The Giants’ rebuild hits a snag: They’re winning

MLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades

Bumgarner pic

When the Giants hired Farhan Zaidi away from the Dodgers to replace Brian Sabean as the head of baseball operations, they did not do it to maintain the status quo. The Giants were long one of the main holdouts for the old-school way of running an organization, eschewing a deep dive into statistics as the final determinative factor in procuring and retaining players. It certainly worked for them with three World Series titles in five years starting in 2010.

However, the Giants are an organization that knows which way the wind is blowing – perhaps a lingering aftereffect of Candlestick Park – and moved away from the Sabean/Bruce Bochy line of thought and into the same environment which has built and maintained the Bay Area cohabitants the Athletics as well as the Dodgers, which were the two organizations Zaidi worked for before heading to San Francisco.

While the Giants did not go the route of the full teardown as the Cubs and Astros did under Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow respectively (and successfully), Zaidi has not concealed his intentions. Over the winter, the most recognizable names the Giants acquired were Pat Venditte (the switch-pitcher), Drew Pomeranz and Gerardo Parra. These were not moves to radically improve a 90-loss team and they definitely were not designed to close the gap with the Dodgers. They were done for veteran competence and players who might yield a prospect or two at the deadline.

If this were the defending champion Giants or the “we’re going for it” Giants, these are reasonable, role players to add to a championship mix. For a club that finished 64-98 in 2017 and 73-89 in 2018, the latter with a payroll of $200 million, sticking to the admittedly successful blueprint from the past was cannibalizing and foolish. Had the Giants wanted that, they would not have gone so far in the opposite direction from Sabean’s methods to Zaidi’s.

There’s a fine line between trying to lose and not caring about losing. The Cubs and Astros, during their rebuilds, “tanked.” They were not “throwing” games, but the teams were so terrible that losing was a natural byproduct of the terribleness of those rosters. This relatively new phenomenon is not all that new. Upon informing Ralph Kiner that he had been traded to the Cubs, Pirates GM Branch Rickey famously told him that they finished last with him and could finish last without him. The idea gained prominence with the Devil Rays/Rays under current Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman by ostensibly saying, “We’re gonna lose anyway, so what’s the difference between losing 90 and 100?”

The Astros and Cubs took it to its logical conclusion and were positioned to do so with the new heads of baseball ops inheriting bloated contracts, dead farm systems, a history of failure and owners willing to hand the keys to them because there was no history to protect and nothing to lose.

The Giants had played poorly; the players who comprised the foundation for those championships were getting old and underperforming; and the template had run its course. Add in that the National League West housed Zaidi’s old team, the Dodgers, and they had exacted a dominance over the division that the Giants could not come near without radical changes to the structure. That radical change was, in short, copying the Dodgers.

In its actions, the Giants tacitly admitted they were moving on from the Bochy/Madison Bumgarner/Buster Posey/Brandon Belt/Brandon Crawford/Pablo Sandoval years – the last remaining residue of the championships.

Manager Bochy’s spring announcement that he planned to retire after the 2019 season put an exclamation point on the organization’s direction. The question as to whether Bochy is really retiring or is being granted the respect to leave on his own terms so Zaidi and his staff can hire a manager whose thinking corresponds with theirs will be answered if Bochy takes some time off and then leaks that he’s bored and will listen to offers to manage.

Posey, Belt and Crawford are under contract for the foreseeable future, but if they are not traded, they will be ancillary players who fit in with the scheme rather than the foundation around which the scheme is crafted. With no contract extension forthcoming for Bumgarner, they had essentially said he was going to be traded by the deadline. The only question was where.

Then, from the nadir of their season so far on June 29 when they were 12 games below .500, eight games from a Wild Card spot and ahead of only the Marlins in the overall National League standings, the Giants started winning. In the subsequent three weeks and after Thursday night’s/Friday morning’s 16-inning win over the Mets, the Giants were 13-2 and gained 5.5 games in the Wild Card standings.

This is where it gets complicated. Having this happen so close to the July 31 trade deadline in the season after August trades were eliminated by MLB, the Giants and every other team must decide on what they are and what they want to be. The second Wild Card has opened so many scenarios to make an argument to stand pat that the fans and media will not accept a club punting on a season when there is the remotest possibility of making a run. It takes an experienced and entrenched baseball operations boss plus a willing ownership to do that.

Some teams will take a wait-and-see approach to their midseason status before acting. The Mets fall into that category, but they are not in the same circumstance as the Giants in that they have enough young talent and starting pitching under contract that they can say they’re going to retool and try and win in 2020. Some will disagree with the philosophy and its ambiguity, preferring the resoluteness of “this is what we’re doing, like it or not.”

The Twins were faced with a comparable conundrum in 2017. Having abandoned their longtime method of running things with the “Twins Way,” they fired veteran GM Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire, mitigated background architect Tom Kelly and moved on with former Cleveland Indians director of baseball operations Derek Falvey as the Twins new chief baseball officer They had lost 103 games the previous year and were not expected to be anything more than, at most, a 90-loss team. Instead, they hovered around contention for the second Wild Card and a likely one-game dismissal by the Yankees or Red Sox if they made the playoffs.

