The All-Star Break is upon us and not many people would have thought the San Francisco Giants would be 10 games over .500 and leading the National League Wild Card.
There have been plenty of things to smile about if you're amongst the Giants faithful—Matt Cain's emergence as front-line starter behind Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval taking hold of AT&T, and a no-hitter from the least likely pitcher on the pitching staff, Jonathan Sanchez.
Above all else, the success this team is having is something that not many of us expected to happen in 2009.
With the 2009 All-Star Break coming to a close, it was the perfect time to catch up with the top Giants writers on Bleacher Report to discuss not only the surprises in the first half of the season, but also the disappointments.
There are a few entries that could the biggest surprises of the season for me.
First off, I could put Pablo Sandoval, but as we talked about in an earlier Roundtable, he is hardly a surprise.
I could go with Nate Schierholtz, and rightly so, but after getting off to a fast start he has definitely cooled down.
So, for biggest (positive) surprise of the 2009 first half, I'm going to have to go with a combo of Juan Uribe (and the rest of the offense) and Justin Miller (and the rest of the bullpen).
Uribe made the team as an afterthought after being invited to spring camp as a non-roster invitee. He didn't get much playing time at the start of the season.
But once injuries and slumps started taking their toll, Uribe became the first one off the bench for Bruce Bochy. He was the one that jump-started this Giants offense in Seattle, and from then on he got consistent playing time with the demotion of Emmanuel Burriss and the short-term arm injury to Pablo Sandoval.
In July, so far he's hitting .342 with a .579 slugging percentage. Remember, this guy hit 20-plus homers in three different seasons with the White Sox, and has the ability to be a starter on the infield. After a fall from grace, he has definitely found his niche here in San Francisco and is shaping into an integral part of the offense.
For the rest of the offense, the 63 home runs still ranks third to last in the National League, but run production in the past month ranks eighth in the majors, ahead of the Brewers (12th), Dodgers (14), and even the Pujols-led Cardinals (26).
On the other side of the ball, Justin Miller, after his outing Saturday, deserves a lot of praise for what he and the rest of the bullpen have done this year.
Miller, another non-roster invitee, was called up after Joe Martinez was hit in the head with a line drive in the opening series of the season. Since then, he's thrown a bullpen leading 41.0 innings and has a 1.98 ERA. He is also sporting a 1.10 WHIP, and has 24 strikeouts to 14 walks.
A former starter with the Marlins, Miller has made a great living as a middle relief mean in this deep Giants bullpen, which also features off-season signing Jeremy Affeldt (1.32 ERA), former All-Star closer Brian Wilson (23 of 27 in save opportunities), and returning young gun Sergio Romo (16 strikeouts in 13 innings).
Relief was one of the main reasons that the Giants couldn't close out games a year ago, and this year's bullpen ranks among the best in the league.
For me, the biggest disappointment I'm going with is Fred Lewis.
The promise he showed last year just isn't there anymore. Last year, he was slugging the ball and playing a very good left-field. In 2009, he has little-to-no offensive numbers, with way too many strikeouts, and his defense has been spotty and insecure. No one has really figured it out yet, and Bochy has sat him down for the last couple weeks.
On the bright side, the couple times that he has come off the bench to pinch-hit he's looked pretty sharp, cranking out some clutch hits.
I was looking for Lewis to bounce back after the bunion surgery shut him down as he was peaking last year, but it definitely has not happened. The emergence of Nate Schierholtz as an everyday player is comforting, and the ability of Randy Winn to play wherever the Giants put him is amazing.
But for the man who was in line to kind of plug the hole that Barry Bonds left, a .250 average with four homeruns and 63 strikeouts in 212 ABs is not the way to go.
Biggest Surprise—Ryan Sadowski
Again, you could go a lot of different ways here.
Nate Schierholtz should be a popular choice and for good reason. However, several Giant loyalists from our friendly little community hipped me to Nate the Suddenly Great well before he got his shot. It still can be stunning to watch the bazooka-armed right fielder flash his bulging bag o' tricks, I was somewhat prepared for him to excel.
The same can be said about the entirety of the Matt Cain, Sergio Romo, Barry Zito (although that one's getting rickety), Aaron Rowand in the lead-off spot, and Pablo Sandoval.
