Harper's success in the face of so much pressure is an impressive accomplishment, but it is also part of a broader trend where top draft picks are now more likely than ever, injury notwithstanding, to make become impact players. Harper's teammate Stephen Strasburg, the first pick in the country the year before Harper, has been one of the Nationals' best pitchers over the last few years. Similar recent very high draft picks like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rendon and George Springer are already becoming impact players. Moreover, many of the best American players, foreign players are not eligible for the draft, such as Mike Trout, Buster Posey, Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner and Sonny Gray were first round picks.
If, however, recent, and not so recent World Series history tells us anything, it is that anything can happen this week. The Royals bullpen could blow three leads, Bumgarner could get roughed up in the first inning of game one. The Giants could continue to score runs on wild pitches and errors by the pitchers as they did against the Cardinals. A light hitting middle infielder like Joe Panik or Alcides Escobar could hit a big home run or two to win a game. The kvetching that these are not the best two teams in baseball, whatever that means, notwithstanding, this should be a fun World Series with lots of interesting stories and players, but the way each team got to this point is a reminder that predicting what will happen next is a mug's game.
he games themselves still need to be played and it is possible this World Series could be a less than dramatic one, but that can happen any year even when the Yankees or Red Sox are playing. However, the stories, players and characters behind this World Series are as compelling as in almost any year. If you're a baseball fan and don't realize that, you haven't been paying attention.
Lincecum, however, is only under contract for another year and a half, but has been pretty bad over from 2012 to today. During this time he has an ERA of 4.77 and walked almost four batters per nine innings. He has also occasionally shown signs of his old self. He has averaged a strikeout an inning, was dominant coming out of the bullpen in the 2012 post-season and even threw a no-hitter last year. It is possible that some pitching coach somewhere thinks he can fix Lincecum and would like his team to get him. The Giants are unlikely to get much back for Lincecum, but a team might take his salary off their hands, and free up his spot in the rotation so that it can be upgraded.
On August 25th of this year, Matt Harvey the star pitcher for the New York Mets, suffered an injury that will require Tommy John surgery and cost him the rest of this season and most of the next one. This is a great disappointment, not just to fans of the star crossed Mets, but to anybody who likes exciting young pitchers. Since being called up late in 2012, Harvey has been one of the game's best pitchers, posting a combined ERA+ of 153 and averaging 9.9 strikeouts, and only 2.2 walks per nine innings. Harvey turned 24 at the very beginning of this season so, if he is able to fully recover from the surgery, as many pitchers do, he may still have a great future.
The Timmy-Cain-Panda-Posey-Bumgarner Giants may never win another championship, but keeping that nucleus together is smart economic thinking and good for the Giants. If the Giants resign Lincecum and Pence, they will be poised to be a strong contending team in 2014, especially if they are able to add an above average hitting outfielder or a league average starting pitcher. It is unlikely that any trade of those two players would have left the team a similarly strong position for 2014.
Given the new structures and trends in baseball, player development may be more important than ever, but player development takes time. Between 2007-2011, the Giants had a very productive farm system, but have hit a bit of a downturn. That may change in the future, but is unlikely to change in the immediate future. Teams like the Giants who are looking to improve mid-season may look less to make big trades for name players and more towards adding international players or trying to bring players out of retirement, but as quick fixes these are less reliable and more difficult than simply trading for a player approaching free agency was in the past.
It is no surprise that a team that has won two of the last three World Series has a good farm system, but the discrepancy between how the system, and indeed the franchise, is perceived, and what it actually is remains significant. Posey and Sandoval are hardly unknown. The former was handily elected NL MVP and has ended both of his full seasons in the big leagues by catching the last strike of the World Series. He is one of the faces of the Giants and is poised to become one of the game's most visible and marketable stars Sandoval, for his part, has a colorful nickname, and was the MVP of the World Series last year. Belt, however, despite an equally colorful nickname remains virtually unknown outside of San Francisco. While Posey is generally known as a star player, Sandoval is still at least as well-known for his weight as for his hitting while Belt is probably still seen as a disappointment to many fans because like many players who derive much of their value from drawing walks, he is under-appreciated.
On Monday fans of the San Francisco Giants received the best piece of news since their team won the World Series in 2010. Matt Cain, one of the team’s, and the game’s, best pitchers, opted to sign a five year $112 million extension with the Giants, rather than test the free agent market after this season. Cain, who will be 28 in October has pitched over 1300 innings, with an ERA+ of 125 since his big league career began in 2005. In the 2010 post-season, he helped lead the Giants to their World Series title, pitching 21.1 innings without giving up an earned run. Cain is also a workhorse who has pitched more than 200 innings in each of the last five seasons.