Instead of having the freedom to do what they wanted with a 100-loss team, Falvey and GM Thad Levine were suddenly saddled with trying to make a playoff run when it was inconvenient to their plans; was a waste of time, energy and assets; and hindered rather than helped. So, they vacillated. They made trades to “improve” as the second Wild Card spot played down to them instead of vice versa. They acquired Jaime Garcia for show, and traded Garcia and Brandon Kintzler a week later as a concession…and then still won the second Wild Card that no one in the front office wanted. They got hammered by the Yankees in the playoff game and were then free to continue their rebuild. Still, loitering around contention might have prevented them from maximizing their best tradeable assets Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana and stagnated what they set out to accomplish. It didn’t hurt them significantly as they are currently in first place, but it didn’t help either.

It might be a bit much to say that Zaidi is displeased that the Giants are playing so well, but it does put a wrench in the machine he’s constructing. Certainly, his life would be much easier if they continued that late-June spiral and freed him to gut the place because, what was the difference?

Now, it makes a difference. Could ownership step in and say it’s worth the shot to get into the Wild Card game with Bumgarner pitching it and see what happens? Absolutely.

Would the fans accept trading a team legend when the club is suddenly in the mix to make the playoffs in a weak Wild Card scrum and vulnerable teams – even the Dodgers – leading the respective divisions? They wouldn’t be happy about it even if the Giants and Zaidi extract a ransom for Bumgarner, Will Smith and Crawford and salary relief for Jeff Samardzija.

Given Zaidi’s background, he will still trade Bumgarner at the deadline and ignore this quixotic leap into the playoff conversation. But the Giants’ hot streak has put that decision from the definite category to the maybe category. Retaining Bumgarner and even adding at the deadline is precisely what Sabean would have done, and that is not what Zaidi or the Giants intended when he took the job.

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Madison Bumgarner has the cachet to say no to “the opener”

MLB

Bumgarner pic

According to San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, Madison Bumgarner sent him a text message informing him that if the Giants – as rumored – plan to integrate “the opener” into their game strategy and he is in any way affected by this, he will simply walk out of the ballpark.

As another example of the statistical revolution and willful change to baseball orthodoxy, the specialization and strategies that accompany those changes has led to teams having less reliance on one starting pitcher.

Most pitchers are agreeable to it because they have little choice in the matter. It’s a choice of either going along or being eliminated. If there is any byproduct to teams implementing these strategies and finding players who fit into their blueprint rather than vice versa, it’s the fungible nature of a vast proportion of the players. Teams do not want to overpay for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado when they can cobble together similar production by signing, trading for, or developing several players who are more readily available and cost efficient.

Why pay a starting pitcher $25 million a year and adhere to his desires to be left alone to start his game, get in and out of trouble and have a say in how he’s utilized when six replaceable relievers can be used and cost a total of $10 million, if that much?

It’s a matter of time before a self-proclaimed expert who has never played a competitive sport and wants to turn baseball into the equivalent of a cubicle-laden office exclaims in shock and outrage: “But Bumgarner is a subordinate and he’s making inappropriate demands of a superior!”

Bumgarner is an old-school tough guy. It was Bumgarner who had zero interest in receiving a bath of sticky sports drink glop when, after he had a game-winning hit, teammate Alen Hanson attempted to douse him in the contents of the cooler and Bumgarner effortlessly shoved the jug and Hanson away with one arm.

This is how he is.

Bumgarner has the history and reputation to tell the organization that he’s not playing this game. This goes beyond Bumgarner himself. Obviously, Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander and other top-line starters will be given that freedom. “Some Guy” will not and organizations are increasingly relying on Some Guy not just for the freedom to use the strategies they prefer, but so they don’t need to pay them, nor do they need to adhere to the Bumgarner dictate that he’s not tolerating having his games interfered with in such a way.

This goes beyond strategy and is part of the ongoing ideological fight. Bumgarner wins the battle because he’s Bumgarner and has the hardware, salary and negotiating leverage to do it. But the Bumgarner faction will need to indulge in harder tactics to win the war. Others do not have his cachet. Taking that away is intentional on the part of organizations for reasons beyond strategy.

Giants’ World Series Win Freed Them To Dump Wilson

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The Giants’ decision to non-tender former closer Brian Wilson comes as no surprise given his season-ending Tommy John surgery and that the Giants won the World Series without him. Because he would have made $6.8 million next season, even without the World Series win and Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla functioning as the replacement closers in Wilson’s absence, it’s likely the Giants would have let him go regardless of team results. But Wilson’s performance in the Giants first World Series win two years ago, popularity with the fans from his outlandish personality, and his status as a clubhouse leader might have created a groundswell for the team to bring him back at a reduced salary—something they’ve indicated no intention to do.

Would the Giants be so willing to let Wilson leave without a perfunctory offer had the season not ended as successfully as it did? Would they let him leave if they hadn’t found a suitable replacement in Romo, a backup in Casilla, a deep bullpen and a manager Bruce Bochy who is capable of operating without the security blanket of the built-in excuse of “X is my closer” to explain away what, in the earlier innings, would be seen as a strategic gaffe if he used the wrong pitcher at the wrong time against the wrong hitter?

The cold-blooded and right move is, of course, to non-tender Wilson, but the right move isn’t a byproduct of running a baseball team as a business as if it was Apple or IBM. Clubs who have tried different strategies with their late-inning relievers have been affected by reactions from fans, media, and players. The Red Sox cost themselves dearly in the 2003 season with their ill-fated attempt to use the prototypical “right” pitcher for the situation regardless of the inning. The intentions were noble and made sense, but the pitchers they used weren’t any good and the situation snowballed as the closer-by-committee was judged to have been the root of all Red Sox ills that year.

