Category: Sports

Giants Bullpen Gains Some Seasoning, But…

Just as Spring Training opened yesterday for the Giants in Scottsdale, the team announced the signing of relief pitcher David Hernandez, late of the D-Backs, to a one-year minor league contract.

Action shot of Giants' Reliever David Hernandez

Giants’ Reliever David Hernandez

Hernandez, who will turn 32 in May, is a borderline pitcher with only four years in the majors in a career that spans 10 years of bouncing around between the minors and the Big League. His career stats are not great. His FIP is 4.35, which is just a skosh below horrible, while his WHIP is a pretty respectable 1.34.

But — and here’s the real rub — this is another guy in the Giants’ pen who has had recent Tommy John surgery. In fact, he sat out all of 2014 with the problem and had a really mediocre 2015 season (4.74 FIP, 1.31 WHIP), then last season as a Phillie he maintained is dismal FIP (4.32) while slightly seeing his WHIP dip to 1.50.

So what does that mean? What can we surmise about a guy whose WHIP is consistently solid but whose FIP is pretty awful? Good question. I’m off studying it right now. Watch for a coming-soon post on this that will include a rundown of the Giants’ likely pitching lineup.

Go, Giants!

Pitchers & Catchers Report! Spring Training Starts! Now, About that Bullpen…

San Francisco Giants LogoHip, hip, hooray! Spring Training 2017 officially started today for the San Francisco Giants, with pitchers and catchers reporting to Scottsdale and slated for their first workouts tomorrow.

Spring Training games begin Feb. 24 for the G-Men.

Okay, enough celebrating already! What’s up with the bullpen this year?

Unarguably the Giants’ main Achilles’ Heel last season, the bullpen is going to have a pretty new look this time around. Two veterans — Sergio (Don’t-Ask-Him-To-Close) Romo and Santiago (Who Me?) Casilla —  have moved on to greener (or at least other) pastures and a third regular from 2016, Javier Lopez, has retired. He’ll be given a trial as a broadcaster in the KNBR booth for several games, filling in for Mike Krukow, who’s apparently having some health challenges. (Read more here.)

Manager Bruce Bochy likes to keep 12 pitchers on the roster and the starting five is pretty well set, so the focus now turns to the relief corps. It appears that Bochy is likely to stay with four of his most regular relievers from last season – George Kontos, Derek Law, Will Smith and Hunter Strickland. Plus there’s the exciting new addition, Mark Melancon. Here’s my first take on who to keep an eye on as good prospects to make the remainder of the 25-man roster (with a tip of the hat to Michael Saltzman over at Fansided for his good first pass at the entire crew in camp).

(As you read this piece, you’ll see that I rely heavily on two stats to evaluate pitching talent: WHIP (walks + hits per inning pitched) and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). That second one may be new to you. It’s a relatively new development in Sabermetrics (the scientific/mathematics of baseball in which I am renewing my knowledge and passion this season). It is designed to measure the effectiveness of a pitcher without the influence of defensive brilliance or ugliness. The league average for FIP last year, e.g., was 3.8, so anything less than that is good and anything above 4.7 is terrible. If you want to know more about FIP, all the gory details are at my favorite Sabermetrics site.)

Mark Melancon, New Closer

Of course, the big bullpen news of the off-season was the successful recruitment of Mark Melancon (pronounced muh-LAN-son), a 31-year-old, 10-year veteran major leaguer with a proven track record as a closer. He features a well-above-average cutter and a nasty curve and he has great stats for keeping the ball on the ground and therefore avoiding big innings. The Giants paid this guy an apparent record for a reliever contract: $62 million over four years. There’s a 40-60 probability that this will be a good long-term deal. The guy is over 30 and his velocity can only decline as his arm ages. But his career averages of 2.79 FIP and 1.04 FIP combined with a respectable 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio make him a decent bet. He’d better be better than good, though, or the Giants’ fans are going to take him to task for taking so much of their money. (Yeah, it’s our money, Mr. Baer!)

One of the most likely to make the roster in my view is Cory Gearrin. Not only are his pitching stats respectable, the guy doubles as a left-fielder! There was a point last year when Bochy brought in a pitcher to take over for Gearrin, sent him to left field, let the new pitcher (Lopez) come in to get one guy out (he walked the dude), and then moved Gearrin back to the mound. (See the video here.) For a guy with a strategic mind like Bochy, Gearrin’s going to be difficult to release. Last year, he succeeded in 19 of 23 save attempts and had a very strong WHIP of 1.16, a career best, and a FIP of 3.29, well under the league average.

