San Francisco Giants' Biggest 2nd-Half Keys NOT Involving Tim Lincecum
If you've been paying attention closely, reading the tea leaves, you might've divined that their ace of aces, Tim Lincecum, has been suffering through a rough go of it in 2012.
The little right-hander with the big arm has shown glimpses of his old self at various points this season, but the overall picture has been a brutal one. He's got one of the worst earned run averages in all of Major League Baseball amongst starters with at least 70 innings pitched. His WHIP isn't quite as ugly, but it's been a far cry from pretty.
The possible culprits behind the Freak's issues have been manifold—his control has been inconsistent, his velocity is down, his mechanics are out of whack when he's in the stretch, he's been incredibly unlucky.
Oh and he's not concentrating from the first to last pitch, he dropped too much weight in the offseason, he's smoking too much weed, he's not smoking enough weed, his chi is out of alignment and on and on.
Name a theory and the lunatic fringe in the Bay Area has floated it.
This is a two-time Cy Young Award winner who justifiably wears the nickname "The Franchise." Consequently, it's no surprise that Lincecum's struggles have been the talk of the town and beyond. Nor is it a surprise that a rebound from said struggles have headlined most of the stories about San Francisco's post-All-Star break fate.
If Lincecum finds some semblance of his front-line form, the Gents will get a major boost as they move through July, August and into September.
In fact, there's a good chance the fellas will still be playing ball in October if that happens.
However, one player rarely carries an entire baseball team's fortune in his hands. A revival from Big Time Timmy Jim is not the only key to the second half. It will not ensure a trip to the playoffs if a bunch of other wheels fall off the wagon.
So, with all due respect to Tim, here are the non-Lincecum keys to a successful summer and fall by the Bay.
No. 7: Settle the Middle Infield Issue
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With Freddy Sanchez out for the year and Ryan Theriot playing quality innings at second base, half of this key is already accomplished. But I still wanted to get a word in for Theriot, who's been one of the unsung heroes for San Francisco, a top 10 keystone in June according to Fangraph's calculation of WAR.
The 32-year-old doesn't need to keep that torrid (by his standards) pace for the rest of the season, but if he wants to, Giants fans won't talk him out of it.
The other half of the equation, however, remains in flux.
Brandon Crawford is supposed to be los Gigantes' shortstop of the present and future, but he hasn't made the strongest case thus far in 2012. His defense has been inconsistent: he's made beautiful plays and he's blown routine ones. Considering his lackluster slash line, there's little reason to keep playing him if his current hot streak on the field doesn't hold.
Of course, the other option at short, Joaquin Arias, isn't exactly setting the world afire with his bat.
And it's not like teams are in the habit of trading away quality shortstops at the trade deadline, which means external help ain't riding to the rescue anytime soon.
Earlier in the season, Arias showed stronger signs of offensive life, so it made sense to give him some of Crawford's reps, but he's been flat-lining of late.
Consequently, the younger Crawford (albeit by two years) should continue to get the vast majority of the starts at shortstop. If he plays clean defense, any hitting he does will be gravy. If he starts making errors, at least San Francisco will have learned something useful heading into 2013 and beyond.
No. 6: Don't Try to Address the Offensive Issues Via a Splashy Trade
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There is a growing chorus in the Bay Area that says the Giants need to make a trade to address a glaring weakness in their offense. Namely, San Francisco needs a bat that will solve the team's inabilities to hit with runners in scoring position, especially when there are two outs.
In both situations, only the woeful San Diego Padres have been worse, so the criticism is a valid one.
It's also insane to only remedy this through the trade market.
As numerous examples in the past have proven—Carlos Beltran, anyone?—offensive production in a one environment doesn't necessarily carry over to AT&T Park. That's true when you're trying to address such issues as a team lacking power, the ability to get on base or just basic run production.
So how in the name of all that's holy are you supposed to accurately predict which hitter can move from a team that's playing for pride to one in the thick of a pennant chase that calls a pitcher's park "home" and hit with ducks on the pond?
The answer is simple: You can't.
For the vast majority of athletes, performance becomes more difficult when you add pressure. Most stat-heads refuse to believe this, but that's because most stat-heads couldn't play the game in the first place and thus place too much faith in logic.
Regardless, it's true and it goes double for something as hard as hitting a baseball. When the stakes are raised, the pitcher is more focused, the crowd is zeroed in, the decibel level cranks up and the price of failure is more extreme.
Some individuals thrive under the additional stress, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.
And consider what a deadline trade entails: a player from a bottom-dweller moving into the throes of contention. Teams that are bad don't play under much stress, their games don't have much riding on them and are generally less competitive. That means the elements that may have contributed to their success with runners in scoring position are the very elements that will be absent in their new digs.
If general manager Brian Sabean can flip a mid-level prospect for a bat, wonderful. Other than that, though, the Giants should go with the girls who they brought to the dance.
No. 5: Find an Answer to the Closer Question
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When All-Star closer Brian Wilson went down with an elbow injury that required a second encounter with the dreaded Tommy John surgery, I wrote that the club would be just fine.
Turns out, I might've played that too casually.
Santiago Casilla stepped into Wilson's orange shoes and made me look prophetic...initially.
Of late, the interim closer has shown some cracks. Actually, make them gaping fissures through which homers and runs have leaked with wild abandon. What was a 1.17 ERA at the end of May has ballooned up over three. One blown save has become six and counting.
Casilla has had his moments—you don't stumble your way to 23 saves (and counting)—so it's not time to pull the plug on the fire-balling right-hander quite yet. But given the spate of rocky outings in the last few weeks, confidence is in short supply and a few boo-birds have even made an appearance.