All are off to great starts and either beating or matching considerable expectations, but the signs were there.
For me, it comes down to Travis Ishikawa's increasingly potent bat and Sadowski's explosion into the Show.
This one is neck-and-neck—if you look at Ishikawa's game log, you'll see a rosy little trend. The 25-year-old got off to a rough start, but then was settling into a nice .300 groove until Sandoval went down with a sore arm. When Little Panda returned, he had to be slotted in at first to ease the strain on his arm.
With the fine-fielding first baseman stashed on the bench, his bat cooled and it was back to the drawing board upon his return (in fairness, Ishikawa did find his power stroke on the pine). But don't look now, because Travis has found that groove again.
And yet Sadowski gets my nod despite only three starts and 18 innings pitched in his entire career.
Those 18 frames have produced two wins and a loss, 10 whiffs against eight walks, a 1.11 WHIP, and a 1.00 earned run average. Opposing splinters are flailing to the tune of a sub-Mendoza .194 average, .226 slugging percentage, and .292 OBP.
The 26-year-old former Florida Gator debuted by going six scoreless and surrendering only four knocks while beating the Milwaukee Brewers in Milwaukee.
Sadowski followed that with seven clean innings and shaving one of his previous hit total to register his second win—this one over the Houston Astros in his home opener.
Ironically, though, it's his lone blemish convincing me to dub him my Surprise of the First Half. He clearly didn't have his best stuff and perhaps the native Floridian who stayed there for college was wound a little tight hurling against his boyhood favorites. I don't know.
What I do know is he battled and pitched well enough to win without this A-game.
Every professional on the bump can win with his full arsenal working—the ability to improvise and win when you've been abandoned that keeps 'em in the Bigs. Sadowski showed he has that, too.
With Randy Johnson on the shelf for a while, we'll get to see if the kid can do it for the long haul.
Biggest Disappointment—Fred Lewis
This one's easy for me.
You could go with Jonathan Sanchez because his overall body of work has been, ahem, unsightly, but who wants to do that after the kid throws a no-hitter? Bobby Howry's been shaky at times, but I think we probably expected or should have expected that. Ditto Edgar Renteria.
There are others as well—Randy Winn, Emmanuel Burriss' asinine demotion and subsequent injury, Noah Lowry and his agent, etc.
But for me, it's Fab Five Freddie (last time I'll use that nickname) and it's not particularly close.
Fast Freddie has regressed at the plate and this after a hot start to the 2009 season. Through April, the San Francisco Giant left fielder was hitting .299 with an on-base percentage of .420. His power had yet to surface, but there were ample reasons to be optimistic and patient.
Coasting into the All-Star break? Not so damn much...
His average currently sits at .250 with a .332 on-base in 212 at-bats with 37 runs scored, 13 doubles, two triples, four home runs, 12 runs batted in, 63 strikeouts, five stolen bases nullified by four caught-stealings, and a .387 slugging percentage.
Mediocre as that line looks, it's not what cost him his job in the outfield.
The fleet-footed 28-year-old is the biggest disappointment because he can't catch—pure and simple.
I'll never understand how an athlete can stay about the Mendoza Line against Major League pitching, but struggle to put leather to baseball and squeeze. It is simply a matter of coordination and concentration in both cases, and hitting is MUCH harder.
And Freddie Lewis gets to the pill—range isn't his problem, which makes the conundrum so much more frustrating. Let's move on...
In a season where the team's success is one of the biggest surprises of them all and so many good stories have come about, it's hard to pick one single player to focus on as the biggest surprise of the first half.
However, if I had to narrow it down to just one person, which isn't easy at all, it would probably be Pablo Sandoval.
You may be thinking to yourself that a guy who was supposed to be a big part of the offense and has come through is not exactly a surprise.
Well I tell you this—Sandoval hitting for average isn’t a surprise, the way he has done it is one hell of a surprise.
The Sandovalian theory of hitting is to swing the bat early and often. It doesn't matter if the pitch is at his eyebrows or about to bounce in the dirt, the Panda likes to swing the bat.
