Midseason--at the All Star Break--is a traditional time to take stock of the progress of the home team, to estimate possible outcomes, and record surprises and confirmations.
My last post about the Giants, on May 12, found them at 18-13 [.722]. Since then, they've gone 29-28, in effect losing five games off their pace, and dropping down two places in the standings of the NL West, behind the Pads, Rockies and Dodgers. In late June they went into a nose-dive, and had a disastrous streak in which they lost six games in a row.
What's gone right and what's gone wrong? Well, for one thing, the pitching has come back down to earth. On May 12th, Lincecum, Zito and Cain were all cruising along with ERA's hovering around 2.00. Sanchez wasn't far behind, though somewhat uneven in his separate appearances. People were beginning to say that Zito had finally panned out, following three very mediocre seasons after coming over from the A's with a big multi-year contract. Cain was looking like the solid 2nd or 3rd man in the rotation, the kind of pitcher who eats up innings and is good for 15 wins, year in, year out. Lincecum, though occasionally a little off, was still striking out lots of batters. Wellemeyer was getting bombed, but fifth starters usually are. The bull-pen was treading water, but that starting pitching!...it seemed enough to carry us through, even if the offense was lagging.
Batting-wise, the team looked a little lopsided, with Freddy Sanchez and Renteria on the disabled list, DeRosa about to go on it, Sandoval uncharacteristically not hitting, and Rowand and Molina in numb patches as well. Uribe and Torres were the only good things happening. Fans wanted Posey brought up and put in the line-up, and there was real competition at first base, where Sandoval, Huff, Ishikawa and Posey all needed to play. Something had to give--someone had to go.
And that someone was Bengie Molina. Despite Molina's experience and skills at handling pitchers, he'd become a liability in the line-up, hitting into double-plays and striking out with men on base, and letting through more passed-balls than he had a license to. Posey was ready, and management knew it. Bengie was traded to the Texas Rangers at the beginning of July for a reliever, Chris Ray, and a minor league player.
Almost immediately, Posey stepped in and took charge, hitting well over .300, and looking like a star in nearly every at bat. Meanwhile, Aubrey Huff, a between-season free agent acquisition who promised some power numbers, began hitting; Freddy Sanchez came back from the DL and hit the ground running, and Pat Burrell (signed on May 29th) stepped right up and began to show some power too.
During the flat streak the second half of June, both the pitching and the hitting went South, with Lincecum, Zito and Cain all taking some beatings, and Sanchez persistently unpredictable as well. The middle relief of Romo, Mota, Affeldt, Runzler, Casilla, and Bautista became suddenly wild and crazy too, and only Brian Wilson--our all star closer--seemed capable of sustained concentration and poise.
After losing three of four to Colorado at the start of the just-completed 11-game road trip, things looked really bleak. But after sweeping the struggling Brewers four straight, and taking two of three from the Nationals, we're breathing a little easier once again, albeit with a number of big question-marks still hovering in the air. Lincecum and Wilson are off to Anaheim for the National League. DeRosa's season (and maybe his career) looks to be over. Runzler will be gone for 6 weeks (at least), but elsewise, the team appears healthy.
Posey's been a revelation, hitting in the clutch, and for power, and it may not even be out of the question to propose him as a valid candidate for RoY honors. At the very least, he'll make people forget about Molina in a nano-second.
Sandoval remains a mystery. His right-handed numbers are frighteningly low, and his overall approach--swinging at anything close, and often connecting--seems not to be working this year. Either opposing pitchers have figured him out, or maybe he's just a little too overweight, or perhaps (as has been rumored) has some kind of eye condition. At his current pace, he won't have anything like the season he had in 2009.
Lincecum's late-mid-season decline is really worrisome. His velocity is off by about 5 mph, and his control is too. He's been uncharacteristically giving up a fair number of hits, often in early innings, and getting behind in his counts. Despite his 9-4 record, he doesn't look like the same machine he was in 2008 and 2009, when he won the two Cy Youngs. Bochy has tried using rookies to shore things up--Joe Martinez and young Madison Bumgarner (just 20)--but even if he were to get 10 wins out of these kids, it wouldn't help if the fancy four fall off the shelf.
As many commentators have remarked, this team isn't as good as it looked early on, and it wasn't as bad as it seemed during its bad streak in June. However, inconsistency in the starting pitching is going to make the second half a crap-shoot.
Hardly anyone talks about this, but my feeling is the Giants coaching staff has not measured up over the last five years, allowing pitchers to lose concentration in games, with hitters showing little discipline. Throwing to the wrong base or overthrowing the cut-off man. Even the base-running has been lousy! Great coaching staffs usually get the best out of their players. Atlanta has a history of picking up players and getting incredible seasons (and careers) out of them. The Giants, on the other hand, have a record of mishandling rookies, and picking up journeymen who play at C+ level for a couple of seasons, then disappear into the tunnel. Renteria and Rowand are looking uncomfortably familiar in this regard. Players in their prime who hit .230 and 10 home runs, or who go 8-12 with ERA's of 5.00, aren't worth wasting much money on. What Huff, Uribe, Sanchez, Rowand, Torres and Burrell do from here on out will determine to a large degree what the 2nd half performance looks like.
But pitching has always been the name of the game. If Lincecum/Cain/Zito/Sanchez can pitch up to their potential, then this team could be competitive right up to the last week of the season. I have tickets for a Giants-Padres game towards the end of the season; I hope it's still exciting by then.