Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Oh, No Need to Listen to Me

Not that it matters all that much, but Brian Wilson had to finish off the eighth inning in a moderate pressure situation. In the ideal world described in my last post—okay, I didn’t call it an ideal world, because in an ideal world, the San Francisco Giants would have won at least one World Series by now—Wilson would have hit the showers with his teammates’ thanks and the knowledge of a job well done.

But no. He has to stay in the game and pitch the ninth, or else he won’t get the save. By then the Giants had a six-run lead, which is not to say that the game was in the bag (because they’re the Giants), but it was probably safe enough to give, say, Merkin Valdez a pressure-free inning. The team’s best reliever had already done his thing.

Instead, two batters into the ninth, the Dodgers have scored. Now, true, nothing bad happened after that, but it’s clear that closers just don’t concentrate unless the game is seriously on the line. Robb Nen as much as admitted this, and you can see it on the face of any closer who enters a game with too big a lead. He’s thinking about babes or the latest episode of Family Guy or the fact that pizza maybe sounds like a plan after the game. But probably mostly babes.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

“Theme” My Bippy

When Matt Cain left today’s game with a 4-1 lead, broadcasters Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper were aglow about how, for a change, this year’s “theme” was, “Score Runs for Cain.” The Giants had a number of opportunities to score more than four, but they went into the ninth with that three-run lead, which Brian Wilson coughed up in a heartbeat, leading to extra innings. At this point, hey, the Giants could still win, but they’ve already burned all their best relievers, having used Jeremy Affeldt, Bobby Howry, and Wilson. Who’s left? Brandon Medders, Justin Miller, and Merkin Valdez. Of these, the best appears to be Valdez (and he’d better be), but he generally can’t throw more than an inning. I’m not entirely convinced that Medders and Miller can either. So I can’t say I have a good feeling about the rest of this game.

Now, Wilson came in with that three-run lead. That’s SOP for ballclubs these days: If it’s a save situation, bring in the closer, without fail. A save situation, as you probably are aware, is one in which the reliever enters the game and meets the following conditions (according to Rule 10.19 of the official baseball rules): 1) he is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team, 2) he is not the winning pitcher, and he either (enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning; enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, at bat or on deck; or pitches for at least three innings, no matter how big the lead is.

Most often you’ll see your closer on the mound at the beginning of what his team hopes will be their opponents’ last offensive inning. Those are the easy saves. The pitcher’s coming in with a built-in lead, and all you have to do is shut down the other team for an inning. A one-run lead, certainly, is precarious, and this is where closers to be at their most intense. The bigger the lead, though, the less they concentrate, to the point where they seem to dread coming in with a three-run lead. Heck, I don’t know, maybe Wilson was exactly as intense and focused as usual, but I betcha... not. He got battered around, finally giving up the tying runs on a two-run homer by Juston Upton of the Diamondbacks, who seems to hit only Giants pitchers particularly well.

Now, this happens to every closer at some point. He’s not always gonna shut ’em down. In fact, closers tend to succeed about 80 to 90 percent of the time, which I don’t think is so great given the advantage they have when they enter the game. Granted, not all saves are easy. Closers aren’t going to throw three innings, so you won’t see Wilson enter the game with a 16-3 lead in the seventh, so get that out of your head right now. (Like the Giants are ever gonna score 16 runs in a game this year.)

And when I say “easy,” I mean in a relative sense. Starting the ninth with a one-run lead doesn’t seem so easy if, for instance, you’re facing three straight hitters who routinely knock baseballs out of parks. That one-run lead can disappear rather quickly. Plus there are those save situations where a pitcher might enter the game with a one-run lead, no outs, and the bases loaded. One sacrifice fly later: blown save.

In essence, my standard rant about saves is that saves are a gaudy statistic. Francisco Rodriguez saved over 60 games last year, smashing the existing record. And it’s not as though that’s not impressive. But you can’t equate it to, say, a starting pitcher winning 20 games—I’m not even sure you could equate it to 15 games—because success is built into the statistic. Usually you have to really screw up if you want to blow a save.