Utilizing semantics, they explained away the decision to rectify the mistake of 2003 by signing Keith Foulke for 2004 and downplaying the 2003 strategy, extolling the virtues of an established closer if he was able to get both lefties and righties out and was cost-effective. They received one healthy season from Foulke in spite of paying him nearly $21 million for three years and since they won their first World Series in 86 years, I’m sure they’ll say it was worth every single penny to pay him that amount of money for a single year of good work. They also eliminated the ambiguity and embarrassment from the previous year in looking unprepared, arrogant, and bottom line stupid for going with the closer-by-committee in the manner they did in the first place.

Wilson will be signed by another team and will get a chance to close. He recovered from Tommy John surgery before, is a good bet to do so again and return to the pitcher and person who was so imperative to the Giants during his career. The Giants’ success gave them freedom to do what’s right for them in the moment. There’s nothing to sell because the fans are rightfully starstruck by the two glossy trophies the Giants have collected in the last three years. The first in 2010 was a direct result of having Wilson as their closer; the other in 2012 wasn’t. The second is letting them make the sound financial maneuver when, without it, they might have encountered greater resistance to letting Wilson leave as they’re clearly going to do.

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2012 MLB Award Winners—National League Manager of the Year

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Awards time is coming up fast in MLB. Yesterday I wrote why Bob Melvin should win the Manager of the Year award on the American League. Last month, I listed my Cy Young Award picks. Now, let’s look at the National League Manager of the Year along with who I picked before the season and who I think is going to win as opposed to who should win.

1. Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals

Johnson retuned to the dugout at mid-season 2011 at age 68 replacing Jim Riggleman and taking over a team that had been rebuilt from top-to-bottom and was on the cusp of taking the leap into contention. 2012 was supposed to be a step forward with a chance at making the playoffs if everything broke right. It turned out that everything broke right and then some.

Johnson straddled the line of development and winning; of protecting and letting fly and the Nationals won 98 games and the NL East title.

In his long managerial career, Johnson’s confidence has never been lacking. He’ll tell you his team’s going to win and tell you that it will be, in part, because they have Davey Johnson as their manager. He dealt with the rules and was onboard—reluctantly I think—with the limits placed on Stephen Strasburg. He didn’t hinder Bryce Harper learning how to play and behave in the big leagues and, for the most part, the 19-year-old exceeded expectations especially considering the reputation he carted with him from the minors as a loudmouthed brat.

The veterans have loved Johnson in all of his managerial stops because he lets them be themselves and doesn’t saddle them with a lot of rules and regulations. He doesn’t care about the length of their hair or that their uniforms are all identical as if they’re in the military. He treats them like men and they responded by getting him back to the playoffs.

2. Dusty Baker, Cincinnati Reds

The criticism Baker receives from the stat-obsessed is bordering on fanatical and doled out just for its own sake. He does and says some strange things sometimes, but so does every manager in baseball. He lost his closer Ryan Madson in spring training and replaced him with the unproven Aroldis Chapman and manipulated the bullpen well. The starting pitching was solid from top-to-bottom and remarkably healthy. The lineup lost star Joey Votto for a chunk of the season, but got through it and won the NL Central in a walk. The bottom line for Baker is this: he wins when he has good players and the players play hard for him. That’s all that matters.

3. Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants

Bochy is old-school and would fit in perfectly in the late 1800s with his gravely voice, gruff and grumbly—though likable—manner of speaking, and professional handling of his players. Like Baker, Bochy lost his closer Brian Wilson; dealt with Tim Lincecum’s poor season; and manipulated the lineup getting useful production from journeymen like Gregor Blanco after the suspension of Melky Cabrera.

4. Mike Matheny, St. Louis Cardinals

Matheny made some strategic mistakes as he was learning on the job after never having managed before, but the Cardinals made the playoffs and got past the expected pains of evolution following the departures of Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan, and Albert Pujols. Matheny coaxed a career year out of Kyle Lohse, transitioned Lance Lynn into the starting rotation and an All-Star berth, and overcame the injuries to Lance Berkman and Yadier Molina.

5. Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta Braves

Gonzalez learned from his mistakes by not burning out his bullpen and overcame injuries and questions in the starting rotation and lineup to win 94 games. Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell developed Kris Medlen; didn’t abuse Craig Kimbrel; overcame the struggles of Randall Delgado and Tommy Hanson; and the injuries to Brandon Beachy and Jonny Venters. Dan Uggla dealt with prolonged slumps; Chipper Jones was in and out of the lineup; and the Braves went through multiple shortstops, but still emerged in a tough division to make the playoffs.

My preseason pick was Johnson and that’s who’s going to win.

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The Giants Do It Old School

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With the tiered playoff system, single game play-ins, and short series, two World Series titles in three years counts as a dynasty in today’s game. By that metric, the San Francisco Giants are a new-age dynasty. That they accomplished this with decidedly old-school principles in the era of stat-based dominance and condescension, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michael Lewis—the chronicler of the paragon of stat-based theories of Billy Beane in Moneyball—step over Beane and saunter over to Giants’ GM Brian Sabean and declare that he always knew there were alternate methods to success in baseball, but simply forgot to say it; that Moneyball was about more than just numbers and Ivy League educated “geniuses” permeating (or infecting) baseball morphing front offices from cigar-chomping old men using randomness into put their teams together to something resembling a Star Trek convention. It was actually about value and was not a denigration of alternate methods to finding players.

