Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Sort of a Postmortem

The Giants stink. This is not news, as you know, but it needs to be said. They are, however, entertaining at times—those times, for the most part, being after July 31—which is saying something. Tim Lincecum, Bengie Molina, Omar Vizquel, Eugenio Velez, Aaron Rowand, Brian Wilson—they’re all interesting to watch, though not always for good reasons, but that makes them no less entertaining. That’s this team’s silver lining—a lining covered in tears and snot, but silver nonetheless.

Since we hadn’t seen them for so long, I’d almost forgotten about Eliezer Alfonzo, Brian Bocock, Vinnie Chulk, Rajai Davis, Travis Denker, Brian Horwitz, Dan Ortmeier, Erick Threets, Clay Timpner, and Merkin Valdez. So did you, I’ll bet. That’s 10 guys right there. More recent forgettable players include Jose Castillo and Matt Palmer, and some guys are easy to forget—Ivan Ochoa, Pat Misch, Osiris Matos, Geno Espineli—despite still being on the team. That’s 16 players who, if you forget them, still make you think the Giants employed more players than they did. If I hadn’t counted for myself just now, I never would have believed that 49 men took the field as San Francisco Giants this year. I would’ve guessed more like 60. And I’m sorry to say that in no way does this list include everybody who was just plain bad.

Still, there were some bright spots. No, really! This year’s team finished 72-90, granted, but that’s still better than last year’s finish—71-91—and there I was, certain that the Giants had no prayer of accomplishing this feat. Does that mean we should be encouraged? Does that mean we should take heart in the fact that this team was “better” without Barry Bonds than with? I don’t know. I’ll assume it’s none of my business.

I’ll cover all 49 of this year’s Giants in this article, even J.T. Snow. At various points I’ll mention a player’s OPS+, which—don’t ask me why—stands for “adjusted OPS,” This is regular old OPS—on-base percentage plus slugging percentage—which has been adjusted (No! Really?) for the effects of a player’s home park and league, but not for defensive position. You derive it via these factors: take a player’s OBP and divide it by park-adjusted league OBP; divide the player’s slugging percentage by the park-adjusted league slugging percentage; add these two numbers together, then subtract 1; then multiply the result by 100. As for how to calculate park-adjusted stuff… well, different people do it differently. If you really wanted to, you could try it the way. (For pitchers, you might see me use ERA+, which is analogous to OPS+ and differs from ERA in that you want to have a high ERA+.)

A league-average OPS+ is 100. The way it works is, 50 is awful, 150 excellent. It probably would be easier to interpret if the average were zero, but who am I to argue? And why should a player’s defensive position matter anyway? For the same reason it always has: the level of demand that each position has, as illustrated on the defensive spectrum, which basically tells you how demanding a defensive position is, relative to the others, and the more demanding a player’s defensive position is, the less you can reasonably expect from him at the plate. From least to most demanding it goes: DH 1B LF RF 3B CF 2B SS. (Catcher isn’t included on the defensive spectrum because the position is that much more demanding even than shortstop.) So because shortstop is so much more demanding a position than first base, you really have the same expectations of offensive output from shortstops than you can from first basemen. That means that it’s more impressive when a shortstop hits .300 than when a first baseman does. But since OPS+ doesn’t use defensive positions, each hitter is compared to all hitters, not just the ones at his position. OPS+ also doesn’t take left-right breakdowns and other splits into consideration. (Well, it could: You could have “OPS+ vs. lefties.” I’m just saying that an overall OPS+ doesn’t involve those breakdowns.)

For the 2008 Giants, it might be worth knowing that two-time Willie Mac Award winner Bengie Molina’s OPS+ is 99. This is almost exactly dead average in terms of all hitters, and while technically it does mean that as a hitter, he was ever so slightly below average, that doesn’t mean that this is necessarily a horrible thing, mainly because of the defensive demands on catchers. Bearing in mind that it’s hard to get a particularly good read on a player with less than, say, a few hundred at-bats, the best OPS+ on the team was 125, put up by… Nate Schierholtz. You weren’t expecting that either. I figured it would be Pablo Sandoval, and indeed his OPS+ was 120. We shouldn’t read a lot into this, though, since Schierholtz had only 75 at-bats, Sandoval 145. Among the players you could reasonably call regulars, Randy Winn and Fred Lewis each put up a 107 OPS+, leading the team. Aaron Rowand, the big offseason free-agent signing, had an OPS+ of 96. You might not be amazed to know that Omar Vizquel’s OPS+ was 46, but would it surprise you to know that he had only 266 at-bats? It surprised me.

If you’d rather look at plain old OPS, it won’t tell you how a player did in comparison to his peers, but it’ll still give you a decent idea. Usually I mentally divide by three—that is, I mentally divide OPS numbers by three; I don’t turn into three people—because since a .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage are the unofficial standards for “good,” that means that a .900 OPS is “good.” The same is true for a .300 batting average, meaning that dividing an OPS by three gives you a number that looks like a batting average, and most fans probably are more comfortable with batting average than any o’ them newfangled stats like OPS. So if you see a guy such as Ray Durham, who batted .293 and put up an OPS of .799, you’ll get the sense (since .799 divided by three is .266) that it was a pretty soft .293. I suppose you could say that he was “really only as good as a .266 hitter,” but I doubt you’d enjoy it any.