All that said, it’s still a better-defined stat than wins for a pitcher. Wins seem far more arbitrary, and on some occasions, they can be awarded on the whim of an official scorer. Yesterday’s victory over Arizona would be a good example, because Randy Johnson came out in the fourth inning, having walked seven hitters, but the Giants won anyway. Johnson’s immediate replacement, Justin Miller, got the win, giving up a run in an inning and two-thirds. Now, had the official scorer judged that Miller had pitched either “briefly” or “ineffectively,” he could’ve given the win to any of the four subsequent pitchers. Not that he should have.

But what do you do in a game where one team had an 8-0 lead and kept scoring, while the other team scored in bunches of four or five or eight but still couldn’t catch up? Let’s say the starter left in the first, and seven relievers all got lit up? Hard to know who gets the win, really. Let’s say that last pitcher doesn’t get lit up, and puts down the opposition in order in the ninth, with a one-run lead. Well, he really should get the save, but since all his teammates had pitched either briefly, ineffectively, or both, he ends up getting the win, which probably doesn’t help him when it comes to contract negotiations.

So neither wins nor saves (albeit clearly defined) is a great statistic. The Giants have shown us over the last few years, thanks to pitchers such as Matt Herges, Tyler Walker, and Brad Hennessey, that anybody can rack up plenty of saves. A guy could save a good 40 games despite an ERA over six, but Lord, what if he leads the league in saves? He’s your closer again next year. Yeccchhh.

Current conventional wisdom has a major league manager putting his best reliever into the closer role, which means that sometimes the games he enters aren’t on the line. How wise is that? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with bringing him in with that one-run lead, but shouldn’t your best reliever pitch in situations that are more crucial than, say, a three-run lead? Bill James espoused this, and I think he has a point. For example, assuming Brian Wilson really is the Giants’ best reliever, I’d sure rather see him in the game right now, with the game tied in the bottom of the eleventh, in an effort to keep the game exactly where it is. And what if the Giants score a run in the twelfth and are poised to score more? Wouldn’t that be an opportune time for Bob Melvin to bring in Chad Qualls, the reliever most likely to douse a rally? In fact, Qualls pitched an inning earlier, with the game tied and no save to be had. In fact, that was a fine time for Qualls to pitch. But in extra innings, you’d be reasonable to expect the home team’s closer to pitch with the game still tied.

You don’t see a closer entering a game in the eighth to preserve a tie, or to keep the opposition down to a one-run lead. You sure don’t see him in the third inning, trying to get through a bases-loaded, nobody-out situation. But what if you did? Would this put a permanent rend in the fabric of baseball space-time?

Yeah, pretty much. It has a lot to do with people’s comfort in pigeonholing other people. Pitchers like to have a role, even if it’s just “You’re the guy who comes in when we’re down 10 runs.” If you’re the closer, you’re the guy who comes in in a save situation—indeed, if you pitch in a non-save situation, it’s either an extra-inning scenario or you’re just in the game to “get some work.” You aren’t going to prepare to come into the game before—at the very earliest—the eighth. You certainly won’t even consider the possibility of being brought in with the bases loaded and nobody out in the third, even if the next three scheduled hitters are a combined 0-for-60 against you and have slider bat speed at best.

This is due to the “closer mentality,” which just means the mindset that major league managers use a hundred percent of the time. I’m not sure I’d know how to do things any better—I fall into the same pattern when playing tabletop or computer baseball games—but the closer mentality has to do some harm. For some teams, it has to be far more harmful than it’s worth. Look at the 1987 Giants, when closer Scott Garrelts blew 10 saves in 22 opportunities. Maybe he just shouldn’t have been pitching in save situations. Maybe he would’ve thrived in middle relief, or as a starter, as he did later. But no. He’s the closer, so until the manager changes his mind, he’s always going to pitch in save situations. Not tie games on the road. Never to preserve a one-run deficit.

Baseball hasn’t done a great job in evaluating relief pitchers. Even blown saves and holds aren’t yet official statistics. But on a team when the best reliever pitches in a variety of situations, when managers use their relief staff based on matchups, who’s pitching well and who isn’t, etc., his baseball card might well show a good ERA, a healthy WHIP (that’s walks-plus-hits per inning pitched), and an incredible strikeout ratio, but it won’t show a lot of saves, maybe not even holds. This’ll cost a guy money.