Of course that would be a lie, but truth has never stood in the way of Lewis when he has an ending in mind and is willing to do whatever necessary to get to that ending—accuracy be damned.

The boxing promoter Don King was famous for his sheer and unending audacity in this vein of going with the winner, exemplified early in his career as a boxing promoter (and not long after his release from prison) when he walked to the ring with then-heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and rapidly switched allegiances to George Foreman when Foreman knocked Frazier out. King magically emerged as part of the celebration in Foreman’s corner.

But King is a genius and Lewis isn’t. In fact, King wallowed in his amorality; Lewis doesn’t realize what he’s doing is amoral to begin with. Masked by legitimacy and critical acclaim, Lewis is far worse than King could ever be.

Because the Athletics had a shocking season in which they won 94 games and made the playoffs, losing to the AL Champion Tigers in 5 games, Lewis and Moneyball again entered the spotlight as if the 2012 A’s validated a long-ago disproved narrative. As this Slate article by Tim Marchman shows, such is not the case.

Had the Athletics been as awful as many—me included—predicted, would Lewis have abandoned his vessel out of convenience? Or would have have stuck with Beane still trying to find a reptilian method of explaining away the fall of Moneyball?

I’ll guess on the latter, but don’t discount the possibility of a new book extolling the virtues of Sabean; his veteran manager with the 1880s-style mustache and grumbly voice, Bruce Bochy; and the way the Giants championship club was built.

Before that can happen, let’s get in front of whatever the latecomers and opportunists try to pull and examine how this team was put together.

Players acquired through the draft

Brandon Crawford, SS

Crawford was taken in the 4th round of the 2008 draft out of UCLA. He received a $375,000 signing bonus.

Brandon Belt, 1B

Belt was selected in the 5th round of the 2009 draft out of the University of Texas at Austin. He received a $200,000 signing bonus.

Buster Posey, C

Posey was drafted from Florida State University in the 1st round with the 5th pick by the Giants in the 2008 draft. He received a record (at the time) signing bonus of $6.2 million.

Sergio Romo, RHP

Romo was drafted in the 28th round of the 2005 draft out of Mesa State College in Colorado. Romo took over for injured star closer Brian Wilson and was brilliant.

Madison Bumgarner, LHP

Bumgarner was drafted in the 1st round of the 2007 draft with the 10th pick out South Caldwell High School in Hudson, North Carolina. He received a $2 million bonus.

Tim Lincecum, RHP

Lincecum was drafted from the University of Washington in the 1st round of the 2006 draft with the 10th pick. He received a $2.025 million signing bonus.

Matt Cain, RHP

Cain was taken in the 1st round (25th pick) of the 2002 draft—the “Moneyball” draft that was documented by Lewis as exhibit A of stat guy “genius” from Paul DePodesta’s laptop. He was taken out of high school in Tennessee—exhibit B of “mistakes” that clubs make when drafting players because selecting high school pitchers was presented as the epitome of risk and stupidity.

Cain received a $1.375 million signing bonus. The A’s took Joe Blanton out of college the pick before Cain. Blanton received a $1.4 million signing bonus.

Acquired via free agency

Pablo Sandoval, 3B

Sandoval was signed by the Giants out of Venezuela as an amateur free agent at age 17 in 2003.

Gregor Blanco, OF

The veteran journeyman Blanco signed a minor league contract with the Giants after spending the entire 2011 season in Triple A with the Nationals and Royals. He was an integral part of the Giants’ championship team with speed, defense, and a key homer in the NLDS comeback against the Reds.

Ryan Vogelsong, RHP

Vogelsong’s signing was mostly luck helped along by opportunity and the alteration of his game under pitching coach Dave Righetti. Vogelsong was a journeyman who has become a post-season star and rotation stalwart at age 35.

Jeremy Affeldt, LHP

Affeldt was signed as a free agent from the Reds in 2008.

Ryan Theriot, INF

Theriot signed a 1-year, $1.25 million contract before the 2012 season.

Aubrey Huff, 1B/OF/PH

Huff was a low-cost free agent signing in 2010 and was a large part of the World Series title that year. He re-signed for 2-years and $22 million and didn’t contribute on the field to the 2012 title.

Barry Zito, LHP

The Giants were in need of a star to replace Barry Bonds as they rebuilt from the “Build around Bonds” days and Zito was the biggest name available in the winter of 2006-2007. They signed him to a 7-year, $126 million contract that has $27 million guaranteed remaining for 2013. A pitcher being paid that amount of money is expected to be an ace, but Zito has been a back-of-the-rotation starter at best and was left off the 2010 post-season roster entirely. In 2012, he won 14 games and picked up the slack for the slumping Lincecum and Bumgarner to help the Giants win their 2012 championship.

Santiago Casilla, RHP

Casilla was signed as a free agent in 2009 after the Athletics non-tendered him.

Joaquin Arias, INF

Arias signed a minor league contract before the 2012 season. People forget about this, but in the Alex Rodriguez trade from the Rangers to the Yankees, the Yankees offered the Rangers a choice between Arias and Robinson Cano.