Steven Okert  was on the roster last season for the Giants, making 16 appearances, over the course of which he compiled an average 3.16 FIP and a similarly average WHIP of 1.29. Okert started his career in 2007 and had a sterling start but was plagued by injuries early on. Still, he looked decent during the G-Men’s final run in 2016 and probably has banked a certain amount of cred with Bochy as a result.

A guy I like a good bit but who is on the cusp because of off-season knee surgery is Josh Osich. He had an amazing 2015 season but injuries kept him from being at his full potential last season. He had a better-than-average WHIP of 1.376, but his FIP was abysmal at 6.09. I suspect he’ll make the 25-man roster cut but he’ll have one foot out the door until Bochy gets a decent look at how his surgery worked.

Before he was injured while a Cubbie in 2014, Neil Ramirez had a pretty good career going. And statistically, he looks to have recovered nicely from that injury. So I’m making him one of my long shots to make the final roster. Over his eight-year career in the majors (with three teams until last year when he was traded twice), he’s built a respectable FIP of 4.21 and a solid WHIP of 1.27. I just have a gut feeling about this guy; I like his attitude and I think that under the masterful tutelage of the best pitching coach in baseball, Dave Righetti, he could well flourish.

Matt Reynolds will likely make the cut even though he’s not quite even an average MLB pitcher. Last season with the Giants, he had a whopping FIP of 4.65 and an equally horrible WHIP of 2.00. So why do I think he makes the cut? Two reasons: first, the field is pretty thin (yeah, not great news), and Reynolds’ record with the Rockies and the Diamondbacks was a good bit better than he showed the Giants in 2016. So they may see hope for the future. Plus, he has good knowledge of NL West hitters.

A possible dark horse to make the cut is Kraig Sitton. You’ve likely never heard of him; he’s been in the minors now for six seasons and, at 28, he’s probably getting nearly his last shot at the Show. But for the Mariners’ AAA club last year, he did a good job, racking up a 1.14 WHIP and an FIP of 3.58, both of which put him in the above-average category.

So if we assume that George Kontos, Derek Law, Mark Melancon, Will Smith and Hunter Strickland all have cinched jobs, and if Boch goes with a 12-man pitching roster this year, this list is my tentative prediction for who makes the final 25-man roster. Interestingly, this gives the team an exact 50-50 split of lefties vs righties. I’m not sure that’s good in MLB today but that’s how it works out here.

Of course, as Spring Training develops, I’ll be keeping a really close eye on these guys and reporting back my revised thinking as real life intrudes on the fantasy of statistical projection.

I hope you like my stat-oriented stories this year. I’m back!

Giants’ 2017 Starting Rotation Isn’t as Solid as it Looks

As the start of Spring Training draws ever nearer, however slowly it seems, talk around the Hot Stove frequently turns to the Giants and their formidable-seeming starting rotation. No doubt that, statistically, the Orange-and-Black have an impressive row of starters that matches up well with any other team in baseball.

But if you scratch just below the surface you find potential flaws that could become yawning canyons into which the team could stumble, fall and not recover. Here’s my take.

Madison “Mad Bum” Bumgarner

No doubt the ace and lead starter of the crew, Madison “Mad Bum” Bumgarner, is everything he’s cracked up to be…and more. At the age of 27, this guy is just entering his prime and he’s already peeking around the curtain of the Holy of Holies within which reside the Greatest Pitchers of All Time. Bumgarner finished his fourth consecutive season with an earned run average under 3.00 with career highs in innings pitched (226 2/3) and strikeouts (251) last year. There doesn’t appear to be a flaw in this guy.

Johnny Cueto

Number 2 in the rotation, Johnny Cueto was a big surprise to most fans and sportswriters last season. Cueto went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA, a 1.09 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and 198 strikeouts in 219 2/3 innings. He also threw a career-high five complete games. So he should have a great 2017, right? Ah, but the fly in this particular ointment is is age: Cueto is 31 years old and, over the course of his 9-year career (8-1/2 with the Reds), he threw a huge number of innings (1,421 to be exact). How much more his arm has in it is a big question mark. Pitchers  hit their strides in the 26-28-year-old time frame and many are washed up by the time they’re 31.