It might be worth trying out such an approach in a tabletop game or something, but it won’t be happening in major league baseball anytime soon.

(Nor will the Giants be winning today’s game, as Connor Jackson just whapped a drive that bounced on the warning track with the bases loaded in the twelfth. Not a sniff of Merkin Valdez was to be had, either.)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cellllll-a-brate Good Times, Come On!

Randy Johnson’s career numbers in Dodger Stadium were something like 17-0 with a 0.13 ERA, so it goes without saying that he’d get doused in an accelerant and lit up today. The man looks completely lost out there—well, not anymore, as he’s now leaving the game with two out in the fourth. Yet again, the Giants go after a significant player—about 10 years too late. (I’m thinking here of guys like Steve Carlton, Benito Santiago, and Steve Finley: a Hall-of-Famer and two major Giants killers, irrespective of how good they ever were against the rest of the league.)

Well, that’s okay, I guess. Who doesn’t hope their free-agent signees play well? In particular, what Giants fans aren’t rooting for Johnson to dominate, and for Edgar Renteria to annoy other teams for a change? Instead—maybe just because I’m the Giants fan I am—I envision Johnson and Renteria as a pair of $8 million millstones. Given what the team was looking at internally for second base and shortstop—i.e., Emmanuel Burriss and Kevin Frandsen—how is it that the Giants wind up paying more than twice as much to a two-time Gold-Glove shortstop (but not since 2003) with an OPS+ of 84 (with Detroit last year) as the Dodgers do for Orlando Hudson, a younger player, a three-time Gold-Glove second baseman (most recently in 2007) with an OPS+ of 108 (with the Diamondbacks last year)? Hudson would have been very much an “outside the box” type of choice, and I’m wondering if Brian Sabean, et al., entertained even the tiniest thought of bringing him aboard? After all, Burriss pretty much took shortstop away from Omar Vizquel last year, so why not consider bringing in a free-agent second baseman rather than a shortstop?

Maybe I’m being unfair. No doubt lots of people would look at this and think, “Well, that’s a classic second-guess.” But that doesn’t wash if these had been my views before the aforementioned free agents had signed with anybody. For Hudson, well, I can’t claim that, but I would’ve been moderately pleased had the Giants signed him, in contradistinction to my reaction after the Giants actually did sign both Johnson and Renteria, which was along the lines of “Why?”—at its kindest. There’s no question both men have put up some terrific years (Johnson more so, obviously), but would you say either of them has an upside? I wouldn’t. Hudson’s 31, and theoretically past his prime as well (though I tend to believe that players these days have longer (and often later) primes), but he’s not close to being over the hill yet. Johnson’s hill is a distant speck in his rear-view mirror, and Renteria is more than halfway between his own hill and the barbecue pit that signifies the end of his career.

Meanwhile, the Giants just signed third baseman Dallas McPherson to a minor league contract, which suggests that they’re a little iffy about Pablo Sandoval. McPherson’s major league numbers have been fairly putrid, but he did hammer 42 home runs at Triple-A Albuquerque last year, with an OPS just a shade under a thousand. I don’t know how that would translate to AT&T Park, or if we’ll ever find out.

(And should I mention that Orlando Hudson has hit for the cycle in today’s game? This is the first cycle ever at Dodger Stadium, says Mike Krukow. No, hitting for the cycle is not an indication of overall offensive prowess, but it makes perfect sense to me on a day when Renteria and Johnson have pissed me off tremendously, and I’m wondering if Hudson even got a look from the Giants’ Brain Trust.)

More important than any of this, though, is the health of Joe Martinez, who, as you know by now, took a line smash off the forehead a few days ago. He has a concussion—and baseball takes concussions a lot more seriously these days, as they should—plus some hairline fractures. The report is that he’s doing well and could be back sooner than anticipated, but the Giants ought not rush him. The play made me think of Pete Smith, the Braves pitcher, who took a line drive to the face, courtesy of a Giants batter—I can’t remember who—about 20 years ago. I feel fortunate to have listened to this (as well as the Martinez play) on the radio—as opposed to watching it on TV, I mean. I do not enjoy watching ballplayers get hurt.