I’d love to give you a converse illustration, such as “On the other hand, Ted Tinkle’s .248 batting average belies his production, as he put up an OPS of .930,” but I can’t because the highest OPS on the team, even among guys who hardly ever played, was Schierholtz’s .864—even better than Sandoval’s .847. As a whole, the team OPSed .703—divide that by three, then stop weeping—compared to their opponents’ .745. Remember Barry Bonds, that broken-down has-been? Last year his OPS was 1.045, with a 170 OPS+… not so great for him, but way better than anyone on the team this year. (For the sake of comparison, though, from 2001 through 2004, each of which, at one point, was called “the best offensive season ever,” his OPSes were 1.378, 1.381, 1.278, and 1.421, with OPS+-es of 259, 268, 231, and 263. He spoiled us rotten.)

Among the pitchers, Tim Lincecum led all Giants starters with a 164 ERA+. Among relievers, Merkin Valdez and Sergio Romo put up ERA+-es well over 200, but they both pitched so few innings that it doesn’t matter much. Brian Wilson’s ERA+ was 93; Barry Zito’s was 83.

Since I usually do these (for lack of a better word) assessments by position, I’ve decided to throw you a curve and do them by position again, in order of playing time. When a player’s name appears in italics, it means he’ll be discussed under a different position:

First Base: John Bowker, Rich Aurilia, Travis Ishikawa, Pablo Sandoval, Dan Ortmeier, Scott McClain, J.T. Snow.

Not counting Snow, who only donned a uniform for his lone appearance at first base because the rules say that he had to, the only natural first baseman on the team was Ishikawa. None of these guys played a great first base, though you could probably argue that he was the best of them. Bowker led the team with 550 innings there—the rough equivalent of 61 games—so obviously first base was a problem spot, and a rather big one. His only other professional experience at first base consists of 13 games at Fresno, also this year. It’s fair to say that he played first because he had to play somewhere, and the outfield was full. He never showed much in the minors, but he homered three times in his first two starts with the Giants, which seduced them into giving him over 300 at-bats, which included only seven more dingers, to go with 14 doubles and three triples. He hit .255, and his OPS was only .708, with an OPS+ of 84. He was not impressive. He walked only 19 times, which has to change, while striking out 74 times (although by today’s standards, that’s hardly calamitous: This year Mark Reynolds of the Diamondbacks became the first hitter to crack the 200-whiff barrier, and Ryan Howard struck out 199 times this year and last year; but don’t worry: I will not point out that Reynolds’ OPS+ was better than Aaron Rowand’s). Bowker hardly ever batted against lefthanders, but that appears to be a good thing, since he managed only five singles in 33 at-bats. Strangely, he put up far better numbers during Giants losses than during their wins. Of course, he had far more opportunity to do well during the losses. Went 9-for-23 as a pinch-hitter, though.

Ishikawa had only 95 at-bats—hardly enough to prove himself—but he didn’t look bad, with three homers and six doubles. In only two of these at-bats did he face a lefty, though, and I assume the Giants have good reasons for that. He batted only 35 times at home and 60 on the road, and on the basis of those limited samples, one might guess that he despises home cooking and flourishes on the road. I’ll reserve judgment, though, until he has several more at-bats under his belt. However, he ought to avoid pinch-hitting: he went 0-for-6 in that role, striking out four times and hitting into a double play.

Ortmeier had a lost season, and I have to figure that his is a lost career, since the Giants ended up dropping him from the 40-man roster. He had only 64 at-bats, only 14 of which resulted in hits, and he struck out 18 times. He looked overmatched most of the time. He’s really an outfielder, and he made no errors in left or right field, but for all the talk about his speed during broadcasts, he was well below average in terms of actually getting to fly balls. Then again, he played only 85 innings out there. He played first for 52 innings, but probably that should have been zero—not that he was a rotten first baseman; just that the move may well have screwed up his head enough to make a lousy hitter out of him.

Snow, of course, didn’t really play. He was signed to a one-day deal so he could retire as a Giant. One day before the end of the season, the team had him take his position and warm up the other infielders, all of whom threw difficult one-hops to him. Before the game actually started, Ishikawa took his position, and Snow walked off into the sunset to warm applause.

Second Base: Rich Aurilia, Emmanuel Burriss, Jose Castillo, Travis Denker, Kevin Frandsen, Ray Durham, Ivan Ochoa, Ryan Rohlinger, Eugenio Velez

Sadly, the best of the lot was Durham, who wound up being traded to Milwaukee. He did manage a .293 batting average and .385 OBP for the Giants, though, and I wish him well in the postseason (though not the Brewers as a whole…). His range was pretty bad compared to other second basemen, but then, none of the Giants’ second basemen had an above-average range factor. Given that none of them hit all that much, that’s a problem.

Another problem, all by himself, might be Velez. If you like players who make dumb mistakes, you won’t have missed Pedro Feliz at all. What Velez is, mostly, is fast. They say he’s got pop, and indeed he hit seven triples this year in only 275 at-bats, but his slugging percentage was only .382. Also, he rarely walks, so if he doesn’t hit about .350, he’s not very useful as a hitter. And he didn’t hit any .350. Early in the season he ran a lot, going 6-for-8 in steal attempts before May, but after getting picked off about seven dozen times, he pretty much shut down the running game, going 9-for-13 the rest of the way. I think all those pickoffs made him gun-shy, but in his case, maybe that’s good. In any case, as the Giants’ announcers seemed fond of pointing out over the last month of the season, Velez is good for about one boneheaded maneuver per game, whether in the field, at bat, or on base. And when the Giants couldn’t find time for him at second base, he wound up in the outfield—and even in center field once, late in the season. He’s not an outfielder. He’s barely an infielder.

