The Giants Have a Historic Issue Developing Outfielders

Earlier this week, a friend and I were sharing a good laugh about the Giants’ horrendous outfield production this season, when the topic of the upcoming MLB draft arose. The conversation went from humorous to thought provoking when he asked me the following question:

“Who was the last decent homegrown player the Giants have developed at any outfield position?”

I paused. The internal wheels began to spin. “Well, there was…no, they didn’t draft him. But they had…no, he came in a trade. Hm. Um, last legitimate starting outfielder was, uh…”

I flailed. Darren Lewis was the first name I could muster. But Darren Lewis was drafted by the Oakland A’s, and was traded to the Giants in late 1990 after appearing in 25 games with Oakland that season. And he stretched the term “decent” to begin with.

Another friend posited Chili Davis, whom the Giants drafted in 1977. Sure, Chili was a fine homegrown outfielder. Chili was a bright spot on some bad Giants teams in the early 1980s, and was very good when the team returned to the playoffs in 1987. But he was drafted 40 years ago; the franchise has lived at least three life cycles since then. Who is the last true, long term (Which we’ll define as more than two full seasons) starting outfielder the Giants have drafted since the mid-1980s?

Chili

Davis spent his first 7 big league seasons in San Francisco, and went on to reach 350 home runs in his career. Photo Courtesy of pinterest.com

So, with plenty of help from my favorite sources of draft and minor league info: TheBaseballCube.com and BaseballAmerica.com, I dug. I pored through every outfielder the San Francisco Giants drafted from 1985-2015, which came out to more than 100 picks. I left out 2016, because it’s unreasonable to think any pick from last year would have already hit the big leagues. A 30-year period seemed perfect, as it would span five general managers, five managers, and six farm directors (A position, I found, that isn’t officially designated every season).

The results were startling. It wasn’t just my memory failing me when I struggled to come up with an answer to who was the last above-average outfielder drafted by the Giants. San Francisco hasn’t developed a single All-Star outfielder in 30 years, and of the small percentage of their outfield draft picks who have even cracked the big leagues, none have really come close. Let’s take a look at the list of Giants outfield picks since 1985 who had at least one major league plate appearance:

1985-1989

  • Trevor Wilson (drafted as both an OF and pitcher)
  • Ted Wood
  • Reggie Williams
  • Steve Hosey

1990-1999

  • Adam Hyzdu
  • Dax Jones
  • Calvin Murray
  • Marvin Benard
  • Chris Singleton
  • Keith Williams
  • Dante Powell
  • Jacob Cruz
  • Chris Magruder
  • Doug Clark

2000-2009

  • Jason Ellison
  • Adam Shabala
  • Todd Linden
  • Fred Lewis
  • Daniel Ortmeier
  • Travis Ishikawa (1B/OF)
  • John Bowker (1B/OF)
  • Clay Timpner
  • Roger Kieschnick
  • Juan Perez
  • Ryan Lollis

2010-2015

  • Gary Brown
  • Jarrett Parker
  • Mac Williamson
  • Austin Slater

Go ahead, rub your eyes and scroll through again. Unfortunately they aren’t deceiving you. From that illustrious group, let’s break it down further to the players on the list who had a total of 200 or more major league plate appearances with any team:

  • Trevor Wilson (as a pitcher)
  • Adam Hyzdu
  • Calvin Murray
  • Marvin Benard
  • Chris Singleton
  • Jacob Cruz
  • Chris Magruder
  • Jason Ellison
  • Todd Linden
  • Fred Lewis
  • Daniel Ortmeier
  • Travis Ishikawa
  • John Bowker
  • Juan Perez
  • Jarrett Parker

And of those, the players who had at least 200 plate appearances with the Giants:

  • Calvin Murray
  • Marvin Benard
  • Jason Ellison
  • Todd Linden
  • Fred Lewis
  • Daniel Ortmeier
  • Travis Ishikawa
  • John Bowker
  • Juan Perez
  • Jarrett Parker

Next, let’s knock off Bowker and Ishikawa, who appeared in more games as first basemen than they did as outfielders. Finally, let’s whittle it down to the players who had more than 1,000 plate appearances in a Giants uniform, a rough equivalent of two full seasons:

  • Marvin Benard
  • Fred Lewis

There you have it folks, the two most accomplished outfielders drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the last 31 years. Benard, a 50th round pick in the 1992 draft out of Lewis-Clark State College (Idaho), and Lewis, chosen 10 years later in the 2nd round out of Southern (Louisiana).

