Only Cliff Lee Can Save the Giants Now

This is how the other half lives. Through the first two months of 2013, the Giants have the third-worst rotation ERA in the National League at 4.76. From 2009 through 2012, the Giants allowed the fewest runs in all of Major League Baseball en route to four straight winning seasons, two National League West division titles, and two World Championships.

They drafted Matt Cain from a Tennessee high school in the first round in 2002. He debuted in 2005 and established himself as a perennial All-Star in 2009 at the age of 24.

They used the 10th pick of the 2006 draft on Tim Lincecum out of the University of Washington. Lincecum debuted in 2007 and promptly won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009. He was the ace of the staff in 2010 as the Giants won their first World Series title since moving to San Francisco in 1958.

One year after drafting Lincecum 10th overall, the Giants went back into the South to nab North Carolina high-schooler Madison Bumgarner with the 10th pick of the 2007 draft. Bumgarner replaced Todd Wellemeyer in the rotation mid-way through 2010 and then he beat out Barry Zito for a spot in the playoff rotation. He threw eight shutout innings in the World Series against the Rangers. He’s put up a 3.19 ERA over 606 innings and won two championships—all before his 24th birthday.

The Giants even got a steal in the 27th round of the 2004 draft when they selected Jonathan Sanchez. He gave them three quality years in the rotation from 2009-2011. He went 13-9 with a 3.07 ERA during the 2010 season. The Giants flipped him at just the right time after the 2011 season for Melky Cabrera—who then went out and hit .346 for the 2012 championship team.

Prior to the 2011 season, the Giants brought back one of their former top prospects from a decade ago, Ryan Vogelsong, to little fanfare. When Zito went down early in 2011, Vogelsong came up from Triple-A, made the All-Star team, finished 11th in the Cy Young voting, and then pitched like an ace during the 2012 postseason. In Vogelsong, the Giants signed a 33-year-old who hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2006, and somehow got him to go 27-16 with a 3.05 ERA over two seasons and 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA during the 2012 playoffs.

The other shoe has dropped on the Giants early in 2013. Here are the current ERA’s of each member of the rotation:

Bumgarner: 3.13

NL Average: 3.91

Zito: 4.13

Lincecum: 4.75

Cain: 5.00

Vogelsong: 7.19

Michael Kickham: 15.43

Last year, the Giants starting five made 160 out of 162 starts. Vogelsong missed one start with a back ailment, and that was it on the health front. This year, he’s down for the count for at least two months with a broken right hand. Michael Kickham came up on Tuesday night to replace Vogelsong in the rotation, and it wasn’t pretty.

In the first inning, he flashed a 92-94 mile-per-hour fastball and a swing-and-miss slider. He struck out two of the A’s first four hitters and the only question at that point was just how many Cy Young Awards this kid was going to win. Kickham wears goggles while he pitches, he’s got a bit of mullet going on, he’s left-handed, he’s 6’4″ and 220 pounds, and he’s got some funk in his delivery. The camera kept cutting to his family and his pretty girlfriend in the stands while he was mowing down the A’s. It was Michael Kickham’s world for a brief moment, and the rest of us were just along for the ride, enjoying the show.

However, in the back of my mind, I knew that it wasn’t going to end well—not for a wild pitcher taking on one of the game’s most patient teams. The A’s weren’t going to help Kickham by expanding the zone, and Kickham needed all the help he could get.

After four walks—including a maddening intentional walk to load the bases ordered by manager Bruce Bochy—and four runs over 2.1 innings, Kickham’s night was over. The Giants were left to ponder what Tuesday night might have looked like had the ball been given to the organization’s sixth pick of the 2009 draft, Zack Wheeler. Alas, Wheeler is currently the property of the New York Mets via the Giants’ ill-fated acquisition of Carlos Beltran in 2011.

Instead of turning the ball over to the next Cain, Lincecum, or Bumgarner, the Giants handed the ball to a prospect who might fit in at the back of the rotation one day if everything breaks right. He’s clearly not ready for the show right now, but he’s the only internal option for a team that wasn’t planning on needing a sixth starter this year.

The Giants are almost certainly going to have to turn to the trade market to give this shot rotation a boost. Unfortunately, the trading deadline is two months away, so it’s slim pickings right now. And, as the deadline approaches, the Giants are going to find that Cliff Lee is the only person who can save them now, and he probably won’t be coming.

