Even though it may seem like I am hitting the panic button, let me begin by saying I am not.
After last season, the panic button doesn’t exist.
It has evaporated completely, gone the way of Dave Roberts’ speed, Ray Durham’s range, Armando Benitez’s composure, Eugenio Velez’ 15 minutes, and (hopefully soon) Barry Zito’s mustache. The 2010 Giants cashed in a lifetime’s worth of good karma and made up for every wrong that was ever done by any version of the team.
So although this post is not exactly dripping in happy thoughts and sunshine, it by no means represents the pushing of a panic button.
But man, are the Giants terrible defensively or what? They’re like "The Bad News Bears," if all their position players had their knees surgically replaced and were 20 pounds overweight.
2010 May have granted the Giants a free pass, but a free pass can't improve Miguel Tejada's range or Freddy Sanchez's silly putty-filled shoulder. It is never a good sign when your second baseman has undergone more reconstructive procedures than Joan Rivers and the Six Million Dollar Man combined.
Having two corner outfielders with no range, who should by all rights be DH’ing somewhere—or at least playing first—is not helping either. Andres Torres and Aaron Rowand are good center fielders, but there is only so much ground they can cover.
Luckily, a resurgent Rowand, a rejuvenated Panda, and the continued poetry-in-motion of Buster Posey’s swing have been beautiful to watch, giving us fans hope that early-season foibles and follies will fade as the season progresses.
It's likely the defensive lapses and general regression we have seen are the result of the Giants inevitable return to earth after the ridonkulous hot streak that they rode to the title last year.
But it is important to remember that beyond the team’s return back from the stratosphere of making baseball dreams come true, this season has also been filled with general wonkiness—misplayed balls, bad bounces, terrible calls at the worst possible time. Part of this can be explained because the Giants are old at some key positions, resulting in bad defense.
Part of it is just baseball weirdness.
Some of the Giants consistently epic failures on defense can be blamed on the simple fact that baseball is a cruel mistress. She tears you down, builds you back up, and tears you down again.
It is a game that is impossible to predict, full of anomalies—strange angles and vectors that can conspire at any time to mess with your head—or lift you up and help make you great—something Giants fans know well after last season.
Unfortunately, the 2011 Giants have shown a unique knack to find the dark side of these anomalies.
Possibly because they got all the bounces last year, it seems that they have gotten very few so far this year. Balls that were fielded cleanly last season have now consistently become hatchet jobs, botched plays that just 1 year ago would have been routine.
The Giants have consistently found small but immeasurably significant ways to extend opponents' rallies and have been prone to errors at the least opportune times.
Ultimately, as cruel as baseball can be, these anomalies will all even out, even if the defense continues to stink. A botched third strike call early in the year that kills a rally will come back later as a botched ball four call that sparks a rally and wins a game.
That’s just the way it is. There is no explaining it. It is baseball karma.
Honestly, as concerning as the misplayed balls, bad bounces and lapses in judgment are, the defense isn’t really the problem. It is merely a symptom of the problem.
That problem is that the Giants are old in all the wrong places—middle infield and in AT&T’s cavernous outfield corners. They have their two youngest, most promising athletes playing the two positions where youth and athleticism matter the least.
I’m not saying Posey should be moved from behind the plate, or that Brandon Belt should transition to the outfield (shudder), but it is frustrating to watch a team that is young in so many ways struggle to make plays that would be routine were the players involved just a little bit younger.
Additionally, one good thing about the 2011 Giants roster is that they have all the players necessary for a decent outfield and a decent defense in general, even if many of them are looking older as each game is played.
The outfield corners are obviously one of the team’s biggest concerns in this regard, but Bochy just needs to figure out how to handle an outfield roster that possesses completely unique skill sets.
Between Rowand, Pat Burrell, Torres, Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross, and Nate Schierholtz, they have the potential for a decent outfield, both offensively and defensively. Once this balance is struck, I fully expect the yips, bad hops, and bad jumps to cease—or least stop occurring at such an overtly embarrassing rate.
Once Bochy figures out how to strike the right balance between these six, all will be right in the world again.
On the positive side, the pitching is looking like is has not suffered a similar regression to the defense.
Tim Lincecum is still an absolute man-beast, and Matt Cain is his usual, dominant, low-profile self.
Zito has looked…well, still not great, but he is as consistent as usual.
The growing pains of MadBum and Jonathan Sanchez are to be expected.
Bumgarner is actually young and should be going through growing pains in his first full MLB season.
Sanchez is a player perpetually undergoing growing pains to the point that I legitimately believe he should change his name to Jonathan “4.2 IP, 5BB” Sanchez, so fans know more accurately what to expect from him, if they don’t already.
For Giant's fans, Sanchez remains the most frustrating man in the world. All he needs is an off-brand version of Dos Equis in his hand to complete the picture.