I’m not sure why Denker didn’t receive a September call-up. Seems to me that he did what the team asked of him, though he did appear in only 24 games and bat only 37 times. Six of his nine hits, however, were for extra bases, and he had an OPS+, for what it’s worth, of 112. It could be that the Giants don’t like his glove much, though. He only played 70 innings at second base, but his range factor was 2.69, whereas the league average was 4.04.

Next year’s second baseman could well be Frandsen. He didn’t actually play on defense this year, mainly because he tore up his Achilles’ tendon in the spring. If it’s not him, it might be Burriss, but I have the feeling he’ll be the shortstop.

Shortstop: Omar Vizquel, Emmanuel Burriss, Ivan Ochoa, Brian Bocock, Jose Castillo

Before Opening Day the Giants made the somewhat eccentric decision to go with Bocock as their starting shortstop, as Vizquel was going to begin the year on the disabled list. Bocock was only 23 and hadn’t played above A-ball, plus he’s not much of a hitter, but the Giants were happy with their choice, until they watched him try to hit big-league pitching. At the moment, he can’t. He went 11-for-77, though one of those hits managed to be a double; he struck out 29 times. His OPS+ was 13. He failed to earn a September call-up. I don’t know if that means anything, however.

Once Vizquel returned, though, he got off to such an amazingly bad start at the plate that the Giants started taking a look at Burriss and Ochoa, and he spent quite a lot of time on the bench. This is no big surprise, as he’s 41, and though he still plays a pretty mean shortstop, he’s just about through as a hitter. He did bring his batting average all the way up to .222, which is pretty amazing considering he hit .159 in the first half. He also was scintillatingly bad on the road, managing a .460 OPS, which is a rotten OPS for a potted plant. But though he hit for no power at all, he batted .344 in September with an .840 OPS and managed to annoy lots of opposing players in the process. He says he wants to keep playing, preferably in San Francisco, but I’m not sure he has that option, especially since his 3.93 range factor was well below the league-average 4.43. (Sadly, none of the other shortstops did much better in that regard, if at all. Bocock did manage a range factor of 4.44, but Burriss was at 4.09 and Ochoa was at 4.39. Castillo doesn’t count.)

Burriss, though, is someone you could reasonably call “exciting.” He’s fast, and he managed 13 steals in 18 attempts. Not much power there—a .283 average and a .329 slugging percentage—but he walks a fair amount and doesn’t strike out that much. I get the sense that he probably would fit better in the eight-hole than in the one or two, though.

Ochoa, meanwhile, might fit in no holes. He doesn’t hit. It’s true that he only had 120 at-bats to show this, but his .200 batting average and .511 OPS were not encouraging. (His OPS+? Why, 35—higher than I thought it would be.) He made some amazing defensive plays, but doesn’t appear to be an amazing defensive player, so I don’t know what the plan is for him. I have the feeling he’s Just Another Middle Infielder.

Third Base: Rich Aurilia, Jose Castillo, Travis Denker, Conor Gillaspie, Scott McClain, Ryan Rohlinger, Pablo Sandoval

Once Sandoval came up and started hitting, naturally Giants fans wondered where he’d been all season while we’d had to endure over 100 games of Castillo, who showed below-average range and made 15 errors besides (or, not very preferably, “to boot”). Add to this the fact that Castillo provided almost nothing at the plate, and you have something of a lost season. He did pound 28 doubles, four triples, and six home runs, but his OPS was .671, in large part because of a .244 batting average and .290 OBP. He also hit into 16 double plays. Still, I was mildly surprised (though not bothered) that the Giants simply cut him loose.

Aurilia put up what I think is a pretty decent year, at least at this stage of his career. I would not be surprised if he’d played his last major league game, though I don’t think he’s even close to through. Still, I imagine the Giants will jettison him, but I’m not sure he’s a bad guy to have around. His OPS was only .745, but that’s still well above the team average, so it’s hard to complain. To my surprise, he played zero innings at shortstop this year—which is fine, actually—and it’s pretty clear that there’s not much defensive prowess there anymore, but I still think he’s valuable. The Giants did, anyway, which is why he managed over 400 at-bats as a bench player.

I have the feeling Rohlinger wishes he were someone else, or at least had come up at a different time, or maybe with a different team. He went 3-for-32, comical enough by itself, but a scream when coupled with a -20 OPS+. The Giants had been impressed with him in spring training, and 32 at-bats is hardly any kind of sample size, so there could well be hope for him. I like him better than Edwards Guzman, anyway. The poor guy made two quick errors in his debut, and his range was a touch below average, but it’s hard to tell after only 68 innings at third.

