Saturday, 7 April 2018

Bruce Bochy is going to under-utilize one of the team's best hitters

The last thing I want to worry about is whether or not Brandon Belt is going to be in the lineup. As I addressed in painful detail here, Belt is one of the best hitters on the team. It's not a circumstantial thing. It doesn't matter if he swings through the ball slightly more than other Giants. It doesn't matter if the opposing starter is a tough lefty. None of those things matter.

Regardless of the scenario, Brandon Belt produces. That's it.

Except, it isn't to some people. Some consider Belt to be inadequate in every way - and part of me wonders if Bruce Bochy has similar thoughts when a Clayton Kershaw or Patrick Corbin is slated to start. Following an off-day on April 2nd, Brandon Belt sat the very next day (the 5th game of the season) because Bochy wanted to keep Nick Hundley fresh.  The real answer is that the starting pitcher was left-handed. Now, I'm not a manager - nor will I ever be one. But sitting one of your best hitters on game 5 of the regular season, which was immediately preceeded by a day off, simply in order to keep a RESERVE player fresh, is stupid. It's stupid on game 100 of the regular season, it's stupid when there hadn't JUST been a day off. The object is to win the games, and you do that by playing your best players as often as you can. In Belt's case, this INCLUDES versus left handed pitching. But Bruce Bochy thinks the right handed matchup of (literally anyone) Nick Hundley is preferable to the left handed Belt - this is painfully wrong. Roll your eyes all you like, Belt is a great hitter vs LHP, and it's really unfortunate that Bruce Bochy clearly doesn't trust that this is the case.

In no particular order, here are some things I hope will convince you that Bruce Bochy is set to underrate one of his best players:

He has a career .795 OPS vs left handed pitching. If I was aiming to be snarky or insulting to the Belt 'haters', here's where I would sarcastically drop the mic. This number, comprised over 911 career plate appearances, is more than enough evidence for a level-headed baseball fan to realize "oh man, I think I've had it completely wrong all this time". But it doesn't happen, and I think that's partly because that all encompassing number assembled from half a decades worth of evidence gets demonstrably overlooked by his GD manager. An embarrassing reality for this advanced age of baseball.

In 2016 he was better vs LHP than Joey Votto. Yeah, that Joey Votto. The list of first basemen he bested that year is mighty impressive. I'm drawing a comparison to first basemen because that's another common complaint of Belt - that what he provides isn't good enough from a first baseman compared to the rest of the league. Two birds, one stone. Belt's wRC+ vs left-handers was 142, which is outstanding.

This one's my favourite. He has never been a liability vs left handed pitching. Last season, wherein he endured his 3rd career concussion, is the only season where he finished with below average production vs southpaws, and it was only 8 perfect below average. Since 2012, he has been 13, 15, 7, 26, and 42 percent BETTER than the average versus left handed pitching. While Bochy is finding ways to not include him in the lineup vs “tough lefties”, Belt has been proving his worth at every opportunity.

Since 2012 Belt has made better contact than many Giants who would never sit out versus LHP. Batted ball data going back to 2012 indicates Belt ranks in the top few Giants at making solid contact vs LHP.  Something not necessarily highlighted in that list is that if you combine medium + hard contact, Belt has fared better than Michael Morse, whose entire job was to swing the bat vs a lefty.

Facing left-handed pitching from 2012 to 2017, Belt has a wRC+ of 118. That’s 3 percent better than Freddie Freeman and only 1 percent worse than Anthony Rizzo. More important is that very measurable 18 percent advantage in production that Belt has had over the average hitter. There is indisputable evidence that Belt makes the team better vs right OR left-handed pitching, and yet if he can get away with it Bruce Bochy will sit him, as though the opposite were true. The Giants are going to need every advantage they can get if they hope to reach the postseason this year.

The best thing their supposedly buffed analytics department can do is ensure that one of the organisations best hitters isn’t sitting on the bench for fabricated reasons.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Giants are unequivocally better with Belt

Hey, did you know that Brandon Belt is actually a freaking good baseball player. You'd never know it what with the fact that he sometimes doesn't hit the ball, and his um, his posture doesn't look very uh, positive. That's the benchmark that too many confused fans use when evaluating Brandon Belt. They cling to things that don't matter, and then use that as the cornerstone to their argument to denounce his value to the team. Stats don't lie (mostly). And they indicate that Belt is an asset to the team. He makes them noticeably better, so let's put to bed the theory that he's in any way a burden.