I also thought about Terry Mulholland taking a liner off the bat of Atlanta’s Gerald Perry in 1988. That one I did see, though from the upper deck. Still, you can almost feel the impact. Mulholland felt it more, though: broken arm; season over.

(Okay, then, should I mention that with the Giants down 7-1 and Dodgers on first and third with nobody out, Aaron Rowand just caught a fairly deep fly ball and then threw the ball to third? Nah. Nor should I point out further that the throw enabled the runner on first to tag and go to second, thus removing the double-play possibility. This is what I’m always talking about with Rowand, who seems to throw to the wrong base at least twice a week. Did Rowand just not make any mistakes the year he won the Gold Glove? I mean, I do not see “Defensive Wizard” in this guy.)

I shall close by passing on jolliest annual celebration wishes to EEEEEE! contributor David Beck (who got to witness the Mulholland injury with me, and who now is almost spectacularly old), knowing that he would have had to wade through all the foregoing just to be thrown a “Happy Birthday” bone.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

It’s 9-5 in the Seventh, but...

Know what bothers me?
  • Bengie Molina’s astounding lack of speed and the fact that lots of pitches seem to get by him. No, I’m not all snitty because he won’t be stealing any bases.

  • Geez, Pablo Sandoval will swing at anything, won’t he?

  • Brian Wilson, Bobby Howry, Joe Martinez, and Brandon Medders, and Merkin Valdez. Jeremy Affeldt and Alex Hinshaw. That’s five righthanded relievers and two lefties. I remember specifically from first grade that five plus two equals seven. Seven relievers. A twelve-man pitching staff. Wow. It’s a different world, isn’t it? I should check the statistics over the last, say, 10 years (but won’t), but it used to be that at-bats where the hitter has the platoon advantage—i.e., batting right against a lefty, left against a righty—led to an overall batting average of about 10 points higher than at-bats where the pitcher has the platoon advantage. So I’m wondering if this has changed drastically in the last few years, because so many managers play the left-right-left-right thing that teams have to carry seven relievers. Can this really be a sound strategy? This leads to...

  • Rich Aurilia, Juan Uribe, Nate Schierholtz, Eugenio Velez, and Andres Torres. A five-player bench. Each of these guys can play more than one position, which is a good thing. It’s a bad thing, though, if you’re gonna burn Velez and Torres as pinch-runners a lot, because it seriously limits defensive versatility. And if you routinely go the Felipe Alou route of pinch-hitting for a position player with a slow guy, pinch-running for the pinch-hitter with a fast (or faster) guy, and then having to depend on J.T. Snow to score from second on a base hit to the outfield with two outs in the ninth and the Giants trailing by a run, you’re vastly screwed. (Anybody else have a craw jammed with that particular memory?)

  • What the hell is up with that beard thing on Affeldt’s chin?

Let No One Say I Didn’t Post on Opening Day

I hate when work gets in the way of the ballgame, especially on Opening Day or something of even more importance.

Perhaps I should clarify: No, I’m not working yet, but I’m trying to be, with many of today’s hours being devoted to finding a job. By the time I realized that the game would be on (assuming it wasn’t rained out, as had been feared), it was 2 o’clock, and Tim Lincecum had just finished walking Milwaukee’s Mike Cameron to lead off the second. What usually happens when I tune in late is that the Giants immediately go into tank mode: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned on the radio to hear the beginning of a home run call for the other team, for instance. Lincecum didn’t do that, though. Instead, he gave up a two-out RBI double to the pitcher. Apparently the lad has been “off” all day.

How very “me” this game has been already. I mean, I’ve had the radio on for just 10 minutes. Oh, even better: next guy up hits a run-scoring double. The Giants are still ahead, 3-2, thanks to a bases-loaded triple by Travis Ishikawa in the first. That should last! Yeah! No problem! I swear, runs scored as a result of a pitcher’s hitting prowess should count double on the pitching pitcher’s ERA. In this case, Lincecum’s would stand at 18.00, now that he finished the inning without further damage. Perhaps we should refer to these extra, phantom runs as “un-unearned.” To determine un-unearned runs (UURs), you reconstruct the inning as though the pitcher had done what he’s supposed to do, namely strike out. I haven’t worked out all the logic yet, but I’m thinking that if the pitcher reaches base on an error, all runs scoring as a result would be un-un-unearned.