For a player chosen in a round so late it doesn’t exist anymore, Marvin Benard had a solid major league career. During his four-year peak from 1998-2001, he averaged 12 home runs and 50 RBI per season, posting a 105 OPS+. His best season came in 1999, when he finished the year with a .290 average, 16 homers and 64 runs driven in across 625 plate appearances as the Giants primary center fielder. Not bad for a guy who could have easily been just another minor-league wash out.

Benard Bulldoze

Listed at 5’10, 180 lbs, Marvin Benard was a charter member of the Giants “Fightin’ Hydrants” of the late 1990s. Photo Courtesy of Daily Sports Pages

The expectations for “Freddy Lew” were quite different. Chosen 66th overall, Lewis jumped straight from High-A San Jose to Triple-A Fresno in 2004, finishing the year with a .301 average, .876 OPS, and 34 steals over 121 games. The following season he became Baseball America’s #78 ranked prospect and spent all of 2005 with Double-A Norwich, notching 42 extra-base hits and stealing 30 bags with a respectable .757 OPS.

Next came a full season at Fresno, where Lewis knocked 12 homers and stole another 18 bases, bringing his minor league total to 30 HR and 121 SB across four seasons. Now 25, it appeared the Giants had a talented outfielder capable of being a top-of-the-order hitter with serviceable power, who also brought an element of speed the major league club lacked at the time. Lewis earned a call-up that September and went 5-11 with five runs scored, stirring excitement in a fan base that would soon say goodbye to their larger-than-life left fielder.

After a strong start to the 2007 campaign with Fresno, Lewis was called up in early May to a big league club on it’s way to a last place finish. He burst on to the scene with a cycle against Colorado just four days after his promotion, and hit .287 with a .782 OPS over 180 plate appearances, positioning himself for a starting left field role 2008. All he had to do was take over for arguably the greatest to ever play the game.

San Francisco once again struggled in 2008, but Fred Lewis gave the indication that finally, after 20+ years of homegrown outfield futility, the franchise had found an every day player with big upside. Lewis slashed .282/.351/.440 with 45 extra-base hits and 21 steals, adding 81 runs scored.

But 2009 saw him regress to a .258/.348/.390 line in nearly 200 fewer plate appearances, and the now 28-year-old appeared to run out of time in San Francisco. Andres Torres rose to the starting left field role heading in to 2010, and Lewis was dealt to Toronto in early April. Just like that, the Giants most successful outfield prospect in two decades was gone without ever reaching his anticipated peak.

Since Fred Lewis the Giants have had a couple more false alarms when it came to touted outfield prospects, most notably 2010 1st rounder Gary Brown. The Fullerton product rose to #38 on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects following an outstanding 2011 season in San Jose, but stalled in Triple-A and ended up making a grand total of seven big league plate appearances.

Most recently the Giants have been awaiting the development of 2010 2nd rounder Jarrett Parker and 2012 3rd rounder Mac Williamson. Parker, finally given a chance at a regular starting role in 2017, had a significant portion of his season taken away by the left field wall at AT&T Park. Parker will turn 29 this winter, and after seven seasons in the Giants organization is beginning to run out of time.

Williamson has yet to stick in the big leagues as a result of both injuries and inconsistency, and there have been indications San Francisco is preparing to move on from the soon-to-be 27 year old. Rather than allow Williamson to get significant big league at-bats this season, they opted for a parade of aging replacement players in left field, and after that failed miserably the team has apparently moved on to younger prospects like Orlando Calixte and Austin Slater.

You saw Calixte throw that ball into the stands in Milwaukee, right?

So here’s to Heliot Ramos, whom the Giants selected with the 19th overall pick yesterday. Just 17 years old, with a potentially long baseball life in front of him.

Fingers crossed.

-AC

 

 

 

Is This the Best Rockies Team Ever?

As spring turns to summer in the MLB season, misleading first months give way to a clearer picture of which teams will contend, and which will prepare to endure a long season. The expected cream of the National League — the Dodgers, Nationals, and Cubs — have taken their expected seats at or near the tops of their divisions. However, one club few saw coming is emerging as a dangerous pennant party crasher. If the season ended today, the Colorado Rockies would be the No. 1 seed in the NL, and would host the wild card winner in Game 1 of the division series at Coors Field.

It is the Rockies though, they’ll fall back to the pack, right? They always bring the bats, but they don’t pitch, and they don’t play well on the road. Well, not so fast. We may be looking at the best team Colorado has ever fielded.

For the bulk of the last quarter century, one didn’t have to look much higher than 4th place in the NL West in order to find the Colorado Rockies. In spite of stars like Walker, Helton, Castilla, Galarraga, Tulowitzski, and Gonzalez rolling through Denver over the years, Colorado has endured seven 90-loss seasons. They’ve finished last in the NL West six times, and fourth place eight times. While the club has made three playoff appearances, all came via the wild card. Now in their 25th season, the Rockies still seek their first ever division crown.