McClain isn’t so much a baseball player as a “story.” He’s 36 and has played 44 games in parts of four major league seasons, starting in 1998, and he hit his first two major league home runs this year after 287 in the minors plus about 75 in Japan. What’s funny is that he had the highest range factor among Giants third basemen—funny since he wasn’t up there for his glove (which isn’t bad, actually). I’m not sure why he just never got a real shot, since he was a pretty solid minor league hitter. Maybe the timing was always bad. If he were 10 years younger, I’d be just fine with him on the team as a backup corner infielder and stud pinch-hitter, but he’s not, and he may well have played his last major league game. As it is, I still don’t think I’d mind him on the team as a backup corner infielder and stud pinch-hitter.

Gillaspie, the Giants’ second-round pick this year, is about 14 years old. I’m not sure why they brought him up, especially since Buster Posey, the first-round pick, wasn’t afforded that courtesy. Gillaspie, who spells both of his names wrong, went 1-for-5 as a Giant, with two walks, and he doesn’t look bad at the plate. He was fair in rookie ball and not particularly good in low-A, but I see no reason not to have high hopes for the guy. So I will.

Left Field: John Bowker, Rajai Davis, Brian Horwitz, Fred Lewis, Dan Ortmeier, Dave Roberts, Clay Timpner, Eugenio Velez, Randy Winn

Lewis is one of those guys who makes difficult plays look easy and vice-versa. Statistically, his glove is a bit below average, and so far, so’s his range. He should stay in left field, though, because in center, his range is even more below average, but, I think he could turn into a better outfielder. I’m reluctant to talk about him in terms of “as he develops,” however, since he’s already almost 28. His OPS+ is just over 100 in 636 lifetime at-bats, and while the Giants are convinced he’ll turn into someone with pretty good power and that he already has pretty good strike-zone judgment, I just don’t see it. I do think he could hit .300—but it’d be a weird .300. He missed the last several days after getting surgery on one of his feet—he’s said to have played with painful bunions all year. I don’t know what that’s like, but I do know that if your feet aren’t right, it’ll screw you up completely, so you may as well get them fixed.

Roberts, you may be surprised to know, played zero innings in center field this year. Or maybe you won’t be surprised. But I was—almost as much as I was surprised to see that he’d only played 205 innings in the outfield, albeit 205 pretty good innings, from a range standpoint. Too bad he can’t hit. He spent about 90 games on the DL, but was he injured the rest of the time, too? Still, he only had 107 at-bats, so it’s hard to be too critical—except that only four of his 24 hits went for extra bases, and his .224 average was backed by a .280 slugging percentage, which is absurdly bad. Evidently he’s one of those Good Guys To Have Around, so I wonder if they’re gonna keep him. I don’t know why—I can’t say I missed him while he was gone. And he’s not cheap.

Horwitz was dropped from the 40-man roster, which surprised me mildly. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of “there” there, but he did hit a pair of home runs in 36 at-bats. Then again, as I look at his minor-league stats, I see that while his home run power has picked up some, his doubles and triples power has dropped, such that his slugging percentage at Fresno this year was lower than last year, in the same number of at-bats. He’s about 26, which suggests that he’s not going to improve much if at all, but I guess it’s better to decide early that a guy’s not going to make it than to wait until he proves he won’t.

Timpner struck out in both his major league at-bats, which tells us almost nothing, but his minor-league stats do not acquit him well. Early on, he stole bases at a pretty good clip, and at a pretty good percentage, too; the last three years, though, both totals and percentage have dropped (which, to be fair, has a lot to do with playing time), and speed might be just about all he has. He’s 25, doesn’t walk much, and doesn’t seem to have much range.

Center Field: Rajai Davis, Fred Lewis, Aaron Rowand, Eugenio Velez, Randy Winn

Am I being unfair by being disappointed in Rowand? I didn’t expect all that much—lots of people expected less than that—but I got the sense that the team’s expectations, and those of lots of fans, was that he’d put up great numbers, like he did in Philadelphia, and play Gold Glove center field. I expected maybe an .800 OPS to go along with 20 home runs, but in fact those numbers were .749 and 13. His fielding percentage was a point below league average, but his range factor was 2.95, compared to a league average of 2.61 for NL center fielders, so it’s hard to complain about his defense… and yet, I will. It reached a point where I winced whenever it looked like he was going to try and throw a runner out on the bases. It seemed as though, with very few exceptions, the throws he let fly would go 50 feet up the third-base line, and the Giants were lucky if anyone could track the ball down before it reached the dugout. Often, these throws were a bad idea even before they were executed—which means, in essence, that he threw to the wrong base a tad more often than you want to see from the reigning Gold Glover. To be fair, I wonder if the cracked rib(s) that hampered his swing early in the season never stopped bothering him and affecting his play. That might account for the lousy throws—and lots of lousy swings, too. Heck, perhaps it’s why he drove in only one run in all of September. Also, I wondered if his home ballpark was hurting him, and indeed he threw up a .714 OPS and 86 OPS+ (which makes me want to throw up), but his .784 (and 115) on the road isn’t much better. He was quite a bit better on the road in 2007, which is more impressive considering that he played half his games in a pretty serious hitter’s park and that AT&T was one of his road parks then. That is, Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia clearly was a hitter’s park, with a 1.034 park factor, while AT&T was a pitcher’s park, at .987. Weirdly, while the Phillies’ home stayed pretty much the same at 1.029 this year, AT&T’s park factor was 1.045. (That particular park factor is derived by dividing all runs scored (per game) in a team’s home games by all runs scored (per game) in a team’s road games.) So while playing his home games in a park that was way more hitterish this year than last year, Rowand still did better on the road.

