Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Down for the Count but Still Battling - Giants in 2012

How does a franchise that loses important parts of its team during a season overcome adversity and triumph against odds? Each professional squad is composed of parts of a puzzle, which may or may not fit together to make a whole. Usually successful teams have a number of players who have superior years (or "career years"). This may be an expected outcome, or just a one or two year fluke. Sometimes, everything comes together for a team, as "stars" and journeymen all peak at once, and a dynamic season ensues. 

I've said before that all the players who arrive in baseball's major leagues were stars before they got there, or they wouldn't be there. The "worst" major league players were all immensely talented BEFORE they were "failures." What differentiates one team's performance from another's may be "intangibles"--or just the coincidence of different individuals' coordinated accidental success. Players are human beings, impossible to predict or design with much consistency. Teams are organic things, fluctuating and changing over time.   

Prior to the 2012 season, the Giants had what seemed like the team they had deliberately designed to succeed at Pac Bell Park. Brian Sabean, the eccentric GM guru, always believed in pitching, and fashioning a high calibre pitching rotation, with superior middle relievers and a lights-out closer was always his first priority. The offense would succeed by "scratching out runs"--not with power-hitting, but timely hitting, speed on the bases, and solid defense. 

In 2010, their championship year, the Giants had three excellent starting pitchers--Lincecum, Cain and Jonathan Sanchez. Wilson was the closer (with 48 saves), with Romo, Mota, Affeldt and Casilla all making important contributions out of the bull-pen. Offensively, the team was more a "power" force than a "scratching" one, with a 162 team homers (nicely spread among several hitters--Huff 26, Uribe 24, Burrell 18, Posey 18, Torres 16, Sandoval 13). 

After a down year in 2011, in which both pitching and hitting declined across the board, the team dropped Burrell, Ross, Torres, Rowand, Tejada, Keppinger, and even Carlos Beltran. The decision not to sign Beltran, in particular, seemed vexing, given the signal lack of offense in 2011. Posey went down early with his ankle injury, and Freddy Sanchez played only part of the year, succumbing to physical limitations which in retrospect probably were the beginning of the end of his career (he didn't play at all this year). 

The Giants left spring training this year with the following line-up:


with Brian Wilson as the established closer.

But as we know, things changed quickly as the year got going. Almost at once, Wilson's elbow popped and he went on the indefinite disabled list (a candidate for a third (!!) Tommy John surgery). 

Then, as I had predicted at least twice on this blog, Tim Lincecum's decline continued, as hitters began feasting on his slower fast ball, and his ERA quickly rose into double figures. If it hadn't been for Cain and Bumgarner and Vogelsong having in effect career years, Lincecum's anchor could have dragged the team into second division status. It began to feel as if every Lincecum start would turn into a rout. And no one seemed to have an answer. Timmy had gone from a dominating fireballer to a has-been in just a little less than two seasons. This kind of thing isn't unheard-of, but in his case, there had been troubling signs. The tortured delivery motion, the small frame, etc. Statistically, it all made some kind of awful sense, if you looked at the trajectory of his performance from the middle of 2010 to the first half of 2012. Still, it really hurt to see him get blasted in start after start.   

Despite these setbacks, the team was playing competitively, mostly on the strength of the hitting of new outfield acquisition Melky Carbrera, whose torrid pace led the league in average for much of the first half. He seemed the very personification of the Sabean ideal, hitting for average, with speed, and some even some power (those "gappers"). Then, quite out of the blue, it was announced that Melky had tested positive for steroids, and was suspended for the whole second half of the year. It was as if someone up there didn't like us. 

When Wilson went down, Bochy went to a "closer by committee" approach, and initially Santiago Casilla stepped up to become the new "lights out" guy. And when he faltered, there was Romo (with his wickedly deceptive slider) to take his turn. And Zito, miracle of miracles, had picked himself up off the mat and was having a comeback year, bolstering the Cain-Bumgarner-Vogelsong rotation as a true 4th man, with Lincecum as the busted wheel. 

Finally, as if this all weren't bad enough, Pablo came down with a tiny broken bone in his hand, which sidelined him for several weeks. The team had acquired a journeyman infielder, Joaquin Arias, to fill in where needed, and when called upon to plug the hole created by Pablo's absence, he stepped right up, hitting in the .270-.290 range. With the absence of Cabrera and Sandoval--and Huff, who had gone AWOL with a case of nerves--and then a minor injury while celebrating Cain's perfecto) to be replaced by the green young rookie Brandon Belt--offensively the team really looked weak on paper.    

Unbeknownst to most, Sabean had been coveting an inspirational outfield slugger by the name of Hunter Pence, an All-Star on the Astros, who had come over to the Phillies in the middle of the previous year. Sabean had tried to acquire Pence before, and when Philadelphia finally gave up on 2012, he became available.  

With the addition of Pence, it looked like we might finally have someone to "protect" Posey in the number four spot, or maybe even a true clean-up hitter. Sending Schierholtz (embittered by not getting the kind of playing time he thought he deserved) to Philadelphia opened up right field for Pence, and he was more than equal to the task, speedy and with a rocket arm. Though Pence has not hit anything like we had hoped and expected when we signed him, he's still been a force on the field and in the clubhouse, and the tantalizing left field bleachers may yet prove to be "Pence"-friendly. 

Finally, in acknowledgment of the fact that Freddy Sanchez's career is almost certainly over, the team went out and got Marco Scutaro. Two years ago, my old friend Mike Tormey told me the one man he thought any team could do to improve itself was get Scutaro. As a life-long Red Sox fan, Mike had appreciated Scutaro's clutch hitting and terrific hustle and focus. The guy had been around the bend a time or two, and knew how to contribute. Once he'd arrived, he fit right in, hitting .362 for us in 61 games, polishing off a career year with overall stats of .306, with 190 hits, 87 runs scored, 74 RBI's, and a .348 OBP. Wow. It doesn't get much better than that.    

As I speak, the Giants are preparing to take on the Cardinals in game 3 of the NLCS, with the series tied at 1-1. 

It seems unlikely, given the obstacles, the Giants can go all the way again this year. St. Louis is very strong, and their pitching can match or out-match us any day. And if Detroit, which seems poised to bump off the Yanks (who lost Jeter, and have benched A-Rod), is the opponent in the Series, that's too many mountains to climb. And yet I would certainly have said the same in 2010, when we beat Atlanta, Philadelphia, and the Rangers. Mountains are to be climbed. Strap on your ropes and pitons!   

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