Archive for May 2014

Is This the Giants Year (Again)?

May 31, 2014

After last night’s blow out win against the Cardinals in St. Louis, a lot of people are beginning to think that 2014 could be another special season for the Giants.  Here is Henry Schulman’s article for the San Francisco Chronicle, which states some of what I was thinking before I read it.

Baseball can definitely be hard to predict.  The present team doesn’t look a whole lot different from either the 2013 team, which finished 10 games below .500, or for that matter the 2012 team that won it all, except of course for the fact that the 2014 version is two years older.

The biggest single difference at the moment is the middle-of-the-lineup hitting of Michael Morse.  That, and the fact that the starting rotation and the top half of the bullpen has returned to 2012 form.  Also, Angel Pagan has been healthy so far in 2014 and is off to one of the best starts of his career.

The team has done a fine job weathering injuries so far.  When Brandon Belt got hurt and Buster Posey‘s back pain sent him into a slump, Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence and Gregor Blanco all got hot.  Brandon Hicks is no Marco Scutaro, but Hicks has played just well enough on both sides of the ball that the loss of Scutaro hasn’t seriously hurt the team.

The 2014 Giants are a veteran team with a lot of chemistry and collective knowledge of how to win.  The biggest threat to a return to the post-season is by far more injuries particularly to the pitching staff.

San Francisco Giants 2014 Minor League Update, Part II: AA Richmond Flying Squirrels

May 31, 2014

The Giants’ AA franchise, the Richmond Flying Squirrels, are currently 27-24 in the Eastern League.  Most of the true prospects on this team are pitchers, so I will start with a run-down of who is pitching well (and not so well) so far in Richmond.

Jack Snodgrass (age 26, 1.74 ERA) and Ty Blach (age 23, 2.77 ERA) lead Flying Squirrels’ starters in ERA, but both have low strikeout rates, which raises concerns about their respective ceilings as prospects.  Snodgrass has always been more of an over-achiever than a true prospect, but the Giants had some hopes for Blach, their fifth round draft pick in 2012, after a strong performance at Class A+ San Jose last season.

Clayton Blackburn (21) has a 3.40 ERA with a better strike out rate than Snodgrass or Blach, but he’s currently on the disabled list with an oblique injury.  There’s some question about Blackburn’s conditioning, as he is currently listed at 260 lbs.

The Flying Squirrels’ top prospect Kyle Crick (21) has a 4.08 ERA after eight starts and has 31 strikeouts in 28.2 IP.  However, he has also walked 24 batters, so he’s clearly a work in progress and isn’t likely to reach the majors this season.  Adalberto Mejia (21) has good strikeout and walk rates, but seven gopher balls have uglied up his ERA (6.15) but good.

No one in the Flying Squirrels’ bullpen has pitched exceptionally well.  Top relief prospect Derek Law (23) got off to a great start, but seven earned runs allowed in his last ten appearances has lifted his ERA to 3.09.

Edwin Quirarte (27) has a lower ERA than Law, but hasn’t pitched as well otherwise.  Phil McCormick (25) has also pitched well and looks like the most polished Flying Squirrel reliever at this moment.

Among the position players, the biggest surprise so far has been the performance of shortstop Matt Duffy (23). He’s currently slashing .314/.376/.393, which is very good for a middle infielder playing half his games in Richmond, a pitchers’ park in a pitchers’ league.  He’s also stolen 12 bases in 14 attempts.  His raw defensive statistics this year suggest he’s  about at or just on the low side of the league average among the Eastern League’s ten regular shortstops.

Duffy is a former 18th round draft pick out of Cal State Long Beach, and he certainly isn’t going to drive Brandon Crawford off shortstop in San Francisco any time soon.  However, he could possibly take Joaquin Arias‘ back-up job in 2016.

3B Mario Lisson is currently the Flying Squirrels’ most productive offensive player, but he’s already 30 years old.  OF Devin Harris has hit well in 25 games since his promotion from Class A Augusta, but he’s 26.  OF Jarrett Parker, now 25 and a former 2nd round draft pick, is hitting about the same at Richmond as he did last year although he’s at least striking out less.

1B Angel Villalona (23) is hitting well enough this year to resurrect ideas that he might be future major league slugger.  He still doesn’t walk much, but he’s hitting well enough (.260/.316/.422) to remind people why the Giants gave him a $2.1 million signing bonus when he was 16 years old.

As you probably remember, Villalona’s career was interrupted by a murder indictment in the Dominican Republic.  A $139,000 payment to the dead man’s family was enough to convince the family that Villalona shouldn’t be prosecuted, and the case was eventually dropped.  At any rate, it will be interesting to see what Villalona does when he reaches the AAA Pacific Coast League, where his power might really blossom in its many high-altitude parks.

You can find all of the 2014 Richmond Flying Squirrels’ stats here.

San Francisco Giants 2014 Minor League Update, Part I: AAA Fresno Grizzlies

May 30, 2014

We are now a little over 50 games into the 2014 season, which always seems like a good time to write about what the Giants’ farmhands are doing as they try to earn their way up to the bigs.  Naturally enough, I’ll start with the AAA Fresno Grizzlies.

