First Half Recap #sfgiants #2016

If you had of predicted, at the start of the season, significant DL time for Hunter Pence, Matt Cain, Sergio Romo, Matt Duffy, Angel Pagan, Joe Panik, and various other contributors from the bench and bullpen all by the All-Star Break, I would have thought that a recipe for mediocrity at best, and disaster at worst (especially if all those injuries were combined with poor performance.)

But, no, your 2016 SF Giants at the All-Star Break=Best Record in Baseball.
57-33.
.633 winning percentage.
Not near the best run differentially (+73, 66 runs behind the Cubs),
but better than almost anyone else in baseball.

Bottom line: this team has been really good (#analysis).

Let’s review some of our pre-season keys, and see how the Giants have fared:

  1. Health: hahahahahah…one thing I will say about this…with the exception of Pence, the Giants have not really lost time for any of what might be called the “core contributors.” This is not to take anything away from the Duffys and Cains and Pagans and Paniks, but the Giants haven’t lost any time from Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Brandon Belt, or Brandon Crawford. Four of those guys are on the All-Star team and the other (Crawford) should be. Not only have they not missed any time, they’ve all been pretty stinkin’ good, if not downright great this year. So, the health of the core has been steady, and this is very, very important.
  2. Matt Cain: I admitted my personal bias in this when the season opened, but Matt Cain hasn’t worked out so far. To be fair, he has pitched fairly well when he’s been out there, and his production, combined with Albert Suarez, has produced more than respectable 5th starter results. He also is back to start the second half, so this story is still far from finished.
  3. Brandon Belt: now we start to get into some “hits.” Belt has been awesome all year, far and away his best year, primarily because he’s been so consistent. Belt has been streaky, and injured, throughout his career, but so far neither of those have been true in 2016, and we are seeing the best we’ve ever seen from the Baby Giraffe. It will be great to watch what he can do too, once Pence gets back and there’s a little more lineup protection.
  4. Winning At Home: The Giants have been just as good at home (29-17) as on the road (28-16), a welcome development. That home record includes an inexplicable 4 game sweep at the hands of the helpless Diamondbacks, so it should/could be even better the deeper we get into the season.
  5. Integrating the New Guys: this could not be going any better. The pitchers in particular (Cueto and Samardzija) have not only been better than expected, but it seems like they’ve been around forever. Denard Span hasn’t lit the world on fire, but his chemistry with the rest of the guys seems great too. Chemistry is hard to quantify, for sure, but on a team as tight as the Giants it is important, and from this side of things it seems the integration process has been seemless.

Reasons to be Pessimistic:

  • Some of the advances stats show that the Giants have been playing above their heads. Even without those stats, it does seem remarkable that the Giants are the “best team in baseball” considering all the injuries and the bullpen struggles. Pessimists fear the regression to the mean in the second half.
  • The bullpen has been a mess…and there are concerns if it can get much better given the internal options (or lack thereof).
  • Too many innings for the starters. Funny how last year the concern was over the taxing of the bullpen and the lack of starters getting deep into games. Now we are wringing our hands over the number of innings and pitch counts. This is actually the one concern I do share with the pessimistic crowd.

Reasons to be Optimistic:

  • While there may be some regression to the mean, the Giants will also be fortified by most of their injured players returning no later than August 1. Undoubtedly it will take some time for all of them to find their rhythm, but the best team will become a far deeper team in the second half of the season.
  • The bullpen will get better. Sergio Romo’s return over the weekend was huge in and of itself, but his performance on the field was outstanding, and seems to have already begun righting the ship. Furthermore, if the Giants make a trade it will be for bullpen help. Pushing the Gearrins and others into lower leverage situations will go a long ways towards better overall pen work in the second half.
  • Matt Cain: I know, I know, get off the Matt Cain kick, Steve. Well, I just can’t. I think Cain’s strong second half will take some of the pressure off of Bum/Cueto/Shark, and allow Bochy to pace those guys a little bit more. Also, Cain in the rotation, means Suarez in the bullpen, which means a true long-man for the first time all season. Suarez could make a few spot starts if someone needs a breather, or he can provide some length to the bullpen, which has been sorely lacking. Think Yusmeiro Petit type work.