Meanwhile, my almost superhumanly vast legion of fans has been wondering when I might be writing some kind of 2009 season preview, which is silly because what they should have been wondering is “if.” And well should they have been wondering. And the answer is, no time soon. I’d rather take a more general look at the team.

(And just so you know, Lincecum, with Emmanuel Burris on the move (after being hit by the first pitch of the inning) just faked a bunt, then bounced one hard off the plate and into center, putting runners on first and third. Two potential un-unearned runs are sitting there, waiting to be knocked in. Ah, there’s a sacrifice fly by Randy Winn, so that adds two UURs to Jeff Suppan’s ledger—but that’s all, because Edgar Renteria, our very expensive new shortstop, has just hit into an inning-ending double play. That’s very annoying. But hey, at least the Giants are up by two. Well, one. And guess what? Lincecum’s through after three innings, and now we’re being treated to the major league debut of Joe Martinez. What the hell is going on out there?)

Most predictions I’ve seen have the Giants finishing third in the West, usually behind the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, in that order. Though I really don’t picture the Giants finishing much higher, I don’t see a reason not to consider the division wide open. Oh, the Padres are abominable, and the Rockies were a total fluke two years ago—a fluke which no longer employs Matt Holliday—and thus returned to form last year: 14 games under .500, and yet two ahead of the Giants. Baseball Prospectus evidently thinks the Giants and Rockies will tie for third, with close to 90 losses apiece. Now, far be it from me to poke holes in that prediction—so far be it, in fact, that I’m unable to do so. I sure can’t analyze the predictions in a quantitative way. But you know what? The Dodgers led the division with 84 wins, and the Diamondbacks had only 82. Has either team really become much better during the offseason? Then again, have the Giants?

Which is the question. I, being the terminally pessimistic Giants fan I am, will immediately say “Nah!” But is that fair? Think of who’s not around anymore (or, at least, not on the Opening Day roster):
  • Guys I won’t miss (I’m pretty sure): Brian Bocock, John Bowker, Rajai Davis, Ray Durham, Geno Espineli, Brian Horowitz, Osiris Matos, Scott McClain, Pat Misch, Ryan Rohlinger, Billy Sadler, Erick Threets, Clay Timpner, and Omar Vizquel. I bet you don’t even remember some of these guys. Others, I think just aren’t needed on the team right now. Vizquel, well, we all enjoyed watching him play shortstop, and we’ve all heard about what a great presence he was on the team, but—depending on how Renteria does—I don’t envision myself wailing, “Why—O! Oh, why!—did we let Omar Vizquel go?

  • Guys whom I’m perfectly happy not to see on the team: Eliezer Alfonzo, Jose Castillo, Vinnie Chulk, Brad Hennessey, Ivan Ochoa, Dan Ortmeier, Matt Palmer, Dave Roberts, Jack Taschner, and Tyler Walker. Oh, and J.T. Snow.

  • Guys about whom my feelings are mixed: Kevin Correia, Kevin Frandsen, Steve Holm, and Keiichi Yabu. Frandsen is easy to like, but does a team really need both him and Burris? Holm will be back before long, probably, because right now the backup catcher is Pablo Sandoval—which I wouldn’t see as a problem, except that he’s already the regular third baseman (which I’m afraid I do see as a problem, but not one that looks easy to solve; however, it does make me feel nostalgic for the days when the Giants tried to turn most of their outfielders into third basemen). Yabu, too, will be back soon—when Martinez hits a wall, probably. (It seems to be happening right this minute, now that the Brewers have taken the lead. Boobs.) Correia made the Padres’ starting rotation, which either says something unfortunate about the Padres or tells you the Giants gave up on him too soon. Rationally, the former should be the case. Because I’m the Giants fan I am, though, I fear it’s the latter. Not that I particularly want the guy back.

