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April 24, 2012

Western Front

Five Giant Themes

by Geoff Young

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Nady, Bochy, Belt
My wife and I drove from San Diego to Emeryville last weekend to make an appearance at the final stop on the BP2012 book tour. The event was a blast because, really, what beats hanging out with friends, talking about baseball? Watching a game, I suppose. Or playing. If we'd had people sign waivers, maybe we could have gotten a wiffle ball game going. But probably not.

I had prepared trivia questions in case we ran out of things to discuss. We didn't, but since I've already written the questions, here are their answers. They all have a Bay Area theme:

  1. Bob Lacey, with 6.
  2. Ron Kline, Pittsburgh Pirates.
  3. Four. (I'll give you this one. The question was, “In 1984, the year before he came to Oakland, Alfredo Griffin had 442 plate appearances for the Blue Jays. How many walks did he draw?)
  4. Jim Davenport, with 1,126.
  5. Brett Butler grounded to second baseman Tony Phillips against Dennis Eckersley.

Maybe you know the questions that accompany some of these answers? Don't be shy.

Anyway, instead of trivia, we discussed many interesting topics. How does the Japanese strike zone translate to Major League Baseball's strike zone? What impact does a pitching coach have on a team? Will teams ever expand to a 26-man roster to accommodate the current tendency to use more pitchers?

I didn't know the answer to any of these and mostly stumbled when attempting to respond. But one question I had a strong opinion on concerned Bruce Bochy's handling of Brandon Belt.

In a pre-season Lineup Card, Belt was my choice for breakout player in 2012. I did, however, express concerns that Bochy might not let it happen. That blurb alluded to his mistrust of young position players since being force-fed George Arias at third base and Ruben Rivera in center field following the departures of Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley after the 1998 World Series.

When Bochy still managed the Padres, I compiled a list of young hitters who played under him. This was before Adrian Gonzalez (who was ticketed for Triple-A in 2006 and got the call only because of a Ryan Klesko injury in spring training), but the names are less than inspiring. The most successful among them were Brad Ausmus and Khalil Greene.

The point of my diatribe back in 2005 was to bemoan the fact that Bochy wouldn't play a promising young hitter who had enjoyed a terrific collegiate career at Cal. His name was Xavier Nady, and he slipped to the second round of the 2000 draft due to signability concerns, aka Scott Boras.

Nady has played nearly 900 big-league games, but he never—aside from a brilliant 2008 campaign—developed into the player folks thought he might become. Baseball America though highly of Nady as a prospect, ranking him 82nd, 39th, and 44th in 2001, 2002, and 2003, respectively. We liked him as well, noting in BP2005 that “In a park that favors right-handed pull hitters, Nady could be a much cheaper replacement for Klesko in left, minus some OBP, plus ample defense and power.”

I told a slightly less accurate version of this story in Emeryville, but in 2005, when the Padres were trying to win the NL West, they had no third baseman. Sean Burroughs, in his final stab at baseball before he went all Hunter S. Thompson on the world, started the year there. Geoff Blum (like Nady, a Cal alum) saw time at the hot corner as well, but he's... you know, Geoff Blum. Nady, who played third base in college, got into three games (including two starts) at the position toward the end of April and beginning of May. He did OK, but Bochy didn't feel comfortable with the arrangement because Nady hadn't played the position in several years. The solution, of course, was to trade for the eminently mediocre Joe Randa in July.

The next year, Bochy began the year with Vinny Castilla at third base. After Castilla proved that he no longer belonged in the big leagues, a cavalcade of equally useless veterans manned the position. Eventually the Padres traded for Todd Walker, who hadn't played third in nearly nine years. Walker's bat proved to be an asset, but his arm... well, it kept Gonzalez in shape over at first base.

The point is that Bochy's reason for not playing Nady at third base was lack of experience. And this same reason did not apply to the veteran Walker because... we don't really know why.

Also, Nady's hometown is Salinas, where we stopped for gas en route to Emeryville. More trivia, but you never would have gotten this one, so I am telling you.