It hasn't prevented him from hitting for power, however, something that has been he biggest improvement over his 2008 debut.
In his cameo last season, he hit for a serious average (.345), but he didn't hit for much power at all. He only smacked two homers and drove in 24 in 41 games.
Now in 2009, Sandoval has played exactly twice as many games as a year ago and the offensive output is a little more than doubled.
Let's try a .333 average, 15 bombs, 55 RBI, and one huge All-Star Game snub on for size. Doesn't matter if there are runners on base, nobody on, bases chucked full—Sandoval comes through.
Is it safe to say the Kung Fu Panda has arrived?
And the most impressive thing of it all—he's done most of his damage at pitcher friendly AT&T.
Little Money has replaced Big Money as the Giants' No. 1 choice to come to the plate in the clutch.
Amongst the crowd, Sandoval stands alone.
That being said, the biggest disappointment of the season isn’t as hard to figure out.
Fred Lewis' debut wasn't insanely spectacular by any means, but it wasn't terrible either. When you think about whom he was replacing and that he was a regular starter for the first time in his career, hitting .282 with nine homers and 40 RBI.
We all thought that the second year being a everyday player and knowing that he was going to hit in the middle of the order, meaning more chances to drive in runs, would help improve his stats a whole heck of a lot.
The problem is that it didn't.
Lewis started out the first couple of weeks of the season scorching hot. It seemed that he had found his place hitting in the middle of the lineup and that left field wasn’t a position to worry about.
Then the strikeouts starting piling up, the average went into a freefall, and the defensive adventures in the outfield became almost as frequent as games with multiple strikeouts.
Manager Bruce Bochy gave him some days off and those days off turned into weeks off as Nate Schierholtz caught fire and established himself as the better option in the outfield.
Giants announcer Dave Flemming said it best around the time Lewis was demoted to the bench—left field wasn’t a position the Giants were worried about coming out of Spring Training.
Now his career is certainly at a crossroads and nobody really knows if he will be anything more than a pinch hitter and fourth outfielder while he is still with the Giants.
Is it any surprise that the F-Dot-Lew blog on the Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area website hasn’t been updated much at all since he was sent to the bench?
Biggest first-half surprise: Justin Miller and Brandon Medders
Coming into this season the Giants had a completely revamped bullpen from a year ago. It was unclear where the middle relief was going to come from.
Everyone by the bay expected young stud Sergio Romo, free agent Jeremy Affeldt and closer Brian Wilson to hold down the fort in the late innings. But last year the Giants had Keichi Yabu as the only source of middle relief and that ended up as a major failure.
Therefore, there was significant concern from Giants fans about who would be able to take the ball early in a game after a poor start from Jonathan Sanchez and keep the game close before handing it over to the late-inning relievers.
And putting those concerns to rest have been Medders and Miller. In all honesty, not many fans (including myself) had heard of these relievers before this season. However, so far this season, they have proved to be incredibly reliable.
Medders has thrown 33 2/3 innings and struck out 29 batters and despite a relatively high WHIP of 1.49, the 29-year-old reliever has kept the earned runs to a minimum, allowing just 11 of them for a 2.94 ERA
As good as Medders has pitched, Miller has thrown even better. In 37 2/3 innings, Miller has allowed just nine earned runs, giving him an miniscule 2.15 ERA and a fabulous 1.17 WHIP. Not to mention opposing hitters are batting just .233 against him.
These unsung heroes are key pieces to the Giants bullpen which has gone from one of the league's worst in 2008 to one of the league's best in 2009.
Biggest first-half disappointment: Emmanuel Burriss
Despite being a Kevin Frandsen supporter, I was expecting big things from Emmanuel Burriss after the speedy middle-infielder won the starting second-base spot after Spring Training.
Not only had Burriss put up tremendous numbers during Spring Training, but he was coming off a rookie campaign where he finished with a .283 average and 13 stolen bases.
However, after starting this season with eight stolen bases and raising his average to .287 on May 10, Burriss started to slump. And finally after and 0-24 stretch in mid-June was sent back down to Triple-A Fresno.
With his replacements Matt Downs and Kevin Frandsen struggling as well, hopefully Juan Uribe can keep his hot bat going on a daily basis.