June 2011

Reason for optimism No. 4: The bullpen

If you asked someone at the start of the season what the Giants’ strength is, most would say starting pitching.

And the starting pitching has been good. The ERA of Giants starters (3.43) is third best in the NL. But starting pitchers are 24-26.

So who is it that the Giants are 42-34? The answer is simple: the bullpen.

It could be argured that the Giants’ bullpen this year has been the best in baseball.

Consider the stats:

The Giants’ bullpen ERA (2.98) is third best in the majors.
The bullpen’s 18-8 record is the best in baseball, by total wins and winning percentage.
The Giants’ 25 saves is tied for best in the majors.
Their 44 holds is tied for second in the NL.
Giants relievers have allowed 25 percent of inherited runners to score, ranking third in the NL.
But then you factor in the average leverage index, a stat the measures the amount of pressure a pitcher faces, and you get a greater appreciation of the job the Giants relievers have done.

Average pressure is consider 1.000. The Giants’ ALI is an NL-best 1.136. The second-best ALI in the NL is the Cardinals’ 1.090.

So no other team has put their relievers in more tighter situations than the Giants, and yet the San Franciscio relievers have responded.

And then factor in this. If you consider that the weakest link in the bullpen this season — Dan Runzler — is no longer on the Giants roster, the remaining pitchers in the pen are even more solid.

Before being sent down to Fresno, Runzler had a team-high 6.41 ERA (14 ER in 19.2 IP).

Remove Runzler’s numbers, and the Giants’ bullpen ERA is 2.65.

Reason for optimism No. 5: Upcoming schedule

Los Angeles Dodgers' Matt Kemp tosses his bat after hitting a two-run home run during the first inning of their baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels, Friday, June 24, 2011, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Heading into the weekend, the Giants find themselves a half-game out of first place despite all of their woes.

But the upcoming schedule gives the Giants some room to get things right.

With a win this weekend, the Giants will complete a successful interleague homestand.

Then it’s one the road for a seven-game road trip to Chicago and Detroit. The Giants play four game against the Cubs, a struggling team that plays as poorly at home as they do on the road. The Cubs entered play 13 games below .500.

After a tough 3-game trip against the Tigers, the Giants return home to a stretch in which they play 13 of 17 games at home against the Padres (33-44), Dodgers (34-43), Mets (37-39) and Brewers (42-35).

Things get a bit tougher after that, but it’s a favorable schedule that will help the Giants remain in thick of the NL West and wild-card races.

Reason for optimism No. 6: We’re not Oakland A’s fans

I know that a lot of San Francisco Giants fans, also root for the Oakland A’s. Well, MoreSplashHits is not one of them.

But we’ll try not be too harsh on A’s fans. It’s bad enough that they play in Oakland, in that ugly stadium. The A’s are one of the few MLB franchises that share their home park with an NFL franchise. After next year, the A’s will be the only one, when the Marlins move into their own park (Note: Toronto shares its home game with a CFL team).

Instead, we’ll focus on the misfortune that has fallen on the east side of the bay this season.

The A’s and Giants opened the season with teams of similar makeup. Both teams were built on stellar starting pitching, a solid bullpen and an offensively-challenged lineup.

And like the Giants, the A’s have suffered some significant injuries this season. But unlike the Giants, the A’s injury problems have attacked their strengths.

Three of the five pitchers that the A’s opened the season in their rotation are now on the disabled list: Dallas Braden is done for the season; Brett Anderson is rehabbing his elbow and hopes to return sometime in August; and Brandon McCarthy also is shelved. The A’s also had to suffer through the first two months with their closer Andrew Bailey out injured.

All of that led to the A’s being nine games under .500 and in last place in the AL West.

It also led to their manager being sacked, and replaced with Bob Melvin.

So as bad as things have been going in The City, they’ve been even worse in the East Bay.

Reason for optimism No. 7: Starting pitching mostly unscathed

San Francisco Giants' Oakland Athletics' during the inning of a baseball game Friday, June 17, 2011, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

With all the struggles and all the injuries the Giants have endured, their core strength — pitching — has largely gone unscathed.

The only starting pitcher to spend time on the disabled list this season is Barry Zito, and that may have been a blessing in disguise. (Some would argue there’s no disguise at all).

Zito was 0-1 with a 6.23 ERA in three starts before suffering a sprained foot and going on the DL.