Freakish Firsts
April is the most dangerous time of the year. Small samples abound. We have numbers but little idea of what to do with them. As I noted on Twitter, that bastion of wisdom, “Staring at data, most of it noise. Which is pretty much my job description.” It's the sort of thing that sounds pithy, in a Twitter kind of way. Pithy Twitter. Say that 10 times fast.

What I was thinking of specifically was Tim Lincecum's poor start. I watched a few innings of his game against Roy Halladay and the Phillies, who scored four runs against Lincecum in the first. Some of this was due to shoddy defense (Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera had troubles in the outfield, while Brandon Crawford scuffled at shortstop), but four runs is four runs. In fact, that's as many as Lincecum allowed in the first inning of all 32 of his starts over the entire 2009 season.

So I looked at that. Here is how Lincecum has fared in the first inning of games throughout his career:

Year

G

PA

R

BA

OBP

SLG

2007

24

97

10

.190

.268

.274

2008

33

134

6

.230

.293

.311

2009

32

117

4

.132

.205

.179

2010

33

138

16

.197

.285

.377

2011

33

138

8

.218

.309

.294

2012

3

19

9

.471

.526

1.059

This is interesting, but so is the fact that Alfredo Griffin drew four walks in 1984. Relevant? I don't know, maybe. Lincecum is getting hit hard in the first inning, which you can see for yourself. There should be a “why” behind the “what,” but 19 plate appearances? It could just be one of those freakish (you see what I did there) coincidences that won't look like much come season's end.

How about his second innings:

Year

G

PA

R

BA

OBP

SLG

2007

24

97

9

.207

.289

.253

2008

33

127

8

.175

.260

.307

2009

32

127

10

.186

.276

.292

2010

33

140

15

.227

.316

.319

2011

33

122

5

.143

.262

.257

2012

3

12

1

.182

.182

.273

Nope; nothing here, either. Nor in the fact that he got abused to the tune of .337/.406/.630 in the fourth inning of games in 2007.

Numbers are so cold. They don't care about my deadline.

From “Barry Zito Blues”
To Jack Kerouac, with sincere apologies and affection...

1st Chorus
I see the backs
Of old Men rolling
Slowly into ball
Parks.

11th Chorus
   There's no telling
What's on the mind
Of the gawky
   Southpaw in brown
Jersey & cleats
   Carrying ball
   Stalking & bouncing
      Slowly to his job

27th Chorus
Barry Zito
Barry Zito
You're a muttering bum
   In a brown uniform
   Cant throw a fastball
   On the outside corner

46th Chorus
Line drives born screaming
      in this town
Are miserable examples
      of what happens
Everywhere.

75th Chorus*
Barry Zito
Barry Zito
Rockies muttering, ain't no bum
   Shutout at Coors Field
   His first since April '03
   Game Score of 83

*The actual 75th Chorus concerns insanity and eyebrows and hills and such. Zito deserves a better chorus to honor the number on his back, so this will serve in its place.

Kerouac himself was a closet baseball junkie, playing and documenting fantasy games that featured such fabricated teams as the Pittsburgh Plymouths and fabricated players as Warby Pepper. After his death in 1969, Kerouac played left field for the Dharma Beats of the Cosmic Baseball Association, alongside fellow Bay Area stalwarts Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, and Gary Snyder. Kerouac, “a strong but inconsistent power hitter,” launched 25 home runs in 1996.

He still plays for the Beats, wearing uniform number 1297. And although statistics are difficult to find, Kerouac hit .315 with 41 homers and a league-leading 180 RBI for the 2009 squad that went 104-58. The Beats are 17-13 this year (through April 15), but if stats are available, it is not immediately obvious where they exist... which is perfect, really.

Cain and Lee
Matt Cain and Cliff Lee trade zeroes on Wednesday evening. Both pitchers are dealing, to use the vernacular. Cain overpowers, while Lee hits spots like few men can. They combine to work 19 scoreless innings, throwing 193 pitches in the process.

I tune out after Cain flies to Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino to begin the bottom of the sixth. Victorino starts back on the ball, veers to his left, then comes in at the last moment to make the catch at his shoetops. It's an easy out made difficult by a curious read.

