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June 5, 2012

Western Front

Tres Compañeros

by Geoff Young

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It would be easy to call Gregor Blanco, Melky Cabrera, and Angel Pagan the “Three Amigos.” For as much fun as that movie was, I prefer something a little more highbrow and suggest we borrow from Wim Wenders. They are compañeros.

Who saw these guys coming? All arrived in San Francisco at roughly the same time, and all have established an expected level of play that isn't particularly high. Here are their lines entering 2012:

Player

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS+

Blanco

836

.258

.358

.324

85

Cabrera

3,363

.275

.331

.398

93

Pagan

1,994

.279

.331

.418

101

Blanco signed as a minor-league free agent, while Cabrera and Pagan came in separate trades without much fanfare. None was expected to play more than a supporting role for the Giants, but all are contributing in ways that even the most optimistic among us could not have foreseen.

Here is what they are doing through June 2:

Player

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS+

Blanco

145

.273

.386

.397

123

Cabrera

236

.373

.415

.553

172

Pagan

222

.314

.355

.461

129

Non-comatose readers will notice the slight disconnect between these two sets of numbers. Let's take a closer look at each player.

Gregor Blanco
As Gregor Blanco awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a big-league ballplayer. What has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream.

It might turn out to be a dream, but if so, he hasn't woken up yet. After a lengthy (much as I would love to call it Kafkaesque, it really wasn't) journey through the minor leagues that saw him hit .265/.367/.364 in nearly 1,000 games, Blanco signed with the Giants in November 2011 and made the team out of spring training. This came on the heels of spending his age-27 campaign in the Nationals and Royals organizations hitting .201/.350/.327 for two Triple-A clubs.

Blanco's entry in BP2012 reads... actually, it doesn't. It is blank-o. Because when you're 27 years old and barely clearing the Mendoza line against has-been pitchers, you don't get a writeup. There are only so many ways to say “too old, can't hit.”

And then the metamorphosis occurred, leaving a productive fourth outfielder where once there had been a career minor-leaguer. The sample is still small, but it's difficult to argue with the results so far.

There are a few things worth mentioning about Blanco's early-season success. First is the fact that the left-handed hitter is abusing left-handed pitchers to the tune of .333/.417/.452. Anything can happen in 48 plate appearances, but Blanco has not shown this ability in the past. Coming into the season, his difficulties against southpaws were pronounced and may have helped keep him buried in the minors:

Split

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

vs LHP

202

.214

.318

.266

vs RHP

634

.272

.371

.343

Not that Blanco's game is predicated on power by any stretch, but his first and only big-league homer against a left-hander came on May 14 against Colorado's Christian Friedrich. The game was played in San Francisco on an evening when Friedrich dominated the Giants: 7 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 BB, 10 K.

Blanco led off and went 3-for-4, knocking two hits off Friedrich. The third hit came off hard-throwing left-hander Rex Brothers—who admittedly is having a terrible season—to start the eighth. Blanco later came around to score what turned out to be the game-winning run.

Another interesting aspect of Blanco's success this year has been his manhandling of starting pitchers after his first time facing them in a game. On the whole, hitters gain an advantage in subsequent plate appearances (unless they see a pitcher a fourth time, which happens infrequently, and typically when the pitcher is having a great game), but Blanco is going above and beyond the norm. Here is how major-league hitters have fared against starting pitchers in 2012 by plate appearance:

Split

BA

OBP

SLG

1st PA

.245

.310

.389

2nd PA

.264

.324

.425

3rd PA

.267

.329

.438

4th+ PA

.272

.337

.406

And here is Blanco so far in 2012, with plate appearances added to remind us that we are dealing with small samples:

Split

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

1st PA

31

.240

.355

.320

2nd PA

28

.455

.571

.636

3rd PA

26

.304

.385

.565

4th+ PA

6

.000

.000

.000

Conclusive of anything? Nope. Interesting, and worth watching? Damn straight.

Melky Cabrera
Cabrera came over from Kansas City for Jonathan Sanchez in November 2011. Despite Cabrera's breakout campaign with the Royals (while researching this, I discovered that he had 201 hits last year, which shocked the hell out of me; then I remembered that Juan Pierre has reached the 200-hit plateau four times), many observers liked this trade for Kansas City due to Sanchez's ability to miss bats. Unfortunately, as R.J. Anderson noted at the time, Sanchez also misses everything else. He hasn't been useful to his new team in any sense of the word.

Cabrera, meanwhile, ranks among National League leaders in several offensive categories. His team was supposed to have no real threats beyond Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, but Cabrera has shattered that perception by being, frankly, a stud.

Only a week ago, the Giants were 7 ½ games back of the Dodgers in the NL West. With Matt Kemp returning to the disabled list and the Dodgers struggling more than during Kemp's first injury, a door has opened. That the Giants have put themselves in position possibly to charge through that door—they are four games back as of this writing—is due in no small part to the play of Cabrera, who has helped elevate San Francisco's offense from “anemic” to “acceptable” this year.

In BP2012 we identified Cabrera's improvement last year as “the byproduct of an increase in BABIP,” which jumped from .290 for his career entering the season to .332 in 2011. Well, guess what: It's at .412 at last check. Impressive? Yes. Sustainable? Uh...

From 1901 to 1936, a BABIP of .400 or higher was achieved 22 times by batting title qualifiers—a rare event but one that occasionally happened. Since then, it has occurred just four times:

Player

Year

BABIP

Roberto Clemente

1967

.403

Rod Carew

1977

.408

Manny Ramirez

2000

.403

Jose Hernandez

2002

.404

That's three HOF level hitters and one WTF level hitter if you're scoring at home. Could Cabrera join Hernandez in the latter group? Sure. And I could wake up as a cockroach.

