) ragged on him here a few weeks ago, but I can’t remember a lot of key appearances for him. In other words, maybe mopup relief is where he needs to stay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    Messenger, meanwhile, is the guy we got for Benitez. He put up a 2.66 ERA for the Marlins, though he allowed a lot of baserunners. So far he’s walked two opponents in 2-1/3 innings as a Giant, and it’s hard to tell much from that. (Benitez, incidentally, has given up a run in four innings as a Marlin. Jerk.)

  • Lefty relievers—Jack Taschner, Steve Kline, Jonathan Sanchez: All these guys have been really, really bad. With Taschner that’s more of a recent development: he got seriously roughed up in Philadelphia. And I don’t know whether to think of him as “consistent” or not. After he coughed up a home run to the lefthanded batter he was brought in to face in his first appearance this year, he had eight straight scoreless appearances, got blasted by the Diamondbacks, had five more scoreless appearances, then three scoreful appearances, then two scoreless, two scoreful, and last night’s two-batter, two-strikeout performance. Without his two games in Philly and his horrific time against Arizona, his ERA is 2.40. Unfortunately, you have to count all of his numbers, so it’s 5.74.

    Kline is… well, he might be through. Then again, his last two appearances were very good. Indeed, he’s only had a couple bad performances: early against the Padres, last month against the A’s. That one was world-beatingly bad, though—four runs, zero innings pitched—and without that one his ERA would only be 3.38, and I wouldn’t be complaining. But it’s 6.08, and I am. So maybe he’s not through, but he sure gives up a hell of a lot of baserunners and never strikes anybody out. True, he’s only pitched 13-1/3 innings all year, but how important is it to keep him over Sanchez, no matter how great a “teammate” he supposedly is?

    Then again, Sanchez was pretty awful before his demotion. He strikes out an awful lot of people—one and a half per inning this year—but he also walks nearly one and gives up one hit per inning, and he seems a tad susceptible to the home run ball. Why? Maybe he’s got lots of speed but not a lot of movement. Maybe he only throws one speed. I don’t know. Still, I hope to see him back soon. I like guys who rack up a buttload of strikeouts. I think he can be fixed.
I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about this team. Sometimes I think that at 27-30 they’re playing over their heads. Sometimes I think they could be so much better. Mostly they drive me nuts.

How good are they really? If I had to sum it up in one word, I think it’d have to be: Meh. Assuming “meh” ever really becomes a word.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Looky There: It Is Over

Unless it turns out to be even more of a disaster than Tuesday’s game, I’ve decided to take sole credit for last night’s trade of Armando Benitez, assuming that the decision was based on my previous blog entry. In his blog, Steven Rubio calls attention to Brian Sabean leaving “no doubt he was unhappy that he was forced by public opinion to consummate a trade that leaves the Giants with no experienced closer.” Sabean said, “Apparently the fans, the press and some people in the clubhouse felt he needed to go.”

Steven says, “Brian Sabean’s job is to make the Giants as good a team as he can. His job is not to act on the basis of public opinion… I may think that he'd be better off listening to me, I have in fact been quoted in public about my negative opinions of Sabean, but the idea is that Sabean use his noggin to reconsider his methods, not that he whines like a baby and says ‘ok, HAVE it your way!’”

Sabean has an interesting approach to laying blame, namely one of not looking in a mirror. That’s “interesting,” not “unique.” I mean, how many GMs do cop to making dingleberry moves? (And how many should?) Usually they don’t blame the fans, though. Or teammates of the problem children at hand. And the press… well, everybody blames them, but I don’t have a problem with that.

Still, I understand Sabean’s desire not to badmouth his departing bozo player, and that’s sort of noble, while at the same time sort of covering his butt. Also, I think that if it’s fair to say “Who knew?” about the results of Sabes’ acquisition of Jeff Kent eons ago (and it is), It’s just as fair to say the same thing about the signing of Benitez. I mean, as a Giant, the guy’s ERA was 4.10—bringing his lifetime ERA up to 2.99. The guy saved 35 in three years—as opposed to 47 in 2003 alone—and blew 15, astounding numbers that really weren’t indicated by past performance. Now, sure, he’s had some big-game meltdowns in the past, but hey, he was tied for 23rd in MVP voting in 2003, right? I mean, there were *signs* that as a Giant he might not be the pitcher he was in 2003, but still: who knew? I don’t really fault Sabean for signing the guy in the first place (actual dollar figures aside), because it was reasonable to believe that he’d have chalked up three times as many saves in these three years, and that his ERA would be, say, three-quarters of a run lower, at least.

“Armando Benitez is a better pitcher than the boo birds seem to realize,” Steven says, “but he plies his trade as a closer, the most overrated position on the roster (not the most worthless, but the most overrated, meaning the position where the player is likely to be overpaid relative to his contributions, meaning the position where an astute GM can make a difference, meaning a position where a more traditional GM will overpay). Benitez was signed for $21.5 million. He has now been traded when his trade value is [very] low, with the Giants having to pay $4.7 of the remaining $5 million on his contract. Looking for a whipping boy? Who signed Benitez to that contract?”

