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Why the San Francisco Giants Had to Keep Hunter Pence

There’s been a lot of buzz going around that the San Francisco Giants overpaid when they extended Hunter Pence via a five-year, $90 million deal.

Dave Cameron of FanGraphs sums up that argument by writing:

But, if both sides are willing to stipulate that the Giants could have spent $90 million on other baseball players this winter if they hadn’t signed Hunter Pence, then I think there’s a pretty strong case to be made that they could have done better going in another direction…Pence’s new deal won’t stop the Giants from winning, so long as they surround him with quality players on undervalue deals…That’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, though, and now that they’re committed to paying Pence $18 million per year for the next five years, their margin of error just got a little smaller. This isn’t the Ryan Howard contract, or even the Barry Zito contract, but for a team without unlimited resources, spending too many of them on a good-not-great player on the wrong side of 30 could end up looking like a mistake.

While Cameron makes some interesting points, the reality is that the San Francisco Giants had to keep Pence, regardless of the cost.

The cost was going to be somewhere in the range of Nick Swisher’s four-year, $56 million deal and Andre Ethier‘s five-year, $85 million deal. Swisher, Ethier and Pence are comparable players. Thus,  Pence’s market price was going to be somewhere on that spectrum.

The Swisher contract would have been a better deal for the Giants, but they could not afford to let Pence get away. He wasn’t willing to settle for that contract, so San Francisco had to up their offer to keep him.

They went into the winter already needing to drastically upgrade in left field. If they had let Pence hit the open market, they would have potentially needed a new right fielder as well.

There just isn’t enough talent on the free-agent market to realistically expect the Giants to be able to replace Pence and find a left fielder in the same winter.

Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Curtis Granderson and Nelson Cruz are the only impact bats on the free-agent outfield market.

The Giants could have let Pence walk and tried to sign two of those players to play right and left field. However, there’s no guarantee that they could have signed any of those guys. By re-signing Pence before he could hit the market, the Giants have avoided creating another hole on a roster that already has plenty.

The starting rotation finished with the game’s seventh-worst ERA despite the spaciousness of AT&T Park. The offense finished 21st in runs scored. The club finished just 20th in defensive efficiency. This team clearly needs to improve in every facet of the game.

The Giants could have held firm and told Pence to take the Swisher deal or leave it. However, the deal they gave Pence amounts to one extra year and four extra million dollars per season over what Swisher received last winter. For a big-market team like the Giants who sell out every game, holding the line for that amount of money just isn’t necessary.

In 2013, Pence led the Giants in home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, extra-base hits and stolen bases. If the Giants had lost Pence, a bad offensive team would have been without one of its best hitters going forward. They could have tried to replace him, but there’s no guarantee they would have been able to do so.

The other point against Cameron’s argument is that Pence was worth 5.4 wins above replacement in 2013. According to FanGraphs, that means he was worth $27.2 million to the Giants.

This was the best season of Pence’s career, so he isn’t like to be a five-win player going forward. However, he has been a three-to-four win player throughout his career, and that makes him worth close to the $18 million San Francisco will be paying him.

The Giants could have waited things out for Pence and risked losing him. They could have told him what they believed his market price to be and waited for him to capitulate. However, the risk in that scenario would be to lose Pence in free agency and then be unable to replace him with a player of equal value on a lesser deal.

The Giants received a league-worst five home runs and .651 OPS from their left fielders in 2013. They need to improve that spot this winter, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to sign an upgrade or trade for one. Had they lost Pence, they’d be in big trouble in two important offensive spots.

The bottom line is that there just isn’t enough offensive talent to go around. Offense is down around the sport, and the best players are continually signing long-term extensions before they hit free agency.

The Giants farm system is extremely light on positional talent. They had no in-house option ready to take over for Pence, and they would have been hard-pressed to find a replacement this winter.

Did the Giants overpay for Hunter Pence? Based on his performance in 2013 and the Ethier contract it looks like a fair deal. However, even if they did overpay by a few million dollars per season, they absolutely had to keep Pence.


All statistics in this article are courtesy of ESPN. All contractual data is from Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

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San Francisco Giants: Breaking Down What It Will Take to Keep Hunter Pence

Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Friday that the San Francisco Giants have started negotiations with impending free-agent right fielder Hunter Pence.

Pence, 30, isn’t going to be cheap to retain. Pence is making $13.8 million in his final season of arbitration eligibility this year.

If the Giants don’t reach a long-term deal with Pence before free agency begins, they’ll likely extend him the one-year qualifying offer. If Pence were to accept—which seems unlikely—he’d be back on another one-year deal for close to $14 million. If he were to reject it and sign elsewhere, the signing team would forfeit its first-round draft choice unless it finished in the bottom 10 in the overall standings.

However, with both sides open to a long-term deal, it’s more likely that Pence will seek a multi-year deal from the Giants. The best, most recent comparison for what Pence’s next contract will look like is Nick Swisher’s four-year, $56 million deal with the Cleveland Indians.

Swisher’s leverage on the free-agent market was hurt by the draft-pick compensation attached to him from the qualifying offer extended by the New York Yankees. When Swisher hit the market last winter, he was a lifetime .256/.361/.467 hitter. His on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) was .828. His OPS+, which adjusts for park factors, was 118.

Pence is currently a lifetime .286/.339/.476 hitter with an .814 OPS. His OPS+ is nearly identical to Swisher’s at 119.

Thus, while Swisher and Pence are different players, their overall production has been very similar. According to FanGraphs, Swisher was worth 25.2 wins above replacement (WAR) before signing with Cleveland, while Pence has been worth 24 WAR thus far in his career.