Jeff Samardzija

At the third spot in the rotation is another 30-plus-year-old arm, hung on the lanky frame of one Jeff Samardzija, who’s 32. Over his nine-year career, he has thrown just 1,195 innings, more than 200 fewer than Cueto, so his arm probably isn’t quite as tired, but he’s clearly no spring chicken. Both he and Samardzija could go down with age-related injuries any time — or multiple times — this season. In his case, Samardzija would take with him a 2016 record of 12-11 with a 3.81 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP and 167 strikeouts in 203 1/3 innings. Not terribly impressive, but only a bit below par.

Matt Moore

The fourth starter, Matt Moore, like Mad Bum is 27 years old and he seems to have an immense talent. Last season’s record doesn’t really tell the whole story because it was his first year back after having Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm. A mid-season acquisition in 2016, Moore wound up with a 4.08 ERA, which is pretty weak for a guy who in 2013 was the AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was a mediocre 2.16 and he showed flashes of poor control. But he doesn’t give up the long ball (0.9 homers per 9 innings last year). I’d say he’s a bit of a gamble. He could go either way, either returning in his prime fully recovered from the surgery and taking off like a rocket or fizzling and crashing into McCovey Cove.

Matt Cain

The final spot in the rotation belongs to Matt (OMG!) Cain, he of the 5.64 2016 ERA. (That wasn’t a fluke; remember his 2015 ERA was 5.79!) In nine full seasons with the Giants, Cain has thrown 1,961 innings, so his arm is probably more fatigued than Samardzija’s. Cain is also 32 years old (see above) and he’s not likely to get a lot of support and encouragement from fans unless he explodes out the gate, which is a tough assignment for a fifth starter. If Cain doesn’t cut it in Spring Training, the likely guy to replace him is the young, rocket-armed Ty Blach, who excited fans in the penultimate game of 2016 when he threw an eight-inning shutout at the Dodgers. He only pitched 17 innings but he had an impressive 1.06 ERA and he impressed a lot of folks. (Of course, you have to

Ty Blach

take into account a lot of factors: late in the season, first time seeing him throw at you, etc.) Still, the 26-year-old rookie seems ready, and if Cain falters, he could become a player.

So let’s review. The top of the rotation is solid. The next three guys are two tired-out 30-plus-year-olds and a guy coming off Tommy John surgery who wasn’t too impressive. And there’s the once-fabled Matt Cain.

Tell me again why this is one of the best starting rotations in the league?

Niners’ Lynch’s First Hire Gives Me Hope

When the 49ers announced they’d hired rookie front-office guy John Lynch as their new general manager recently, I took a jaundiced view. The team, I said, is about to enter a rebuilding period that will likely last 3-5 seasons. What they needed in the front office was a guy with some real football savvy, particularly when it comes to evaluating talent. Lynch has no track record in that department at all, so I said I didn’t believe his hiring was a good move, particularly since Jed York, the Niners’ owner, gave the guy a six-year deal.

Now Lynch may have begun proving me — and many other equally skeptical fans and observers — wrong. In his first hire, he recruited Denver Bronco director of college scouting Adam Peters to be the team’s new VP of Player Personnel. In that role, presumably, Peters will have significant input into draft, trade, recruiting and roster decisions. If so, this guy’s credentials and track record suggest he might be just what Lynch needs to shore up one of the new GM’s most glaring weaknesses: an unfamiliarity with NFL rosters and upcoming collegiate players.

I don’t think Peters’ hiring accelerates the Niners’ rebuilding schedule, but it might bring a new degree of sanity and logic to the table, which can only be a good thing when you have a numbskull like York at the top of the pyramid.

 

The Great Tom Brady Resurrection of 2017

Wow.

Midway through the third quarter of yesterday’s Super Bowl LI, I turned to my wife and said, “This one’s in the bag.” The Falcons were up by 25 points (28-3), the Patriots had been looking like crotchety old men stumbling around an unfamiliar country, and, after all, no team in Super Bowl history had ever come back from a deficit of more than 10 points to win the game.

tom-bradyAnd then it happened. The Great Tom Brady Resurrection of 2017. In something like 23 minutes of clock time, he had led his Patriots to a 28-28 tie. Un-freaking-believable. Superlatives fail me.