However, while the talent on the Giants pitching staff remains in baseball’s upper echelon, the problem they have encountered is one of continuity.
When the season began, Bochy decided to break up his studs, moving Cain to third in the rotation to save the bullpen by alternating starters who can consistently go deep into games, and those who typically do not. This seemed like a good idea at the time.
Unwittingly though, Bochy and the Giants coaching staff have created a rotation that has trouble sustaining winning streaks.
Last season, after Lincecum would often win his start, Cain would more often than not build on Timmy’s momentum and earn back-to-back wins.
However, by interrupting the greatness of the Giant-s top-two pitchers with the often-mediocre efforts of Sanchez, Zito and Bumgarner, the team has found it difficult to create positive momentum.
A good start by Lincecum is now followed by one of Sanchez’s signature roller-coaster rides of emotion. A run-of-the-mill 8 IP, 5 H, 1 ER performance by Cain only sets the table for the unpredictability of Zito and Bumgarner.
Like I said, this rotation seemed like a good idea at the time. Now it appears it is a problem that needs to be remedied.
The bullpen hasn’t been what it was last year, but bullpens are rarely that good.
At least we’re not re-living the days of Tyler “Gas Can” Walker and Jack “Match” Taschner, right? As the season rounds into form, the bullpen will work itself out. That’s what Bochy does—create bullpens out of thin air. That, and killer facial hair.
The 2011 Giants offense is pretty much what most fans thought it would be—a slight improvement over last year with more youth and bigger upside.
For the first time in years, the offense is looking decent—halfway decent at least—which in comparison to seasons past is downright legitimate.
Belt is a real-life major league hitter, at least in approach and look. He is still learning, and his battles with the Clayton Kershaws and Cliff Lees of the world will be short and painful, but they are a vital part of the growing process for a hitter who already looks extremely comfortable at the Major League level.
This season's lineup is different from seasons past in an important way. This season, when the team’s cleanup hitter (Huff in this case) struggles, there are others there to pick him up - the lineup is far more balanced than in years past.
Is Buster Posey better than sliced bread?
Buster Posey can do it, because Buster Posey can do anything—I repeat, anything. And anyone who says otherwise is looking for a fight (just kidding - take it easy, Dodger fans).
Improbably, Rowand has been doing it, and It seems Sandoval can once again be productive too. Burrell can do it as well, although only in spurts. Belt will be able to do it, maybe even someday soon, but right now—11 games into his big league career—is not his time.
Freddy Sanchez and Miguel Tejada, washed-up defensively though they may seem, can still rake with the bat, as well, giving the lineup balance and avoiding that “well, the No. 5 hitter is up. I’m gonna go grab a sandwich for two innings” mentality that has been so prevelant in San Francisco in recent years.
Perhaps most exciting for fans is the kung-fu return of Sandoval, who has replaced all the fast food in his diet with the rejuvenation juice he funnels with Aaron Rowand before every game. He seems to be returning to his once-in-a-generation-talent ways again—or something close to it anyhow.
It is concerning, however, that one of the offense’s most significant bugaboos from last season seems to have returned—a distinct lack of situational hitting, and more specifically, a penchant for grounding into double plays at times when it seems the team is on the verge of a rally.
Last season started off incredibly frustrating in this regard, but as the team got more comfortable and built more and more momentum, this frustration dissipated. I can only hope this season progresses similarly because watching this same problem rear its ugly head again is maddening.
How will the Giants finish the 2011 season?
Look, maybe last season was just kismet, the combination of so many factors aligning in just the right way to lift a very good team to championship level. It is possible—likely even—that Pat Burrell was just as bad in left as he is this year, but it didn't matter last year.
Last year, a banged-up Sanchez dug deep into his Marianas Trench-like reserves of testicular fortitude, sacked it up, and played like the man who could compete for a batting title and gold glove, instead of the Sanchez who can’t seem to field anything to his right to save his life (which honestly wouldn’t be a problem if Tejada could move outside of a 5-foot radius in either direction.)
Last year, Huff was a super-utility jack-of-all-trades, filling in admirably wherever and whenever he was needed.
This season though, he is doing his best impersonation of the vaguely Huff-shaped chalk outline left in Chavez Ravine—motionless and prone, out of position in the outfield.
While the start of the season has not been promising or as full of Dodger-dominating exploits as we all would have hoped, it is all good because some part of all of us is still floating 6 inches off the ground, high off the championship fumes.
As inconsistent as the Giants have been this season, there is a sense of joy, a confidence that comes with watching them that was present, but not as visually evident in recent years.
Simply put, there is no panic button this year because champions don’t have panic buttons.
On a final, somewhat-related note: it’s time to trim the beard, Brian. I love it. We all love it. But it’s getting out of control. Time to let it go, brother.