Pence hits for a higher average and slightly more power, but Swisher gets on base more often because he has better plate discipline. Swisher’s career walk rate is 13.2 percent compared to just 7.3 percent for Pence.

However, other than patience, Pence has better tools than Swisher. Pence is 21-for-23 on stolen base attempts this year while Swisher has only 13 career stolen bases. Pence also has some of the best raw power in the game.

While his career slugging percentage is only nine points higher than Swisher’s was when he became a free agent, Pence leads the league in average home run distance this year. Thus, Pence may have a better chance to maintain his power as he ages. Also, Pence is a year younger than Swisher, so a four-year deal for Pence would carry a little less risk.

Because of his raw power, athletic ability, durability (he’s started every game this year) and youth, Pence may be able to do better than Swisher’s four-year, $56 million deal on the open market. Given that he’s only 30 years old and clearly in great shape, he may command a five-year deal.

While every free-agent contract carries tremendous risk, the Giants absolutely need to retain Pence. He leads the offensively challenged Giants in home runs, doubles, triples and slugging percentage.

San Francisco left fielders have combined for the game’s worst OPS and the fewest home runs at the position this season. It’s pivotal that the club upgrades at that spot. However, they first must retain Pence in right field.

The Giants need to find an upgrade on Gregor Blanco in left field over the winter. If they fail to retain Pence, they’ll need to find a new right fielder as well.

With few alternatives in the outfield on the free-agent market, the Giants would have an extremely hard time replacing Pence while also upgrading in left field. Thus, they need to re-sign Pence and then improve the left field situation. 

Pence should at least match Swisher’s $56 million contract because the two right fielders had nearly identical production before hitting free agency. However, Pence’s youth, speed and power might earn him a longer, more lucrative contract than Swisher’s.

Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area recently summed up Pence’s overall value to the Giants. Baggarly wrote:

More than speed or power, though, Pence’s most valuable commodity is his energy. In an era when players can’t pop greenies or spike the coffee pot to get up for a game, Pence brings his hyperactivity every day. He’s played all but 13 of the Giants’ innings in right field this season. And he’s poised to become the first Giant in the San Francisco era to start every regular-season game in a season…’It shows you he comes to play every day,’ Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. ‘It’s the intensity he plays with every day. Here he is in September and he has a game like that. It says a lot about the shape he’s in.’

Pence has been one of the few bright spots in 2013 for the last-place Giants. Re-signing him to a long-term deal will come with risk, but it’s a move the Giants need to make. Pence won’t come cheaply, but the Giants need his power, speed, durability and leadership going forward.


All statistics in this article are courtesy of ESPN and Baseball-Reference.

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Should the San Francisco Giants Pick Up Ryan Vogelsong’s 2014 Option?

Ryan Vogelsong pitched like the Vogelsong of old during the San Francisco Giants‘ last homestand. He allowed two runs on eight hits and two walks over 15 innings while striking out 10. He’s delivered a quality start in three of his four outings since returning from the disabled list.

Vogelsong went 27-16 with a 3.05 ERA in 61 games from 2011-12. He also went 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA over four postseason starts last October to help the Giants win their second championship in three years.

Thus, Vogelsong’s $6.5 million option for 2014 looked like an easy call heading into this season. However, he posted a 7.19 ERA over nine starts before hitting the disabled list with a broken hand. Even though he’s pitched better in three of his four starts since returning, his velocity remains a concern. 

Last year, Vogelsong’s average fastball was 90.8 mph. This year, his average fastball is down to 89.2 mph. His fastball velocity was up to an average of 90.4 mph in his final start before the injury. In his last four starts, his average fastball velocities have been 87.8, 87.7, 88.0 and 88.1.

The Giants seem likely to pick up Vogelsong’s option despite his declining velocity and his 5.58 ERA over 13 starts this season. Carl Steward of the San Jose Mercury News wrote after Vogelong’s last start, “Suffice it to say Ryan Vogelsong may not be on the wane as so many here have conjectured. As if there were any question beforehand, the Giants picking up that 2014 option is assured now.”

The 36-year-old Vogelsong still has another month in the season to recapture his lost velocity. If he continues to pitch like he did during the last homestand, it seems like a foregone conclusion that he’ll be back next year regardless of the radar gun readings. However, should the Giants pick up his 2014 option?

Vogelsong will turn 37 next July. There are no guarantees that he’ll regain velocity going forward. While he’s thrown well in three of his four starts since coming off the disabled list, the Giants can’t just ignore that he’s been shelled in seven of his 13 starts this year. He’s allowed at least five runs in six of his 13 starts thus far in 2013.

The best method to evaluate a player is to use the largest sample size possible. While there’s still another month left in the season, to this point, Vogelsong has taken a major step back from last year.

His velocity is down almost two full ticks, his strikeout rate is down by more than two percent, his walk rate is up slightly and his home run rate has shot up from 0.81 per nine innings pitched (HR/9) to 1.65.

The Giants have the second-worst rotation ERA in the National League this season. The only rotation members under contract for next season are Madison Bumgarner (2.84 ERA) and Matt Cain (4.43). The Giants will likely make the one-year qualifying offer to free-agent starter Tim Lincecum, so there’s a good chance that he’ll be back in the fold as well.

If the club picks up Vogelsong’s option, four of the five rotation spots will be the same going into next season. Does it make sense to bring back most of a rotation that failed so badly in 2013?

The free-agent market has some interesting starting pitching options including A.J. Burnett, Matt Garza, Josh Johnson, Phil Hughes, Hiroki Kuroda, Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana and Jason Vargas. If the Giants could add one of those starters on the free-agent market to move Vogelsong into the fifth spot in the rotation, picking up his option would make more sense.