Fortunately for the Giants, they have options.
Given the talented arms in the bullpen, Bruce Bochy could always trigger the closer-by-committee option. Sergio Romo isn't durable enough to make appearances night after night, but he's plenty filthy to handle the bulk of the load while Jeremy Affeldt, Casilla, Javier Lopez and Brad Penny share the honors when Romo needs the an off-day.
Or Casilla could iron out the kinks and become lights out once again.
Whatever the solution, though, San Francisco needs to find it sooner rather than later because those blown saves have a tendency to come back on you.
No. 4: Barry Zito Must Continue to Defy Expectations
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There have been plenty of surprises for the 2012 San Francisco Giants, both good and bad, but one of the most pleasant has been the resurgence of their $126 Million Man, Barry Zito.
Given up for dead by all but his most stoic supporters, Baked Zito has experienced a mini-renaissance this year. Though his peripheral numbers don't indicate much of a change, his earned run average is hovering in respectable territory, he's been brilliant on occasion in adverse circumstances (see: on the road in Colorado and on the road in Atlanta) and he's given San Francisco a fighting chance in most of his starts.
To be sure, those are modest achievements, but modest plays in nicely when you consider the scorched earth of his tenure with los Gigantes.
Of course, those peripheral numbers are a wee bit unsettling.
Zeets is basically striking out the opposition, walking batters, getting hit, allowing baserunners and getting slugged around at the same rate as he has in previous years with San Francisco. Except you can't easily finger Lady Luck as the culprit because his BABIP is slightly lower than his historical mark in the category, but nothing too extreme.
So is it smoke and mirrors with a massive regression on the horizon? Or is it a case of Zito buckling down when a controlled blaze starts instead of pouring gasoline on it?
Only time will tell, but if he can continue to pitch as well as he has to date, the Giants will have a significant edge over the competition.
Zito won't be mistaken for an ace, but most teams would love his numbers from their fifth starter.
No. 3: Keep Pablo Sandoval Away from the Buffet
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It's possible that the only thing Pablo Sandoval enjoys more than playing baseball is consuming food and drink.
The Kung Fu Panda's battle with his bulge is an annual affair and 2012 has been no different. He came into the season slimmed down, got hurt and ballooned back up to problematic proportions. Even so, he's been an above-average third baseman with numbers that place him amongst the league-leaders at the position.
But hitting is rarely the issue with Sandoval, even when he's carrying around too much excess weight.
His fielding, on the other hand, suffers badly.
As a converted catcher, Pablito isn't going to remind anyone of the defensive wizards who've manned the hot corner, even in the best of times. But check the advanced numbers, a svelter Sandoval is a far more effective Sandoval as far as the leather is concerned.
Since the Giants will win with pitching and defense more often than not, Sandoval's weight could be a significant issue if left unchecked.
No. 2: Melky Cabrera Must Stay Hot
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When discussing the biggest MLB All-Star Game snubs, ESPN's Keith Law referred to Melky Cabrera as "a BABIP-fluke hitter" (Insider required).
That's a transparently provocative description meant to stir up a hornet's nest in the comment section, so the bulk of it doesn't merit further discussion. Especially when you consider Cabrera played a major role in powering the National League to victory and won All-Star Game MVP honors along the way.
But there is a kernel of truth hidden in there that should be addressed—the Melk Man's BABIP has been through the roof thus far.
Now, I'm not a true-believer in those advanced stats because the blindly faithful seem to believe that outliers in areas like batting-average-on-balls-in-play are purely driven by luck.
That's garbage. If a player is seeing the ball well and only swinging at strikes over the fat part of the plate, his BABIP will be higher than the league average because he's going to be hitting more line drives. Just as a player who is NOT seeing the ball well and swinging at pitcher's strikes (or balls) will have a BABIP lower than the league average because he won't be making solid contact.
It stands to reason that good hitters and streaking hitters will have higher BABIPs than their counterparts.
That said, the element of luck cannot be wholly ignored and slumps happen, so Melky's soaring season will probably come back to Earth a bit along with his BABIP.
So the key will be keeping the regression from being serious.
Cabrera needs to be one of the primary cogs in the offensive machine because the Giants are unlikely to find another.
How can the Giants do that?
Aside from rest and off-days when the inevitable slump hits, your guess is as good as mine.
Cross your fingers, knock on wood, wear lucky socks—the Giants and their fans should try it all because Cabrera's been a joy to watch thus far and he needs to continue to be one down the stretch.
No. 1: Buster Posey Must Stay Rested and Healthy
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I've heard baseball people say that, as Buster Posey goes, so go the Giants.
I'd love to argue with the sentiment and it's obviously not 100 percent true, but there are no absolute truths in life, so to argue the point would be to engage in semantic warfare. And that's a useless endeavor unless you're in a court room.
So, yes, speaking in broad strokes, Gerald Dempsey III must stay healthy and near the top of his game for San Francisco to remain at the top of the standings. That means the 25-year-old must get plenty of reps at first base and more than his share of off-days as the club plods through the summer swelter.
With Hector Sanchez heading to the shelf and every Giant fans' favorite silver fox rejoining the major-league roster, both tasks are now that much more difficult.
Nevertheless, they are imperatives going forward.
Manager Bruce Bochy deserves a good deal of credit for Buster's triumphant rebound from a catastrophic ankle/leg injury. He's allowed Posey to shed the tools of ignorance with enough regularity that the kid has been one of the best at his position in 2012, but the job only gets more difficult as the number in the games-played column increases.
If Boch can handle the juggling act and Posey stays strong, The City could be enjoying October baseball yet again.
Of course, it wouldn't hurt if Tim Lincecum turned his season around, too...