Can there now be any doubt in anyone’s mind that Tom Brady is the greatest NFL quarterback of all time? It’s not just the numbers, either, though they are impressive. It’s the heart, the confidence, the sheer guts of the guy. A season that started with a four-game suspension as a result of one of the silliest controversies in pro sports history, ended with the Brady Bunch winning a Super Bowl that broke so many records it would take a longer column than this to list and explain them.

You can hate the NFL overtime rule (I do) and prefer the college game’s way of determining winners in tie games (I do), but you can’t take anything away from the Patriots.

kyle-shanahan-falconsOr, for that matter, from the Falcons and QB Matt Ryan and offensive-coordinator-soon-to-be-Niners-Head-Coach Kyle Shanahan. They put together an awesome game plan that had the New England D on its heels most of the evening. Ryan was near-perfect at reading the Patriots’ backfield and schemes. His accuracy was astonishing and his awareness of the field nothing short of superb. On any other field against any other team with any other QB, he’d have waltzed to victory.

But not this time. Not with the Great Superhero Quarterback of All Time calling signals for the other guys.

I wasn’t entirely happy with the result but I have to say: this was one of the best Super Bowls of all time.

(BTW, interesting betting sideline. The over/under for the game — which is a bet based on the total scoring output of both teams — was 56-½, an absurdly high number that certainly looked dead in the water in the third quarter. But the final total was 62 so those folks who took the over made out like bandits.)

Great game, Patriots! And, Mr. Brady, what more can be said about you?

Wow.

“One of the Most Bizarre Hirings in NFL History”: Niners Bring in Rookie GM

In what Matt Barbato of all22.com called, quite correctly, “one of the most bizarre hirings in NFL history,” the San Francisco 49ers just hired a former player with zero front office experience to be their new general manager.

This is almost a stunning to football fans in general and to Niners’ loyalists in particular as Trump’s upset of Hillary in November 2016.

New 49ers Rookie GM, John Lynch

New 49ers Rookie GM, John Lynch

ESPN’s Adam Schefter earlier reported that former All-Pro linebacker John Lynch got the job at the urging of the presumptive (and apparently presumptuous) new, as-yet-unnamed head coach Kyle Shanahan.

As Barbato summarized the story: “Lynch woke up one day and thought it’d be a good idea if he became San Francisco’s GM, even though he has no front office experience. The FOX NFL commentator called a head coach who hasn’t been hired yet to pitch him the idea. Now, the nine-time Pro Bowl safety is the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers.”

Yup.

New 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan

New 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan

The Niners had three veteran front-office people in their sights for the GM position, created at the end of the 2016 season, any of whom would have been a more intelligent, predictable, safe pick for the post. But from the beginning CEO Jed York (the guy really ought to be replaced but, of course, can’t be) had emphasized he was looking to fill those two positions with guys who were sympatico. So if Lynch (who has been publicly critical of Shanahan’s “arrogance” by the way, although in the next breath he said he’d “hire that buy in a minute”) pushed hard on Shanahan and the new head-coach-in-waiting-for-the-Super-Bowl-to-be-over pressured York, then there’s at least a glimmer of comprehension for the selection.

But that’s pushing it.

I was sort of hoping maybe York would give Lynch a short leash. Like a 90-day trial period? Wrong again! Just like the Donald, this series of surprises just keeps coming. The contract is for a nearly unprecedented six years! WTF?

This ought to be fun. A rebuilding period calls for front-office savvy which the Niners now lack in spades.

Yeesh.

Is the “New Colin” a Ray of Hope for Niners?

The murkiness of the 49ers’ quarterbacking situation for 2016 gained a little illumination this week from an unlikely source.

According to press reports, last season’s starter, Colin Kaepernick, conducted an unusually long and entirely upbeat press conference as part of the on-going minicamp. Beat reporters were astonished. Last year, Kaepernick was sullen, private, and curt in his interactions with the press. So this is quite a change!

SF quarterback Colin Kaepernick

49ers QB Colin Kaepernick

During the exchange, Kaepernick made several positive comments about the new Niners’ head coach, Chip Kelly, and the two coaches primarily responsible for dealing with the quarterbacks as well. He says he’s looking forward to the 2016 season and to making a major contribution to the team. When asked about the trade rumors that swirled around him during the off-season, Kaepernick said, “What trade rumors?”

This may be an aberration. He’s not one of the more outgoing guys in the NFL. And he’s of course highly motivated at this point to ingratiate himself again with the team that treated him so disrespectfully in 2015, albeit not without some justification.