This is not to say that he’s a bust or anything. I mean, how can one not like the guy, for one thing, and he strikes me as the kind of player who could be a very important part of a winning team. Indeed, he’s shown this twice in the three years before 2008. But now the team he’s with is fairly bad, and it can’t be easy to be an important part of a losing team. What went wrong, I think, is that he was billed as practically the savior of the Giants, the guy who’d get them out of the sewage Barry Bonds had put them into by being such a cheating slacker. That’s an awful lot to ask of any player, especially a guy who’s not the type of player that you could ever call “The Man.” He’s a number-six hitter whom the Giants tried to plug into the five, three, and even two holes. In some ways it’s Tsuyoshi Shinjo all over again, except that Rowand isn’t a joke.

Davis made such a big splash when he came to the Giants in the Matt Morris deal last year. He was fast, exciting, and a good fielder—exactly the kind of player the Giants seem to want most these days. For all the denigration of the stolen base that you’re likely to hear from those who are way more well-versed in baseball statistics than I am, I happen to think that—irrespective of the actual, statistical effect—a top-level base stealer who gets on base a lot can be tremendously disruptive to a pitcher and the defense behind him. Rickey Henderson spent his career proving that. And even Davis, who’s no Henderson, had this effect as well. This year, though, he went 1-for-18 before getting canned and winding up in Oakland.

But a fair number of Giants had—or at least tried to have—that effect on opposing defenses, though none of them is what you’d call a world-class base stealer. In fact, for all the speed the Giants tried to tell people they had, their top thief was Randy Winn, with 25. However, he was only caught twice, making him a baserunning force to be reckoned with, sort of. Fred Lewis was 21-for-28, Eugenio Velez was 15-for-21, and Emmanuel Burris was 13-for-18. Together, those four guys had a 79% success rate, which ain’t bad. Still, if a running team is what the Giants want to put on the field, they’ll need to do way better than that, because they sure as hell aren’t a power-hitting team.

Right Field: John Bowker, Emmanuel Burriss, Rajai Davis, Brian Horwitz, Fred Lewis, Dan Ortmeier, Nate Schierholtz, Eugenio Velez, Randy Winn

Winn put up a .306 average and a .363 OBP, but just a .426 slugging percentage, thanks to only 10 home runs. He did hit 38 doubles, though, and if he’s going to remain with the team—and I wouldn’t put money on that—I think they need to keep him out of the number-three slot. Though I think it’s pointless using him (well, most people) to bunt fast people to second, perhaps the two-hole is best for him. I don’t think he’s a leadoff hitter. He did awfully well in right field, though, considering that he hadn’t spent all that much time out there until 2006. He’s a Steady-Eddie kind of player, however, and while I’m not exactly in love with the guy, I wouldn’t mind seeing him come back.

Schierholtz had only 75 at-bats, but he was fairly impressive, with a .320 batting average and .864 OPS. He doesn’t seem to have nearly enough power , though (in the majors, anyway; his power has been decent in the minors), and given that he drew only three walks, he sure doesn’t seem like a high-in-the-order kind of hitter. His range in the outfield is pretty good, though he does seem to make the occasional odd decision on fly balls. I think what we’re going to end up seeing is a guy whose offensive weaknesses will be exposed if he doesn’t keep his batting average high enough.

Catcher: Eliezer Alfonzo, Steve Holm, Bengie Molina, Pablo Sandoval

I would bet that most Giants fans would call Molina the team’s 2008 MVP (unless you’re going to count pitchers), and sadly, maybe he is. Those 95 RBIs look good, but he got them all in the cleanup spot, where you’re supposed to drive in loads of runs. He hit a few home runs late in the season to wind up at 16—leading the team, if you can believe it—but for a long time there, it wasn’t obvious that the Giants would have any players in double figures. Indeed, they only had five, and three of those had exactly 10. Somehow I picture the Giants’ Powers-That-Be feeling just fine about this, since they’d made the organizational decision to de-emphasize the home run. However, if you’re gonna do that, you’d better pick up the slack somewhere, and they didn’t come close to doing that.

Molina deserves loads of credit for rarely striking out—38 in 530 at-bats—but he walked only 19 times (and got plunked nine times), so that .292 batting average was almost all there was to his .322 OBP. Still, he’s a catcher, so it’s hard to complain about his output at the plate. Behind the plate… well, evidently the pitchers like him, so he must do something right, but he sure seems to let a lot of pitched baseballs zoom on past him. Also—and understand, I don’t expect speed from a catcher—his almost superhuman lack of foot-speed is no longer an adorable novelty. I’m amazed that he hit into only 23 double plays, and that that’s a career-high figure; my only explanation is that he must not hit that many ground balls, because if he does hit one with a runner on first and less than two outs, it’s automatic. He may as well not even run. At this point in his career, if not for his entire career, he is to foot-speed what Duane Kuiper was to home-run power. They call him “Big Money” ’cause “Sloth” would just be mean. No matter what, though, Molina deserves applause for putting up significantly better offensive numbers after the All-Star Game than before—noteworthy because he’s a catcher who plays almost every day, and it’s easy to expect him to fall off the map in August and September.

Holm only got into 49 games and managed just 84 at-bats, but he drew a few walks and hit some doubles. Not sure if this matters, though, because if Molina sticks around, he and Sandoval will do all the catching, barring injury.

