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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Belt's success, Pence's return difference makers

For the first month or so of the season, the Giants had some roller coaster moments. They had a few upswings, then a few downswings with some injuries, but as we inch towards the end of May, they've really have seemed to have gotten things on track.

Duffy Makin' Pablo Loss Easier
First off all, the big news over the last week or so has been the reassignment of new third basemen Casey McGehee to Triple-A Sacramento, a role in which he didn't have to accept and could have collected his paycheck regardless. Instead he chose to continue to be a part of this organization and go work on his game over in Sacramento where he's just a 90 minute drive from AT&T Park should the Giants need him at any given moment. That move officially opened the door for Matt Duffy to become the team's full-time third basemen and the Giants couldn't have asked for better results out of their 23 year-old infielder thus far. He himself has been a big part of this team's May resurgence, as the kid has hit .343 with 2 jacks and 15 RBI since sort of taking over at third earlier this month and it's no wonder the offense has picked up since the move. Casey, while great in the clubhouse, just simply wasn't getting it done on the diamond and his rally-killing double-plays ended up really being his downfall. For a team that doesn't hit a ton of big three-run home runs, they can't give up extra outs with double plays and McGehee had become a DP machine. So, if you couldn't tell, I'm a huge supporter of the move. Give Duffy a couple of months to see if he can take this position down the stretch or figure out if they'll need to go out and get someone else. So far though, he not only looks up to the challenge, but heaps and bounds better than his predecessor.

Now, I know the insertion of Duffy into the lineup has been key, but that didn't become official until last week, and before that move the whole lineup had been starting to pick it up. Pence, coming back and coming back strong and ready to go was a huge, huge shot in the arm, and the fact that Brandon Belt may have finally figured out how to hit some home runs without changing his approach and keeping his average respectable has sort of been the difference. Posey's been healthy and in the zone and Brandon Crawford's continued growth at the plate has also helped things. Another guy I wanted to mention and a guy who I think has been overlooked quite a bit during this huge turnaround of late and that's the guy that gets it all started, leadoff man Nori Aoki. Sabean seems to strikeout consistently with multi-year deals for free agent positional guys, but it seems like all his one-year deals tend to work out OK. Aoki is the latest case as he's been one of the more effective leadoff men in baseball, slashing .326/.357/.439 with 11 swipes and 21 runs scored. Now that we're at the quarter point of the season, you can multiply that production by 4 and your looking at a 44-steal, 84-run pace for Aoki right now with that +.300 average. Needless to say, he's pretty much locked the leadoff spot down and unless he tanks for a month while Pagan skyrockets, he's staying right where he is.

Extras: With the open spot left by McGehee, the Giants decided to give right handed reliever Hunter Strickland another look-see at the big league level. So far up here, it's been a case of the "Jekyll and Hydes" for Strickland but he's hoping this time around with postseason experience under his belt, things will go differently... Larry Baer said on KNBR Wednesday that the Giants are indeed expecting Cain to produce for them this season and although there has been no official timetable, sometime in July is the the Giants' Boss' best guess. That's some good news I guess. I'm still not really counting on much out of Cainer and with the way the staff is throwing right now, and Peavy hopefully on his way back, they don't necessarily need him at the moment. So unless Cain is 110% and ready to rock like he was back in 2010-12, then OK, but if not, let the guys they have take care of things and if need be, use the resources saved this winter to go out and land a Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto. Just cause things are fine now on the pitching front doesn't mean the Giants should be settling. Lincecum could always go into a funk again at anytime, Huddy could eventually start to look his age (as he has for much of 2015 anyway) and Ryan Vogelsong is about as unpredictable as they come...

