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.

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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

Nunez stabilizing left field, but could that be a problem?

Don’t look now, but Eduardo Nunez is heating up. The sometimes maligned, exiled third baseman turned left fielder is 7-20 with 2 HR and 4 RBI over his last 5 games, and is sitting at .300/.315/.471 with those two homers, six doubles, and 10 RBI overall in May. While many attribute the Giants improved play recently to the power surge from Buster Posey, in addition to the returns of Brandon Crawford and Denard Span to the line up, the increased production from Nunez cannot be overlooked.

The 2016 midseason acquisition ranks second on the team in hits, tied for second in RBI, tied for first in doubles, is third in runs scored and fourth in batting average. And while some may consider it the result of overaggressive “hacking” at the plate, his 8.8% K-rate is by far the lowest of his career. For a Giants team that brings very little overall speed to the table, it’s better to see the club’s biggest (only?) base stealing threat put the ball in play at a high rate.

Toss in the fact Nunez has made a few stellar grabs in left that have helped offset some of his early gaffes, and all of a sudden it appears that when Hunter Pence returns from the DL, San Francisco will have some semblance of a regular starting outfield. Nunez has already appeared in more games in left than any other Giant this season, and it looks like the club will allow Christian Arroyo to work through any struggles at the big league level.

So should we get used to the idea of Nunez as the starter moving forward as the team attempts to get back into the race? Or is he still merely an extended stop-gap solution?

Many Giants fans will be quick to shout that he could not possibly be a long-term fit in left field, and they could be right. After all, it took a series of unfortunate events and a black hole of production from the position to force the Giants to toss Nunez out there, figuring that at the very least they could keep his bat in the line up and deal with any defensive misadventures he may have.

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Nunez has certainly made Giants fans nervous with his outfield play, but with consistent innings the club hopes he can put the team’s left field woes to rest for the time being. Photo courtesy of CSN Bay Area

But if Nunez continues to produce with the bat, improve in the field, and the club continues its upswing in the win column, does it become a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” situation? Or does it simply give the Giants more leverage to move Nunez at the deadline in order to acquire a “true” left fielder or a bullpen piece?

Unfortunately the longer Nunez plays left field, the less value he may have in a trade. Could the Giants still shop him as a third baseman after he spends two months in left field? It’s unlikely any contender looking to fill a hole in the outfield would place Nunez high on their list of viable targets, so he becomes more of a utility knife, and not one that will command a huge return by himself. The Giants would still need to include a package of prospects around him, and may be hesitant to do so given the sparse pickings in their minor league system.

Looking around the league at potential contenders who may look to add at the deadline, the Red Sox are the only team that could have a hole at third base. With the future of Pablo Sandoval uncertain, Boston has seen little production from the position as they’ve shuffled through several players. Deven Marrero, brother of Chris Marrero, is the current starter and comes in to Monday with a .139/.184/.194 line. The Red Sox starting outfield (Benintendi, Bradley, Betts) is untouchable, but an experienced bullpen arm like Joe Kelly could be a potential target for Evans and Co.

Aside from Boston, San Francisco could have trouble finding a market for Nunez. If that’s the case, perhaps we will see the 29 year-old make the full transition to the outfield as the season progresses.

The Giants have won three championships without the benefit of a “real” left fielder, maybe it’s their rabbit’s foot in disguise.

-AC

 

The Great Debate: Brandon Belt

If the Giants named an official team captain, there’s not a single San Francisco fan that would argue with Buster Posey being given the designation. First alternate? Also nearly unanimous: Brandon Crawford. And should something Designated Survivor-ish befall those two titans of the orange and black, few would bat an eye at Joe Panik becoming the leader of the position players.


Of the established core of homegrown starters in the Giants line up, only one has failed to receive majority approval from the fan base, and has been the subject of such continued debate over the years it’s easy to overlook he’s now in his seventh season at the big league level. Brandon Belt has appeared in 739 games for San Francisco, owns two championship rings, and as of last July earned the prefix “All-Star first baseman”. Yet on a daily basis it seems, many in Giants nation debate whether he should be with the ball club at all.