Neither the Yankees nor the Rangers knew what Cano was.

It was Arias’s defense at third base on the last out that helped save Cain’s perfect game in June.

Guillermo Mota, RHP

Mota has been with the Giants for three seasons and signed a 1-year, $1 million contract for 2012.

Hector Sanchez, C

Sanchez was signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2009.

Players acquired via trade

Melky Cabrera, OF

The contribution of Cabrera will be debated forever considering he failed a PED test and was suspended for the second half of the season. He was eligible to be reinstated for the playoffs, but the Giants chose not to do that. It was Cabrera’s All-Star Game MVP performance that wound up giving the Giants home field advantage for the World Series

Cabrera was an important factor in the first half of the season, but the Giants were 62-51 with Cabrera on the active roster and 32-17 without him. The Giants’ success was based on their pitching more than anything else and they won the World Series without Cabrera.

Cabrera was acquired from the Royals for Jonathan Sanchez, who was talented and inconsistent with the Giants and outright awful for the Royals.

Javier Lopez, LHP

Lopez was acquired from the Pirates in July of 2010 and was a key lefty specialist on the two title-winning teams.

Angel Pagan, CF

Pagan was acquired from the Mets for center fielder Andres Torres and righty reliever Ramon Ramirez. Pagan had a fine year at the plate and in the field, leading the majors in triples with 15 and stealing 29 bases including the one in the World Series that got everyone a free taco from Taco Bell.

George Kontos, RHP

The Yankees traded Kontos to the Giants for backup catcher Chris Stewart. Kontos is a solid reliever who’s more useful than a no-hit catcher.

Hunter Pence, RF

Pence was acquired from the Phillies for minor league pitcher Seth Rosin, catcher Tommy Joseph, and veteran big league outfielder Nate Schierholtz. The Giants are set at catcher, so Joseph was expendable. Pence had a .671 OPS in 59 games with the Giants, but it was his stirring, wild-eyed speech before game 3 of the NLDS against the Reds that was widely credited by teammates as waking them up to make their comeback. His teammates were either inspired or frightened by Pence’s intensity, but whatever it was, it worked.

Marco Scutaro, 2B

Scutaro was almost steamrolled by Matt Holliday of the Cardinals in the NLCS, but he came back from that and batted .500 in that series, winning the MVP. Then he had the game-winning hit in game 4 of the World Series.

Scutaro was acquired from the Rockies in late July for infielder Charlie Culberson.

Manager Bochy was run out of his longtime home as a manager, coach and player with the Padres when the front office wanted someone cheaper and more agreeable to the new age statistics and doing what he was told. Then-Padres team president Sandy Alderson allowed Bochy to interview for the Giants’ job—a division rival no less—and made utterly absurd statements of his policy being to allow his employees to seek other opportunities blah, blah, blah.

The Padres didn’t want Bochy back because Bochy didn’t do what he was told by the stat guys in the front office. In exchange, they got a far inferior manager Bud Black, and the Giants now have two championships and the hardware (and parades) to say there are different methods to use to win. Sometimes those methods work better without the fictionalized accounts in print and on film.

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San Francisco Giants vs Detroit Tigers—World Series Preview and Predictions

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San Francisco Giants vs Detroit Tigers

Keys for the Giants: Keep runners off the bases in front of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder; get the Tigers’ starting pitchers’ counts up to get into the bullpen; try not to fall behind in the World Series as they have in the first two playoff series.

When a team has two bashers in the middle of the lineup the magnitude of Cabrera and Fielder, it goes without saying that you don’t want to face them with runners on base. The Giants have gotten above-and-beyond performances from the unheralded Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong as Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner have struggled. Delmon Young has accumulated a multitude of big hits in the post-season this season and last and has to be accounted for as well.

The Tigers’ strength has been in their starting pitching and despite Phil Coke’s series-saving work against the Yankees, in this series, the Tigers are definitely going to need to use Jose Valverde at some point. He and Joaquin Benoit—the Tigers’ usual eighth and ninth inning pitchers—have been shaky. Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland doesn’t push his starters beyond their breaking points so it’s important to work the counts against the Tigers’ starters.

The Giants fell behind the Reds in the ALDS 2 games to 0 and came back to win.

They fell behind the Cardinals 3 games to 1 and came back to win.

If they fall behind 3 games to 1 in this series, they’re going to face Justin Verlander in game 5 with him smelling a championship to go along with his 2011 Cy Young Award and MVP and perhaps another Cy Young Award in 2012. These types of moments are what builds a Hall of Fame career and they’re not going to beat Verlander if they wind up in that hole.

Keys for the Tigers: Feast on the struggling Giants’ starters; get runners on base in front of Cabrera and Fielder; don’t overthink the closer situation or stick Valverde back there because it’s “his” job.

The Giants won the World Series two years ago riding a superlative starting rotation backed up by a flamethrowing and fearless closer. But Lincecum and Bumgarner have been bad; Zito is always on the verge of implosion; and Brian Wilson is out after elbow surgery. The strength isn’t exactly a weakness, but the Tigers can match and surpass the Giants’ rotation.

Obviously, the Tigers want to have their table-setters on the bases ahead of their mashers.

