Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Hunt for Orange October: Bleak Outlook for the SF Giants

What a roller coaster ride this season has been for the defending World Series Champions. First couple months of the season, the SF Giants were Kings of winning close games. Their stellar pitching from last year (3.36 ERA in 2010), hard as it may be to believe has been even better this year (3.13 ERA till end of August 2011). That was followed by an average month of July and then an abysmal August; a month that had futility of historic proportions.

So, why the hiccup? Why are their playoff hopes as defending Champions hanging off a cliff entering the last month of the regular season? The short and easy answer: abysmally weak offense.

Digging a little deeper though, I think the reason for their downfall could be a mixture of three different (yet related) factors:

1. Injuries

Yes. Every team is affected by injuries some time or the other and it is lame, borderline hypocritical and totally unfair to other teams that also have injury issues.

But as the cliche goes, IT IS WHAT IT IS! Its no secret that the Giants offense has been too top heavy with Buster Posey, Aubrey Huff and Freddy Sanchez (and Pablo Sandoval this season) as the core, surrounded by streaky role players. If you lose two of the three most important guys from last year, it's definitely a deep hole to recover from. Not to mention that the other one has been in a season long "slump".

Even the other streaky role players have not been healthy all season long. Pablo missed almost a month. Pat Burrell and Andres Torres also spent a lot of time on the DL. The month of August, in particular, was brutal for the team's health. There was a window of 24 hours (15th-16th August 2011), when the Giants lost Carlos Beltran, Sergio Romo and Jonathan Sanchez (eventually sent) to the DL; Nate Scheiroltz and Keppinger were waiting on results of x-rays/MRI; Sandoval and Rowand were also banged up and would not have played that week but for the lack of bodies to put on the team. Keep in mind that Torres was already on the DL and Brian Wilson (and his beard) was going to be heading to the DL in the next few days.

As many people have pointed out, the lineup of Giants lost to the DL for extensive period of time was a major league line up in itself:

CF Andres Torres
2B Freddy Sanchez
LF Carlos Beltran
C Buster Posey
3B Pablo Sandoval
RF Nate Scheiroltz
1B Mark DeRosa/Brandon Belt
SS Miguel Tejada
P Jonathan Sanchez/Barry Zito
Reliever: Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo
Closer: Brian Wilson

Doesn't absolve me for giving "Injury" as an excuse. But you got to admit, it's a pretty compelling argument.

2. Struggling Offense

Did I mention? The Giants offense has been abysmal. It's been so bad, at one point they had Orlando Cabrera lead off hoping to get someone on base. It's been so bad, general consensus of a 2 run win was termed a blow out. It's been so bad, every run scored at AT&T park has been cheered like its a grand slam. It's been so bad, the No-Cal little league Baseball team thinks it can score more runs.

It's a known fact that the Giants lineup is not the Yankee lineup. They do not have thumpers that scares opponents even on paper. With no Posey and a suddenly out of whack Huff, there's absolutely nothing there.

Even then, it's hard to explain how this team could be the lowest scoring team in the entire league! Take a second and read that last line again. Yes, the LOWEST scoring team in the entire league. Scored just 460 runs through 137 games; average of  about 3.35 runs per game. Pathetic! And its been getting worse over time.Its a testament to their pitching that with such low scoring they are still in the race, albeit barely, for a playoff spot.

First off, they have hit only 90 home runs the whole year (in 137 games). Just to compare, the Yankees have more than double that number of home runs (188 HRs) in three fewer games. Over those 137 games, the Giants had a record breaking streak of 20 consecutive solo HRs. Basically, they could never hit a home run with someone on base for a stretch of over a month.

And then came along August. Their offense barely averaged more than 2 runs per game. It also led to their dismal win-loss record in August; their 10-18 record was one loss away from matching their worst month in Franchise history since 1996.