One Final Thought:

  • My first half MVP is Brandon Crawford. His offensive numbers are not quite as eye-popping as last year, but he’s gotten even better again, which is hard to believe. The defense continues to be outstanding, and one horrible game in Oakland aside, the defense is much a reason for the Giants’ success as anything else this year. He’s the quarterback out there, and it’s beautiful to watch. Meanwhile his clutch hitting has been fantastic, all those RBIs filling the gaps left by Pence and others.

Week [12] In Review (6/20-6/26) #sfgiants #weekinreview

This was not a good week for our POWs from the last post. Matt Duffy got hurt and Jeff Samardzija reverted to bad Jeff. Meanwhile, the Giants lost both starts by Madison Bumgarner this week despite 14.1 great innings.

All that makes it sound like it was a terrible week, but, no, no it wasn’t! The Giants still won 5 of 7, increased their lead in the NL West, and now stand with the best record in the National League. That’s just how this season is going.

We hit the half-way point this week, so let’s look for a moment at the big picture, and then an interesting, smaller story line.

Big Picture: as mentioned here several times, the off-season/pre-season mantra for the 2016 SF Giants was “if they can stay healthy.” We heard it again and again. That was the key to everything.

The answer, we now know, is “no, they can’t.”

Now, granted, they haven’t lost Buster Posey or Madison Bumgarner, and their “big 3” have made all their starts (in fact only one starting pitcher, Matt Cain, has struggled with injuries). But, the injury/hamstring bug has hit them at every level, especially the line up. And yet they have the best record in the NL (and are only half a game behind Texas for best record in all of baseball).

The Giants will need Duffy, and Hunter Pence, and Sergio Romo to make a deep run at a World Series, but so far the “need to stay healthy” maxim is proving incorrect.

Smaller Story: assuming everything went well for the Giants (health, again), it appeared heading into the season that the only glaring weak, potentially, was in Left Field. Yes, there were questions about the back-end of the rotation. Yes, there were questions about the bullpen. Yes, there were question (here we go again) about health. Yes, there were questions about the bench.

But, expecting reasonable outputs from each player, left field seemed to stick out. Angel Pagan got off to a great start, however, alleviating those concerns pretty quickly. But, as it always seems to go, Pagan got hurt, and then Pence got hurt, and suddenly the outfield was in disarray.

We are ever grateful for Gregor Blanco, but a question I had about the 2016 Giants was “could this be the year that a home-grown outfielder makes his way into the conversation.” That outfielder, in my mind, was Mac Williamson.

There are many reason to root for Mac. He’s young, cheap, a good enough defender in left, and has tremendous power. He’s also a right-handed bat who brings some balance to the left-handed heavy Giants. I like Pagan and he’s been a good Giant. But Williamson could be answer not just for 2016, but beyond.

Williamson was stashed in AAA to continue developing to start the year, but has been yo-yoed back and forth with all the injuries. This week he finally seemed to turned a corner, and had a couple really nice games, and beyond the numbers just looked more comfortable.

I get very excited about this lineup:

  1. Span CF
  2. Panik 2B
  3. Posey C
  4. Belt 1B
  5. Pence RF
  6. Crawford SS
  7. Williamson LF
  8. Duffy 3B
  9. Pitcher (or switch the Pitcher/Duffy)

However, Pagan has returned with a vengeance, such a vengeance that rumors are flying about bringing him back for 2017! 

Who knows how this will all turn out. Since Barry Bonds retired, the Giants have done just fine with a revolving door approach to LF. I’m still rooting for Mac to take over.

Week In Review: won 3 out of 4 in Pittsburg, and took 2 of 3 from the Phillies at home. 49-28, 8 game lead in NL West.

Hitter of the Week: back to the LF conversation! Mac Williamson went 4 for 7 with a home run, 2 RBI, and 3 walks. The walks are just as important as the home run, as patience has been a problem for big Mac. Angel Pagan answered the challenge from the young buck, hitting .440 this week with 4 extra base hits and 9 RBIs! Hat tip to the other “scrubs” (Parker, Pena, and Gillaspe) who along with the LFs round out the top 5 statistical heroes of the week.

Pitcher of the Week: The POW should be Madison Bungarner who had two great starts (Peavy was the only main comp from the rotation, but he only started once). However, Bumgarner went 0-2 through no real fault of his own, and that means we bump the award to the bullpen.

