May 14, 2004
Brian Sabean Has No Clothes
The Giants lost again yesterday, falling to 15-20 and eight games behind the Dodgers in the NL West. That gap may be misleading--the blue boys are 10-0 in one-run games, which has inflated their record--but it's hard to see how the Giants can make up even the true five- or six-game difference between the teams.
Over the past few years, I've come around the the idea that while Brian Sabean may not assemble baseball teams in the same manner that, say, I would, his track record of success warranted respect. The Giants have succeeded with mid-level payrolls and seemingly mid-level rosters for a number of years, in part because many of Sabean's acquisitions outperformed expectations. If we're going to be about performance, then the record of the Giants from 1997-2003 demands respect.
The 2004 Giants reflect a complete failing of Sabean to do his job, however. Knowing that he had a player of Bonds' caliber on the roster, he neglected to bring in a hitter with a reasonable chance of complementing him. "Protection" has been studied, and it has largely been dismissed as a myth. Hitters' performances do not depend on having a comparable hitter behind them in the lineup. However, there is a weak effect on walks and intentional walks, an effect we've seen taken to the extreme as Bonds has had one of the greatest peaks in baseball history while surrounded by mediocre veterans playing replacement-level baseball.
In yesterday's game, the Phillies walked Bonds in each of his final three plate appearances. All three were intentional, although just two were recorded as such. Keep in mind that Bonds is hitting .091 and slugging .136 in the month of May; if there was ever a time to take him on, it's now. Yet, Joe Kerrigan--Larry Bowa had been ejected--passed on three chances to face Bonds. Each time, Pedro Feliz validated the decision by making an out, the last time grounding into a fielder's choice with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth.
I watch a high percentage of Bonds' at-bats, and I think the walks are frustrating him and, more importantly, affecting his approach. I've written about how he's reduced his swing to the bare minimum of motion required to propel a baseball a long way. Over the past few weeks, he's gotten away from that, taking wilder hacks and showing more wasted motion in doing so, as if he's trying to squeeze a game's worth of cuts into one at-bat. I don't think it can be easy to hit in the major leagues when you're getting just 10 chances a week to do so.
Moreover, his reactions to the walks are becoming more animated: taking off his elbow pad earlier in the count, not standing at the plate in a batting stance for the last pitch. I think we're getting close to a point of Bonds pulling a Norm Cash, and coming up to the plate with a piano leg or a fungo bat or Edgardo Alfonzo's right arm.
Take this all with a grain of salt, as I'm not trained as a batting coach. I'd definitely like to hear from those of you who watch Giants' games with regularlity, and hear your opinions on Bonds' May. Frankly, this is how it's going to go for Bonds the rest of the way. There is no one on the Giants' roster that you can bat behind Bonds who is going to make a manager even think twice about walking him in any game-relevant situation. That's not just about Bonds being great; it's about the wretched state of the Giants' roster, and that brings us back to Sabean. It's not that Mike Tucker and Jeffrey Hammonds and Dustan Mohr haven't hit; it's that no one could have reasonably expected them to hit.
Felipe Alou hasn't helped himself by batting Bonds fourth for two seasons, particularly when he's using Marquis Grissom in the #3 slot. That's not Grissom's true level, but as long as he's there, why not get him behind Bonds and take advantage of his high slugging average? You want the OBP in front of the slugging, not behind it. The Giants have inferior talent being deployed inefficiently, and that's a recipe for Piratedom.
Fixing the batting order is just a patch, however. The real solution is for the Giants to acquire a .300 EqA hitter to join Bonds in the lineup, someone with power. (Feliz may be hitting .308 with a .538 slugging average at the moment, but I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that his 23-to-1 K/BB ratio indicates that won't hold. I'm a maniac that way.) I don't know how they'll do this, because not only do the Giants have a lousy major-league roster, they have basically no prospects who will attract that kind of player. They can't get into the Carlos Beltran sweepstakes with Todd Linden and Tony Torcato; they can't even make a decent offer for Carlos Lee or Carlos Pena. Merkin Valdez, their #1 prospect, has yet to throw a pitch this season, making it hard to trade him.
It's been a good run in San Francisco, but unless Sabean finds some greater fool to overpay for mediocre prospects and save his bacon, it's over.