The Fresno Grizzly position player whose performance most impresses me so far is Joe Panik, in large part because Panik is relatively young and a former 1st round pick, and thus could be a Giants’ major league regular for many years if things work out for him.  Panik is currently slashing .320/.380/.417, with his .380 on-base percentage his most impressive statistic.

At age 23 this season Panik looks to be the Giants’ 2Bman of the future, possibly becoming the starter as early as the start of 2015.  He has played 40 games there at Fresno this season and another ten at shortstop.  He’s turned a total of 39 double plays in 50 games at the middle infield positions and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes at 2B.

Fresno is a good place to hit, and a lot of the Grizzlies’ position players are hitting.  Andrew Susac and Adam Duvall are most noteworthy based on their performances and future prospects.  Susac (age 24) is slashing .296/.395/.531 as the Grizzlies’ main catcher, although he missed a couple of weeks with an injury.  He’s also gunned down 11 of 18 attempted base stealers against him.

Adam Duvall (25) is currently tied for the Pacific Coast League lead with 15 home runs.  He’s slashing .294/.359/.616 and looks like a major league hitter at this moment.  Duvall’s 3B defense is poor, however, and he isn’t going to run Pablo Sandoval off third base in San Francisco, nor is he likely to run Brandon Belt off first base.

I was hoping the Giants would promote either Susac or Duvall when Belt broke his thumb, but the Giants elected to promote Tyler Colvin, which in hindsight was the right move, at least so far.  I think Duvall is ready to help a major league right now if it can find a place where his lousy defense will hurt the least.  Susac could also wind up as a late July trade chip, since the Giants are well stocked at catcher at the major league level.

Mark Minicozzi (31), since returning from injury, and Travis Ishikawa (30), since his recent signing, are both hitting extremely well and could possibly help the Giants as bench players later in the season.  Juan Perez (27) and Tony Abreu (29) are ready and waiting for someone or two to get injured in San Francisco.  Gary Brown (25) continues to look like a wasted 1st round draft pick, and Nick Noonan (25), who looked promising at the end of the 2012 season, hasn’t come back well from an injury.

Among the pitchers, Edwin Escobar (22) remains the best prospect by a comfortable margin, but he’s nowhere near major league ready.  His 5.25 ERA is ugly, but he leads the Grizzlies with 53 strike outs and has pitched better than his ERA suggests.  If he picks it up as the current season progresses, he could still be ready to take the SF Giants’ fifth starter slot out of Spring Training in 2015.

Chris Heston (26) has been the Grizzlies’ most effective starter with Jason Berken (30) close behind, but both look to be pitchers whose brightest possible future is becoming what Yusmeiro Petit is now, a long reliever/sixth starter waiting for one or more of the real starters to get hurt.

The Grizzlies’ bullpen seems to be filled with good arms who don’t at this moment have major league command.  The best as I write this appears to be Brett Bochy (26), the manager’s son.  He has a 3.04 ERA, more than a strike out per inning pitched and a K/BB rate of better than 2. Dan Runzler (29) and Mason Tobin (26) have much lower ERAs but much higher walk rates.

Erik Cordier (28) has 31 Ks in 21 IP but a 5.57 ERA.  Heath Hembree (25) has a 4.58 ERA after a couple of poor outings.  Jake Dunning‘s (25) ERA is 4.07, and he’s been wild.

The Giants should probably demote David Huff, but they don’t have anyone at Fresno who looks clearly better.

You can find all of the 2014 Fresno Grizzlies stats here.

The Doctors Speak on Elbow Injuries

May 29, 2014

The big news of the last day, at least as far as I’m concerned, is the release of a position statement by the American Sports Medicine Institute regarding the rash of elbow ligament tears requiring Tommy John transplant surgery among professional pitchers.

Most of the attention from the media has been on the Statement’s last comment that pitchers who throw harder are at higher risk of injury.  However, the main take-away I took from the Statement is not exactly fresh news: the increase of elbow injuries is probably related to the fact that top young pitchers, those who eventually become professionals, throw and pitch a lot more now as adolescents than they did in days past.  Thanks to traveling teams and year-round baseball in weather-friendly states like Florida, Texas and California, youngsters are more over-worked and more under-rested than ever before.

Also, the point the ASMI seems to be making is that what puts pressure on a pitcher’s elbow isn’t necessarily throwing the ball hard, but rather throwing the ball as hard as a pitcher can too often.  Traditionally, the hardest throwers tended to have the longest and healthiest careers because they did not need to throw the ball as hard as they could on every fastball (and they also tended to throw a higher percentage of fastballs).  Instead, pitchers with mediocre/slow fastballs tended to get hurt more because they had to throw as hard as they could on every fastball to get major league hitters out consistently.