While Kickham was struggling to throw the ball over the plate in Oakland last night, Lee was busy carving up the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Lee allowed only one run over eight innings of dominant baseball. Since 2008, Lee has gone 77-44 with a 2.85 ERA. According to FanGraphs, only Justin Verlander has been better, and only by the slightest of margins.

Lee might be the best pitcher on the planet, and there has been some talk that the Phillies would consider putting him on the market if they decide to tear it down. However, that buzz was shot down recently when a team insider told Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe (via MLB Trade Rumors):

Every time I hear a Lee rumor, I don’t believe it. Don’t think we’d be that dumb unless what we got back in return was so overwhelming that we’d be dumb to pass it up. Will that happen? My gut is it won’t.

Hell, Giants general manager Brian Sabean ought to be on the phone with Phillies GM Ruben Amaro every day, offering the whole farm system for Lee.

The Beltran acquisition backfired in 2011, but Sabean’s sentiment was right. The Giants aren’t going to be good forever, so they ought to go all-in to maximize their window. It’s too bad Wheeler isn’t around to help this year’s team, but that doesn’t mean going for it in 2011 was the wrong choice. The Giants were comfortably in first place at the time of the deal and Sabean was trying to push them over the top to defend a championship. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

But now it’s 2013 and there’s another championship to defend. The Giants rotation is running on fumes. Few trade alternatives look appealing. Vogelsong is out for the next two months.

Only Cliff Lee can save the Giants now.

All statistics in this article are courtesy of FanGraphs, ESPN and Baseball-Reference.


The 15 Seconds that Saved the Giants and Pagan

When San Francisco Giants outfielder Angel Pagan came to the plate in the bottom of the tenth inning on Saturday, I was getting ready to write a column chastising his 40-million-dollar contract.

Pagan then saved the day with a game-winning, walk-off two-run homer to beat the Colorado Rockies by the final score of 6-5. I timed Pagan’s romp around the bases from contact back to the plate at 14.8 seconds. Those 15 seconds saved the Giants and Pagan on Saturday.

However, before that plate appearance, it had been another tough day in a disappointing season to this point for Pagan—whom the Giants signed to a 4-year, $40 million deal this winter. Leading off the top of the fourth, Troy Tulowitzki blooped a ball in front of Pagan in center. As Pagan has done so often this year, he froze before coming in on the ball and getting there too late. The ball went right underneath his outstretched glove for a double to start a two-run rally that would push the Rockies’ lead to 4-0.

According to Baseball Info Solutions’ defensive metric Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Pagan has cost the Giants six runs with his glove this year. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) has him at -1.5 runs. Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), the metric that Baseball Prospectus created, has him costing the Giants two runs thus far.

Defensive metrics aren’t anywhere near one-hundred percent reliable, particularly over a 380-inning sample. However, those numbers do seem to back up what I’ve seen from Pagan in center field this year. He looks below average to me and the advanced metrics back that up.

Pagan isn’t playing good enough defense for a player signed in large part because of his speed and defense. His bat hasn’t made up for his defensive shortcomings to this point, as he’s hitting just .262/.314/.374 even after his walk-off home run. He’s also been caught stealing four times in 10 attempts.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, he cost the Giants with his bat when he popped up to short with the bases loaded and one out with the team trailing 4-2.

However, after Pagan’s incredible 15-second sprint around the bases, his early-season struggles can be forgotten for a day or two. Time will tell if Pagan’s defense improves to the point of justifying his rich new contract.

Who Will Replace Vogey?

The Giants still haven’t decided on a replacement for Ryan Vogelsong. Chad Gaudin is one possible option, but I think he’d be better served by staying in the bullpen. His fastball was at 92-94 miles per hour on Saturday. If the Giants moved him to the rotation, he’d probably lose some zip off of the heater.

The other, bigger issue with Gaudin is that he’s really a right-handed specialist. Lefties have put up an OPS of .843 off of him this year compared to just .425 for righties. If the A’s load up their lineup with lefties on Tuesday, it’s hard to envision Gaudin having much of a chance. I’d go with Triple-A lefty Michael Kickham instead of Gaudin for the next few months while Vogelsong is out. The Giants could need three new starters next year, so now would be a good time to see if Kickham is a possible long-term option.

Andres Torres Looking Better

Andres Torres is having much better plate appearances of late. He’s doing a nice job of laying off soft stuff below the zone lately. He’s 6-for-11 with a walk in his last 12 trips to the plate, which has raised his slash line to a more respectable .264/.304/.391.