Cody Gearrin had an outstanding week, appearing 4 times and allowing no runs. I’ve been slow to come around on Gearrin, but Bochy is clearly a huge fan, and Cody made him look brilliant this week. I still feel that Hunter Strickland is going to prove to be the most important reliever for the Giants down the stretch, but Gearrin’s quality has brought stability and order to a unit that was sorely lacking both a month ago.

Looking Ahead: The Giants play 4 in the Bay to get the week started (2 at home, 2 in Oakland), and then head to Arizona (it seems like they are always going to Arizona) for a three game weekender. These are two teams with poor records, but the A’s always play the Giants tough, and they are playing for their season right now. If things don’t turn around quick, word on the street is the Billy Beane fire sale is just around the corner. Arizona has been playing much better, and Zack Grienke has quietly turned his season around. This is another sneaky tough week.

Week [11] In Review (6/13-6/19) #sfgiants #weekinreview

Um, ok.

I think we all knew the Giants were doing well, but dang!

No June swoon so far, in fact everything is looking pretty rosy right now: Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto are having historic seasons, Jeff Samardzija is the best(?) third starter in baseball, Jake Peavy has figured out how to be competitive again, and the Suarez/Cain combo is holding its own (though Matt Cain is out again with yet another hamstring issue).

The offense is starting to come to life, especially in the home run department (more on this in a moment), Pagan is back, and the lineup feels somewhat normal again.

The biggest positive sign, however, is the resurgence of the bullpen. It seems things have start to get sorted out. I don’t love Cody Gearrin as the 8th inning guy, but, hey, I’m not Bruce Bochy and he has a fairly good track record with bullpens. Whatever the combination, it is finally working, and could get even better once the irrepressible Sergio Romo returns (he struck out Yasiel Puig in a rehab game this week, which is pretty cool).

The Giants face an interesting week. Four games with Pittsburg and then the long flight back to the west coast for a three game weekender with the Phillies. This is a sneaky tough week. The Pirates aren’t playing well, but are still a talented bunch, and four games in Pittsburg feels like a lot. The Phillies are not great, but they are young and have a few good pitchers and they could be a tough matchup coming off the road trip.

Back to the positive vibes: the Giants have nearly caught the Cubs for the best record in the NL, something that seemed impossible just a few weeks ago!

Week In Review: Swept the Brewers in 3 at home; swept Tampa Bay in 3 in Tampa; 44-26 overall, 6.5 game lead in NL West.

Hitter of the Week: As surmised last week Buster Posey did in fact break out, hitting .522 while collecting 12 hits. Brandon Belt continues to affirm his new contract and make his case for the All-Star Team pounding two more home runs. But the hitters of the week are Matt Duffy and Joe Panik who came alive to the tune of  .409 and .346 averages, respectively. The Giants lineup is pretty devastating when these guys are hitting well. They also both homered, and Panik had a couple huge, clutch moments in the Tampa series.

Pitcher of the Week: You could throw a dart at a chart of the starting rotation and get a pretty good candidate this week. As mentioned above, Bumgarner and Cueto added to their legendary starts to this season. Cueto won his 10th! game of the season already, while striking out nine. Peavy pitched well, adding 8 punchouts of his own.

But, the POW goes to Jeff Samardzija for nearly throwing a shutout (a 2 out, ninth inning home run ruined it for him), and getting himself back on track after a few lesser quality starts.

Looking Ahead: I’ve already gone over the schedule for the week, and the challenge it presents, so now for the good news: this a 2 start week for both Bumgarner and Cueto. Get excited for that!

Week [10] In Review (6/6-6/12) #sfgiants #weekinreview

As mentioned in the last post, the Giants’ faced a weird challenge this week. They “only” had five games on the schedule, the five most challenging games of the month (judging by by records), while at the same time enjoying the odd 2-day off week.

Given a history of June swoons, this felt like an important week. With some key players hurt and slumping, it didn’t seem unreasonable for the familiar pattern to set in.

And there were moments, especially against the Dodgers this weekend, that felt swoonish. Somehow, though, they gutted out a 3-2 week, increased their lead on the Dodgers, and head into the end of the home stand (and start of an easier stretch) more healthy with the return of Matt Cain tonight (which also happens to be the 4-year anniversary of Cain’s perfect game).

