April 29, 2011
On the Beat
They Might Not Be Giants
The Giants' run to the World Series title last season was certainly memorable. They dominated October with great pitching, going 11-4 against the Braves, Phillies, and Rangers en route to their first championship in the 54 years since they moved west from New York to San Francisco.
However, a great October masked the fact that the Giants were far from a dominant team in the regular season. They were the last of the eight teams to quality for the postseason, winning the National League West on the final day of the regular season by beating the Padres. The Giants' 92-70 was sixth among the eight postseason qualifiers.
Now that the Giants' memories of last fall are fading, and their World Series rings have been received, the flaws of the 2011 team are showing during the first month of the season. The Giants are just 12-12, and as closer Brian Wilson said, "We're not playing Giants baseball. We need to get back to playing Giants baseball."
In the eyes of manager Bruce Bochy, the Giants are playing sub-par in all phases of the game.
"We haven't played our best baseball," Bochy said. "We're fortunate to be where we're at. We really haven't clicked on the offensive side or the defensive side. We've been up and down. We know we haven't played very well on a consistent basis. We have been finding ways to win but we've been lucky. We need to get back to playing our brand of ball. We need to get the bats going, tighten up the defense, and improve the pitching."
The Giants are sixth in the NL in runs allowed with an average of 4.00 a game, after finishing second in the league and the majors last season with a 3.60 mark, just one-hundredth of a point behind the Padres. Their 3.91 runs a game are 13th in the NL, down from 4.30 last year when they were ninth.
The Giants pitching is what worries Bochy, because starters Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner are the backbone of the team, along with Wilson and setup men Sergio Romo and Jeremy Affeldt. Bochy's biggest concern is that the Giants are walking 3.3 batters per nine innings, which ranks 11thin the NL. While it went unnoticed last season because of the Giants' drive to the championship, they were 15th in the league in that category last season with a 3.6 mark.
Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti held a recent meeting with the pitching staff to discuss the problem and have implemented a system to keep track of those walks. There are plenty to go around, as Cain is the only starter issuing less than 3.5 per nine innings, allowing just 2.1. The top offenders are Wilson (6.5), the injured Barry Zito (5.5), Affeldt (4.7), Sanchez (4.5), and Bumgarner (4.2).
"We've got guys with good stuff, and sometimes the walks come with trying to make too good of a pitch to strike someone out," Bochy said. "We don't get away with a walk, either. It seems like every time we walk someone, they come around to score. We talked to [the pitchers], gave them the fear of Jesus speech, and told them, 'Hey, we're better than this, and we need to tighten this up. They know that."
The Giants' hitting woes are not unexpected, as they cobbled together just enough offense in the second half last season to overtake the Padres in the NL West after the in-season acquisitions of outfielders Pat Burrell and Cody Ross and the call-up of Buster Posey, the eventual NL Rookie of the Year, from Triple-A Fresno. Still, the Giants know they need to score more runs to maximize the value of their strong rotation.
Ross started the season on the disabled list with a strained right calf and only returned to the lineup last week. Center fielder Andres Torres, the Giants' primary leadoff hitter last season, is on the DL with a strained left Achilles.
"Offense is not our strength, but this is a better lineup than we had at this time last year," Bochy said. "We've got a few guys off to slow starts."
Ross believes the Giants hitters are pressing: "We're trying to do too much. We need to relax and take the base hits instead of trying hit home runs. It's a process and we'll eventually figure it out, hopefully no later than tomorrow."
The one Giants hitter who has figured things out is third baseman Pedro Sandoval. The Kung Fu Panda is resurgent in 2011, with a .936 OPS and a .325/.386/.550 slash line in 84 plate appearances, following an offseason in which he lost 37 pounds working out with former Olympic decathlete Dan O'Brien. Sandoval had a .329 TAv and 5.6 WARP in 2009, his first full major-league season, but those numbers plummeted to .261 and 1.0 last year. So far this year, he is at .338 and 1.4.