That prompted the Giants to call up Ryan Vogelsong from Triple-A Fresno. All Vogelsong has done is go 4-1 with a 1.92 ERA in 10 starts for the Giants since Zito went on the shelf.

Zito is currently on a rehab stint with Fresno. He’ll make one more start next week in Fresno, then likely will be called off the DL to start one game of a doubleheader on June 28 against the Cubs. After that, no one knows.

Zito could pitch in long relief (mostly likely), could pitch as part of a six-man rotation (less unlikely) or could reclaim his rotation spot and send Vogelsong to the pen or Fresno (not likely at all).

While the Giants sort that out, the starting rotation has been great. The starters’ ERA of 3.31 ranks second in the NL behind the Phillies’ vaunted staff. Still, Giants’ starters have a losing record (22-24) because of a lack of offensive support, an inability to work deep into games (Giants starters rank 8th in the NL in innings pitched) and the Giants’ penchant for winning games late.

Still, the Giants have the second best starting ERA in the NL despite Madison Bumgarner’s rough start to the season, Jonathan Sanchez’s control problems and Tim Lincecum’s June swoon.

But they’ve stayed healthy, and that’s good news for Giants fans.

Reason for optimism No. 8: Offense has to get better

The Giants’ team batting average (.242) ranks 12th in the National League.

The teams’ 204 walks ranks 14th in the league.

Their slugging percentage (.365) ranks 14th in the NL.

Their 241 runs scored ranks 15th.

San Francisco Giants' Aubrey Huff watches as his two-run home run heads out of the park for his third home run of the baseball game during the ninth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals, Thursday, June 2, 2011, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

We all knew the Giants were going to be the best-hitting club in the National League. But what we didn’t expect was that their offensive production of 2010 would regress to 2009 levels.

Depsite all of these offensive struggles, the Giants have still managed to win games thanks to an outstanding pitching staff.

It’s just as Aubrey Huff recently said: “My God, if we hit a lick, we’d be 10 games over the Diamondbacks.”

Perhaps Huff needed to change the “we” to “I” as Huff has been the poster boy for the Giants offensive struggles.

Yet, Huff is also the poster boy for the Giants’ reason for optimism.

Huff’s numbers last year (26 HRs, 86 RBI, .290 avg) were very good, but they were career-year numbers, as some would have you believe.

His home run total was the fourth-best of his career. His RBI numbers ranked fifth for his career. His average was his fifth-best for his career.

In his career, Huff’s average numbers for a 162-game season were 25 HRs, 91 RBI and .281 avg — pretty much right in line with his numbers from 2010.

In short, his 2011 numbers HAVE TO get better. And in recent days, we’ve started to see the tide change for Huff.

Huff has hit safely 9 of his last 10 games. After opening the month with .218 average, he’s now hitting .239 — the highest his season average has been since April 18.

More importantly, he’s being more patient at the plate, getting ahead of counts and starting to hit to left field. All good signs.

And it’s not just Huff. Miguel Tejada is still hitting just .223. But he’s hitting .289 over his last 10 games.

Aaron Rowand has seen his opportunities diminish with Nate Schierholtz playing well. Yet Rowand is 7 for 23 (.304) in his last six starts dating back to June 6, mostly against left-handed hitters.

And Pat Burrell needs to recapture some of his magic from last year, and not just hit home runs when the Giants are trailing.

Reason for optimism No. 9: Getting good look at youngsters

San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford jumps over Cincinnati Reds' Ryan Hanigan (29) after completing a double play during the second inning of a baseball game Saturday, June 11, 2011, in San Francisco. Paul Janish was out at first base. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

When the Giants opened the 2011 season, they had a veteran-based lineup that left very little room for up-and-coming prospects.

If not for the injuries the Giants have endured this season, players like Brandon Belt, Darren Ford, Brandon Crawford, Manny Burriss and Ryan Vogelsong would have been relegated to Triple-A Fresno or lower.

But an injury to Cody Ross opened a spot for Belt; an injury to Barry Zito opened a spot for Vogelsong; an injury to Andres Torres opened a spot for Ford; injuries to Mark DeRosa, Pablo Sandoval and Mike Fontenot opened spots for Burriss, Crawford and Connor Gillaspie.

While not all of these youngster have been instant successes in the big leagues, even sub-par performance had the big-league level can be beneficial. The experience of facing big-league pitcher and playing the game at a faster pace will help these young players’ development in the future.