Leyland showed incredible flexibility (and didn’t have much choice) in removing Valverde from “his” inning. This is the World Series and the bottom line is winning, not feelings and roles. He’s going to need Valverde at some point, but when it gets to the ninth inning, he’s got to mix and match rather than insert the “closer”.

What will happen:

Zito is starting the first game for the Giants and after his brilliant performance against the Cardinals, he’s gained a bit more trust than the pitcher who Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy would allow to pitch 5 innings and have the bullpen ready to pull him when the first sign of trouble appeared. Zito is still getting by with a fastball that barely breaks 85 mph on a good day and his control is up and down. The Tigers are going to bash him and the feel good story will revert to talk of Zito’s massive contract and how it’s been a disaster. Zito spent a chunk of his career in the American League, but has limited history with the Tigers and nothing noticeable to watch for.

Bumgarner is starting game 2 after discovering what he and the Giants are saying were mechanical flaws that diminished his stamina and caused his poor outings. I’m not sure I’m buying that, especially with the Tigers’ bats like Cabrera and Fielder. Fielder is 3 for 7 in his career against Bumgarner, but they were all singles.

By the time the Giants get to their more reliable starting pitchers, they could be down 2 games to 0. Vogelsong is pitching game 3 and Matt Cain game 4. Lincecum is nowhere to be seen and will be in the bullpen. He could be an important factor.

The talk of home field advantage for the Giants is meaningless. In fact, Verlander is probably better off pitching in San Francisco in game 1 than he would at home because he’s going to have the opposing pitcher to face at the plate.

The Giants are battle-tested and fearless. Buster Posey is a star; Marco Scutaro is reveling in his playoff star turn. There are dangerous bats in their lineup with Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence, but the Tigers have too many weapons on offense and a deeper starting rotation.

The Tigers bullpen will blow a game or two in this series, but it’s not going to be enough to turn the tide in favor of the Giants.

PREDICTION: TIGERS IN SIX

WORLD SERIES MVP: PRINCE FIELDER

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New Age Collisions and Matt Holliday

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The photo you see above is Graig Nettles kicking George Brett in game 5 of the 1977 ALCS. The Yankees eventually won the game and the pennant. A brawl occurred between the two teams following this incident. No one was kicked out of the game. (Get it?)

If that happened today, someone would have to be thrown out. I think. Although Roger Clemens was allowed to fling a projectile—a broken bat—at Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series and didn’t get tossed. It’s a fine line between defending oneself and running the risk of getting ejected.

In last night’s game 2 of the NLCS, on a double play attempt, Marco Scutaro of the Giants was nailed and had his hip injured on a takeout slide by Cardinals’ outfielder Matt Holliday.

You can watch it below.

Holliday was past the base and his specific intent was to hit Scutaro hard enough to prevent the double play. He did it cheaply with a dangerous roll block and raised arm making it doubly treacherous for the infielder. This isn’t little league and there’s a reasonable expectation for hard, clean play. Infielders have their own little tricks they use to prevent this from occurring. In general, they use the base for protection because the runner is technically not supposed to pass the base; they also throw the ball sidearm and specifically aim it at the runner’s head (this is taught) so the runner has to get down to avoid getting beaned. Holliday’s play was arguable in its legality/line-crossing because the ball and Holliday arrived nearly simultaneously and Scutaro didn’t have the time to hop out of the way or use the base as protection, nor could he throw the ball at Holliday’s head. Holliday did go past the base to get Scutaro.

It wasn’t overtly illegal, but it was a legal cheap shot.

On the Fox broadcast, Tim McCarver—a former catcher, no stranger to home plate collisions—compared the play to Buster Posey getting leveled by Marlins’ outfielder Scott Cousins in May of 2011. Posey had his ankle broken, needed surgery, and was lost for the season. It was his absence that set forth the chain-of-events that might have cost the Giants a second straight World Series and forced them to search for more offense and surrender their top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to get Carlos Beltran from the Mets.

There was no comparison between the two hits because what Holliday did was questionable at best and dirty at worst. What Cousins did was within the rules. Rules and propriety don’t always intersect and if that’s the case, then baseball has to step in and clarify the grey areas.

What creates the controversy is that it’s so rare in today’s game. In the Royals-Yankees annual ALCS matchups (4 times in 5 years between 1976 and 1980), Royals’ DH/outfielder Hal McRae took every opportunity to try and send Yankees’ second baseman Willie Randolph into the left field seats and break up a double play. It’s perfectly acceptable for a runner to run into a fielder if he has the ball and is trying to tag him, but the last player I remember doing it was Albert Belle.

With catchers and runners, it’s an old-school play that some former catchers like McCarver, Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi, and Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy would like to see outlawed, while Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia thinks it’s an integral, exciting, and necessary aspect of competition. No one will accuse any of the above ex-players of being wimps. All were tough, but disagree on the subject. Scioscia relished the contact and was the recipient of one of the most brutal collisions I’ve ever seen in 1985 when Jack Clark of the Cardinals barreled into him. Scioscia was knocked out; Clark was staggered as if he’d been he recipient of a George Foreman sledgehammer punch; and Scioscia held onto the ball.

Nobody runs over the catcher anymore. There’s a commercial playing in New York of Derek Jeter crashing into a catcher. When has Jeter ever run into a catcher? It’s almost never done, and when it is, it turns into a national catastrophe if one of the players gets hurt.