Sabean is no more immune than most other GMs to the Seductive Qualities of Closer Numbers (SQCN). As I’ve pointed out a number of times in EEEEEE! over the years, “saves” is a gaudy statistic that is too heavily emphasized. How so? Well, when do closers enter a game? Nine times out of ten, it’s when it’s a save situation. What’s a save situation? Here’s what Rule 10.19 in the baseball rulebook says:
The official scorer shall credit a pitcher with a save when such pitcher meets all four of the following conditions: (a) He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team; (b) He is not the winning pitcher; (c) He is credited with at least a third of an inning pitched; and (d) He satisfies one of the following conditions: (1) He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning; (2) He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, or at bat or on deck (that is, the potential tying run is either already on base or is one of the first two batters he faces); or (3) He pitches for at least three innings.
Closers usually enter the game before an inning starts, when they’d have to get three outs with at least a one-run lead. Even when they enter during an inning, a save is still possible even with a five-run lead (i.e., with the bases loaded and the tying run on deck). In other words, success is pretty much built in. Even though the rule is defined better than the one for individual pitching victories, it’s a lot easier to get a save than a win. In fact, it might be fair to say that it’s as easy to get a save as it is for a starting pitcher to get a win when his team scores, say, four runs in the top of the first.

Also, because closers usually have to pitch just one inning in any given appearance, their ERAs, as a breed, are lower than those of other pitchers. So while an ERA below 4.00 is good for a starter (and lots of relievers) these days, it’s horrendous for a closer. In fact, anything over 3.00 is pretty unsatisfactory. Thus, often, when a GM sees a free-agent closer available, he sees those 40 saves, that 2.80 ERA, and licks his chops. Perhaps he doesn’t see those 10 blown saves—which doesn’t sound like much, I suppose, but it is—and those 12 decisions, many of which are the product of blown saves.

Not only that, but some closers—Robb Nen comes to mind—will come right out and say that they just don’t concentrate, at least not as well, when it’s not a save situation. Why? Because it’s the saves that get them the big money, not the scoreless innings with nothing on the line. Indeed, some of these guys aren’t nearly as intense when their team’s lead exceeds one run. This, I suppose, is what passes for mental toughness.

The “closer mentality”—that is, the tendency among major league managers and general managers to overvalue the role of the closer—has been discussed many times over the years in the Giants newsgroup. Mostly we bemoan the fact that the flashiness of the save statistic and the normal closer-type ERA causes teams to heavily emphasize the closer role itself, if not the pitcher in it. These factors also determine how well closers get paid, which in turn places even more emphasis on the role itself.

Instead of sticking someone in the closer pigeonhole and sticking with it all year, if a manager were to let other factors dictate which pitcher closes on a given day—factors such as game situation, who’s been pitching well, who’s rested, etc.—know what would happen? Anarchy. Why? Because ballplayers like having specific roles. Apparently. The other night, with the Giants ahead 3-0 in the ninth—the night after Benitez’s final implosion as a Giant—you know who closed? Brad Hennessey. Why? Purportedly because Benitez’s knee flared up during the previous night’s fiasco; not because Hennessey was the right man for the job at the time.

But what if Bruce Bochy had said before the game that in closing situations, he planned to use the pitcher he thought had the best chance of doing the job well, rather than using a designated closer? Well, maybe Hennessey gets his save that night, but then maybe we see Steve Kline or Kevin Correia or even Vinnie Chulk (or Benitez) in save situations over the next several days. And you know what we’d read in the papers? Grousing from unnamed relievers about how nobody knows what his role is. It’d just be too confusing. Pants would be wet. Skies would fall. Hence guys like Benitez keeping their jobs for years, and doing them poorly. Hence guys like Matt Herges and Tyler Walker, once ensconced in the closer role, racking enough saves to keep the closer role without necessarily pitching well.

As you know, if you read my previous entry, I completely lost patience with Benitez, right around the time Sabean did. Indeed, on KNBR yesterday, he said, in so many words, that we should expect to see the problem addressed within 24 to 48 hours—which I’m sure most people interpreted as “There’s a trade coming.” And indeed there was. The new guy is reliever Randy Messenger, a big dude with a sparkling ERA—which in this case is to say he’s been awfully lucky, given that he’s allowed something like 36 baserunners and only seven have scored.

Messenger’s probably not going to be the closer, so who is? My joke, and I hope it is a joke, is that it’ll be Hennessey until he goes cold, then Correia until he goes cold… and then maybe Tyler Walker (who’s back in the system, recovering from an injury). Then who? Brian Wilson, who was supposed to make the team this spring but stank too bad? Jonathan Sanchez, a recent departee to Fresno? I don’t suppose it matters too much with this team—as long as the new closer isn’t Matt Cain or Tim Lincecum, d’you hear?

Meanwhile, what you may well have missed yesterday was something that lots of on-air radio people might call “good radio,” but which I call uncomfortable, namely a shouting match between Sabean and KNBR’s Ralph Barbieri. Now, in such circumstances, the radio guy is always gonna win because his voice will be louder than that of the guy on the phone, but Barbieri almost always interrupts his guests anyway, and his approach was (not entirely without reason) very accusing. These two guys went at it a few years back over Sabean’s failure to pursue, let alone sign, Vladimir Guerrero, and Sabes hung up loudly. And yet, to their credit, they’re both professional enough, apparently, not to let these squabbles prevent subsequent amiability. We’ll see after yesterday’s, though.