Vogelsong has pitched well in three of his last four starts. However, he’s had a really bad season, and his velocity is down significantly. He’ll turn 37 next year, so he could be undergoing an irreversible age-related decline.

The Giants have another month to evaluate Vogelsong, but right now his option should not be guaranteed. The starting rotation is the biggest reason the Giants haven’t been competitive this season. That means standing pat this winter is not a great solution. The rotation is broken, and it needs fixing.

Ryan Vogelsong needs to spend the rest of 2013 proving that he’s part of the solution for next season. Right now, the jury is still out on him despite what he did over the prior two years and last postseason.

Baseball is a bottom-line, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. If the Giants are going to contend in 2014, they’ll have to avoid making nostalgic decisions over the winter.

Ultimately, the onus is still on Vogelsong to prove that he can pitch effectively once more.


All statistics in this article are courtesy of ESPN and Baseball-Reference.

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Tim Lincecum Is Proving the Doubters Wrong Again for the San Francisco Giants

After putting up a 5.18 ERA in 2012—the worst ERA in the National League among qualified starters—Tim Lincecum ended May of this year with a 5.12 ERA.

He allowed six runs over four innings on May 29 against the Oakland A’s. Two poor months to open the season after a disastrous spring training performance (10.57 ERA) seemed to make it clear that Lincecum’s days as a dominant starting pitcher were over.

Lincecum had won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008-09. He went 33-12 with a 2.55 ERA and 526 strikeouts over 452.1 innings during that stretch.

In August of 2010, Lincecum’s reign of dominance appeared to come to end. He went 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA that month.

However, he bounced back with a 1.94 ERA in September before delivering a 14-strikeout, two-hit masterpiece in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. He also threw eight innings of one-run ball in the clinching game of the World Series. Overall, he went 3-1 with a 2.79 ERA during the 2010 postseason to help the Giants win their first World Series since moving to San Francisco in 1958.

Lincecum would go on to post a 2.74 ERA in 2011. He wasn’t quite as good in 2010-11 as he had been in 2008-09, but he was still a clear-cut No. 1 starter.

That was before it all came crashing down last season. Lincecum lost his spot in the postseason rotation, returned to the rotation in the National League Championship Series for one poor start, and then was banished back to the bullpen.

His postseason relief work was exceptional, however. He struck out 17 against only two walks over 13 innings. He gave up just three hits and one run as a reliever. He saved the season with a brilliant performance out of the bullpen in a Game 4 win during the NLDS when he threw 4.2 innings of one-run ball with six strikeouts to stave off elimination.

Thus, when Lincecum struggled as a starter to open 2013, it appeared that his career could only get back on track with a move to the bullpen. A team source told Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area in early June that the Giants would move Lincecum back to the bullpen “in a heartbeat,” if they had another starter available.

The Giants never did find another starter, and Lincecum stayed in the rotation. He put up a 3.60 ERA in June, and then delivered a no-hitter with 13 strikeouts on July 13. He was roughed up in his next start after throwing 148 pitches in the no-hitter, but he’s recovered to allow only three runs in 22 innings during this last three starts.

Lincecum has chopped his ERA all the way down to 4.18 over the last two-plus months. He has the 11th-best strikeout rate in the game among qualified starters this season. His 3.49 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching—an ERA estimator based on strikeout, walk and home run rates) ranks 37th.

Lincecum has posted a 3.38 ERA since the beginning of June. If you remove his poor start after the no-hitter, his ERA drops to 2.57 during that stretch (h/t Alex Pavlovic, San Jose Mercury News).

Lincecum has spent his whole career proving the doubters wrong, and he’s doing it again this season. When he first came up to the big leagues, he was an undersized, two-pitch guy. He then developed a wipe-out changeup to compliment his mid-90s fastball and curveball to become the best pitcher on the planet during his two Cy Young seasons.

After his disastrous August in 2010, he added a slider to his arsenal to get back on track. This season, he’s started to throw his curveball more often. He’s also improved his preparation, and accepted that his once-blazing fastball isn’t coming back.

Baggarly wrote of Lincecum on Monday:

Lincecum always threw hard and everything came easy. Now he’s throwing easier, and he’s not having as hard a time.

‘He’s within himself and that’s what’s been giving us the hope,’ [pitching coach Dave] Righetti said. ‘Now you want the results and he’s gotten those, too. The results are catching up to what he’s doing out there. You see him righting himself.’ 

You don’t see him joking around the hours before his starts any longer. He’s going over video, spending more time with catcher Buster Posey, plotting and planning for the hitters he’ll be facing. He’s still capable of improvisation on the mound. But now he can play a complex arrangement, too.

In a lost season for the Giants, Lincecum has been found. It’s not surprising that he’s figured out a way to resurrect his career given his outstanding track record. It’s just a bit of a shock that he’s done it in the rotation, and not with a move to the bullpen—which looked inevitable in late May.

The Giants even considered moving Lincecum to the bullpen (full disclosure: I wrote that he should be moved to the bullpen earlier this year). After Lincecum’s no-hitter and seven other quality starts in his last 12 games, it’s clear that he belongs in the rotation.

The lesson in all this is to stop doubting Tim Lincecum. He’s been defying the odds since his freshman year at the University of Washington almost a decade ago. No matter what happens, he always finds the next pitch to add to his arsenal—the next adjustment.

He probably won’t win another Cy Young Award, but it now seems likely that he’ll be an above-average starting pitcher going forward. The Giants now have to hope that the impending free agent will decide to continue his career in San Francisco.