And with players like Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Brian Wilson, Jonathan Sanchez and Pablo Sandoval approaching free agency or due for big pay increases through arbitration, it’s key that the Giants are able to fill key roster spots from within the organization.

The injuries and sub-par performances of some veterans in 2011 has provided an opportunity for the Giants to get good looks at their younger players.

Ten good reasons why Giants fans need to stay optimistic in 2011

Things look sort of bleak right now for the San Francisco Giants.

Buster Posey is done for the year. Freddy Sanchez and Mark DeRosa may very well be done for  the year. Both are hoping to avoid season-ending surgery. Aubrey Huff is struggling to regain his 2010 form. The Giants are near the bottom of the NL in offense. They have been outscored by their opponents this year.

Those are all good reasons for Giants fans to lose hope, starting thinking about 2012.

But not so fast, my friends. All hope is not lost for 2011. While there a plenty of reasons to be pessimistic, there are also several good reasons for optimism.

And we’ll spend this week looking at 10 good reasons why San Francisco Giants should be optimistic about the rest of the 2011 season.

No. 1, Three words … World … Series … Champions

No. 2, The Giants are in first place

No. 3, The Giants play in the NL West

No. 4, The Bullpen

No. 5, Upcoming schedule

No. 6, We’re not Oakland A’s fans

No. 7, Starting pitching is mostly unscathed

No. 8, Offense has to get better

No. 9, Getting good looks at youngsters

No. 10, The Panda is back

Reason for optimism No. 10: The Panda is back.

In this photo taken Monday, June 6, 2011, San Francisco Giants' Pablo Sandoval, rehabbing with the Fresno Grizzlies minor league baseball team, watches the flight of his ball during batting practice in Fresno, Calif. (AP Photo/The Fresno Bee, John Walker)

Tuesday’s game in Arizona will mark the return of Pablo Sandoval to the lineup. Sandoval has been out of the lineup since late April when he suffered a broken bone in his hand.

After rededicating himself in the offseason, Sandoval got off to solid start in 2011. He was hitting .313 with 5 HRs and 14 RBI when he got hurt. He was leading the team in home runs. Now, Aubrey Huff leads the Giants with 8 HRs.

Yeah, it’s that bad. But the Panda gives the Giants a needed bat. Bruce Bochy has talked about keep Nate Schierholtz in the No. 3 spot in the lineup, with Sandoval hitting No. 5. Please, Bruce, let’s not.

I think we can all agree Sandoval is the best hitter in the Giants’ lineup right now. And you put your best hitter in the No. 3 hole. No. 3 is where Albert Pujols hits. It’s where Joey Votto hits, where Ryan Braun hits. It’s where The Panda should hit.

If we were drawing up the lineup for Tuesday’s game in Arizona, it would look like this: CF Andres Torres, 2B Manny Burriss, 3B Pablo Sandoval, 1B Aubrey Huff, LF Cody Ross, LF Nate Schierholtz, SS Brandon Crawford, C Eli Whiteside, P Matt Cain.

Out goes Freddy Sanchez; in comes Bill Hall

Somehow, this has got to be some kind of weird retribution for last season.

Cincinnati Reds shortstop Paul Janish, right, jumps over San Francisco Giants' Bill Hall (29) during the fifth inning of a baseball game Saturday, June 11, 2011, in San Francisco. Hall was forced out at second base, as Giants' Emmanuel Burriss was safe at first base. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Of the eight positions players on the Giants’ opening day roster, five have made a trip to the disabled list this season: 1B Brandon Belt, 2B Freddy Sanchez, 3B Pablo Sandoval, C Buster Posey and CF Andres Torres. And that doesn’t count RF Cody Ross, who opened the season on the DL.

The other three players — RF Aubrey Huff, SS Miguel Tejada and LF Pat Burrell — are hitting .234, .227 and .221 respectively.

Ross eventually came off the DL, and so did Torres. Sandoval will come off on Tuesday. Belt won’t be back until after the All-Star break. Posey is done of the season, and we just news on Sanchez.

Not good.

An MRI revealed that there is damage to Sanchez’s labrum and the shoulder capsule is stretched, making it susceptible to repeated dislocations.

The plan right now is to see how Sanchez’s shoulder responds to rehab over the next few weeks and hope he can return this season. Surgery to strengthen the shoulder will be necessary, but the Giants would like to hold it off until after the season.