The camaraderie and brotherhood among the players also precludes these hard plays. Everyone knows each other now. With the limited degrees of separation and the amount of money at stake, few are willing to take the chance of ruining another player’s career. You don’t see knockdown pitches; you don’t see take-out slides; you don’t see busted double plays; and you don’t see home plate collisions.

It wasn’t an, “I’m trying to hurt you,” play. But an injury was a byproduct. It was legal, yet borderline. If MLB wants to make it illegal or come up with a way to constrain it, then fine. Until then, it’s acceptable. As long as the people in charge fail to make a concrete announcement and provide a clear-cut mandate to the umpires that certain actions won’t be tolerated, there will be players who are willing to do what Holliday did, injured players, and indignant reactions in its aftermath.

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NLCS Preview and Predictions—San Francisco Giants vs St. Louis Cardinals

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San Francisco Giants (94-68; 1st place, NL West; defeated Cincinnati Reds 3 games to 2 in NLDS) vs St. Louis Cardinals (88-74; 2nd place, NL Central; won Wild Card; defeated Atlanta Braves in Wild Card play-in game; defeated Washington Nationals 3 games to 2 in NLDS)

Keys for the Giants: Get depth from their starting pitching; keep the scores low; score tack-on runs; maintain their closer diversity; don’t let Carlos Beltran beat them.

Because they had to win the final 3 games against the Reds to make it to the NLCS, the Giants have listed Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, and Matt Cain as the first three starters in the series. It’s undecided who will go in game 4. I wound start Tim Lincecum, but Barry Zito is an option—a bad option, but still an option. The Cardinals can score in bunches, but the Giants have the starting pitching to turn out the lights on anyone’s offense.

The Giants are no longer the team that couldn’t score and relied on their starting pitching to a desperate degree in recent years. With Buster Posey, the Giants have a weapon in the lineup and behind the plate. That said, they can’t score in bunches with the Cardinals.

Carlos Beltran is a post-season machine. Early in the series I’d pitch around Beltran and make Matt Holliday beat me.

Keys for the Cardinals: Raise the Giants’ starters pitch counts up and get into the bullpen; get a better performance from Adam Wainwright; put up crooked numbers.

The Giants’ bullpen has depth, but they’re still shaky. If the Cardinals can put up big numbers against the starters, they’ll get into the Giants’ bullpen while simultaneously putting a limited offense in the position of having to score a number of runs they’ve shown finite capability in scoring. If the Cardinals put the Giants in a position of playing catch-up, they’ll be in a great position.

Adam Wainwright pitched well in his first start against the Nationals, but got shelled in game 5, nearly costing the Cardinals the series.

What will happen:

The Cardinals escaped the play-in game against the Braves—in part—due to the horrific infield fly call; then they got past the Nationals because the Nats’ bullpen blew up in a stranger-than-fiction manner.

Will that happen against the Giants? The Giants starting pitching is better than that of the Nats and there’s not the bullpen use by rote that doomed the Nationals. If the situation in the ninth inning calls for a lefty, there’s not going to be a “my closer is in the game” from Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy because their true closer, Brian Wilson, is on the disabled list. If the situation calls for Sergio Romo, Romo will pitch; if it calls for Javier Lopez, Lopez will pitch. Some see this as a disadvantage and in the regular season, maybe it is. In the playoffs, it isn’t.

Lance Lynn is starting the opener for the Cardinals. Lynn got off to a blazing first half of the season as a starter, but was sent to the bullpen in August. He seemed to run out of gas. The Giants have an edge in rotation depth and in the bullpen.

The Giants will not let Beltran beat them and if Matt Holliday isn’t hitting, the Cardinals offense is mitigated.

The Cardinals have been functioning with an inexplicable amount of magic and/or luck in the past two years. They’ve gotten by with miraculous comebacks, have lost star players, managers and pitching coaches, taken advantage of unforeseen opportunities, and walked away with a World Series title and are back in the NLCS.

Their luck is going to run out in this NLCS.

PREDICTION: GIANTS IN SIX

NLCS MVP: MADISON BUMGARNER

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National League—Mid-Season Award Winners

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Yesterday I listed my American League mid-season award winners. Now here’s the National League along with my preseason picks from my book.

MVP

1. Andrew McCutchen, CF—Pittsburgh Pirates

It’s a pleasure to watch a player who I knew would be a star the first time I saw him run out a triple begin achieve that vision; that he’s doing so for a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 1992 and suddenly finds itself in first place in the NL Central and is a legitimate playoff contender makes it all the more gratifying,

McCutchen is leading the Majors in batting at .362; he has a .414 OBP and .625 slugging with 18 homers and 14 stolen bases. It was almost as if he was sending a message on Sunday to let the world know that he’s not playing around; that this is the real McCutchen as he went 3 for 5 with 2 homers.

I’ve seen some random, inaccurate comparisons to Barry Bonds but in reality McCutchen is more like an Eric Davis-squared and is fulfilling what Davis was supposed to be but just barely missed becoming—an MVP.

2. Joey Votto, 1B—Cincinnati Reds

The Reds’ leader on and off the field is celebrating his new, long-term contract by replicating his MVP season of 2010. Votto is leading the Majors is OBP and OPS, has 35 doubles, 14 homers and is leading the NL in walks.

3. David Wright, 3B—New York Mets

It’s amazing what happens when a star player is healthy and playing in a home ballpark that no longer makes it necessary to change one’s swing to have a hope of hitting a few home runs.