3. Team Chemistry

This is the least spoken about factor, if ever it's even spoken about. The "band of misfits" that went on a magical run to a world series title in 2010 had that one thing which is not easy to instill: "Team Chemistry". There was a vibe in the club house last year, where all the guys had something in common. Most of the guys felt they were unwanted by the rest of the league. That included guys like Huff, Torres, Ross, Burrell and a slew of other guys too. So, in a way, they were pulling for each other and playing for each other. That brought the best out of this collection of role players. On top of that, they knew how the starting pitchers have been a the receiving end because of the lack of support over the previous couple years. So all the guys genuinely wanted to hustle for runs to help them pitchers out.

Not only did that camaraderie come out in their efforts on the field. But it also helped in having a loose club house. It was like a vicious cycle. The loose-ness helped them, in turn, to play freely on the field, which helped them keep winning. And as we all know, winning solves most problems.

But what changed in that locker room this year?

First off, the Giants had just won a world series. They were no more a bunch of nobodys to the rest of the league.

Also, the Giants had to let a lot of guys go after last year's run. They lost Uribe who was a chemistry guy. They lost Renteria who was the epitome of professionalism in the club house last year. They also signed Miguel Tejada in the off season and added Calros Beltran through a mid-season trade.

By no means am I trying to say that the new additions were cancers in the club house or anything; far from it. But it did mess with the team chemistry. The guys that were playing for each other, obviously, cannot conjure the same energy towards guys that just walk into the club house. With guys with successful star-dom in the league before, it was hard to think of the club house as a bunch of unwanted guys anymore.

This feeling was also re-affirmed through some of the actions by these new guys.

For instance, in game 5 of the world series last year, in the 7th inning, Cody Ross and Juan Uribe had consecutive singles to get on base. With Huff up next, who had never ever, I repeat... NEVER EVER, attempted a sacrifice bunt in his entire career, laid a sac bunt to advance the runners. On the surface, it doesn't seem all that special a thing to do. But the feeling amongst the other guys on the team was that Huff did that on his own (there was no Bunt signal from the bench) putting the team ahead of searching for his own personal glory.

Now compare that to Miguel Tejada a week ago. In a game against the Houston Astros, when the game was tied in the 11th inning, Tejada was called to pinch hit, with Huff already on base. He apparently got a sign from the bench to bunt, to move Huff over. Tejada, on seeing the sign was visibly unhappy. He even walked over and talked to Tim Flannery, the 3rd base coach, I assume to make sure he understood the sign right. He did bunt and move Huff over, but his body language and his comments later vocally expressing his views about not wanting to bunt, is quite the opposite end of the spectrum to Huff's bunt in the world series.

Rowand may be a nice guy in person. But he obviously is not happy about not having a chance to be a regular out fielder on this team. And based on his performances, deservedly so. LAst year, he was in the same situation, but they were winning. So he knew better than to be vocal about it. This year he apparently couldn't hold back. That kind of complaining does not help the vibe of the club house either

Again, I am not blaming the bad chemistry on Tejada, Rowand or anyone in particular. But the new club house vibe is just not the same. It just does not push the guys to play for each other; it does not push them to do their best on the field. So they are basically just playing to their average to below average potential. The result, they'll most probably not make it into the post-season. Kind of embarrassing  for a defending champion.

September Tide

On the last day of August, Tejada and Rowand were designated for assignment, meaning, basically they are off the team for good. This could be more like addition by subtraction. This could, potentially, bring back that loose play-for-each-other vibe that the Giants had yesterday. It also helps that Pat Burrel is back, and he, just like Uribe last year, can be one of those glues that holds the club house together. Now only if they can score some runs, they might give themselves a chance to give Arizona a fight. Or is it too late?

To be practical, the Giants are now six games behind the Diamondbacks. The Giants are on their way down going 6-10 in their last 16 games. While the Diamondbacks are on a franchise high 9 game win streak. The only way to close on the Diamondbacks will be to do some damage on the six remaining head to head games with them.

It's a long shot. I'm not holding my breadth. Nobody should. But then what's a fan if he has no hope?

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