Sandoval is a fun player—I mean, who’s the last catcher/first baseman/third baseman you can remember? Does Paul LoDuca count? (If so, who cares?) It’s not obvious to me which is his best position, though I’m not going out on a limb by saying that third base is his worst. As a catcher, he threw out 30% of those who tried to steal against him—just 10 guys, but still, 30% isn’t bad these days (and he didn’t throw any balls into center field). Molina’s success rate was 35%, and Holm’s was… 9%—that’s 2 of 23. I’d love to say that as a hitter, Sandoval’s something special, but he’s not—not that I have any complaints. He doesn’t walk, but, well, some guys just don’t walk. He hit 10 doubles in 145 at-bats, but only three home runs. He generally hits the ball hard, and I’d like to see a little elevation on some of those line shots, but if he were forced to hit, say, 12 home runs over the course of a full season, it wouldn’t be so bad if he hit, say, 50 doubles. He spent a lot of time batting third in the order, and I’m not sure he’s that kind of hitter; maybe a five. The Giants must not like him as a righthanded batter much, though, because he had only 38 at-bats against lefties. (I forgot to mention that he’s a switch-hitter, which is something the Giants are saturated with, having played seven of them (not counting pitchers): Sandoval, Vizquel, Winn, Velez, Burriss, Ortmeier, and Durham.)

Alfonzo got a long suspension for a drug violation, but the Giants liked him enough to bring him up in midseason. I don’t know why. He’s not much of a hitter. Or much of a catcher. If he doesn’t come back, I won’t mourn, even though he’s always spoken very highly of me.

Starting Pitchers: Matt Cain, Kevin Correia, Brad Hennessey, Tim Lincecum, Patrick Misch, Matt Palmer, Jonathan Sanchez, Merkin Valdez, and Barry Zito

In several late-season games, Bruce Bochy left Tim Lincecum in too long, evidently in an effort to bolster the kid’s Cy Young chances. Lots of Giants fans, at least in the newsgroup , were pretty angry about this, but I don’t know what to think. Lincecum’s being widely touted as a “freak” who just never gets tired or sore. Clearly that’s not strictly true, since he looked worn out in several of his late starts, but it’s easy to look at that physique of his—he looks like he weighs 78 pounds—and think that leaving him in for 130 pitches absolutely must be detrimental, especially since they babied him a lot last year and early on this year.

Is he gonna win the Cy? Nah. This is the limb on which I shall go out: It’ll be Brandon Webb, who won 22 games. Lincecum won 18. He led the league in strikeouts, by a wide margin, and lost out on the ERA title by .04 (because he got knocked around in some of those late-season starts). I’m not sure how many games he would have won if the bullpen had been able to keep his leads, but I have no doubt it’d be over 20. One of his five losses was due to a really stupid balk call early in the season, and he reasonably could have won two of those, plus seven of his 11 no-decisions. (Maybe Webb could make a similar claim.) But the thing is, Cy Young voters tend to be seduced by gaudy win totals—not that there’s anything wrong with gaudy win totals—and a 22-game winner for a second-place team will almost certainly trump an 18-game winner for a fourth-place team. But the Giants haven’t seen a Cy Young winner since Mike McCormick did it in 1967, so they were kind of desperate to get Lincecum that award. Even though I don’t see how he can win it this year, I’ll be annoyed if and when he doesn’t, just like I was when Mike Krukow (in an odd departure from the “Wins Trumps ERA” format), Billy Swift, and Jason Schmidt failed to win the award in their big years.

But I can’t remember another Giants pitcher for whom you had to stop what you were doing to watch. (Actually, Atlee Hammaker in 1983 comes to mind, and the only thing that keeps people from remembering how good he was—aside from his horrific All-Star outing—is the fact that he lost his last five decisions after a 10-4 start.) For some reason, I get a kick out of pitchers who can strike out loads of hitters (unless they’re Giants hitters, I mean). Nolan Ryan was a lot of fun to watch, for instance, and I consider myself lucky to have seen him no-hit the Dodgers in 1981 (on TV, I mean). I loved it when Schmidt would whiff, say, 12 guys, thanks in large part to that 90-mph changeup. Lincecum could easily be a 300-strikeout guy, though ain’t nobody gonna be blowing by Ryan’s record—people just don’t pitch nearly as much nowadays. Another thing that makes Lincecum fun to watch is his demeanor. He looks like he’s having a ball when they show him in the dugout between starts, but when he’s on the mound, with a face like an 11-year-old, he looks all business, and there’s even something intimidating in his expression. I really, really hope they don’t screw him up, because I’d love for him to have a great career, especially as a Giant.

I wish Cain would, too. He has pretty rotten luck out there: 15-30 over the last two years, but with ERAs well below the league average. He had an ERA of 2.90 in his 12 no-decisions this year, too. He walks too many guys, though. Even so, he strikes me as a potential Cy Young winner, and if he accomplishes that feat, I sure hope he’s still with the Giants.

