Friday, June 22, 2012

Territorial Pissings - Previewing the Bay Bridge Series

Oh, how quickly things can change.It was only yesterday that I flipped on 95.7 The Game just in time to hear that Yoenis Cespedes walked off the Dodgers with a 3-run shot in the 9th inning to complete the sweep.  This was sweet news to my ears - after all, the Giants had all kinds of trouble getting anything going against the Angels, and they need all the help they can get trying to catch the Dodgers.Giants fans wake up today with a much different feeling.  As if all the "You're welcome, Giants fans" posts on social media weren't enough to grind gears, tonight is the first game of the final 3-game set between the two Bay Area squads and, quite frankly, this one feels like it has a little more juice than in years past.

Here's what I see

 A's fans are feeling mighty cocky after sweeping the Giants' interstate rivals, and as well they should be.  They did the Giants a favor and they looked good in the process.  They're also a little critical of the Giants, who pretty much got owned by the Angels this week and by the AL West as a whole in 2012.

Giants fans know that they need every win they can get their hands on if they're going to give the Dodgers a flat tire on the way to the playoff chow line.  It doesn't matter who they get the wins from, but hey - if they come from the Athletics, that's all the better.
Then there's the whole issue of territorial rights, something that probably pisses off the teams' respective ownership groups more than their respective fan bases.  Giants fans could probably care less one way or another where the A's play.  My guess is that most A's fans would rather not see their team moved to San Jose, in which case they're most likely rooting, not necessarily for the Giants ownership, but more against Lew Wolfe & Co.  Regardless of your feelings on the territorial battles, there's bound to be some added tension, as both teams are in conflict with one another - more so off the field than when they're actually playing.
The Giants took 2 out of 3 from the Athletics when they showed up at AT&T Park in May, which means that it's the A's turn to show what they got in their own digs.  Sitting 9 games behind the first place Texas Rangers, it's hard to imagine the A's roaring back to win the division.  But Oakland is only 2 games under .500, meaning they aren't just playing for bragging rights anymore (especially with the extra wild card now in place).  Should the A’s complete a sweep, they’ll pop out on the other side of this series with a winning record.
The Giants would be leading the NL West easily if it weren't for the high-flying Dodgers, so there's no mystery what's at stake for them.  There's no way to paint a June series as monstrous, but this one just FEELS more important.

Without further ado, here's what we're looking forward to

Tonight: Tim Lincecum vs. Jarrod Parker
7:05 PM
What to watch for: The fate of Tim Lincecum rests on this start tonight. With a ballooning ERA of 6.19 and confidence at an all time low, Major
League Baseball's eyes will be on the two time Cy Young winner.  Should he have another bad outing, manager Bruce Bochy may look to skip Lincecum's spot in the rotation, or worse.  It will be interesting to see how Timmy handles facing Yoenis Cespedes, the Cuban defector that has exceeded expectations for the Athletics this year.  The Giants avoided facing the A's most dangerous bat the first time around, but they won't be so lucky this time, as Cespedes is healthy and raking.  Will Timmy be able to bottle up Cespedes, or will we see a Paul Goldschmidt redux?

Saturday: Madison Bumgarner vs. Tyson Ross
4:15 PM
What to watch for:  Madison Bumgarner will look to build on a spectacular 2012 resume vs. a very unfamiliar A's offense.  Only three players in the Athletics' line up have faced Bumgarner in the past - Seth Smith (0-3), Brandon Inge (0-2), and Jonny Gomes, who is 1-5 - with that 1 being a 3-run homer.

Sunday: Matt Cain vs. Brandon McCarthy
1:05 PM
What to watch for: The A's will trot Brandon McCarthy and his 2.54 ERA (4th in the AL) out to the mound to take on Matt Cain in his second start since the perfecto.  Considering that neither team is really destroying the baseball right now, perhaps this is a good time to throw 100 bucks on the under and sit back, prepared to watch a pitcher's duel. Both McCarthy and Cain have been excellent in 2012 - there's no reason to think that it won't continue on Sunday.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Matt Cain - The perfect guy for perfection

It started with a guy flying a hydraulic jetpack over McCovey Cove and ended with a riot on the pitcher’s mound. What most of us thought was going to be another ho-hum Wednesday night match up with the Astros will without a doubt go down in the annals of San Francisco folklore.
Matt Cain pitched a perfect game - only the 22nd in MLB history and the first in the Giants 128-year existence.