BlakeBombers2

From L-R, Colorado’s “Blake Street Bombers” of the mid-1990s: Dante Bichette, Larry Walker, Vinny Castilla, and Andres Galarraga. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

There has been short periods of winning baseball scattered among all of the losing seasons. Colorado posted three consecutive winning seasons from 1995-1997, powered by a wrecking crew offense that defined the Coors Field mystique as a hitter’s paradise. However, nine consecutive losing seasons followed before the Rockies would return to the playoffs in 2007, led by MVP runner-up Matt Holliday, star rookie Troy Tulowitzski, and ace-to-be Jeff Francis.

That team stood just 54-52 on August 1 but famously captured lightning in a bottle in September, winning 13 of their final 14 regular season games and besting San Diego in a legendary game 163 to secure the wild card. “Rocktober” was born, and Colorado rode the tremendous momentum all the way to the National League pennant before being swept in the World Series by the Boston Red Sox.

In 2009, on the strength of the most successful starting rotation in team history (Five starters with double-digit wins) the Rockies set the franchise mark with 92 wins, but were bested in four games in the NLDS by the eventual pennant winning Philadelphia Phillies. The team managed 83 wins the following season, but finished a distant third place in the NL West.

It’s been a walk through the darkness for Colorado since then, as they entered 2017 on a string of six consecutive losing seasons that includes three years of 94+ losses. That streak appears bound to be broken this season however, as the Rockies have steamed out to a 41-24 start and currently sit atop the NL West. They’ve done it not only with a typically stellar offense, but with surprisingly good starting pitching and one of the best back-end bullpens in baseball.

It always begins with the bats in Colorado, and they’ve been led this season by break out star Charlie Blackmon, established stud Nolan Arenado, and veteran Mark Reynolds, who at 33-years-old is on his way to a career year. The trio has a combined .290 average with 46 homers and 152 RBI through the season’s first 65 games. Blackmon currently leads the major leagues in hits, is sixth in batting average, and sits third in RBI, just behind Reynolds. Arenado is second in the majors in doubles and ranks ninth in RBI.

mark-reynolds

Always known for his prodigious power and propensity for huge strikeout totals, Mark Reynolds’ average has sat above .300 for most of the season. Photo Courtesy of roxpile.com

Blackmon, Reynolds, and Arenado have been so impressive they’ve more than made up for slow starts from Trevor Story and Carlos Gonzalez, and a relative drop-off from reigning NL batting champ D.J. LeMahieu (who still ranks sixth in the NL in hits). Colorado leads baseball in runs scored, and one could still argue they have not fully hit their stride offensively.

While we’ve come to expect gaudy offensive numbers from the Rockies, lack of starting pitching has been a perennial issue for the franchise for most of it’s existence. Ace starters would rather run through Hades in gasoline underwear than make 15 starts a year at Coors, and as a result Colorado has turned to developing starters from the ground up. Homegrown rookies Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland have combined for 15 wins in 25 starts and have emerged as the leaders of the rotation.

Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez, another pair of rookies acquired via trade as minor leaguers, have added 8 more wins over 13 starts. Overall, the Rockies starters lead the major leagues with 32 wins, and they’ve done that without a single victory from projected ace Jon Gray, who has been on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his left foot that will keep him sidelined through June.

Seattle Mariners v Colorado Rockies

The #3 overall pick in the 2013 draft, Jon Gray was a 10-game winner in his first full season in 2016 and could provide a huge boost to the Rockies’ rotation down the stretch. Photo Courtesy of ESPN.com

Not only have the Rockies gotten length from their starters (Averaging nearly 6 IP per start) they’ve been witness to a dominant comeback from former all-star closer Greg Holland, who missed all of 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Holland leads all of baseball with 23 saves, and has a minuscule 0.89 WHIP to go along with a 1.14 ERA. Jake McGee, a big offseason acquisition following the 2015 season, has bounced back from a rough 2016 and regained the form that made him one of the best middle relievers in the AL with Tampa Bay. Toss in Adam Ottavino, who had been very effective prior to a recent bout with shoulder inflammation landing him on the DL, and you have the makings of a shut down bullpen at the end of games.

What about the Rockies historic struggles playing on the road? It’s not just a biased perception. The 2009 team that set the franchise record for wins went 41-40 on the road, the only club to date with a winning road record in team history. The 2017 version? All they’ve done is win nine road series, good for a 24-11 record away from the friendly confines of Coors Field.