Zito never put up an above-league-average ERA until he came to the Giants. This year the difference was 0.85 earned runs per nine innings, which is a lot. He also walked over 100 batters for the first time. I don’t know what it is. I refuse to believe that now that he’s got the big contract, he doesn’t care about earning it—in fact, I don’t believe that about any big-leaguer—and I really don’t think it’s a mental or emotional thing. I swear, if he were a righthander, you wouldn’t hear talk about the fragility of his ego, or whatever. One factor that’s easy to point to is that he has trouble getting his fastball up over 85 anymore. Right now, as I’ve said before elsewhere, he’s the last couple years of Kirk Rueter, only way more expensive. If Zito has physical problems, I’d sure appreciate it if he got them fixed.

Sanchez strikes out a lot of guys, but he walks too many and gives up too many hits. That pretty much sums him up. His ERA was 5.01—substantially better than last year, but still rotten—and I don’t get why the Giants are so high on him. Perhaps it was his 8-5, 3.97 showing in the first half—it sure couldn’t be his 1-7, 7.47 second half. Actually, he was pitching just dandy until hitting the disabled list in midseason, and the easy call is that he never recovered from the injury. The announcers, especially Miller and Flemming, made much of the trouble he had against opposing pitchers, but to his credit, he wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared: .225/.326/.325—9-for-40 plus six walks, which is still pretty awful, but hey, you can’t have everything.

The Correia experiment might need to be over, though. He was pretty good in 2006 and 2007, actually: a whole run below the league-average ERA. But this year, mostly in a starting role, he showed us what he showed in 2005: don’t put him mostly in a starting role. How he managed to get his ERA up over six this year might be a mystery, but one main culprit has to be the 141 hits he gave up in 110 innings. Opposing batters hit .310 against him, with an .856 OPS and an OPS+ of 128—higher than any of the Giants’ actual hitters. He too had trouble retiring pitchers, who went 10-for-37 against him: a .270 average. He only threw 7-2/3 innings in relief, but gave up 13 runs on 20 hits and four walks. Even so, I’m pretty sure he’d be strictly a reliever, if I had to keep him in my bullpen.

Misch was also quite terrible, albeit in only seven starts and eight relief appearances. He can’t really get lefties out, but then he can’t get righties out either, so it probably doesn’t matter. He’s 25 and may well have some value, but I’m not sure I need to see him back in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, I don’t understand why they bothered with Palmer, who started three games and put up an 8.53 ERA. He has a lifetime minor league ERA of 3.46, which looks impressive, but he spent two and a half years in Triple-A before coming up, so how good can he be? He didn’t rate a September call-up—in fact, he was dropped from the 40-man roster—so we might not see him again.

Relief Pitchers: Vinnie Chulk, Geno Espineli, Brad Hennessey, Alex Hinshaw, Osiris Matos, Sergio Romo, Billy Sadler, Jack Taschner, Erick Threets, Merkin Valdez, Tyler Walker, Brian Wilson, Keiichi Yabu

Wilson might have had the worst season a 40-save pitcher has ever had. It’s true that he was an All-Star, but even that makes me wonder, given his 4.58 ERA at the break. In fact, as much as I think I like Wilson, he pretty much embodies the inherent flaws in the “closer mentality,” and he’s virtually proven how dangerous it is to evaluate closers in terms of the number of saves they put up. I would say that Wilson was this year’s Jeff Brantley, whose middle name is Hoke, but that’s really unfair to Brantley, whose ERAs as the Giants closer were 1.56 and 2.45. Wilson doesn’t even stack up all that well against Armando Benitez. However, I’d still rather have Wilson as my closer, because Benitez is sort of hateful and Brantley is 45. Wilson’s main asset is that he throws hard, sometimes topping 100 on the gun. His main problem may be that he has trouble retiring the first batter he faces, and he has trouble getting outs when there are none. Also, interestingly, he threw 27-2/3 innings on two or more days’ rest and gave up 24 runs (7.81 ERA), as opposed to eight runs in 34-2/3 innings (2.08) on zero or one day’s rest. Sounds like the key is to keep him busy. However, since the closer mentality requires you to use your closer only in save situations, you wouldn’t expect Wilson to pitch much at all, since the Giants so rarely have a late-game lead. But if Wilson’s that good on little rest, here’s a novel idea: why not use him in tie games, or even when the team is just a run or two behind, so as to keep the opposition from inflicting more damage? That’s a Bill James thing from years back, i.e., the idea of using your best reliever when it matters most. And it might be disturbing to note that Wilson led Giants relievers in innings pitched.

Yabu’s only previous major league experience was with Oakland in 2005, and he’s 40 now. He put up a 3.57 ERA this year and thus is hard to complain about, but I’m sure I’ll find a way: Lefties pounded this guy for a .355 batting average (.901 OPS), and he stank on the road (5.20 ERA). His 3.28 first-half ERA was a whole lot better than his 4.22 second-half ERA. Other than that, he did pretty well, really, but how much longer can he be effective?

Walker tricked the Giants by putting up a 1.26 ERA in 15 games toward the end of last year, so, on that basis, he had a fairly important role this year and, in my opinion, pitched worse than a 4.56 ERA would indicate. I’m not sure where all that ERA comes from, though: He gave up fewer hits than innings pitched, and struck out nearly a batter per inning; he only walked 21 in 53-1/3. True, he couldn’t get lefties out (.969 OPS, 146 OPS+), and he had a 6.38 ERA at home, but he was awfully good at preventing the first batter he faced in a game to reach base (.266 OBP). Perhaps it was the fact that of the 47 hits he surrendered, 10 were doubles, one was a triple, and seven were home runs. I really don’t know. I do know that if he were to depart again, I would fail to grieve.