All seems just a bit brighter in Giants’ land today. That being said these “easy stretches” are never actually that easy, and now is no time to relax.

Week in Review: 1 of 2 from the Red Sox, and 2 of 3 from the Dodgers (all at home); 5 game lead in the NL West.

Hitter of the Week: Buster Posey sat out the Red Sox series and then didn’t really light the world on fire when he came back (only hitting .167 in the 3 games against the Dodgers), but he certainly passed the eye-ball test. His walk off single against the Dodgers on Saturday received the appropriate praise attention, but I was more impressed with his at bat against the same foe (Kenley Jansen) the night before. He bombed a fastball into triples ally, a ball that harmlessly fell into the glove of Klay Thompson’s brother, but that was the quintessential Buster swing. When he’s driving the ball to right field with power that is a very good sign.

Pitcher of the Week: Tip of the cap to Alberto Suarez for doing an admirable job filling in for Matt Cain. Feels like the Giants found something good with Suarez (maybe a Yusmeiro Petit-type weapon). But, the pitcher of the week award goes to good ole’ Jake Peavy, who simply needs to do what he did Sunday night to be more than a positive asset to this team. Quality starts (by definition, 6 innings, 3 earned runs or less) are what he needs to provide. Keep the team in the game, keep the game competitive Jakey and everything will be alright.

Looking Ahead: the Giants get the Brewers at home for three to start the week. They run our Cain, Bumgarner, and Cueto in this series which is calling out for a sweep. Then an off day on Thursday and a three game weekender in Tampa Bay to start off a road trip. Here’s to hoping some of these positive trend lines continue moving upward.

Week [9] In Review (5/30-6/5) #sfgiants #weekinreview

All off-season, as the Giants were spending money on good players inside and outside the organization, we heard the refrain repeated time and time again: this should be a good, competitive team as long as they stay healthy.

Well, here we go. It’s June and in the last two weeks:

  • The Giants got bad news on Sergio Romo (i.e. he’s out a while longer)
  • Put perpetually hamstrung Angel Pagan on the DL (after already missing a week with the same injury)
  • Saw Matt Cain pull a hammy after getting his groove back
  • And then, lost Hunter Pence for two months to hamstring surgery

Dang hamstrings.

In addition, Johnny Cueto, Joe Panik, and Matt Duffy are all dealing with various aches and pains.

Which leads us to a 5-5 road trip that felt a whole lot worse, probably because the Giants lost their first series in a month this weekend in St. Louis, thanks in large part to two blown leads.

There’s still plenty of bright spots: Bumgarner’s having a historic year, Belt is great, Crawford is proving himself the best shortstop in the game, the overall work from Cueto and Samardzija has been awesome, and this team still has Buster Posey holding it all together.

The next five games, at home, are against good teams (Red Sox and Dodgers), but after that the June schedule seems fairly forgiving.

But, this is test time. The “they must stay healthy” clause will not be fulfilled in 2016. Can they hold it together, keep pitching well, and get enough offense to hang in there until they are back at full strength?

Week in Review: took 2 of 4 from Atlanta, and 1 0f 3 in St. Louis. 35-24 with a 3.5 game lead in the NL West.

Hitter of the Week: Brandon Belt righted his mini-slump in a big way this week: 2 doubles, 2 home runs, and 1.128 OPS. Belt is going to have to carry a larger load than normal over the next two months with Pence out. He does not seem to thrive in these situations, but now has an opportunity to change the story by providing this kind of production (and protection for Posey).

Pitcher of the Week: George Kontos is not anywhere near my favorite arm in the Giants bullpen but he had a very good week (5 appearances, no runs), and, like Belt, represents a guy who has a chance to really make himself valuable. The bullpen continues to struggle to find consistency and continuity. Bochy likes and trusts Kontos (not totally sure why), and so he’ll have his chances to help bring some badly needed stability to the ‘pen.

Looking ahead: This is a weird, rare, 5 game week, featuring 2 games against the Red Sox and 3 with the Dodgers. As mentioned above, record-wise, this is one of the toughest stretches of the month, but a chance for the Giants to prove themselves against one of the AL’s best, and then a chance to get more distance from the rival Dodgers.