Yes, Belt had the lowest "in the strike zone contact %" of any 2017 Giant regular. I'm not doing my due diligence if I pretend like all of the complaints against Belt are unfounded. He missed the ball in the strikezone more than any other Giant in 2017. Okie doke, so what does that mean? The answer is nothing. Because when he hit the ball, he made hard contact more than any other in that same group. Because also walked at a higher rate than any other Giant. He had the second highest on-base percentage in fact. He even had the highest freakin slugging percentage. There's more, like the fact that he chased pitches out of the zone the least, but I've made my point about Belt's swing-and-misses. Would you like him to pummel every pitch in the zone? Sure. But so long as he's actually producing, maybe we just stick a pin in that and revisit it say, never.

Is Brandon Belt really a good fielder? Virtually every defensive metric says yes. Some of them say he's actually improving. Belt tied Joey Votto with the most defensive runs saved by a first baseman in 2017, despite having played hundreds of innings less than the others at the top. When you look at his yearly totals, they've been going up since 2013. He also had the highest UZR, only made 2 errors and very likely lost the chance at a gold glove due to injury alone. Belt is a good fielder, and has been for a while. Crazy this even has to be talked about.

But Belt doesn't really compare to the plethora of other, more capable MLB first basemen does he? Since 2012, his first full season, he's got the 8th highest wRC+ at 129. Look at the names he's ahead of. Chris Davis, Carlos Santana, Adrian Gonzalez to name a few. He's got the 10th highest OPS. He's got a higher OBP than Eric Hosmer, who just signed a 30 year, $4 bazillion deal with the Padres. The list of ways that Belt contributes almost exclusively positively to the team goes on and on.

And yet the nonsense-driven rhetoric against Belt just never dies. It's an indefensible stance and yet so many take it. Maybe Belt breaks out this year, and silences the contrarians. If he doesn't, I expect more of the same, no matter the fact that Belt is an extremely valuable part of the team. He costs very little for what he provides, and what he provides is a heavily underrated bat, and some top-tier defense to one of the best defensive infields in baseball. He is part of the teams core, and the best thing doubters can do is learn to adopt metrics that don't involve so many gut feelings and kneejerk reactions.

April 8th Update

What a staggering surprise it was to learn after Sunday afternoons game, that the select garbage-quality fans still love to pile on Belt when most convenient. Last night, he struck out on this pitch:

It's the triangle at the top left, absolutely nowhere near being a strike. Almost as if it's in the realm of it's so clearly a ball I'm going to take it because that's how the game is played. If anyone OTHER than Brandon Belt takes that pitch for strike three, Giants fans react with disappointment that an umpire would end a game on such a bad call. Because. however. it was literal punching-bag Brandon Belt, he gets this treatment:

Those are just a tiny few of the plethora of HOT GARBAGE takes on Brandon Belt's plate discipline, and general ability to play baseball.

First of all, Belt has been above average with runners in scoring position over the last 3 seasons. So can we kindly shut the fuck up with the moronic things like what you see above? For good measure I'll also include that McCutchen most certainly did not foul that pitch "over and over". At best, he fouled one similar pitch in a similar spot. And he certainly wasn't obligated to - because it was an obvious ball.

Just as well, here is the rate at which Belt has been swinging at pitches out of the strikezone over the last few years:

2014: 32.7%
2015: 28.6%
2016: 25.5%
2017: 22%

Well holy shit! Belt's been getting better and more selective every year! Must be nice to, after years of improvement, get rewarded with tripe like:

Why have strikezones at all? Once there are two strikes, why not just have every pitch be an insta-strike unless you swing at it?