Lefties hit .288 against Taschner, which is a little troubling since he’s so frequently brought in specifically to face them. And the first guy to face him in a game, lefty or not hit .314 with some power. Perhaps the solution is to keep him out of the game until the second batter he faces comes to the plate. I like Taschner, but is he gonna get any better? Well, I guess you could say yes, given that his last three ERAs, in order, were 8.38, 5.40, and 4.88. But he’s 30 now, so how much more faith can you place in him?

Know who had the fifth-highest total of innings pitched in as a Giants reliever this year? No, it was Sadler. Know why? Me neither. I was shocked to see that his ERA was only 4.06, if only because he gave up eight home runs in 44-1/3 innings, which is appalling. He gave up only 34 hits, but he walked 27 and drilled eight, if you can believe it. He’s good at getting that first guy out, but not those subsequent guys, apparently, and he’s pretty useless on more than a day’s rest. I don’t get the attraction here. A little Sadler sure seems to go a long way.

Hinshaw was one of the team’s best relievers—certainly the best lefty reliever. He gave up five home runs, which is more than you might want to see in 39-2/3 innings, but he struck out 47 and gave up only 31 hits. If he had only one aspect of his game worth improving, it would be his control: 29 walks—or 6.6 per nine innings. That’s appalling. Righthanded hitters drew a lot of those walks and knocked him around some, for an .888 OPS despite a .235 batting average. He also was way better before the All-Star Break than after.

The bullpen revelation this year was Sergio Romo, who put up a 2.12 ERA in 34 innings, during which he gave up 16 hits and eight walks. When he entered a game, the first batter he faced got one hit, zero walks, and two hit-by-pitches—that’s a .107 OBP. Sure, the hit was a home run, but it’s still hard to be too bent out of shape.

Chulk might be lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry. He’s the guy we had instead of Jeremy Accardo, who at least was good last year. Chulk was the guy you could count on to give up the key dinger, righthanded batters had a .512 slugging percentage against him, and when he entered a game, the first batter he faced had an OPS of 1.126 against him (with a 190 OPS+). Still, he’s been gone since June, having been outrighted to Fresno. I’m guessing he’ll get a look in spring training, but if the Giants think he’ll be a vital piece of the puzzle, they’re direly mistaken.

Matos was almost as bad, though he threw only 20-2/3 innings, so it’s hard to tell. Still: too many hits, too many walks. He had a 1.23 ERA in Double-A, and gave up no runs in 9-2/3 innings at Fresno. He didn’t inspire me with the big club, but he’s only 23, so there’s hope. I hope.

Espineli threw only 16 innings, walking and striking out eight apiece, and giving up 17 hits—of which five went over far-distant walls. His ERA at Fresno was 2.66, though, which may be a good sign. He throws about 80 with a weird sidearm/submarine delivery such that every hitter should try bunting on him, and it seems to me that the Giants have enough lefties who throw about 80.

Valdez also threw only 16 innings, but that’s because he got hurt. Again. Mostly his career has been about being hurt. It’s a shame, too, because he looked like he’d be such a stud when he came here in the Russ Ortiz deal before the 2003 season. Sure, his debut four years ago was highly forgettable, but this year he was on a pretty good roll. Righties couldn’t touch him, and neither could the first guy he faced in a given inning. He gave up runs in only three of his 17 outings, and of the five runs scored, three of them came in the game before he went on the DL. He’s pretty clearly a one-inning guy, though his in lone two-inning appearance, he retired all six batters, striking out four, in that weird start he had against the Dodgers during that long rain delay—Lincecum was the scheduled starter, but Bochy, et al., didn’t want to risk injury, so they opted to sacrifice Valdez instead.

Threets always seemed Just About To Make It, but last year was his first major league experience, when he was terrible in three games. This year he pitched only 10 innings and gave up four runs, but that hardly tells the story: He walked nine batters, for a total of 12 in 12-1/3 major league innings, and he hit three guys. He started the season with the big club because he was out of options and the Giants were afraid of losing him on waivers, but it turned out that they had worried for naught. Threets cleared waivers and pitched pretty well at Fresno, but he still walked too many people.

Overall, it’s hard to be disappointed with the 2008 Giants, since you have to admit that they exceeded expectations. You certainly have to admit that they exceeded my expectations. The offense isn’t very encouraging in terms of 2009, but hey, maybe they’ll get something out of Sandoval and Schierholtz, and even Ishikawa. If Noah Lowry returns—and returns to form—the starting rotation ought to be reasonably good, and I’m pretty sure I prefer a bullpen with Romo, Valdez, and Hinshaw to one with Chulk, Walker, and Taschner. Barring some major acquisitions (or even with them), I don’t see this team being great next year by any means, but hey, if they finish above .500, I wouldn’t be surprised. I would be disappointed, of course, because yet again they won’t win me a damn ring, but we can’t have everything in life. Sometimes we can’t have anything.


  1. J.T. was probably the best defensive firstbaseman on the team this year.

  2. Cameron wanted to share this with you about the game we attended: "Sadly the Giants lost but they played well."

    Good to see your elaboration of this basic principle of Giantsdom as reflected in the entire season.

  3. Long-time lurker here, good to see an update from you. I was beginning to think this blog was dead...