Week [7] In Review (5/16-5/22) #sfgiants #weekinreview

The Giants are rolling now, although, in keeping with the oddness theme for the year, it’s been three weeks since they scored more than five runs! Nonetheless, they’ve won 10 of their last 11 and extended their NL West lead by 3.5 games.

The lack of offense continues to be head scratching, and the bullpen is worrisome (to put it mildly), but the starting pitching (excepting Jake Peavy) is a marvel to behold right now. That’s how you win 10 of 11 without scoring many runs.

Let’s talk about the troubling issues for a moment: the most significant issue with the offense is that injuries have caused the lineup to shuffle too much. There hasn’t been a consistency, and while no one has missed significant time, the constant in-and-out has worked against kind of rhythm.

If and when the Giants do get their main-8 back (get well Hunter Pence), I would also recommend hitting Duffy 7th (in front of the pitcher). My idea lineup would look like this:

  1. Span
  2. Panik
  3. Posey
  4. Belt
  5. Pence
  6. Crawford
  7. Duffy
  8. Pitcher
  9. Pagan

This lineup is more balanced (lefty/righty), and I like Duffy in the awkward spot in front of the pitcher. Crawford has a lot of experience there, but he’s one of the teams best power hitters and putting him in front of a pitcher robs him of a couple shots at a dinger a week.

Furthermore, Duffy is fast and the more athletic baserunner. It would help Duffy out to get on base more, and once there Bochy can steal, bunt with confidence, and do more creative things with Duffy on base versus Crawford.

I still have a lot of confidence that the bullpen will gel and not be an issue long term, but right now you can tell Bochy lacks faith in many of those guys. Two things to keep an eye: do all the innings for the “big 3” start to add up to fatigue? And, does Bochy throw Strickland into the closer gig?

Finally, the Jake Peavy horror show rolls on. Yes, he’s been better at times recently. Yes, he got beat up by the Cubs, the best offensive team in NL. Yes, we was starting against Jake Arrieta, so they might as well have forfeited and saved everyone time and money.

But, he sure looks terrible, and it also appears that the Giants are going to stick with him as long as they can, and even if they don’t there’s no one riding in on a white horse right now. That said, I’d be much more excited about a Clayton Blackburn start than any more Peavy starts.

To what’s good: there was some debate on talk radio this week about the big 3 (Bumgarner, Cueto, Samarzija) and if it’s the best 3 the Giants have had. The Giants have had many good pitchers (2010: Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez; 2012: Lincecum, Cain, Vogelsong, Bumgarner), but 2010 is probably the best comp, and even in that year I’d take the Samardzija we’ve seen so far over Jonathan Sanchez. Linecum and Cain at the top of their powers are a tough top 2 to dethrone, but this is a very talented and deep starting staff that we get to watch right now. Enjoy it!

Week in Review: Swept the Padres in San Diego, and took 2 of 3 from the Cubbies at home. 27-19 overall, 4.5 game lead in NL West.

Hitter of the Week: the best numbers of any hitters actually came from the pitchers this week, that should give you an idea about how the offense is going. So, I’m going with Brandon Crawford , because he hit two more home runs, and sits second on the team, behind Pence, with 6. His power continues to be a great surprise, supplementing his prowess on defense.

Pitcher of the Week: We’ve all been enthralled with Johnny Cueto and pleased with the continued development of Jeff Samardzija. I really thought Matt Cain was in trouble on Saturday, having to face the Cubs, but he impressed again.

But even with all that, Madison Bumgarner reminds us who the Ace is. He’s done so much already in his young career, it’s easy to forget that he’s still on the upward swing of a typical pitcher. Barring injury, most pitchers peak between the ages of 27-29, and MadBum’s only 26!

The question I have: is this the year he jumps from one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball to truly being in the conversation with Kershaw for BEST pitcher in baseball. So far, so good.

All he did this week: 2 wins, 16.2 innings!, 17 strikeouts, and only 10 baserunners. If you like ratios, that’s a 0.54 ERA, and 0.60 WHIP. Dang.

Looking Ahead: Hey look, the Padres again, starting tonight. (PS, the Padres played 17 innings yesterday). After 3 more with the Pads, the Giants get a day off and then head back on the road to face the annoying Rockies where they hope/need to exact some revenge.