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Body language isn’t exactly an area where Belt excels (Photo courtesy of Scoutables.com)


There are a few reasons one might surmise as to why Giants fans have never been completely sold when it comes to Belt. We can begin with the fact the Giants haven’t had a true, major impact power hitter manning first base since Thrilling William (something like that, right?) burst on to the scene in the late 1980s. In fact, you have to go back 30 years to Clark’s sophomore season of 1987 to find the last Giant first baseman to hit 30+ home runs.


J.T. Snow posted a 28 homer season in 1997 and added a 24 home run output in 1999, but aside from that, no San Francisco first baseman besides Clark (who did it four times) has even broken the 20 homer barrier since Mike Ivie blasted 27 home runs in 1979. So to break it down further, the Giants have seen their primary first baseman top 20 home runs just six times in the last 36 seasons.


Fans were teased with the likes of Damon Minor, Lance Niekro and John Bowker; who each at one point looked like they may be the future at first base, only to never quite pan out. So when word came from the farm that a 6’5 Texan with a name seemingly destined for a slugger was rapidly rising through the Giants minor league system, fans starved for a power hitting first baseman thought that finally, the big bopper would soon arrive.


Belt reached the major leagues in 2011 and was immediately implanted as the team’s starting first baseman after just one full minor league season. However, lack of performance and injuries led to him being optioned back to the minor leagues, and he would not be back in the major leagues to stay until mid-July. Then came August, and the power the organization had seen in 2010 began to emerge. Belt hit seven home runs in the last two months of the season, and positioned himself as the presumptive first baseman of the future.


2012 saw Belt get the lion’s share of starts at first, but in spite of a respectable .275/.360/.421 line Belt hit just seven home runs to go along with a rather pedestrian 56 RBIs. Then came 2013, when it appeared he had come in to his own as a franchise player. Belt’s average jumped to .289, and he more than doubled his home run total to 17. He added 39 doubles, sixth most in the NL, and finished the year with an impressive 139 OPS+.


2014 represented a step back for Belt however, as a broken thumb early in the season forced him to miss nearly two months. Then upon being reactivated he was infamously struck in the head with a throw during warm-ups, and concussion symptoms plagued him into September. In all he was able to appear in just 61 games, finishing the regular season with 12 home runs, just 27 RBI, and a .243 average.


The criticism most often cited in regards to Belt is inconsistency, or “streakiness”. He’s prone to long slumps in between scalding hot streaks, and the hot streaks don’t come often enough. But when one examines the numbers, Belt has actually been about as consistent as they come over the last two plus seasons. His lines in 2015-2016 were strikingly similar:


2015: .280/.356/.478/.834, OPS+ 127, 138 H, 33 2B, 18 HR, 68 RBI

2016: .275/.394/.474/.868, OPS+ 134, 149 H, 41 2B, 17 HR, 82 RBI


Through 28 games in 2017, Belt’s line sits a .260/.393/.470/.863, with an OPS+ of 131. In spite of a dip in batting average (which can be attributed to a jump in K%) Belt’s OPS sits right where it usually does, which is well above average. If we project his current number of hits, doubles, home runs and RBI for a full season, they are all right on pace with his usual production:


2017 (projected): 150 H, 42 2B, 24 HR, 78 RBI


The rub lies in the expectations surrounding Belt’s ability as an offensive player. There are those still waiting on that 30 homer, 100 RBI season, the “real first baseman numbers”. Unfortunately for Giants fans, that’s a train that will likely never pull in to the station when it comes to Brandon Belt. What you’ve seen is what you’re going to get from Belt, and that’s 15-20 homers, 70-85 RBIs, plenty of walks, and plenty of strikeouts. While that may not sound very exciting, when you couple it with his perennially above average ratings as a defender what you get is a steady, every day first baseman.

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Belt has rated in the positive in both Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) in every full season of his career. (Photo courtesy of aroundthefoghorn.com)

For some, Belt will never be enough. He will always strike out too much, not hit enough homers, and slump his shoulders too often. I’m here to say that Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo, or Wil Myers are not walking through the door, and with the remaining years left on Belt’s recently signed deal, trade suitors will be hard to come by.


Like it or not, Brandon Belt is in San Francisco to stay.


-AC

The Shark is Worth It, and Here’s Why

You’ve been looking at this Samardzija thing all wrong.