In the first inning, with the Giants already trailing 2-0, Marco Scutaro attempted to move Pagan to third via a sacrifice bunt with no outs. Scutaro botched the bunt, Pagan got nailed at third, and the Giants didn’t score in the inning despite getting a walk, a single, a double, and a wild pitch.

The bunt is almost always a bad play with a runner already in scoring position. It’s an even worse play in the first inning when you already know you’re going to need more than one run to win the game. And it’s made all the more terrible when the bunt is being laid down by a guy hitting .322. Just try to drive the guy in next time, Marco.

Belt’s Approach

With the bases loaded in the first inning, Brandon Belt struck out looking on perhaps the only call home-plate umpire Alfonso Marquez got right all game. Belt had fouled off a fastball in on the hands earlier in the at-bat. His bat path really only allows him to cover pitches down and in or right over the middle of the plate. He can’t handle hard stuff on the hands and he seems to foul off the stuff he gets to hit on the outside corner. His bat doesn’t stay in the zone long enough to allow him to cover much of the zone right now, which is why he’s hitting just .253.

However, his patience has allowed him to draw 16 walks to boost his OBP to .325. He had a nice walk in the game-tying rally in the seventh inning. I was going back and forth during Belt’s plate appearance to Shin-Soo Choo’s plate appearance in the Reds-Cubs game. Choo walked. Belt walked. Jesus wept. He likes hackers. I like watching guys who walk though. It’s more enjoyable for me than watching Pablo Sandoval hack at pitches that are about to hit him in the neck.

Zito is Zito is Zito

Barry Zito’s line: 6 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 1 BB, 1 HBP, 1 HR, 3 K. For a fifth starter throwing 82-84, that’s pretty good! Unfortunately, the Giants have three fifth starters right now in Zito (4.13 ERA), Lincecum (4.75), and whomever replaces Vogelsong’s 7.19 ERA.

Zito’s ERA in 2010 and 2012 was 4.15. The Giants won the World Series in both of those seasons. Thus, if he puts up a 4.15 ERA again this year, the Giants will win the World Series. They’re well on their way given Zito’s 4.13 ERA thus far in 2013. It’s science.

Pagan’s inside-the-park heroics will allow the Giants to forget about the fact that their starters have the National League’s third worst ERA right now.

That was awesome. The starting pitching has not been awesome though.

Problems at Work

I graduated college nearly five years ago today. I’m part of a generation of college graduates that have, for the most part, come to realize that the power of a college degree isn’t exactly what we hoped it might be. The Great Recession, globalization, technology, automation, immigration, broken government, and perhaps our own individual weaknesses, have combined to dampen our economic prospects.

I’ve been gainfully employed for the majority of my time since college, working from September of 2008 through April of 2012 before making the insane decision to quit in order to pursue a writing career. After nine months of that pursuit—which was personally rewarding but monetarily useless—I agreed to return to that company on a four-month temporary contract.

I don’t usually write about myself. It’s uncomfortable to do so. However, I’m trying to make changes in my life, and part of that change has to be having the courage to speak (or write) the truth about myself and about the world as I perceive it to be. It’s very hard to make those self-assessments. It’s hard to look in the mirror and see a 27-year-old manchild that lives with his grandmother still and remains dependent on his family for financial support. That’s embarrassing. I’m one of the 47 percenters that Mitt Romney was probably referring to. There are other, more naked truths we could get into, but this article is about my experience returning to a job that I shouldn’t have ever come back to.

I’m the guy who was the first to return to his old high school. I don’t move on well. I think that has to do with being easily depressed. The present can be too difficult to bear, the future is absolutely terrifying, but I somehow managed to get through the past, which is comforting. The past is a paradise in my deluded mind, no matter how unbearable it was at the time.

When I started at this company back in 2008, I almost didn’t make it out of the second week. I’m a very sensitive person. So, when one of my bosses—there are no shortage of bosses and micro-managers at this place—continued to berate me for minor infractions that were due mostly to my ignorance about the job, I broke down crying and nearly didn’t make it back the next day. It’s a stressful job, and the anxiety was wearing me down very quickly. My stomach was in knots, I couldn’t eat. I tried to eat something the next morning, but couldn’t. I’m not sure what kept me from quitting—quitting had long been and remains my main preferred coping mechanism in life. Somehow, I drove to work through an hour of mind-numbing traffic that day, and for nearly another four years thereafter.