Belt did the right thing by taking that pitch, and blaming HIM for not accounting for a potential mistake by an umpire isn't a failure. A hitter is not and should not be responsible for swinging at pitches that are, i'm sorry, absolutely not "too close to take" just on the off chance the umpire is going to do something ridiculous. The amount of victim blaming that ensues when something negative happens to Brandon Belt is disgusting, and the fans who participate in that rhetoric are shitty, shitty fans. They don't deserve Belt and I would argue don't fully understand the game they're watching. If you find yourself part of this demographic, do what you can to change that fact - because you are the problem. Brandon Belt, the guy who is very demonstrably one of the best hitters on the team in virtually every situation, isn't part of the problem.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Let's try Panik at leadoff

Alternate title, "Accidental Denard Span hate post".

The Giants have a reloaded lineup and it's exciting to even just picture those additions penciled into a lineup around familiars like Belt, Posey, Crawford, Panik and Pence. Plenty of tantalizing lineup combinations have been thrown out there, and I'm sure at first we'll all just accept whatever is thrown together as we ride the novelty high. Eventually though, and I'd prefer sooner rather than later, we should actually have a look at who belongs where. I'm of the belief that, after a couple years of under-utilizing the top spot in the order, the solution has presented itself: that second baseman guy who's already been here for years. 

He may not be overly quick, but putting Joe Panik in the lead off role makes more sense than you might expect. For starters, he has virtually no platoon splits other than his slugging percentage just ignore that. What you get from Joe has virtually nothing to do with the handedness of the pitcher. His career average versus lefties is .006 points higher than vs righties, his OBP differs by .002 and his slugging is around .063 higher versus righties. Obviously the most important of these three for a potential leadoff hitter is his On Base Percentage. The fact that he gets on base at an equal clip versus righties OR lefties means he could be a full time lead off hitter - there wouldn't be a need to adjust the lead off spot just because there happened to be a left handed pitcher. That is something which could not be said of the previous leadoff man, Denard Span. These were his numbers facing left-handed pitching in the leadoff spot. They're crap, and somehow the Giants let it happen two years in a row, despite Span's ~200 plate appearances in 2016 - it wasn't a fluke. Nor was it in 2015, before the Giants even signed him. If that is where the bar is being set, and it is because of poor decision making, then Panik deserves a multitude of chances to succeed at the job. 

Just as importantly, Panik's OBP is extremely respectable, and not only compared to other Giants/potential lead off batters. Panik's career OBP is .345, and in 2017 it was right in line with that average at .347. Since his major league career started, only Brandon Belt and Buster Posey have reached base at a better clip. That .345 OBP is also 15 points better than the Giants got from Denard Span. Looking as far back as 2010 (and accounting for comparable number of plate appearances) Aubrey Huff is the only other Giants regular to reach base more often, at a .346 rate. As for the rest of the league, last season there were 20 players who had at least 300 plate appearances in the lead off spot. Panik's on base percentage would rank 12th, right in the middle of the pack. Mookie Betts, Dee Gordon, Denard Span, Trea Turner, Ian Kinsler all had on base percentages lower than Panik and all were/are considered to be lead off caliber hitters. 

Lastly, and I do not mean this as a slight to Panik's value to the Giants, his ability to get on base (utilized properly) would be his greatest asset for the team. It isn't just about how he's probably fit for the job. It's also about where else he fits/doesn't, and in turn where that places other people in the lineup. If not Panik, then who? And could that person be better utilized farther down in the lineup? Panik is typically a great defender, at times average at worst. He's won a gold glove. He's able to hit for more than singles. He's hit a dong off Adam Wainwright in the playoffs. He's been a great component of the team since he took the second base job as a rookie in 2014. Yet his most dependable strength is, and arguably always has been, his ability to get on base. As he gets into his late twenties and the Giants decide how to proceed when he's beyond his arbitration years, I expect it to be the focal point of discussions leaning either way. His glove will worsen, what power he has will fade - but if he can continue to reach base the way he is now, he'd still have value to the team - perhaps in the same way I think he does now - as a catalyst, setting the table for the hitters just below him in the lineup. 

Imagine a scenario like this. Panik and his steady OBP come up to bat versus a lefty. He reaches base. Now, in no particular order, you've got 3 guys following him (likely not successively) who all hit for a 1.000+ OPS vs lefties in 2017. And they get to do it with a man on base. Maybe batting Panik 1st will complicate the bottom of the lineup and the R/L distribution throughout, but I'm sure that can be figured out. Whether or not the guy at the top is getting on is more important, and the Giants were content with Denard Span doing the job for too long. I think Joe Panik deserves a shot and the team could be loads better as a result. 