Too much awesome

Cain's big day started out long before first pitch, as the US Open prompted an unusual pregame change of pace for the Giants' ace. Several hours before first pitch, in front of a gaggle of cameras and reporters, Cain, Rory McElroy and others turned AT&T Park into a driving range, launching golf balls from a tee at home plate into McCovey Cove. Cain took one swing - a beautiful one at that - and hit a shot that sailed further than any ball hit into the Cove since Barry Bonds still swung the sticks. I'd say that Cain should quit his day job and take up golf but, hey, he proved last night that he's a man of many talents.
The scene at AT&T Park only got better from there. At some point in the first inning, a guy flying a hydraulic jetpack emerged in McCovey Cove, turning the usually serene landscape of China Basin into a scene out of "The Avengers." This sight nearly melted Twitter in the Bay Area, but it would turn out to be an afterthought when all was said and done.

That wasn't the only afterthought of the night. What was also left in the dust of Matt Cain's perfection was the outburst of Giants offense in a home park that has been anything but kind to its hometown hitters. Melky Cabrera was 2-for-5 with a 2-run homer in the bottom of the first. Gregor Blanco was 2-for-5 with 3 RBIs and a homer. Pablo Sandoval was 3-for-4 with 2 RBIs, and the #FreeBelt movement pushed right along as Brandon hit his second home run in as many nights, finishing the evening 2-for-3 with 3 RBIs.

But offense-shmoffense. Let's talk about what really owned the evening.

Just how perfect was Matt Cain?

According to ESPN Stats and Info, Matt Cain pitched possibly the best perfect game ever. Cain's 14 strike outs tied Sandy Koufax for the most in the history of perfect games; it was also a career-high.  His game score, 101, tied Koufax for the highest in perfect game history (an average game score for a pitcher is around 50). His velocity increased as the game wore on, from 90 to around 94 in the later innings, and he struck out 11 of the 14 on fastballs. His command was immaculate all night, painting corners with his fastball and letting his curveballs tumble out of the zone gracefully all game long.

Getting high with a little help from his friends

It's been said that there is at least one amazing catch in every perfect game, and in Matt Cain's case that catch came from Gregor Blanco. It was the 7th inning when the Astros' Jordan Schafer scorched a ball to deep right-center. Everyone watching, Cain included, probably thought that it was the end of the perfect game bid, as the ball was quickly sailing to that no man's land on the warning track in between the range of Angel Pagan and Blanco. But the White Shark had enough fuel in his tank, and enough sense of the moment, to track it down in spectacular fashion, successfully wrangling a diving catch that will go down in history as one of the greatest grabs in San Francisco sports lore.
Blanco wasn't the only one to help out Cain Wednesday night. Melky Cabrera made a spectacular catch on a Chris Snyder ball that got crushed to the warning track in left field. And the Giants' infield, a group that's faced its hiccups over the course of the 2012 season, found a way to rise to the occasion as the game wore on and the mercury rose. We can't forget Buster Posey either, as he was the man who quarterbacked the perfecto. Posey, who said it was the most nervous he had ever been on a baseball field (and he caught the final out of the Giants 2010 World Series victory), somehow managed to find a rhythm with Cain and keep Houston batters off-kilter for 27 perfect outs. He may be the most underrated performer of the night.


Perhaps the most symbolic aspect of the night is that THIS was the game that turned Cain's career win-loss record into a winning 76-75. Cain got an anomalous 10 runs of support, but he wouldn't need a single one of them. With not just a team, but an entire city behind him, Cain rose to the occasion and showed the sporting world just what a special player he is. Because after all, Cain has always been a special player, but last night he was perfect.

Friday, June 8, 2012

San Francisco Giants - Pleasant (and important) 2012 surprises

We have almost reached the 60 game mark of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, and that means that by now we should be getting a better idea about how each team is composed.
Some teams are not difficult to judge - their lineups stay, for the most part, intact.  There isn't much shuffling in the batting order or the pitching staff, meaning that most fans know what they're going to get when they walk in the ballpark for Opening Day.
For Giants fans, who have seen their team go through more fung shway rearrangement than a college dorm room, this is not the case.  As the Texas Rangers come into town to gear up for a rematch of the 2010 World Series, it is more evident than ever that these are not the World Champions that we fell in love with two years ago.  Much has changed in the land of the orange and black, so at the 1/3rd mark of the season, they stand to be evaluated.  Let’s take a look at some of the players who have been not only pleasant surprises, but actually paramount pieces in the Giants’ success:

5.). Gregor Blanco
Are you ready for a right field rant?  Good, ‘cuz here goes: I have some kleenex ready for anybody still crying over the Giants letting Carlos Beltran walk.  Sure, Beltran has been tearing it up for the Cardinals, but make no mistake about it - things wouldn't have been the same if he stayed in San Francisco.  Asking him to stay in the oft-perceived pitcher friendly confines of AT&T Park would have meant much more money than what the Cardinals are paying for him.  They would have had to pay him top flight money, meaning that they would have needed to design an offense with him as the centerpiece. Beltran didn't want that kind of pressure.  He wouldn't have been happy here, and quite frankly, I'm not sure he was happy here after the Giants traded for him in 2011.
I digress.  A Beltran-less lineup left a big question mark in right field, and it's become clear that Nate Schierholtz isn't the answer.  Nate has a cult hero to some in my circle, what with his propensity for the clutch at bats and surprising power in the past.  But Schierholtz was more than underwhelming in Spring Training and just as lackluster when given opportunities early in the regular season.  He has been terminally inconsistent throughout his career, and that is poison for a Giants lineup that must click in order to score runs.
Gregor Blanco has been the remedy. Plugged into right field and the leadoff spot, he's provided an invaluable shot of energy to the team. His .288/.390/.468 (Batting Average/On Base Percentage/Slugging Percentage) clip rivals some of the best leadoff hitters in baseball right now, and he has flashed some unexpected power on top of it.

4.) Angel Pagan  
All credit due to Bochy here, who found a way to quiet some of his doubters by dealing Andres Torres to the Mets for Pagan.  I knew very little about Angel when he came to the team, and I expected even less.  If he could provide just a little more than what Torres brought to the Giants in 2011 I’d be happy.
He had a terrible Spring Training and an equally ugly start to the season, but Pagan has settled in nicely ever since, especially after moving out of leadoff and into the five hole.  He has now enjoyed 3 hitting streaks of 10 games or more, and he's batting at a .321/.358/.473 clip.  Probably overshadowed by the out of control season that Melky Cabrera has been enjoying, Pagan already has 72 hits on the season and isn't showing signs of slowing down.  Perhaps most important of all - Pagan seems to have become one of the more outspoken leaders in the clubhouse, bringing a consistency that Andres Torres failed to provide.

3.) Ryan Vogelsong
I heard Vogelsong described as possibly being the Andres Torres of the pitching staff during the off season, but at this point that couldn't be further from the truth.  Even with Vogelsong’s injury concerns early in the season, he has been every bit as lights out as the rest of the pitching staff.  Given Barry Zito's long documented history of getting shelled and Tim Lincecum's sudden frailties, it has been paramount for the Giants to have 3 solid starters in their bullpen.
Solid is really the only way to describe Vogelsong.  Through 10 games, he is 4-2 with a 2.38 ERA.  He's averaging 6.8 innings per start with a WHIP in line with 2011 (1.211, compared to 1.252 in 2011).  The Giants never needed Vogelsong to be spectacular, but he has far exceeded expectations up to this point.  Although it probably won’t end up happening, Vogelsong has been pitching well enough to deserve another look for the All Star Game.

2.) Barry Zito
You could call me a full-fledged Barry Zito fanboy at this point in time.  During the offseason I decided to spitball and explore the possibility of Zito making an Alex Smith-like comeback on Bay Area Sports Guy.  I had no idea that he would actually do it, and through 11 games he has far exceeded what I ever thought he was capable of doing.  He has already pitched more innings than he did in 2011 (66.1, compared to a total of 53.2 in 2011), and almost all of his numbers are better.

*Zito has pitched 12.2 more innings in 2012
**ERA+ refers to adjusted ERA.  It adjusts the pitcher’s ERA according to the pitcher’s ballpark and the ERA of the pitcher’s league.  An average ERA+ is 100, so obviously Zito was far below average in 2011, and is above average in 2012.
***WAR stands for Wins Against Replacement.  WAR represents how many more wins a player would earn a team versus a “replacement player.”  Obviously, Zito’s negative WAR in 2011 shows that he was actually contributing negatively to the Giants in 2011 (as if I needed to tell you that).  His positive WAR value in 2012 shows that he is contributing positively.
These numbers speak for themselves.  Again, given Lincecum’s struggles, Zito’s 2012 successes have been a huge bonus.  Whether or not this can continue for an entire season, we’ll find out.  But believe me, this Zito fanboy will be keeping a close eye on it.

1.) Melky Cabrera
I don’t think I need to explain myself much here.  If you’ve been watching the Giants at all then you know how invaluable Melky has been to the offense this season.  His 87 hits lead the majors and his .364 BA leads the NL.  His 2.6 WAR is 5th in the NL, his 7 triples are 1st in the NL and .934 OPS (On Base Percentage plus Slugging Percentage) is 10th in the NL.  His value is only compounded by how much weight he’s pulling on the team – his 58 games played and 258 plate appearances rank 2nd in the NL respectively. 
All this from a player whom the Giants acquired in a trade for Jonathan Sanchez, currently on the DL with an elbow injury for the Kansas City Royals.  Whatever your expectations for Melky were during Spring Training, hardly anyone could have foreseen him providing this kind of pop.  Sure, Melky has been on another planet, and they say that players’ statistics always progress back to the mean over the course of 162 games.  But if you’re a Giants fan, you have to be impressed and hoping that Mr. Cabrera never comes back down to earth.