All statistics in this article are courtesy of ESPN and Baseball-Reference.

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Brandon Belt Is the Least of the San Francisco Giants’ Many Problems

The defending champion San Francisco Giants enter play on Tuesday with a record of 50-61. They’re in last place in the National League West, and they’re 12 games behind the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers.

If you tune into the Giants’ radio affiliate KNBR, you know that one of the favorite scapegoats for the team’s woes this season has been first baseman Brandon Belt. After a recent slump, Belt was benched for three games to work on his hitting mechanics. First baseman Brett Pill came up from Triple-A Fresno and had some success, which led to a large fraction of the fanbase clamoring for more Pill and less Belt.

The reality is that Belt is the least of the Giants’ many problems in 2013. He’s second on the team with a .790 OPS behind only Buster Posey (.883). He’s third on the team behind Posey and Marco Scutaro in on-base percentage.

It seems that a lot of the frustration towards Belt has to do with his body language. When he strikes out, he tends to slump his shoulders, which can be somewhat aggravating to watch. Another reason for the frustration with Belt is that he makes a lot of his outs by striking out. He leads the Giants with a 23.7 percent strikeout rate.

Belt strikes out a lot, but those outs aren’t any worse than a fly-ball out or a ground-ball out. Pablo Sandoval only strikes out 13.9 percent of the time, but his OPS is 82 points lower than Belt’s. There doesn’t seem to be the same eagerness amongst Giants fans to replace Sandoval at third base, even though he’s had a pretty dismal year.

Since the start of last season, Belt has hit .271/.353/.432 with a .785 OPS. During that same period, Sandoval has hit .275/.330/.421 with a .750 OPS. Hunter Pence has hit .264/.332/.438 with a .760 OPS. Thus, if you think Belt needs to be replaced at first base, you must also believe that Sandoval and Pence need to be replaced. However, there doesn’t seem to be much chatter about upgrading at those two spots.

The Giants rank 21st in the league in OPS this season after ranking 12th last season. The offense has declined because of a lack of production in center field, left field and at third base.

Angel Pagan hit .288/.338/.440 with a league-leading 15 triples last season in center field. This year, he slumped to .262/.314/.374 before injuring his hamstring in late May, which could force him to miss the remainder of the season.

Melky Cabrera hit .346/.390/.516 in left field for the Giants last year until he was suspended in mid-August for performance-enhancing drug (PED) use. In 2013, the Giants’ left fielders have hit .266/.310/.343 with just two home runs. They have combined for the third-worst OPS in the game.

At third base, Sandoval hit .283/.342/.447 in 2012 before slumping down to .267/.316/.392 thus far in 2013.

Meanwhile, for all the talk about Belt’s inconsistency, he put up a .781 OPS last year and has improved to .790 so far this season.

The Giants offense hasn’t struggled because of a lack of production at first base from Belt. He isn’t the problem. Left field, center field and third base have been the real trouble spots.

Belt is being used as a scapegoat. He’s also yet to live up to the immense potential he showed in the minor leagues when he hit .343/.457/.596 over 825 plate appearances. He may never reach that ceiling. This could be as good as it gets for him in the big leagues.

However, if Belt just stays the same and doesn’t get better, he’ll still be plenty good enough for the Giants at first base. After all, they won the World Series with him there in 2012. He’s been just as good in 2013, but other parts of the offense have faltered.

Belt is not the reason the Giants’ offense got worse this year. He’s the second-best hitter on the team by OPS. If you think he needs to be replaced, then so do seven other Giants regulars.


All statistics in this article are courtesy of ESPN and Baseball-Reference.

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Full Scouting Report on San Francisco Giants’ Trade Target Ricky Nolasco

On Friday night, the San Francisco Giants received a first-hand look at Ricky Nolasco—a pitcher who they reportedly have interest in acquiring, according to Danny Knobler of CBS Sports.

Clark Spencer of The Miami Herald also reported that the Giants were interested in Nolasco, in part because of his success at AT&T Park. Spencer wrote:

The Giants are among the handful of teams interested in Nolasco as a possible acquisition target before the July 31 trade deadline, and for reasons that go beyond their need for rotation help. Nolasco has owned AT&T. Nolasco has gone 4-0 with a 0.83 ERA in four lifetime starts at the Giants’ ballpark by the bay.

Nolasco labored through 5.2 innings against the Giants—who were without three regulars in Angel Pagan, Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Crawford. Nolasco allowed nine hits, two walks and three runs while striking out only one hitter.

It was far from Nolasco‘s best effort in what has otherwise been a solid season for him. Nolasco is only 4-7 through his first 16 starts. His poor record has predominantly been the result of pitching for the worst offense in baseball, as the Miami Marlins are dead last in baseball in runs scored.

The rest of Nolasco‘s numbers are quite solid. He’s put up a 3.68 ERA over 100.1 innings. He’s allowed 95 hits, only 25 walks and just nine home runs. His 3.55 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)—an ERA estimator based on walk, strikeout and home run rates—ranks 39th in the game.

Nolasco doesn’t have overpowering stuff, so he doesn’t miss many bats. He’s struck out 77 hitters this season for a mediocre strikeout rate of 18.5 percent. However, he’s an effective pitcher despite lacking elite stuff because he throws strikes and mixes his pitches well.

According to, Nolasco threw six different pitches against the Giants. He threw 26 two-seam fastballs, 18 four-seam fastballs, 11 changeups, three splitters, 23 sliders and 21 curveballs. He showed very good command of all four of his off-speed pitches. The slider appeared to be his best offering, though the curveball and changeup were solid as well.