Thursday, 15 February 2018

A realistic take on a Lincecum reunion

Just when you thought the "Giants are building a team set to compete in 2011" jokes could die down for a while. Back in December, Adam Ottavino of the Rockies posted a picture of Lincecum appearing to be in pretty good shape despite being out of work since the summer of 2016. Everyone has surely seen it by now, and subsequently assumed that an announcement of a comeback was imminent. It's taken a while, but he/his camp announced that he will be doing a throwing session today. 

According to Henry Schulman, the Giants will have a representative in attendance. It's also been reported that he's throwing upwards of 95mph. As this is (or should be) one of those low-risk/high-upside deals, I think the Giants should really consider giving him a shot if the throwing session goes well. There are a few things to factor in here, not the least of which is the entire lack of payroll space and no real way to guarantee Timmy a job.

He is almost certainly not throwing 95mph. Obviously there's no way for me to KNOW that, and the truth will unveil itself very shortly. In 2016, he made 9 starts for the Angels. His average velocity over those starts was 88.4mph. Only once in those 9 starts did his average velocity exceed 90mph. Is it impossible that he's added a few mph to his fastball? Certainly not. Is it still highly unlikely that he's suddenly, after a full season of not competing, raised his fastball velocity back to the speed it topped out at in 2008/2009? Very much yes. A decade ago (23 years old) is when his fastball velocity averaged 94.6mph for the season. Nine years ago, only once did his average fastball velocity exceed 94mph in a start against the Pirates. Since 2014, he's been struggling to keep it above 90mph, and his body has only gotten older. Colour me surprised if his throwing session reveals he's able to throw harder than 90 with any kind of consistency. That said, a potential false report of his fastball speed should not be a deterrent. Timmy has proven he can can be very successful without a blistering fastball - he just needs command, consistency and that lovely splitter to play off of the fastball. Command is what Lincecum coveters are after here, and cross your fingers he's reworked himself to a point where this isn't a problem anymore. 

He is without a doubt going to cost very little. In 2016 he somehow swindled the Angels into paying $2.5 million to see if he could be a serviceable starter. His first start of the season was his one and only high point of the year. Everything after that was a massive failure, and Lincecum ultimately sat out 2017. Sitting out that season and leaving everyone to wonder if he was going to retire means he is absolutely not going to get the kind of deal he'd like to. Obviously teams are going to take a look, but it's not at all likely someone is going to guarantee him millions of dollars and a spot on the 25 man roster after how disastrous his stint with the Angels was - which again, was two years ago already. 

He might have to settle for a relief role, and the Giants need that more than anything. Last time Lincecum went down this advertised throwing session route, he was coming off two bad-not-horrible seasons with the Giants. He wanted to be a starter, and his then-recent performance wasn't so nightmarish that he was unlikely to find at least a single team willing to put him in the rotation. That won't happen this time around without a stellar spring performance. A 9.16 ERA in 9 starts and a 5.40 walks/9 innings in 2016 will ensure that he'll have to take whatever he can get. Although he is certainly an entirely different pitcher now, he did enjoy some success as a reliever for the Giants in their 2012 World Series run, as well as one relief appearance in the 2014 World Series.

His 2012 Postseason line as a reliever:

13.0 IP
3 Hits allowed
1 Earned Run (0.69 ERA)
17 Strikeouts
2 Walks

It's important to remember that at that point in time, Lincecum's velocity had already declined very noticeably. But when he was still throwing around 90mph, his splitter-change up was still very effective and as such he was successful at retiring hitters in that one plate appearance they'd get to see him. It stands to reason then that even if the 95mph reports are embellished, and Lincecum has theoretically only managed to get himself back to approximately that 90mph number, he could conceivably still manage to be successful as a relief pitcher. 

History suggests using him to face a hitter once tends to work out. In 2015 and 2016 Timmy combined for 24 starts - they were mostly not good, things were unraveling. In 2014 though, his last full season, he wasn't quite broken yet. The farther he progressed into the game, the worse his odds got - as is the case for most starters. Lincecum just couldn't overcome. But early on in games he looked like he stood a chance. If you removed him after a couple innings, more often than not we would have gone "Hey, that was alright!".