Sandoval has carried the Giants in the early going of the season. However, he believes the rest of his teammates will soon catch up, and the Giants won't end up exposed as one-year wonders.
"We're playing in a lot of tough games, games that are tied or one-run in the late innings," Sandoval said. "The pitching staff is doing well, but we're not doing well as a lineup. We're trying. We're fighting every day. We come here to win and we're going to win. Things are going to start going our way because we have too much talent on this team not to win."
Rumors and Rumblings: Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell's job is in serious jeopardy following allegations that he made gay slurs and threatened a fan with a bat before last Saturday's game against the Giants at AT&T. … Houston businessman Jim Crane is expected to buy the Astros from Drayton McLane sometime before the All-Star break. Word is that Rays senior VP of baseball operations and former Astros GM Garry Hunsicker will likely be returning to Houston in some capacity. … Left-hander Andy Pettitte, who retired from the Yankees in February, is telling friends he will not play this season but would consider making a comeback next year. … Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is unhappy, both at general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. for questioning his handling of fill-in closer Jose Contreras, now on the disabled list with a strained elbow, and at new substitute closer Ryan Madson for saying he was too sore to pitch last Sunday against the Padres. … The Rangers insist that closer Neftali Feliz landing on the DL with shoulder inflammation is not related to stretching him out as a starter during spring training. Meanwhile, right-hander Tommy Hunter (shoulder) is scheduled to make a rehab start next Thursday for Double-A Frisco and should return sometime in the middle of May. … Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (oblique) could be activated as soon as Saturday after beginning a rehab assignment at Double-A Montgomery on Thursday night.
Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake could be out for up to a month because of an infected elbow. … First baseman Lyle Overbay has been such a disappointment so far for the Pirates that Steve Pearce has been starting at first against left-handers, though manager Clint Hurdle says it is not a platoon situation. Shortstop Ronny Cedeno's starting job is also in jeopardy, as the Pirates are intrigued by infielder Brandon Wood, claimed off waivers from the Angels last week. … Right-hander Marco Estrada, who was not in the Brewers' major-league camp when spring training started, has pitched so well as the No.5 starter while Zack Greinke has been on the disabled list that he will likely remain in the majors as a reliever once Greinke is activated. … Casey Coleman and James Russell have struggled as the Cubs' replacement number four and five starters with Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner on the disabled list. Chicago's lack of pitching depth is so bad that they were happy to postpone Wednesday afternoon's game against the Rockies at Wrigley Field, though it was only lightly drizzling and 10 degrees warmer than the day before.
Mets left fielder Jason Bay: "He's brought a sense of calm to that team since he came off the disabled list. I don’t think he is going to be the player he was in Pittsburgh and Boston, but he's still a quality major-league hitter. He never gets rattled or flustered, and I think that's a large part of the season why the Mets have settled down after looking like they were ready to spin out of control a couple of weeks ago."
Cardinals right fielder Lance Berkman: "He's swinging the bat as well as I've ever seen him, from both sides of the plate. He's hitting all pitches in all locations right now. There is no way to get him out. He's not playing a great right field, but he's at least catching what he gets to and that's really all the Cardinals are asking when they signed him to play out there."
Brewers right-hander Yovani Gallardo: "He's really hurting himself by getting behind in the count. It seems like he is 2-0 on every hitter. He's lost his aggressiveness. He's not throwing his fastball enough, and he's nibbling around the corners of the strike zone. His stuff is too good for him to pitch like that, unless there's something wrong with him and he's not telling anyone."
Rockies first baseman Todd Helton: "This is the best he's looked in years. He is hitting the ball consistently hard again, and he is even hitting lefties. I don't know how long it will last, but he's been a difference maker so far."
Pirates right-handed reliever Evan Meek: "This guy had closer stuff last season, but he doesn't look the same. He isn't throwing hard, and he hasn't been able to put hitters away with the slider because it's not a wipeout pitch now. He doesn't look comfortable on the mound. He looks like he's hurt."