According to, Nolasco‘s slider has been his best pitch this season. It’s been worth a little over seven runs for him thus far.

Nolasco‘s two-seam, sinking fastball was also an effective pitch for him on Friday night. He induced nine ground-ball outs including three against reigning NL MVP Buster Posey. Most of those groundballs appeared to come against Nolasco‘s two-seam fastball. He was also able to steal some strikes by throwing his two-seam fastball on the outside corner to right-handed hitters with sharp movement running to his armside

Nolasco has good command of a deep arsenal, which includes three above-average secondary pitches. However, he profiles as a third starter because he doesn’t have enough juice on the fastball to pitch at the top of a rotation.

His two fastballs averaged around 90 mph against the Giants, and that’s where his velocity has been all season. He just doesn’t have enough speed to blow the ball by hitters.

His strikeout rate currently ranks 56th out of 100 qualified starters. If he had more velocity, he would get more swing-throughs on his fastball, and his off-speed stuff would be tougher to hit because hitters would have to show more respect for the heater. To pitch at the top of a rotation, a starter has to be able to miss more bats than Nolasco does.

The good news is that the Giants already have two front-line starters in Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. As long as those two continue to pitch well, the Giants don’t need an ace. They just need someone to stabilize the rotation, and Nolasco is a perfect fit for that role.

The Giants saw Nolasco struggle through 5.2 innings on Friday night. In the end, he limited the damage even though he was in trouble for most of the night.

If the Giants want an ace at the trading deadline, Nolasco is not their man. If they want a third starter to fortify the middle of the rotation, they should indeed try to acquire Nolasco.


All statistics in this article are courtesy of

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Angel Pagan’s Injury Should Force Giants to Seek a Bat at the Trading Deadline

Angel Pagan was carted off the field during the first game on his rehab assignment Thursday night, according to Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area. Baggarly wrote,

Pagan hasn’t played since May 25, when he injured his hamstring in the outfield two innings before hitting a walk-off, inside-the-park home run. He already had one setback in his hamstring injury and opted for a platelet-rich plasma injection instead of surgery…This latest setback makes surgery a strong possibility, obviously.

If Pagan’s injury proves to be serious and does require surgery, the Giants should shift their focus to acquiring another bat at the trading deadline. Danny Knobler of CBS Sports recently reported that the Giants were seeking starting pitching help and had inquired on Ricky Nolasco and Bud Norris. However, that was before Pagan’s latest setback. 

The Giants are second in the National League with a .273 batting average. They rank fourth in on-base percentage and fifth in slugging percentage. They’ve struck out less than any team in the NL. Thus, offense hasn’t been the problem.

The Giants have the third-worst rotation ERA in the NL at 4.57. The inconsistent starting pitching has clearly been holding the team back. The Giants play in one of the most pitcher-friendly stadiums in baseball, which further proves the offense has out-performed the pitching staff this season.

However, the job of general manager Brian Sabean isn’t to merely assess what has happened in the first half and go from there. Instead, his job is to project what is most likely to happen in the future and make deals based on those projections.

There are signs that the starting rotation may not be the problem going forward even though the staff has underachieved to this point.

Madison Bumgarner has had a very good season. He’s made nine quality starts in 15 turns through the rotation while putting up a 3.25 ERA and 1.01 WHIP.

Matt Cain has an uncharacteristically high 4.55 ERA, but he’s also made nine quality starts in 15 tries. His ERA has been inflated by the 15 home runs he’s allowed. Nine of those home runs came during April when Cain put up a 6.49 ERA.

In May, his ERA was 3.48, and it’s 3.38 thus far in June. It looks like Cain is well on his way to getting back to where he was last year when he was the staff ace.

Chad Gaudin has stabilized the rotation while filling in for the injured Ryan Vogelsong. He’s put up a 3.38 ERA over four starts. He was cruising through another gem on Thursday night before getting knocked out with a right elbow contusion. He tweeted that he’ll make his next scheduled start, however.

According to Chris Haft and Andrew Owens of, Vogelsong recently had the pins removed from his surgically repaired right hand. Vogelsong has missed about five weeks of action with an injury that was expected to keep him out for at least eight weeks. With the pins removed, he could be on his way to making a complete recovery soon to boost the rotation during the second half.

Barry Zito has pitched exceptionally well at home this year. He’s 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA at AT&T Park. Unfortunately, he’s 0-4 with an 11.28 ERA on the road. If Zito can get his road woes figured out, he’ll be a solid option going forward at the back of the rotation.

The Giants need Tim Lincecum’s ERA to start mirroring his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)—an ERA estimator based on walk, strikeout and home run rates.

Lincecum put up a 5.18 ERA in 2012, but his FIP was a full run lower at 4.18. This year, his ERA is 4.57 while his FIP is a respectable 3.80.

Lincecum still has strikeout stuff. Since the beginning of last season, he’s struck out 271 hitters in 268.2 innings.

His problem has been an inability to pitch out of trouble. Lincecum is allowing a .780 OPS with runners in scoring position this year compared to .615 with the bases empty. In 2012, he allowed an .887 OPS with runners in scoring position compared to .740 with the bases empty.

Lincecum needs to find a cure for his issues out of the stretch to get his ERA to match his peripherals.

If Pagan’s injury proves to be serious, the Giants should turn their attention to getting another bat for the outfield. Gregor Blanco should move from left field to center, and the Giants should seek more power in left via the trade market.

Blanco‘s .336 on-base percentage since the beginning of last season is actually higher than Pagan’s (.332). Blanco has also been a better defender than Pagan. According to the advanced metric Defensive Runs Saved, Blanco has saved five runs in center field this year while Pagan has cost the Giants nine runs.