The batting averages just crept up and up. As a reliever (admittedly a much smaller sample size) things looked a bit different. And that first time through facing hitters, he managed as well as you'd hope a reliever would. Basically every other non-elite season prior to that followed a trend where the second time through the lineup was the most deadly, with the third time through yielding still worse results than the first. His career averages mirror that trend. More to the point, whatever the damage being done versus Lincecum after the first at-bat is irrelevant. He could get the job done against hitters getting a fresh look at him, even in his worst years. 

I'll leave it at this. 2012 was his worst year as a Giant by far. His ERA exceeded 5, he walked batters at a higher clip than ever before, he gave up home runs at a higher rate than ever before. Even when every part of his game was in disarray, batters still only hit .250 against him the first time through the lineup. Sure, some of those were home runs. Yes of course he walked way too many hitters at the same time. But that comes with the territory of having everything that made you great fall apart in front of you - his command, something we hope has returned, was glaringly absent. Despite all that, hitters still didn't beat him around the first time through. So there's plenty of reason to hope that The Freak has enough in him to be successful at a lower pressure job with less responsibility, and with a much larger chance of success. 

How could you say no to the cheap return of a ticket-selling fan-favourite, who may actually be able to assist a team in pretty dire need of decent relief pitching? At worst, he'd fit right in, wouldn't he? 

Thursday, 6 October 2016

An appreciation of Conor Gillaspie

Never ever forget that Conor Gillaspie cemented himself in Giants history five years ago, when he hit the worlds greatest first career home run.

That was it for his initial stint with the Giants. He was around for part of 2012 as well, but nothing panned out for him the way you'd expect it would for a first round pick. He was traded in 2013 for someone you'd never heard of and will never know, and surely both parties were disappointed with the outcome.

2014 was without a doubt his best season. He had hit 13 home runs the year before, but in 2014 he was quite consistent and rounded out the year with a .752 OPS - better than the Giants got from Eduardo Nunez post-trade, for reference. After that his career took a a turn for the worse again, being designated for assignment twice in the span of a month by the White Sox and the Angels.

And then came the Giants, again.

We've heard this story before. Once promising talent turned journeyman returns to his old stomping grounds as a bench player. That ended pretty damn good. Very similarly to Travis Ishikawa two years ago, Gillapsie was a contributor all year long off the bench.  Never mind that he hit for a near .700 OPS as a backup, which is what the Giants just paid Denard Span $10 million to do this season as a starter. Though he really didn't need to, his success went beyond that.

Conor Gillaspie is one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball. That's a sentence, all right. But for this season, and maybe only this season, it actually rings true - buckle up. Out of the third basemen to play 300+ innings (remember, as a backup he didn't ever have the luxury of playing every day) his UZR was 10th best in baseball. Seriously. Better than last year's AL MVP, Josh Donaldson. Better than the man he's backing up, Eduardo Nunez. It get's better when you take that UZR and extrapolate over 150 games, which is what the UZR/150 stat is meant to do. When you take a look at that stat, well:

That's a real thing you're looking at. The way that Conor Gillaspie played third base this year, if sustained, was good enough to make him a better defensive third base than anyone else in baseball. Not bad for a faltered prospect fill-in, eh? He also had 5 Defensive Runs Saved in just those 300 innings, which is Nolan Arenado pace. Definitely getting ahead of myself, but Gillaspie has unquestionably been a very solid player at the hot corner for the Giants, and they really could not have asked for more.

His defense aside, Gillaspie was for the bulk of the season used mostly as a pinch hitter - very arguably the hardest job in baseball. Some think that pinch hitting is the toughest job in pro sports. I digress... only 12 players in 2016 amassed at least 50 pinch hit plate appearances. Of those, Gillaspie ranked 3rd with a completely respectable .769 OPS. Nice. He is truly this years Travis Ishikawa, and if this is just the interlude to his playoff performance, we can certainly start to expect a walk-off grand slam to win the world series as he cartwheels around the bases. Jokes aside, he's been as valuable to this years team as any of the other ragtag misfits that the Giants have used to upset every playoff opponent for over half a decade - and it's about time we truly appreciated what he's accomplished.

Never underestimate even year bullshit.