  • Guys I’m mildly bummed about but am not losing sleep over: Travis Denker and Noah Lowry. I’d love for Lowry to get healthy and dazzle hitters—and Giants fans—with that amazing changeup, but how would he be used? The starting rotation looks impenetrable—by other pitchers, I mean, not by opposing hitters. It’s the lefties who concern me. For instance, as much as I’d like Barry Zito to be an $18-million pitcher for the Giants, I don’t expect it. Oh, everybody in the organization’s looking for a “bounce-back year” from the guy, but I don’t know that he’s ever going to be much more than an innings-eater (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), and perhaps an innings-eater who continually puts up two digits’ worth of losses but only one of wins, to say nothing of, say, a 5.68 ERA. I really don’t need to see that anymore. Meanwhile, do you expect Randy Johnson to be Randy Johnson? That’d be cool, but it sure doesn’t seem likely. I figure he has to be better than Zito, assuming he stays healthy, but is he a number-two starter anymore? And then there’s Jonathan Sanchez, who strikes out lots of people but still manages to get lit up quite often. He had a nice start last year, and it’d be nice to believe he could spend a whole season pitching well—and in good health. I don’t know what exactly will happen with Lowry, but unless he’s nearly permanently injured, it looks like he’ll have a place in the rotation at some point. Not Denker, though—because he’s an infielder. He showed some pop, grit, and moxie (all of which, I guess, are comestible substances), and I was surprised that he didn’t get a late-season call-up (though he may have been injured—I don’t remember). I was surprised also when, early in the offseason, he went to the Padres on waivers. I thought he was someone at whom to give a longer look. But hey, maybe not.

  • Guys whose absence is no surprise, since they’re really green and need time in the minors: Conor Gillaspie. That’s a pretty easy one. I assume they brought him up last September solely because it was in his contract.

  • Guys whose absence definitely hurts: Sergio Romo. I don’t think it’s any accident that he pitched well last year. The Giants were excited about adding Bobby Howry and Jeremy Affeldt to the bullpen, figuring that Romo (and probably Yabu, eventually) would help them form a formidable relief corps that also features Alex Hinshaw—but unfortunately, that hinged somewhat on Romo actually being able to pitch, which is something that’s difficult to do from the disabled list.
Oh, yay! A two-run homer by Aaron Rowand gives the Giants the lead again, 6-5. Granted, it’s the fourth, so it’s too early to get too excited, but the guy was so bad in Arizona, and I lost all confidence in him by the end of last season. I was mildly surprised—because I hadn’t heard media folk complaining about this—to hear Ralph Barbieri on KNBR point out recently that Rowand made some brutal, ill-advised throws from center field. In fact, because I seemed to be the only person complaining about this, I wondered if perhaps my perception was off the beam. Not that Barbieri thoroughly vindicates my opinion, but at least I’m not alone. (I ought to be nice and say that Rowand broke hundreds of his ribs, perhaps thousands, going after a ball early last season, and I have no doubt that his mobility was somewhat limited all season long.)

What’s nice about the Giants is that for the first time in what seems like eons, they’ve got several players you could reasonably characterize as “exciting,” without the quotation marks: Sandoval, Burriss, Fred Lewis, Lincecum, Cain, and Johnson, at least. Players like Rowand, Molina, and Winn are, or should be, Steady Eddies Who Come Up Big With The Game On The Line. And Ishikawa and Brian Wilson should be fun to watch, assuming they develop. Yeah, Wilson saved a load of games last year and made the All-Star team, but (a) you probably know how I feel about saves anyway, and (b) I don’t think he pitched nearly well enough to merit much, plaudit-wise. That doesn’t mean I don’t think he’s any good, because I do. He throws very hard—I like guys who throw very hard—and he seems to be developing a slider not entirely unlike Robb Nen’s. His control, though, is a concern, way more than Nen’s ever was. Ishikawa, worryingly, strikes me as sort of a J.T. Snow clone, but without as good a glove. I doubt he’ll ever put up the kind of power numbers you want from a first baseman, though I think he could be a .300 hitter (in a while). I don’t know if the statistics will back me up, but he reminds me of players like Doug Mientkiewicz or even Dave Magadan. At best, I think he’d be almost but not quite as good as Keith Hernandez. The other upside is, he’s not J.R. Phillips.

And in the meantime, Our Boys have managed to hold onto a 7-5 lead all the into the seventh.