Also, as you've noticed, Bruce Bochy's A-lineup has indeed changed with Hunter Pence settling in, but not quite in the way most had expected. Angel Pagan has been moved into the 7th spot for the time being, with Hunter Pence sliding into the 3-spot, Brandon Belt 5th behind Posey, Crawford 6th and new third basemen Matt Duffy hitting 8th. Things could change but right now that seems to be a pretty solid set-up, especially with the way each guy is currently swinging, I could see Duffy and Pagan at some point swapping if Duffy continues to rake up RBI's, then if Aoki ever hits a cold streak or needs a day off, Boch can swap Pagan into the leadoff spot and Blanco/Maxwell into the 8th spot.
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The Giants Baseball Blog
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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Return of Pence has Giants clicking

Now that Hunter Pence has made his highly anticipated return, doing so with a bang I must add; more on that later), Brian Sabean and co. can start to really plan their course of action as we move toward trade season (at least in terms of positional needs). It's taken 6 weeks of the regular season but the Giants A-Lineup has arrived and it's looked pretty darn solid!

Hunter Pence wasted no time making his presence felt in that batting order, as he went 4-8 with a whopping 5 runs scored to go along with a home run and two RBI. Talk about an explosive couple of welcome back games! Pence's return doesn't just add another premier bat to the lineup, but it also alleviates some of the pressure off some of the other bats, such as Brandon Belt, and it causes a ripple effect all throughout the lineup. Speaking of Belt, he was the only Giant to out-do Hunter Pence at the plate in the Reds' series. The big first baseman finally found that power stroke that he'd been searching for since the season begin, homering three times in the series, which happened to be just his first three home runs of the 2015 season so far. He came into Cinci with a .287/.368/.394 with no homers and just 7 RBI and he left with a .321/.392/.509 line to go with those 3 homers and now 14 RBI. Belt has that ability to get hot and hit home runs in bunches and it looks like he's right in the middle of one of those streaks and I don't think it's any coincidence that his burst over the weekend coincided with the return of the Hunter Pence.

Many wondered how the lineup would shape up when Pence returned and whether or not Angel Pagan would be ousted from the 3-hole. However, although Pagan doesn't hit for as much power as your prototypical 3-hole guy, he's been hovering right around .330 all season long and is one of the more clutch hitters on the team. Now, if Nori Aoki runs into any trouble (May hasn't been as easy on left fielder after a big April) then Pagan could find himself back atop the Giants order at some point, but I think Bochy is really hoping he can continue to solidify that spot. It stretches the Giants order out much more that way and allows for a little more pop at the bottom of the lineup.


So, with Pence now back in the mix, the lineup has rounded into shape a bit the last couple of nights, and seems to be on the upswing. There's still a little bit of concern at the hot corner with Casey Mcgehee still struggling and hitting into double plays like they're going out of style, but they still have another couple of months to figure out how they'll approach the stretch-run at that position. Every other spot on the diamond seems pretty much locked down at the moment though, so outside of a possible upgrade at third base, Brian Sabean's primary focus heading into the summer will likely be on the starting pitching market. They're still waiting on the returns of Matt Cain and Jake Peavy, which could end up negating the need for another starting pitcher, but with Cain's health and the amount of time he's missed, I'm not sure they're expecting much from him, at least for the first half of the season. Peavy, on the other hand, just can't seem to get his back to heal up and keeps having to push back scheduled work, although the hope now is that he'll be ready for a rehab assignment as soon as this weekend and could rejoin the Giants rotation in a couple weeks.

In the meantime, Ryan Vogelsong has been throwing the ball better of late, and Tim Hudson is coming off a dominant outing vs. the Dodgers Tuesday night at AT&T. It hasn't just been the Madison Bumgarner show over the last couple weeks as the Giants have finally started to string together some solid outings and it's no coincidence it has them a season-high three games over .500 and just a couple back of LA in the West. I like the team's momentum right now as they're starting to win games much like they did in the postseason last fall. They aren't necessarily relying on the home run ball as much and seem to have more guys contributing throughout the lineup rather than just the middle and top four or five guys which seemed to be the case at the start of the season.
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The Giants Baseball Blog
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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Pitching leading Giants back to relevancy

Well for the first couple weeks of the season, the Giants starting pitching was all over the place and it contributed greatly to their 4-10 start. However, over the last two weeks, the Giants have righted the ship in a big way.