Week [6] In Review (5/9-5/15) #sfgiants #weekinreview

There was more awe than odd this week (see last week’s week-in-review), as the Giants exacted some revenge against the Arizona Diamondbacks, sweeping them in Phoenix (in 4 games) having been swept in SF by the same D-Backs earlier in the season.

Many positives abound, most notably the marked improvement of Jake Peavy and Matt Cain. Cain, in particular, looks like he’s figured something out. He may never be vintage Matt Cain again, but we’ll take this version, especially as the fifth starter.

That said, the odd factor has not gone away. The defense continues to lapse at times, Posey went ice-cold for a while, and the bullpen perplexities persist. And the oddest story of the year, in some ways, came from the bullpen this week when Santiago Casilla and Bruce Bochy had a very public disagreement.

It hasn’t exactly been pretty, but the Giants are riding a five game win streak and now have a 1 game lead in the division. It still feels like they have much better baseball ahead of them, and if they continue to get good starts they could really put together a nice streak once some of these other issues get ironed out.

Time for a quick ode to Tim Lincecum. All signs are pointing to him signing on with the oh-so-detestable Los Angles Angels of Anaheim, which makes a lot of sense, but now that we are actually at the moment, it feels weird. And I am a little sad.

Timmy was always our Timmy, good or bad, and more than anyone else was at the forefront of the great Giants turnaround.

Over my years as a Giants fan I can remember Scott Garrelts taking a no-hitter to the 9th inning. I remember Big Daddy Reuschel and Dave Dravecky. I loved the emergence of Shawn Estes. I saw Livan Hernandez and Russ Ortiz spin some magic. I took Jason Schmidt in the first round of a fantasy draft, and I won that season. I watched him strike out 16 guys. We finally had an ace.

I lived and died with Barry Zito.

I remember well the debut of Matt Cain. The epic battle against Todd Helton. I watched Cain’s perfect game and Jonathan Sanchez’s no-hitter and all of the greatness of Madison Bumgarner.

But, for me, the best game I ever watched by a Giants pitcher was Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS when Lincecum dominated the Atlanta Braves. He gave up a leadoff double and at that point, right out of the gate, all the horrible playoff memories came flooding back: the Giants would turn into pumpkins…again. But then he got out of it, and at that point it was pretty much over. I will never forget that game because it was awesome, in and of itself, but it was also a foreshadowing of what was to come: this was not 1989 or 93 or 97 or 2000 or 02 or 03 or 04. This was something different.

And it was.

Thank you Timmy!

Week in Review: 1 of 3 against Toronto at home, and then the road sweep of Arizona in 4. 22-18 overall, 1 game lead in NL West.

Hitter of the Week: The Giants had a pretty poor week with the bats, which makes the 5-2 result a bit surprising, but there were some highlights. Denard Span got it going, and had, easily, the best average of any of the regulars. Buster Posey started to come out of his slump and actually had 2 significant moments this: walking in the game winning run on Wednesday, and then his big game winning double on Saturday.

But, the hitter of the week will go to Joe Panik. He only hit .222, but he is showing signs of heating up, and he his two home run week puts him at 5 for the season, a very interesting development. What if Joe Panik can hit for power?

Brandon Crawford grew into some power, and while we would still prefer to see Panik hitting .300 and getting on base a ton, the added pop is kind of nice.

Pitcher of the Week: I’ve been very forthright with my unabashed desire for Matt Cain to be good again, so I will stop apologizing for that, but ole’ Matt earned it this week:

  • 15 IP, only 15 baserunners allowed, to the tune of a 1.80 ERA, and, in true Matt Cain style, went 0-1 (the team went 1-1).

This is significant development, and it looks like Cain is starting to break through the 5 inning barrier as well. The big questions for Cain moving forward: is this the ceiling, and if so can he do this consistently, or can he continue to get better?

Looking Ahead: A much needed day off today, and then this becomes a week to curse the scheduling gods a bit: 3 games in San Diego (one of the worst offenses in baseball) where the Giants will send their 3 best pitchers to the mound, and then 3 games at home against the Cubs (the best offense in baseball) where the Giants will send Peavy, Cain, and Bumgarner to the bump. Imperative that the Giants keep the wins coming in SD.

See you next Monday.