Do you have your pitchforks ready? Jeff Samardzija is worth the money, and I’m going to tell you why.

Yep, feel that blood pressure spike. How? How can a guy who’s now 12-14 in a Giants uniform possibly be worth the $90 million the Giants front office doled out to sign him last offseason?

The answer is quite simple really, and it’s been on display not only during his short time with the Giants, but throughout his entire career as a starting pitcher. Jeff Samardzija does something that is much harder to come by then most people think: He makes every start, year in, and year out.

When you hear the names Sale, Kershaw, Verlander, and Cueto, the mind immediately jumps to All-Star games, Cy Young trophies, and huge paydays. Not so when one hears the name Samardzija (after you mistakenly say bless you to person who said it). Yet none of those established aces has thrown over 200 innings in each of the last four seasons, and Jeff Samardzija has.

Let’s take a look at the five starters who have joined the Shark in surpassing 200 IP every year since 2013, and the contracts they’re under:

David Price: 7 years, $217 million ($31MM per season)

Max Scherzer: 7 years, $210 million ($30MM per season)

Jon Lester: 6 years, $155 million ($25.8MM per season)

Cole Hamels: 6 years, $144 million ($24MM per season)

-Madison Bumgarner: 5 years, $35 million ($7MM per season)*

*Discount price the Giants currently pay, a number that is going to at least quadruple when he reaches FA.

An honorable mention goes out to Felix Hernandez, who broke a string of eight consecutive 200+IP seasons last year. He makes $26.8MM per season.

See what we’re driving at here? Samardzija chews up innings with the best in the game; frontline aces who make 30% more than him. The disparity between his overall performance and that of the starters named above is why he makes $6-$10 million less per season than they do.

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The ability to count on 600 innings from three of your starters doesn’t come cheap, or often. (Photo courtesy of SportsOnEarth.com)

Samardzija takes the ball every fifth day with extraordinary consistency, and he’s been doing it for a long time now. Yes, it’s all funny money anyway, and $18 million a year sounds preposterous for someone who’s above average, but not great at their job. But it’s all relative folks, and the Giants payed market value for what Samardzija brings to the table.

Another important factor to bear in mind, the Giants don’t need Samardzija to pitch like an ace. They already have two of those, and a third starter in Matt Moore who has his moments of inconsistency, but has also shown shades of dominance in big spots (See: Tail end of 2016). All the Giants need from Samardzija is to be the best damn fourth starter around, and it’s hard to argue he’s not.

If we take a look at the fourth starters of the other NL West clubs , we see names like Brandon McCarthy, Robbie Ray, and Antonio Senzatela. Not exactly world beaters. And the Padres couldn’t even tell you who their fourth starter is because it changes on a weekly basis.

The Cubs are trotting out Brett Anderson in the fourth spot of their rotation, who’s the polar opposite of Samardzija in terms of durability. The Mets, for all the praise their starting rotation gets, have some guy named Robert Gsellman as their fourth man. The only NL team that may be able to claim a fourth starter as strong as the Giants is the Nationals, who currently have Gio Gonzalez in the slot.

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This is Robert Gsellman. Now you know. (Photo courtesy of The New York Times)

It’s easy to see a 5 year, $90 million contract and set expectations sky high. But again, consistency at the level Samardzija maintains is valuable, and hard to come by. From 2012-2015, he averaged 206 IP per season, posting a 4.03 ERA and 1.23 WHIP with 2.5 BB/9 against 8.3 K/9. Those don’t look like the numbers of a pitcher who was 17 games under .500, but Samardzija was 35-52 over that span.

Prior to Sunday’s start against Colorado, his record with the Giants stood at 12-13, with a 3.97 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 2.5 BB/9, and 7.6 K/9 over 215.1 IP. Did I mention he was consistent? Thus far, the Giants have basically received the exact pitcher they paid for based on prior track record, and it has afforded them the luxury of having 4/5 of their rotation set in stone. Again, that is not the case with many teams around the league, including contenders.

So while you lament his 0-3 start, and shake your fist at the reality that professional athletes make huge sums of money, keep these factors in mind. A premium is placed on stability in a profession where names and faces can change on a daily basis.

-AC