The decision to stop watching isn't mine. The computer starts making desperate clicking noises and then blue-screens, which is awesome in its way because I haven't seen that in a while. It reminds me of dialing into a BBS on a 300-baud external modem and walking uphill both ways to school in the snow. (Never mind that I grew up in Los Angeles and wouldn't know snow if it fell on me.)

“Dude,” you say—and it is understood that you don't actually utter the term “dude”; its usage here is intended to convey the familiarity between us, and nothing more—“Dude, your computer crashed during an epic [and “epic” is another term you don't actually utter] pitcher's duel? That's terrible!”

“Thanks for your concern,” I reply, “but it was my wife's computer.”

Krukow and Grant
Meanwhile, I had been enjoying the voice of Jon Miller, who is one of the few broadcasters I will listen to just to hear him talk. (Vin Scully used to read me bedtime stories over the radio, so duh.) And Miller's cohort is also good, if a bit distracting for his uncanny vocal resemblance to Mark Grant, who calls games for the Padres.

The voice, Twitter informs me, belongs to former big-league pitcher Mike Krukow. Furthermore, according to Otis Anderson of Bay City Ball fame, Krukow and Grant were teammates in 1987. Trusting but verifying, I confirm that both played for the Giants that year. In fact, they both pitched in the same game on May 20 and again on May 25, when Grant worked in relief of Krukow.

The former was Krukow's first start after he'd decided to cancel a daily radio show that had become “a distraction.” As he said at the time, “I owe all my energies to getting back on track.”

Although it didn't work right away, Krukow finished the season strong:

Epoch

Dates

GS

IP

ERA

BA

OBP

SLG

Radio

4/6 – 5/15

8

49.1

5.11

.299

.336

.485

Post-Radio

5/20 – 7/9

8

35.0

8.49

.381

.426

.619

Finish

7/19 – 10/3

12

78.2

2.97

.233

.285

.370

He had a future in media, just not while he was still trying to pitch.

Krukow attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (another stop on our way to Emeryville), which also produced former Giants right-hander Kevin Correia, Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, Hall of Fame football coach John Madden, and musician “Weird Al” Yankovic. Before his broadcasting career began, Krukow figured he'd return to the Central Coast and get into the restaurant business, but life had other plans for him.

Anyway, the Giants went 90-72 in 1987 (when Krukow and Grant—two guys who sound alike, in case you'd forgotten—were teammates), leading Bill James to make the following bold statement in his 1988 Baseball Abstract:

Every spring, a few dozen people will ask me who I think will win the World Championship. I've always ducked the question. I've always said that it was too tough to even speculate about that before the division titles are decided. This spring, I'm not going to duck it. I'm going to tell anybody who asks that I think the Giants are going to win it all.

History tells a different story, with San Francisco slipping to 83-79 and fourth place in the NL West. The Giants reached the World Series a year later, getting swept by the team across the bay (and if you're paying close attention, or even still awake, you may note that this fact is relevant to something mentioned several hundred words ago). Meanwhile, the hated Dodgers won it all in 1988, which I bring up not to irritate Bay Area residents but because of what James said earlier in his essay on the Giants that year:

The Los Angeles Dodgers, longtime rivals of the Giants, have developed a reputation as baseball's wimp team, a bunch of guys who get hurt a lot, don't play hard and don't seem to care whether they win or lose.

This lack of toughness is part of why the Dodgers signed free agent Kirk Gibson before the '88 season. And by the end of the first game of the World Series, nobody would question their toughness again.

Meanwhile, one wonders (or probably it's just me) what the Giants might have accomplished had they stuck Kerouac in left field rather than Mike Aldrete. Alas, this will have to remain one of life's great unanswerable questions, right there with “Is the self identical with the body?” and “Who would win a race between a pineapple and a rabbit?”

* * *

Sometimes it is possible to examine a variety of disparate ideas and meld them into a cohesive whole. Other times, you just end up with eggs, flour, and vodka all over everything. The conclusion is left as an exercise for the reader.

11 comments have been left for this article.

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