Blanco can’t match Pagan’s batting average or slugging percentage. Yet his ability to get on base and play excellent defense make him a serviceable alternative if Pagan has to miss extended time.

The Giants would then have to replace Blanco in left field.

According to Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe, outfielder Josh Willingham could become available if the Twins fall out of contention. According to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, the White Sox are likely to shop Alex Rios and other veteran players if they don’t climb back into the race.

Willingham currently has a slash line of .217/.358/.407 with 10 home runs. He hit .260/.366/.524 with 35 home runs last year.

Rios is batting .280/.339/.465 with 11 home runs. Hunter Pence is the only player on the Giants who has reached double digits in home runs with 11. The club ranks second-to-last in the NL with only 49 homers.

The Giants have not been rumored to be interested in Willingham, Rios or any other bats. If Pagan is out for a while, they should inquire on Willingham and Rios to try to get more power in the outfield.

The Giants considered trading Lincecum for Rios prior to the 2008 season. Their past interest in Rios is interesting to note, but it doesn’t guarantee they’ll pursue him now. 

The Giants rotation has struggled, but there are reasons for optimism. Bumgarner has pitched well. Cain has pitched effectively over the past two months after a rough start. Gaudin has filled in admirably for Vogelsong, who will eventually come back. Zito needs to pitch better on the road, and Lincecum needs to pitch better out of the stretch.

If Pagan has to miss the remainder of the season or a large chunk of it, the Giants should shift their focus to acquiring an outfield bat at the deadline. If Pagan does eventually return to the lineup, the Giants would have a good problem in having too many quality outfielders. Blanco would be one of the best fourth outfielders in the game under that scenario.

Even if the rotation doesn’t round into shape, there’s nothing wrong with fortifying your strength. Another potent bat in the lineup would allow the Giants to have a better chance at out-slugging their opponents.

The Giants have a solid offense. Why not try to make it even better? If Pagan has to go under the knife, the Giants should turn their focus to boosting what has been one of the NL’s best lineups.


All statistics in this article are courtesy of ESPN and Baseball-Reference.

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Didi Gregorius Represents the Value of Scouting for the Arizona Diamondbacks

When the Arizona Diamondbacks traded top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer for shortstop Didi Gregorius in a three-team deal during the offseason, the reaction was predominantly one of scorn towards Arizona general manager Kevin Towers.

Matthew Pouliot of NBC Sports summed up the consensus towards Arizona’s end of the deal when he called it “a lousy idea for the Diamondbacks.”

The sabermetric community and the scouts seemed to agree that Gregorius couldn’t hit. Yet 61 games into the season, the Diamondbacks appear to have gotten the better end of the deal. Gregorius is an example of the importance of scouting for the Diamondbacks.

The Diamondbacks took Bauer with the third overall pick in the 2011 draft. Tower’s decision to trade him for a light-hitting infielder less than two years later seemed like a huge blunder at the time. Gregorius’ statistics pointed to a future as a utility infielder in the eyes of many sabermetric writers.

Jonah Keri of Grantland opined:

When Didi Gregorius grows up, he has a chance to become Cliff Pennington. The 22-year-old shortstop is also an excellent fielder. But he is, to put it lightly, an unimposing hitter. In 1,909 minor league plate appearances, Gregorius hit .271/.323/.376. He has minimal power, rarely walks, doesn’t even steal bases particularly well, with 40 steals in 70 minor league attempts

Ben Badler of Baseball America wrote at the time of the trade that many scouts shared Keri’s sentiment. Badler wrote:

Gregorius has enough upside to be a solid everyday shortstop with a defense-first profile, though there’s also enough risk with his bat that some scouts project him to be more of a utility man.

Towers and his staff saw something in Gregorius that most writers and scouts weren’t seeing. At the time of the deal, Towers compared Gregorius to Derek Jeter.

Towers’ comparison of Gregorius to a future Hall of Fame player seemed far-fetched. Though Gregorius has made the trade look like a coup for Towers in the early stages of this season, it’s still far too early in Gregorius’ career to determine if the comparison to Jeter is accurate.

Through 38 games this year, Gregorius is hitting .322/.386/.497 with 16 extra-base hits. The advanced metric Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) credits Gregorius with three runs saved in the field over 340 innings this season.

Gregorius’ hot start with the bat and glove has made him one of the most valuable shortstops in baseball to this point in the season. He’s a big reason why the Diamondbacks are in first place in the National League West.

The general consensus at the time of the deal was that Towers had made a mistake in dealing Bauer, a top pitching prospect, for Gregorius. Bauer has a 4.63 ERA at Triple-A this season. He’s walked 27 in 46.2 innings. He’s also walked 15 in 16.1 innings over three spot starts for the Cleveland Indians.

Gregorius has been one of the most valuable shortstops in baseball this season, while Bauer has been struggling with his control. The consensus opinion against the deal would appear to be completely wrong. However, nearly half a season is not a large enough sample to determine if the trade is a success for the Diamondbacks.

Bauer could still develop better control and deliver on the promise that made him a top pick in the draft. Gregorius could begin to sputter offensively as the league learns how to pitch to him. A lot can change over the rest of this season and over future years, particularly given the youth of Bauer and Gregorius.

What we can ascertain right now is that the trade represents the value of scouting for Arizona. According to Nick Piecoro of AZCentral, it was scout Pat Murtaugh who first discovered Gregorius for the Diamondbacks.