Anyway, I never had planned to write anything about my experience there. For one, I don’t want a libel or defamation suit against me. Secondly, I’m not sure what the employee handbook says about blogging about the workplace. Finally, I would never want to burn that bridge, since one day I’m sure I’ll need a reference from them. Alas, the bridge has been so thoroughly burned at this point that I don’t think a reference from them will be very positive at this point. I crossed the wrong person there somehow, so there’s no need to pull punches anymore.

Instead of quitting three months through a four-month contract, I’m writing this essay as my defense mechanism. It might as well be a letter of resignation, but I’ll show up the next day regardless. Somehow, I learned to keep showing up, even against my want not to.

My decision to return was an example of really poor logic. At the time I made the decision, my return date was a few months away. My logic was that committing to returning wasn’t really a commitment at all. It was an opportunity to buy myself a few more months of writing time to keep people and myself off my back about the whole being unemployed thing (I was—and technically remain—an intern for a sports website). I figured that by the time February rolled around, Sports Illustrated would have swooped in and hired me. Alas, Sports Illustrated never did come calling, February 4th rolled around, and I was back in the cubicle.

The first day was surreal. I couldn’t believe that the bill had come due. I was further shocked to learn that I had apparently made a mistake in training my replacement nine months earlier that was allegedly a pretty big deal at the company. There were also rumors that my attitude over the last 90 days after I gave notice—yes I gave 90 days notice per their request—wasn’t well received. I allegedly did not take the training process seriously enough, even though I was never asked to train the prospective employee. Additionally, since he had remained gainfully employed there in the intermittent nine months with no further critical errors, I must have done something right. As a former high school basketball coach, I think I know a thing or two about leadership and coaching people up. After hearing all of this office gossip about my failings, I couldn’t quite comprehend why they brought me back at all.

In the three months that I’ve been back there temping, there have been other frustrations. My workload was suddenly and drastically increased due to the shocking incompetence of another employee. The decision to make me work more was understandable. They weren’t paying me to sit around and blog, afterall. One thing I clearly understand about the economy is that no one wants to pay me money to read what the fuck I think about anything, especially not a company trying to turn a profit in an industry that has nothing to do with crappy sports writing. However, the communication surrounding that episode was somewhat lacking in my view.

But the real kicker came on staff appreciation day. This one took the cake, and I can’t help but laugh at it. The company gave me a $25 gift card to show their appreciation. I was pretty stoked. I immediately spent it on half of a tank of gas. Most companies probably don’t do a staff appreciation day, and the ones that do probably don’t give any additional compensation to their employees. I thought it was a nice gesture, even if they called me Mike instead of Mark. (There’s a meme at this place that I often hear when a decision is made that someone doesn’t necessarily agree with: “Well, his name is on the door.” This infuriates me because yes, I can see the fucking names on the door when I walk in and even if I couldn’t, I do in fact know the name of the company I work for.)

The next day at lunch with some of my co-workers, I mentioned to one of them that they should use that $25-gift card at lunch. He replied, “$25? They gave me $50.” Since he had been there only a week, and I had been there for four years including my prior service, I was a little bit taken back. I wasn’t too surprised when the rest of the staff told me they also got $50.

I mean, you have to laugh. You can’t go complain over 25 measly bucks that the company gave out of the goodness of their own hearts, even if it was a way to spite you. Complaining about that would be unbecoming. In some ways, you have to hand it to whoever I pissed off there. It’s a small company. The powers-that-be knew that I would find out about the slight since we all sneak off to lunch together everyday. And, knowing me so well, they knew it would irk the shit out of me. I think it’s funny, and I laugh about it and make snarky comments about it at least once a day. But clearly, they got me.

One of the company’s policies is, “Don’t suffer in silence.” I’ll be out of there again in a month. After writing this, I probably won’t ever work again. One day, I’ll probably be one of the 47 percenters arguing for a tax increase on the folks that stiffed me on the $25 so that I can leach off the government instead of my family.

I’m suffering from my incompetence and aversion to reality. A 25 dollar slight isn’t the problem. My reaction to that slight is the problem. My decision to write a passive-aggressive blog is the problem.

But I’m a writer, and a coward. I wouldn’t ever be able to go fight in a war or do anything else that required bravery. I wouldn’t be tough enough to turn the other cheek, either.

So, at some point, you have to find a measure of courage in some other way. For me, that’s writing something that could do me some harm, I suppose. At a certain point, you have to start to accept that we’re all going to die, and when we get to heaven or hell, none of our names are going to be on the door.