We consider that a longshot. It may just be best to consider surgery as quickly as possible to begin rehab for 2012. That’s because the Giants signed Sanchez to a one-year extension for 2012 at the start of this season.

After the Giants’ 4-2 win over the Reds on Sunday, they activated 3B Pablo Sandoval from the disabled list and optioned Connor Gillaspie back to Fresno. We expected as much.

For depth, the Giants added utility man Bill Hall on Saturday. But he’s likely not going to be the answer.

At one point, Hall was a promising hitter for the Brewers. He hit 17 HRs, 62 RBI and hit .291 in 146 games in 2005. It got better in 2006 — 35 HR, 85 RBI, .270 in 148 games.

And then things turned downward — 14/63/.254 in 2007; 15/55/.225 in 2008.

In 2009, he hit .201 with 6 HR and 24 RBI in 76 games when the Brewers traded him to the Mariners, where he hit .200 with 2 HR and 12 RBI in 34 games.

The Mariners traded him to the Red Sox, where he hit .247 with 18 HR and 46 RBI in 120 games.

He signed with the Astros as a free agent last offseason, but only hit .224 with 2 HR and 13 RBI in 46 games before being released on June 4.

Oh, and what he did in his first game with the Giants on Saturday is pretty much his M.O. — he strikes out about once every three times he steps to the plate.

Another close win, with another loss — Freddy Sanchez

San Francisco Giants second baseman Freddy Sanchez, center, is helped off the field by a trainer and Bruce Bochy, right, after being injured fielding a base hit by Cincinnati Reds' Brandon Phillips in the fifth inning of a baseball game in San Francisco, Friday, June 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

And the hits just keeping on coming.

Fortunately, so do the walk-off wins.

Just as there appeared to be a little bit of light at the end of the injury tunnel, things got dark again when Freddy Sanchez left Friday’s game with a dislocated shoulder.

The injury didn’t keep the Giants from getting their ninth walk-off win of the season on Nate Schierholtz’s game-winning single with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, giving the Giants a 3-2 win over the Cincinnati Reds.

But the excitement of the win was sobered some by the injury to Sanchez.

Sanchez hurt his shoulder while making a diving stop of a groundball up the middle. He left the game in clear pain and was later taken to the hospital for treatment, after Giants trainers popped the shoulder back in place.

Now, we wait for an MRI on Saturday to determine the severity of the injury.

If accurate, the initial diagnosis for a dislocated shoulder is better than a separated shoulder. A separated shoulder involves a tear of the ligament that holds the shoulder in place. It would require a six-week minimum of recovery time, and likely would require surgery.

With a dislocated shoulder, you’re looking at a recovery time of 3 to 12 weeks, depending on the severity.

In the meantime, the Giants have to consider their next roster move, assuming Sanchez is headed to the DL.

Infielders Mike Fontenot and Pablo Sandoval are on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Fresno. Both were expected to rejoin the Giants on Tuesday, and Giants manager Bruce Bochy did not expect either to return any sooner. Fontenot, in fact, may have suffered a setback with his groin injury on Friday.

The first option is to do nothing and wait for Sandoval to rejoin the team on Tuesday in Arizona. With the Giants playing an afternoon game Saturday and with Fresno playing in Salt Lake City, there’s little chance of getting a replacement player in town ready to play Saturday. So we’re really only talking about playing shorthanded one more game on Sunday.

This is the most likely option. Sandoval would then take over a third base on his return, with Burriss taking over at second base until Fontenot returns. We could even see Miguel Tejada at second base, particularly if he continues his recent hot streak. Fontenot’s return from the DL likely would result in Connor Gillaspie returning to Triple-A.

But there’s another option. On Friday, Bochy mentioned that the Giants have not discounted the possibility of Sandoval playing catcher on occassion — saying that he would only make two starts a week at most under that scenario. That option would lead to Chris Stewart being sent back to Fresno.

And the Giants could also consider calling up Brett Pill from Fresno. Pill has gotten off to a fast start at Triple-A, playing both 1B and 2B. At this point, the Giants have no sub for Aubrey Huff at first base, with Sandoval becoming the first backup option at 1B when he returns. But calling up Pill would require the Giants to make a move to open a spot on the 40-man roster. That could be created by sending Buster Posey to the 60-day DL.

Interesting to see which way the Giants go.