MadBum Shuts Down SD
The orange and black are a cool 8-3 over their last 11 contests, bringing them back to .500 for the first time since the first week of the season. A big reason for that record has been the performance they've received from their starting rotation the last couple of weeks, most recently with Madison Bumgarner's gem on Monday night. The Giants ace, who was right in the center of the teams starting pitching deficiencies during his first few starts himself, took a no-no into the seventh inning vs. a tough Padres lineup, finishing the night allowing just 2 hits over 7 1/3 innings of work. MadBum improved to 3-1 and lowered his ERA to 3.03 with the effort, and the Giants pulled off their fourth straight victory. After the game, the talk was all about MadBum as his turnaround has sort of had a ripple effect on the whole starting staff. The one guy who really hasn't pulled his weight all season long has been Ryan Vogelsong, as he seems to be pitching for his career each time he takes the ball. Jake Peavy could be back in a couple of weeks, and Matt Cain, hopefully, will follow him shortly after, so it's very possible that if Vogey doesn't get on track over the next few weeks, his days in a Giants uni may be numbered.

Lincecum 2.40 ERA in April
As for the guys who have been pulling their weight, first and foremost has to be the guy who's surprised everyone a little bit I think with his strong start, and that guy is Tim Lincecum. Through his first five starts, Lincecum has looked as close to the pre-2012 version of himself than ever. He's  just 2-2, but is pacing the Giants' rotation with a 2.40 ERA and is carrying a 1.23 WHIP. He hasn't had a WHIP below 1.32 since 2011 and has a combined 1.39 WHIP over the last 3 seasons. His secret to success has been pretty simple, he's been much more economical with his pitches and seems to have a much better command of what he's doing out there. He almost looked like a rookie with that "dear caught in headlights" look a lot the last couple of seasons, but now he seems to have that swagger about him back. I don't know if it's the impending free-agency that has him in super focus mode right now, or if he's just turned some sort of corner but he really has looked like a much different pitcher in 2015 and I don't think this start has been a fluke. Now, I don't expect him to carry a 2.40 ERA throughout the summer, and he's probably gonna still have a hiccup here and there, but he really hasn't had one yet and that's just such a positive sign.

With Chris Heston throwing the ball well and Tim Hudson rounding into form after a slow start himself, the Giants rotation sure looks to be coming around and it's going to pose Bruce Bochy with some tough decisions on the horizon. Jake Peavy threw a bullpen session over the weekend and came out extremely optimistic and Matt Cain has begun to throw off flat ground with a bullpen session this week, although Cain is going to be brought along a bit more cautiously. Peavy could be ready for a rehab start, assuming all things go well with his next bullpen session and he avoids all set-backs, sometime next week and could rejoin the staff by the mid-to-late May. If Vogelsong doesn't get it together in his next two starts, then he very well could be looking at the end of his Giants' career. I don't think they'll move him  back to the bullpen if his ERA is in the 8's and 9's. He's just hurting the team much more than he's helping at the moment and has to show some sort of value this month for Boch and Sabean to deem reason to keep him on the roster.

Injury Updates: Back to Matt Cain, the Giants are expected to take it extremely slow with the big right-hander who they still owe about $64 million between now and the time his deal expires after the 2017 season (assuming they buyout the option for 2018 at a whopping $7.5M). So, with them on the hook for all that money, you can see why they'd rather take it slowly and have him miss the first few months of the season to ensure he's 100% and ready to really contribute in the second half and throughout the remainder of his contract.... Hunter Pence, who's coming along a little slower than originally hoped with the fractured wrist, is still a few weeks out himself, although he has started increasing baseball activities. The thing with Hunter is he really didn't have any spring training, and may need a rehab assignment of at least a week to ten days, if not two weeks. Needless to say, he's not going to make the 6-8 week timetable like originally hoped. At this point, I'd just like to see him in a lineup before the calendar flips to June. 
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The Giants Baseball Blog
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