One thing I though was strange about the Statement is that it addresses the relationship between throwing curveballs to elbow injuries (the Statement says there is not a relationship between throwing curveballs and a higher rate of elbow injuries) but does not address the relationship between throwing sliders and elbow injuries.  My understanding is that curveballs increase the risk of shoulder injuries, while sliders put more strain on the elbow.  I remember Giants announcer and former MLB pitcher Mike Krukow once joking on air how when young pitchers begin their professional careers their first pitching coaches ask them whether they want their shoulders to hurt or their elbows to hurt.  If the pitcher says his shoulder, the young professional is taught or advised to work on his curveball, if the elbow then the slider.

It seems to me also that if the heavy use of sliders in today’s pitching is related to elbow injuries that this would explain why hard throwers have a greater risk of elbow injury.  Hard throwers obviously have stronger arms than soft throwers, which means that more torque is generated when they throw pitches which torque the elbow.  For some time now, fastballs and change-ups have been regarded as the least stressful pitches for pitchers to throw, because they don’t involve torque applied to the shoulder or elbow.

When I first became a major league baseball fan in the late 1970’s, the pitcher injury epidemic of the moment was rotator cuff (shoulder) injuries.  You rarely hear about rotator cuff injuries today.  Part of that is that surgical procedures have allowed pitchers (at least the ones under age 35) to come back from rotator cuff injuries.  However, they just don’t appear to occur with the same frequency either as they once did or in comparison to elbow ligament injuries.

Is this change related to greater use of the slider relative to the curveball, or is it more a product of increased pitching by adolescent pitchers?  I don’t know, and I’m a little disappointed that the ASMI’s Statement doesn’t give us a better idea.

At Least Some Local Governments Still Willing to Shell Out for a Major League Stadium

May 28, 2014

It was announced today that Cobb County, Georgia has approved $396 million in public funds to build the Braves a new stadium to open in 2017 in the suburbs of Atlanta.  Turner Field, build for the 1996 Olympics and the Braves’ home since 1997, was apparently a decent stadium, but the Braves apparently could not resist a brand new stadium built largely by the taxpayers.  The biggest advantage of the new stadium may be easier access by the team’s largely suburban fan base.

The new stadium, which will open immediately after the Braves’ 20-year Turner Field lease expires, is expected to cost a total of $622 million, so the Braves will be putting up some of their own money.  However, nearly two-thirds of the cost will be funded by Cobb County.

Given that a whole series of economic studies have shown that using public money to build stadia for professional sports teams is not a good use of taxpayers’ dollars in terms of the additional tax revenue and economic activity generated by bringing in the professional sports team.  Still, there always seem to be a few localities who are so desperate to improve their national or regional image that they believe shelling out money to lure a team is a good investment.

For their part, the major sports leagues always maintain their monopoly status by limiting the amount of expansion that takes place.  So long as a few big markets remain without sports teams, it allows teams to play their current host cities against those that would very much like a major league team.

It’s definitely a good time for MLB to initiate another round of expansion to 32 teams, both in terms of the current value of franchises and the fact that the last round of expansion happened 16 years ago, a long time in terms of expansion rates since the first expansion in 1961.

Johnny Monell Sighting

May 28, 2014

The Dodgers just acquired AAA catcher Johnny Monell from the Orioles for “future considerations,” which says probably means cash. Obviously, the Dodgers wanted catching depth at AAA following their release of Miguel Olivo after the ear-biting incident.

Monell hadn’t been hitting for the Orioles’ AAA team in Norfolk, but he always hit well in the Giants system.  I’d been impressed with Monell’s minor league hitting for the past few seasons and felt like the Giants didn’t give him much of a shot, due to the fact that he was a late-round draft pick and his catching defense probably wasn’t very good.

I’m still rooting for Monell to have a major league career, but not quite so much now that he is a Dodger.

A New Record for Stolen Bases by a Pinch Runner

May 27, 2014

Apparently, they still like to keep roster spaces for pinch runners in Japan.  36-year old Takahiro Suzuki set the NPB record yesterday with his 106th stolen base as a pinch-runner, breaking Shiro Fujise‘s record set back in 1983.  Suzuki apparently also plays as a late-inning defensive replacement and bench player, as he manages to get at least 20 plate appearances every season.

The MLB record for stolen bases by a pinch runner is held by Matt Alexander at 91 stolen bases.  Alexander was Charlie Finley’s designated pinch runner on the 1975 to 1977 A’s and then went on to a similar role with Chuck Tanner‘s Pirates.  I am going to assume that Takahiro Suzuki is now the all-time leader in career stolen bases by a pinch runner.

In a piece I wrote a couple of years ago, I noted that Tanner, who managed the A’s in 1976, was one of the few baseball men who adopted Charlie Finley’s full-time pinch runner concept.  It’s unlikely we’ll ever see these kinds of exclusive pinch-runners in the MLB in the future given the need to use those bottom-of-the-roster spot for all the relievers used in today’s game.

Matt Alexander is also the all-time MLB leader in pinch-running appearances (271) and runs scored as a pinch-runner (89).  SABR even has a bio on him.  Needless to say, Alexander regretted the fact that he didn’t get enough opportunities at the major league level to show that he could do other things on the baseball field than just run.