Are you convinced the Rockies are a legitimate contender yet? Ok, because there’s more. In addition to an already potent lineup, the Rockies have depth on the bench that is already paying dividends. Major acquisition Ian Desmond, slated to be the club’s starting first baseman heading into the campaign, has been forced into a utility role thanks to Reynolds taking command of the position. Gerardo Parra, who has served as the primary left fielder, was hitting .318 prior to hitting the DL this week with a quadriceps strain. No sweat for Colorado, as Desmond now easily slides in as the starting left fielder for the duration.

Alexi Amarista, a former starter in San Diego, has taken on a bench role with Colorado and is currently hitting .329. This is a team built to withstand injuries, and the ups and downs of a big league season.

Still, I’m not ready to crown the Rockies NL West champs and World Series contenders just yet. The team has ridden rookie starting pitchers thus far, but there is still 100 games left in the regular season, and the league could still figure out some of the Rockies youngsters. Assuming they will get a healthy and effective Jon Gray back for the stretch run, this team still needs a veteran starter to push them over the top, and they have the farm system to do it. MLB Pipeline ranked the Rockies system No. 8 prior to the season.

The White Sox Jose Quintana immediately comes to mind as a candidate, as does the Royals Jason Vargas, although Vargas’ high fly ball percentage may not serve him well in Denver. Regardless, the Rockies should dive heavily into the starting pitching market at the deadline, and they just may find themselves playing late October baseball.

-AC

Blossoming Blach Brightening Bleak 2017

Heading in to the 2017 season, the main question surrounding the Giants largely set starting rotation was how long Matt Cain could last in the fifth starter role before being yanked in favor of Ty Blach. Then a certain two-wheeled travesty took place, and the course of San Francisco’s season and potentially it’s future was altered. As many expected, Blach entered the rotation in late April, but it was to replace the current ace, not the former.

It began earnestly, with a five inning effort against the Dodgers in which Blach allowed 4 hits and two earned runs in a tough luck 2-1 loss. Since then, with the exception of a rogue clunker in Cincinnati, Blach has emerged as the Giants stopper and most consistent starter, going 7 innings or more in 6 of his last 7 starts. His recent brilliance culminated Friday night with his first career complete game shutout, a tidy 112-pitch gem in which he walked none and did not allow an extra-base hit, notching his fourth consecutive win.

Sure it came against a plummeting Philadelphia Phillies team that ranks 13th in the NL in runs scored (just ahead of the 14th ranked Giants) but it was the type of performance that showcased Blach’s efficient, polished style. With a fastball that averages right around 90 mph and no true swing-and-miss pitch, the 26-year old’s pitch to contact approach looks more like a seasoned veteran who’s learned to win with less than a rookie in his first full big league season.

While it’s no sleight against Blach, it’s in sharp contrast to the blue chip starter formula that generally calls for a 95+mph fastball and a devastating breaking ball. The Creighton product primarily relies on a sinking fastball and change up, mixing in a slider and curve ball that rarely generate swinging strikes. It’s a style that’s a joy to watch as a fan, keeping games crisp and moving quickly, and it is well known its beneficial to the defense playing behind Blach. To that point, San Francisco has not made an error in any of the rookie’s last 5 starts.

Brooksbaseball-Chart

Ty Blach’s whiff percentage by pitch type. While he saw a slight uptick in swinging strikes on his fastball and breaking balls in May, the left-hander still did not have a whiff rate higher than 8% for any of his pitches. Data courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net

Don’t expect any Bumgarn-ian blasts from Blach, but he has shown some competency with the bat as well. Aside from his noted dominance of All-World ace Clayton Kershaw, Blach nearly made history Friday night when he came within one ball of walking in four straight at-bats, which would have made him the first pitcher since 1950 to draw four walks in a game. His OPS now sits at .521, 37 points higher than that of center fielder Gorkys Hernandez.

As Blach continues to impress in the starting rotation, the question becomes: What will the Giants do with the rookie upon Madison Bumgarner’s return? Given his performance, it seems unlikely he’ll be sent back to the bullpen, but thus far Matt Cain has performed well enough to keep his fifth spot in the rotation. The decision will depend largely on a) How soon Bumgarner will make his return and b) Who the Giants trade if they do indeed become sellers. The club expects Bumgarner to be ready sometime during the month of July, but there are still two full months until the trade deadline. Will the Giants move a starter prior to July 31st?

It’s tough to say. With the West emerging as the most competitive division in the National League, it would take a remarkable run to vault San Francisco back in to the playoff race. However, if the team can crawl back to somewhere near the .500 mark by midseason, will that be enough to convince the front office that the nucleus of a contender remains in place, and they should largely stay the course with the current roster? The precedent is there; the Giants were on their way to a losing season in 2013 and chose to keep potential trade pieces Hunter Pence and Javier Lopez, and we know what happened the following year.

-AC