Murtaugh‘s assessment of Gregorius’ offensive potential was more optimistic than that of other scouts. Piecoro wrote:

But Murtaugh saw Gregorius in 13 games last season. After each series, he bumped up the grades in his scouting report, namely as it pertained to his offensive ability and potential. The stats didn’t match up with the scouting report, but Murtaugh thought they might in the future.

If being a general manager were as simple as looking at a few statistics on Baseball Reference, more people would be qualified for the job. Alas, the job is much more challenging than that.

Many scouts and sabermetric writers didn’t think Gregorius would hit. Towers saw some Derek Jeter in Gregorius when he watched him play. Murtaugh saw someone who would eventually hit despite his uninspiring numbers.

Early in 2013, it looks like the Diamondbacks got it right by dealing Bauer for Gregorius. Good scouting appears to have paid off in a big way for Towers and his staff.

Time will tell if the comparison by Towers of Gregorius to Jeter will prove to be prescient. For now, the Diamondbacks are happy to be in first place with the one of the game’s best young shortstops helping to lead the way.


All statistics in this article are courtesy of ESPN and Baseball Reference.

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San Francisco Giants Starting Pitching Exposed in Sweep by St. Louis Cardinals

In a doubleheader that featured a battle of aces on Saturday, the St. Louis Cardinals dominated the San Francisco Giants by a combined score of 15-1. The Giants’ starting rotation was exposed badly once again.

The Cardinals defeated the Giants 8-0 and 7-1 behind stellar pitching performances from Shelby Miller and Adam Wainwright. Miller and Wainwright combined to strike out 17 while allowing just one run on 14 hits and one walk over 16 innings.

The 22-year-old Miller is now 6-3 with a 1.82 ERA on the year. He’s struck out 72 against 17 walks over 69.1 innings. Wainwright is 8-3 with a 2.33 ERA. His 84-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 89 innings this season is exceptional.

The Cardinals entered play on Saturday with the game’s best rotation ERA at 2.58. Not surprisingly, they also have the best record in baseball.

The defending World Series champion Giants are just 29-27 after getting swept by the Cardinals. The Giants’ lack of consistency this season is due to the struggles of the starting rotation.

The Giants won two out of the last three World Series titles in large part because of the outstanding work of the rotation. The Giants’ rotation finished sixth in ERA last year, second in 2011 and third in 2010. Thus far in 2013, the starters have not been up to the task.

The Giants came into the doubleheader ranked 24th in baseball with a 4.77 ERA from the starting rotation. They were 26th in quality starts with just 22 through the first 54 games.

The two aces of the staff—Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner—both failed to deliver a quality start on Saturday. While Miller and Wainwright were mowing the Giants down, Cain and Bumgarner were getting blasted by the Cardinals.

Cain and Bumgarner combined to allow 15 hits and 12 runs over 12 innings of work. The third inning was particularly confounding for both pitchers.

Cain allowed nine hits and seven runs in the third. He didn’t allow any baserunners in his other five innings of work.

Cain now has a 5.45 ERA after his rough outing against the Cardinals. His career ERA entering this season was 3.27.

The culprit for his rough start to 2013 has been his lack of command within the strike zone. In the third inning against the Cardinals, that problem was obvious as he continued to make location mistakes right over the middle of the plate.

After Cain’s start, Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News wrote:

Last season, Cain never allowed six runs in a game. He has done it four times through 12 starts this season…

‘I can’t think of a time like this,’ Cain said, when asked if he could remember grooving as many fastballs down the plate, which is really what this comes down to. ‘It’s about trying to get the rhythm back.’

Cain said he would go back again and look at what happened and then move on. Maybe he’ll find something he missed during the first glance, but at the moment, he doesn’t have many answers. Why is he missing location so often?

‘I couldn’t tell you right now,’ he said.

After retiring the first seven batters during the second game of the doubleheader, Bumgarner walked Pete Kozma with one out in the third. He then left an 0-2 pitch out over the plate to Wainwright, who smashed it for a double.

After a grounder off the bat of Jon Jay scored a run, Bumgarner left another two-strike pitch out over the plate to Carlos Beltran. Beltran lined a two-run single to center to make the score 3-0.

Bumgarner had taken over for the struggling Cain as the staff ace in April when he went 3-0 with a 1.55 ERA. However, during May, he went 1-3 with a 5.17 ERA before getting hit hard in his first start of June. His 3.46 ERA still leads the staff.

Barry Zito is second in the rotation with a 3.88 ERA. It’s been a tale of two seasons for Zito. He’s 4-0 with a 1.40 ERA in seven starts at home compared to 0-3 with a 10.19 ERA over four starts on the road.

No other starter on the staff has an ERA below the league average of 4.17. Cain (5.45 ERA), Tim Lincecum (5.12) and the injured Ryan Vogelsong (7.19) have all struggled this year.

Vogelsong‘s replacement, Michael Kickham, was knocked out in the third inning of his only start after allowing four runs. He was demoted back to Fresno and replaced in the rotation by long reliever Chad Gaudin.

Two months into the season, the Giants can no longer chalk up the disappointing performance of the rotation to a small sample size fluke. They also can’t move each struggling starter to the bullpen because they have no clear alternatives. Kickham was the organization’s top starter in the upper minors, and he didn’t look ready for the show during his debut.

The good news for the Giants is that they’re only two games out of first place despite the rotation’s ugly performance. Given the impressive track records of Cain, Bumgarner, Lincecum and Vogelsong, the Giants have to figure that they’ll receive improvement from their starters at some point this year.

However, with Vogelsong out for up to eight weeks, general manager Brian Sabean may need to turn to the trade market to stabilize the rotation. Sabean should already be scouring the market for potential trade options even though the trading deadline is nearly two months away.