Assuming it’s not an aberration, however, this has to be a delightful development to Niners fans, even though it probably doesn’t signal a major improvement in their prospects for the upcoming season. I, for one, am sure I will enjoy the team under his leadership far more than I ever would with the mediocre and unexciting Blaine Gabbert at the helm.

Go Niners?

Niners Appear Ready to Screw Up Yet Another QB

It feels like about time that I cast a jaundiced eye in the direction of the San Francisco 49ers once again. And in the current state of things, that means essentially kibitzing about the quarterback situation.

kaep_running_towardUnless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware that one-time potential superstar Colin Kaepernick had a rough season last year. Halfway through the campaign, he was replaced by a seriously mediocre Blaine Gabbert and during the off-season he has undergone shoulder surgery, rendering his future with the team more than somewhat questionable. On top of that, the Niners have hired a new head coach in Chip Kelly, whose offensive mindset is very much aligned with Colin’s strengths. Say what you will about Kap, he is among the top two or three quarterbacks in the NFL, when evaluated based on athleticism. His arm is a cannon. His legs are like helicopter blades. In general he fits very well into the kind of spread offense Kelly has always championed.

So it would seem a good fit. The problem is, Kap appears to be in a bit of a bad mood. Several weeks ago, it was widely reported that he had demanded to be traded, was no longer interested in being in San Francisco, and was just unhappy. For a short time, it seemed like the Denver Broncos might give him a new home, one in which he would also have been well-suited to the head coach’s offensive strategies. But the Broncos were unwilling to part with anything higher than a mid-level draft choice, which the Niners apparently concluded wasn’t sufficient compensation. So an April 1 deadline which resulted in the QB’s receiving close to $12 million in guaranteed payments, came and went.

Speculation then became rampant that the Niners would draft a quarterback in the college draft. They did not. Which seemed to indicate, at least to some of us, that they were in fact going to be happy with Kap at least for the 2015 season.

Apparently not.

Today, it appears that, whether or not Kap returns as the starter or rides the bench in the second or third position, the team wants to place its future bets on Gabbert. Which, to me, means that they are taking seriously the clear truth that they are going to be in rebuilding mode for the next two or three seasons. Gabbert is not the kind of guy you build a playoff contender around. It’s not even clear he’s a decent day-to-day quarterback in the NFL.

Interestingly, former superstar quarterback Joe Montana, in a recent interview, suggested that the potential for breaking this logjam lies with Kap himself. According to him, Colin is a quiet guy who does not communicate much with his fellow players or with the coaching staff and management. This sense of isolation makes it difficult for him to overcome any obstacles or disagreements or disappointments that may arise between him and other parts of the organization. So it might be argued that the situation is entirely in Kap’s control. Get an attitude adjustment, open up to your fellow players and your coaches, and pitch in to build a decent season for a rebuilding team.

Call me a pessimist, but I’m not inclined to believe that that scenario has any likelihood of happening. Rather, I fully expect the Niners will blindly ignore a man who is easily the best quarterback on the roster in the interest of protecting the egos of those in the front office who have consistently in recent years demonstrated their impatience with anyone who doesn’t conform to their ring-kissing demands. This can only serve to prolong the rebuilding time for the team.

The best possible outcome I see for 2015 would be for the Niners simply to cut Kap and let him find a new home where his athleticism will be appreciated and where his skills fit the offensive scheme. Short of that, this season could ruin the career of otherwise perfectly capable signal-caller who deserves much better.

Injuries Starting to Pop Up for G-Men

It could be — and has been — argued that the Giants’ failure to repeat their World Series title in 2015 was at least in large part attributable to key injuries. Certainly the team had more than its share of downtime among its starters, particularly during the stretch run.

It may be too early to begin to worry, but at this point they have three starters on the DL. Pitchers George Kontos and Sergio Romo are both on the 15-day list but should be back within a week. Outfielder Angel Pagan is out 4-5 games but is available to pinch-hit as of tonight and second-sacker Joe Panik is also listed day-to-day with a groin injury. Meanwhile, backup Ehire Adrianza is on the 60-day DL with a broken left foot.

Pagan and Panik are the biggest losses in this mix although Romo was counted on to be somethng special. He does have a great ERA of 0.60 but he’s only managed 3-1/3 innings.