When Mariano Rivera saved his 602nd game earlier this month, he solidified his position, although there should not have been any remaining doubt, as the greatest closer ever. One of the many interesting things about Rivera’s career is how he transitioned from a 25 year old with a 5.51 ERA in 19 games, including ten starts with 51 strikeouts and 30 walks over 67 innings in 1995, to becoming the best setup man in the game in 1996 and the best closer ever from 1997 to the present. Whoever decided to put Rivera in the bullpen full time made a very wise decision leading to one more Yankee Hall of Famer and contributing to five more Yankee championships. Interestingly, roughly a decade earlier, a similar decision was made with another Yankee pitcher which dramatically affected that pitcher’s career trajectory and contributed to the Yankees failing to make the post-season in the mid 1980s.
The defending World Champion San Francisco Giants made two moves during the days leading up to the trade deadline. One, swapping top pitching prospect Zach Wheeler for slugging outfielder Carlos Beltran was intriguing, the other sending minor league outfielder Thomas Neal to the Cleveland Indians for Orlando Cabrera, a veteran shortstop who may well be finished as a useful player was not necessarily a terrible trade, but a frustrating one nonetheless.
Cain is, however, an intriguing pitcher from a statistical angle. His career win-loss record is an unimpressive 65-67, but this is largely because during 2007 and 2008, he got very poor run support posting a 15-30 record despite an ERA+ of 120. While Cain has been unlucky in one area, some argue that he has been lucky in others, because he has managed to post a lower ERA than his other numbers, such as walks and strikeouts would suggest. Cain has consistently managed to hold his opponents to a lower BABIP than most pitchers, as when Cain is pitching more batted balls turn into outs than might be generally expected.
Posey is now out for the rest of the season. It will be a good scenario for Posey and the Giants if he is fully recovered in time for spring training 2012. The Posey injury, because of both how it occurred, due to a collision at home plate, and because it happened to Posey, one of baseball’s best and most marketable young players, has drawn a lot of attention. Two major themes have emerged from this attention: whether or not baseball should change its rules to minimize the chances of collisions at home plate and young players of Posey’s caliber should be moved away from the catcher’s position to allow them to play longer.
While the origins of this difference between the West Coast and the Northeast may be partially economic, partially random and partially due to ballpark effects, the result is that a distinct West Coast style of baseball has evolved. The home run heavy, weak starting pitching and strong veteran bullpen approach best represented by the New York Yankees is not tried by any West Coast team; and the Red Sox are the only East Coast team with any young starting pitches, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, who are good enough and young enough to stand out in the west. Given the recent success of the Giants, who one quarter of the way into this season, are still playing very well, this model, which seems to be applicable in Florida as well, may catch on among mid-sized market teams outside of the West Coast, thus becoming yet another trend that originates in California and makes its way east.
While all pitching prospects, presumably, would like to develop into big league pitchers who can have long and productive careers, this is not the goal of the teams who control their future. Bringing pitchers along slowly and carefully is probably the best thing for pitchers, but it may not be the best way to win championships. Baseball history is full of pitchers who burned out early or injured their arm due to overuse at a young age, but for fans and management this is not a tragedy but simply part of the game. Teams should not be oblivious to the risks of overworking a young pitcher. These risks are quite real, but teams should also recognize that sometimes they need to take that risk.
Like most winning formulas, the Giants approach is not fully replicable. Any strategy that begins with developing five top notch pitchers and an all-star quality catcher all within a few years of each other will be tough to follow, but most good teams are able to develop a core of top talent. That is more or less what defines a good team. The Giants strength lay in recognizing this was their moment and developing a good strategy to augment their core talent.
The Giants have won the World Series bringing the championship to San Francisco for the first time ever! When Buster Posey caught the third strike on Nelson Cruz, a journey which began with my mother dropping off me, my brother and our friend Charles, who back then was known as Tony, on the corner of Clay and Van Ness in San Francisco sometime in the mid 1970s, ended in a hotel room in Tbilisi, Georgia more than 30 years later. Those spring and summer mornings, my mother would give each of us seven dollars-three for a ticket in the upper reserved section of old Candlestick Park, the remainder was for bus fare and food. When the bus driver was in a good mood and only charged fifty cents for the ballpark express, there was plenty left over for hot dogs, soda, popcorn and ice cream, but if the driver charged two dollars or more, it made for a hungry day at the ‘Stick.
The Phillies, even after a tough first game loss, are probably still the favorites in the NLCS, but the Giants should not be counted out. The Giants chances rest not on an anything can happen in a short series kind of optimism or solely upon their excellent starting pitching, but primarily on a match-up of skills that may make the Giants uniquely positioned to beat the Phillies.
The 2010 baseball season, like most baseball seasons, was full of surprises, disappointments and great moments. Although the playoffs have not yet begun, it is still a good time to reflect back on the season which is just ending. Looking at the great moments, surprising seasons, great plays and the like are all good ways to do this. However, 2010 like almost all seasons raise intriguing questions across a range of baseball related topics. Some of these questions will be answered in the next weeks, others next year, and still others in the next decade or so.