If Sabean‘s troops keep getting exposed as badly as they did on Saturday, he will need to strike early to bring in reinforcements. Otherwise, the Giants risk digging a hole that will be too deep to climb out of.

Losing by a combined score of 15-1 in Saturday’s doubleheader should serve as a wake-up call. The Cardinals’ two aces were exceptional. The Giants’ two aces pitched like fifth starters. That’s not a recipe for defending a championship.


All statistics in this article are courtesy of ESPN and Baseball-Reference.

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2013 MLB Draft: Notes on Stanford Top Prospects Mark Appel and Austin Wilson

Stanford ace Mark Appel is projected to be one of the top picks in the 2013 MLB Draft next month. His teammate Austin Wilson will also likely be a first-round pick.

Dave Perkin of Sports Illustrated has Appel going second to the Chicago Cubs and Wilson going 28th in his mock draft. Keith Law of ESPN also has the Cubs taking Appel with the second pick and Wilson going later in the first round in his mock draft (subscription required).

I was on hand to watch Appel and Wilson on Friday night against California.

Appel allowed nine hits, five runs, one home run, one walk and one hit batsman over seven innings of work. He also struck out 11 of the 34 hitters he faced.

Most of Appel‘s strikeouts on Friday night came on his slider, which is his best pitch right now. Whenever he gets in trouble, he leans on it heavily. He has excellent command of his slider and he changes speeds effectively with it.

Appel‘s slider sat between 83-88 miles per hour. He throws straight over the top, so it looks like an extremely hard curveball more than a typical slider.He can throw it to steal strikes early in the count and he can also throw it below the zone to put hitters away in two-strike counts. He can throw it effectively against both righties and lefties. 

He did throw a few hangers on Friday night—one of which was blasted for a home run by Cal catcher Andrew Knapp. Even though Appel made a few mistakes with the slider, it’s clearly his best pitch. It’s currently worthy of a 60 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale, with a chance for more improvement as he gains additional experience. 

His changeup was erratic on Friday night. He didn’t use the pitch very often. When he did throw it, he tended to bounce it too far in front of the plate or cast it off well above and beyond the strike zone. He did throw a few good ones to induce some swing-throughs, but it wasn’t a pitch he could count on consistently. 

After seeing Appel pitch three times this year, it’s clear to me that his changeup is still a work in progress. It’s currently worthy of a 45 grade. The improvement of his changeup in the minor leagues will go a long way towards determining whether or not he becomes a future ace.

His fastball velocity was outstanding. His four-seam fastball sat between 94-97 miles per hour. It also looked like he was mixing in a 92-94 mile-per-hour two-seam fastball.

He did a good job of pounding lefties in on the hands with fastballs to set up his back-foot slider. He was able to change the hitters’ sight lines by throwing the fastball down in the zone and then going above the letters with high heaters.

He showed very good control of all of his pitches. He only walked one hitter on Friday night and he’s only walked 21 for the entire year. However, his command of the fastball within the strike zone was a problem. Thus, despite the velocity on his fastball, it only grades out as a 55 right now—slightly above-average.

He had a hard time throwing his four-seam fastball to his arm-side—away from lefties. He gave up a double to Knapp on a fastball right down the middle with his catcher setting up on the outside corner. His lack of fastball command was part of the reason why Cal hitters only swung and missed against it a few times all game.

Appel‘s lack of dominance with the fastball was the most disconcerting aspect of his outing. He was throwing his fastball in the mid-90s all night, but he wasn’t dominating the Cal hitters with that exceptional velocity. He lacks command of the fastball within the zone at times and he doesn’t get a lot of movement on it unless he goes to the two-seamer. His over-the-top delivery doesn’t seem to create much deception, either.

There’s a lot to like about Appel. His slider would play in the big leagues right now. He has exceptional velocity. He has a developing changeup that will flash at times. He’s a big kid that maintains his velocity deep into the game.

However, he’s simply not as dominant in his final collegiate season as some recent top draft picks like Stephen Strasburg and Tim Lincecum.

Strasburg struck out 195 hitters in 109 innings in his final year in college. Tim Lincecum struck out 199 hitters in 125.1 innings in his final year at Washington. In comparison, Appel has struck out 121 in 98.1 innings so far this season.

He has elite velocity, but he’s not quite as dominant as he should be given his tremendous stuff. The development of his changeup and fastball command will be the keys to determining whether or not he ultimately reaches his high ceiling. 

Cal was careful with Stanford’s other projected first round pick, Austin Wilson. He hit into a double play, lined a single to left and then walked in each of his final three plate appearances. He got out of the box slowly on the double play, but later showed excellent speed going first-to-third on a single and then scoring on a sacrifice fly.

Wilson has an impressive .333/.436/.570 slash line so far this season. He’s hit seven doubles and five home runs in 25 games. He’s shown good control of the strike zone by walking 12 times against 15 strikeouts.

Wilson has all of the tools: power, size (6’5″, 240 pounds), speed, patience, arm strength and hitting ability. However, he suffered an elbow injury earlier in the year that probably caused his draft stock to drop some.

He shows legitimate power in batting practice but that pop doesn’t always carry over into games. He’s struggled with breaking balls away in both of the games that I’ve seen him in this year. His ability to take breaking balls the other way instead of rolling over on them will be a key factor in his future development.

Stanford has two of the most impressive prospects in this draft. Appel has the tools to be a future ace and Wilson has the talent to be a middle-of-the-order run-producer.

However, both players will still have things upon which to improve in the minor leagues after their names are called in the first round of the 2013 MLB Draft next month.


(All scouting grades on Appel‘s pitches in this article are the author’s).

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