Interlude

This doesn't belong here or necessarily anywhere else, but since we're talking about the Giants, I'll mention it. A while back, I gave answers to five trivia questions with a Bay Area theme and invited readers to name the accompanying questions.

You got all but one of them, and I've been meaning to reveal the other. I'm sure this has been keeping you up at night, as it has me, so let's put the topic to rest once and for all.

The answer was Ron Kline, Pittsburgh Pirates. In hindsight, this wasn't enough information. We got some good responses, though:

  • Reader abcjr2 guessed that Kline “gave up Mays' 512th to pass Mel Ott.” Although Kline did allow a home run to Willie Mays, it came in the first game of a doubleheader on June 2, 1957, and was the 160th of Mays' career. The Giants still called New York home.

Claude Osteen, in case you are wondering, surrendered Mays' 512th homer on May 4, 1966.

  • Reader evergreen earned partial credit with this one: “Kline was the winning pitcher in the first doubleheader game in San Francisco. That's a wild guess.”

It is also correct, although not what I had in mind. Exactly eight years before Mays passed Ott, the Giants did play their first doubleheader in San Francisco. They split the affair, with Kline beating Johnny Antonelli in the opener, and Al Worthington topping Roy Face in the nightcap. Mays went 2-for-9 on the day.

All of which is interesting, but not the intended question. After this incredible build up, I will now reveal the question, which did concern a home run hit by a Giants legend, but not Mays:

On August 2, 1959, Willie McCovey hit his first big-league home run. Who was the pitcher?

Now we can sleep at night again. More importantly, we can get on with our story.

Angel Pagan
I once loved a woman who loved Wings of Desire. Although those feelings have long since faded, I still love Peter Falk and this song. The movie, to oversimplify matters, is about an angel who falls in love with a trapeze artist. I don't know how this Angel feels about trapeze artists, but I do know that he represents a significant upgrade over Andres Torres, for whom he was traded in December.

I also know that Pagan is close to becoming the all-time home-run leader for players with his first name and his last name. With 37 to his credit, he trails only Angel Berroa (46) and Jose Pagan (52). This is where not being named Barry Aaron or Hank Bonds comes in handy.

While Torres has been equal parts injured and ineffective for the Mets, Pagan is thriving in his new environment. Our assessment in BP2012 was honest, but not kind, closing with this passage:

More a guy without weaknesses than one with strengths, he doesn't hurt, doesn't help, and just kind of hangs around. In other words, there are 30 starting center fielders in baseball, and he's one of them.

“He's one of them.” An everyman. A compañero.

In our defense, this described Pagan perfectly until he started doing what he's doing now. Pagan is surpassing even the high level he established in 2009 before settling in as “one of them” for the next couple of seasons and is openly mocking his PECOTA projection of .267/.318/.388.

We noted earlier that Blanco enjoys increased success against starting pitchers the more he faces them in a game. Pagan is doing the same thing this year, albeit to a lesser degree. In fact, the Giants as a team have been good at wearing down pitchers in 2012:

Split

Giants

MLB

Diff

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

Rk

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

1st PA

.249

.295

.381

676

17

.245

.310

.389

699

-23

2nd PA

.281

.333

.407

739

17

.264

.324

.425

749

-10

3rd PA

.299

.356

.451

807

9

.267

.329

.438

767

+40

4th+ PA

.396

.431

.542

973

3

.272

.337

.406

743

+230

Rk = Rank in OPS among MLB teams. Diff = Giants OPS – MLB OPS.

Even accounting for the small sample in the bottom row (3rd PA occurs 10 times as often as 4th+ PA), this is impressive. Giants hitters hold their own in those first two trips to the plate against the opposing starter and then go to work.

Now let's look at the same chart for 2011:

Split

Giants

MLB

Diff

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

Rk

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

1st PA

.237

.289

.366

654

28

.250

.310

.390

700

-46

2nd PA

.236

.294

.356

650

28

.260

.320

.409

729

-79

3rd PA

.256

.311

.411

722

27

.275

.335

.439

774

-52

4th+ PA

.252

.289

.355

644

29

.271

.333

.410

743

-99

Last year, Giants hitters started out badly and then just stayed there. Why has there been such a change from last season to this? That is a good question that someone should try to answer. Right now, though, we're just observing what has transpired. And what has transpired is a radical shift in results.

Blanco and Pagan have played a key role in this transformation. Cabrera, too, albeit in a different way. He starts strong (.383/.423/.617), then lulls his victim into a false sense of security in that second plate appearance (.298/.340/.383) before unleashing the Power of Melk (.429/.458/.696) in third and subsequent trips to the dish.

If we had known before the season that in the first week of June, Tim Lincecum would rank 113th in ERA among 118 qualifiers, Pablo Sandoval would have missed a month's worth of games due to injury, Brandon Belt would be hitting like a middle infielder, and the middle infielders would be hitting like Lincecum (not really, but it's a fun hyperbole; indulge me this once), we could be forgiven for assuming that the Giants were hopelessly out of contention by now.

And yet, this is not the case. The team has enjoyed continued success despite these various obstacles. The Giants' unexpectedly strong outfield play and tendency to wear down opposing starters have been contributing factors, but will these trends continue? Regression is a harsh mistress.

Just one more thing. Did I mention that I love Peter Falk?

6 comments have been left for this article.

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