Wright’s having his best season since 2007-2008 when he was an All-Star, MVP candidate, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner.

4. Ryan Braun, LF—Milwaukee Brewers

Those hoping he’d fall flat on his face after getting out of a PED suspension on a technicality are being horribly disappointed.

5. R.A. Dickey, RHP—New York Mets

Sylvester Stallone couldn’t conjure a story this ridiculous.

In my book I picked Troy Tulowitzki. He’s been injured.

Cy Young Award

1. R.A. Dickey, RHP—New York Mets

It’s not simply that he’s dominating and doing it with a knuckleball, but he’s throwing a knuckleball at 80+ mph and is able to control it. Hitters have looked helpless and he’s been the Mets’ stopper when they’ve appeared to waver in their greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts play.

2. Matt Cain, RHP—San Francisco Giants

The ace of the Giants’ staff is not named Tim Lincecum anymore.

3. Johnny Cueto, RHP—Cincinnati Reds

Cueto’s ill-conceived comments about Tony LaRussa aside, he’s had a great year.

4. James McDonald, RHP—Pittsburgh Pirates

Another Pirates’ player whose talent I lusted after is fulfilling his potential. This is how fiction-style stories of teams rising from the depths are written.

5. Cole Hamels, LHP—Philadelphia Phillies

His rumored trade availability, pending free agency and “look how tough I am” antics are obscuring how well he’s pitched as the Phillies’ empire crumbles around him.

My preseason pick was Lincecum. I think we can forget that now.

Rookie of the Year

1.  Bryce Harper, OF—Washington Nationals

Considering his arrogant statements and behavior in the minors, I was dubious about his maturity. He’s proven me wrong and been an absolute professional handling the scrutiny like a 10-year veteran.

On the field, he’s the real deal.

2. Wade Miley, LHP—Arizona Diamondbacks

Miley has picked up for the inconsistent Ian Kennedy and the injured Joe Saunders and Daniel Hudson; the Diamondbacks would be buried in the NL West without him.

3. Todd Frazier, INF—Cincinnati Reds

He’s had more than a few big hits in picking up for the injured Scott Rolen.

4. Norichika Aoki, OF—Milwaukee Brewers

He’s 30 and a rookie in name only, but he’s batting .300 and has played well for the Brewers.

5. Wilin Rosario, C—Colorado Rockies

He’s struggled defensively and is a hacker, but he does have 14 homers.

My preseason pick was Yonder Alonso.

Manager of the Year

1. Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh Pirates

He…doesn’t…take…crap.

2. Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals

Johnson was always a bridesmaid in the Manager of the Year voting. He still is. He’s dealt with the new age game that clearly grates on him with the pitch counts and the relentless “experts” from the outside questioning him; he’s also dealt with the Harper/Stephen Strasburg sideshows far better than other veteran managers dropped into the middle of it would.

3. Don Mattingly, Los Angeles Dodgers

They Dodgers have slumped lately, but Mattingly has proven he can handle pretty much anything.

4. Terry Collins, New York Mets

What he’s done with this team amid all the off-field distractions and non-existent expectations is Amazin’.

5. Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants

Lincecum’s been horrific and he lost his closer but still has the Giants hovering around first place in the NL West.

My preseason pick was Johnson.

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Lincecum’s Mechanics Are Off (Video)

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Tim Lincecum’s mechanics are off.

That’s the problem that is causing his lack of control and probably his diminished velocity as well. Why the Giants, Dave Righetti, Bruce Bochy or Lincecum’s increasingly irritable and defensive father Chris (Yahoo Story) haven’t taken steps to correct what he’s doing wrong is a mystery to me. I’d be stunned if they haven’t studied the video of when Lincecum was at his best and what he is now.

If you look at the video clip below from the 2010 World Series, there are subtle differences between what he was doing then and what he’s doing now.

Back then, he went into his simplified motion, kicked his leg and hesitated for a split second giving his hand time to get the ball out of his glove and hang down in the dangled position before launching himself toward the hitter with a posture and release point befitting someone who was 3 or so inches taller than Lincecum’s listed (and questionable) height of 5’11”.

He’s compact and his glove is leading the way toward the plate so his entire focus and direction is heading in that direction. He’s turning his back to the hitter in a much more pronounced fashion than he is now and his leg is tighter in relation to his body.

Now look at the video from this season.

Lincecum is not hesitating as much. He’s rushing. His arm is dragging behind and he’s getting too low in what looks like an old David Cone-style drop-and-drive when Lincecum—in spite of his long stride that was indicative of an automatic drop-and-drive style pitcher—was a pitcher who stood up straight and tall.

He’s flying off toward first base rather than going straight toward the plate.

His release point is technically the same, but since his body is lower, he’s lower and he’s too open in his leg lift so he’ll be too open when he releases the ball. Hitters might be getting a better view of it coming out of his hand. His ball is flattening out, he no longer has his control and as a result of these mechanical flaws, he’s losing confidence and there’s been talk of skipped starts, demotions to the bullpen and even sending him down to the minor leagues.

These are correctable issues and Lincecum’s muscle memory would speed up the process. I’m not sure why they haven’t fixed what he’s doing wrong. It’s not hard to see.

At least it shouldn’t be for the professional pitching coach, manager who’s a former catcher and the dad who honed and perfected his son’s unique motion.

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