As the season nears the midway point, the Giants have completed a spirited month-long run from division bottom-feeders to first place, overtaking the rival Dodgers. In the latest installment of McCovey Cove Musings, we'll review how they did it, the outlook for the rest of the season and we'll cover the usual tidbits, including a Bonds record chase that is getting comparatively little attention, the all-time walks record, and we'll weigh in with our own idea for a way for baseball to address it.
The Race For First- How They Got Back In It:
The Support Players. On this team, everyone not named Bonds or Schmidt can be considered a support player, but obviously the Big Duo cannot do it alone. Not surprisingly, the steady ascent in the standings has coincided with steady improvement from some of the biggest culprits during the slow start. Edgardo Alfonzo practically single-handedly willed the Giants to consecutive big wins against the Red Sox and Dodgers to get them over the hump and into 1st place. New catcher AJ Pierzynski, a walking double-play ball and figure of controversy in his first six weeks with the team, quietly raised his average over .280 and has come up with numerous big hits during the recent surge. Deivi Cruz, lost on the bench for most of the season, may have claimed the starting SS job for good from the anemic Neifi Perez with a 5-for-5 effort during the pivotal game when the Giants leap-frogged LA into 1st place. Michael Tucker, Pedro Feliz and even Dustan Mohr have contributed, and recent call-up Cody Ransom delivered a game-winner in the first LA game. The pitching has also improved, with Kirk Rueter rebounding nicely, Dustin Hermanson improving slightly and unheralded Noah Lowry even out-pitched Boston ace Pedro Martinez. In fact, Bonds had one of his quietest stretches of the season against Boston and early in the LA series and Alfonzo and company picked up the slack. For the Giants long term prospects, that is a far better way to win than relying solely on Schmidt and Bonds.
The Competition and The Schedule. Let's be honest, if the Giants were in the AL East or several other divisions, their 8 game hole in May would have been completely insurmountable. But with the Dodgers and Padres playing only slightly better than .500 ball, the opportunity to gain ground was there if they could just fashion a healthy win streak. The Giants did their part and so did the competition. The schedule also helped, letting the Giants gain their confidence and momentum against some weaker opponents. As they no doubt counted on, they were then able to ride that wave right into the tougher part of their schedule against winning teams, taking 8 of 10 against contenders Boston, LA and Oakland.
The Race For First- What They Need To Do To Stay On Top:
Starting pitching. Though it has come around somewhat, it remains a clear weak point. Schmidt has been the anchor, a horse. Look around both leagues and try to come up with a pitcher you'd rather have on the mound for a big game. Randy Johnson? Clemens? Mark Prior? None have been as consistently dominant as Schmidt. But from there the drop-off is immense. Rueter was downright putrid early but has bounced back with several good starts in a row. If he can keep it going the lift would be immeasurable, but even on a good day he is generally a 6-inning pitcher, and notion of counting on him for a most-win playoff game is truly chilling. Jerome Williams has also been a mixed bag in his sophomore campaign. He has been reasonably solid but also has been up and down, including coughing up a 7-2 lead vs. the Red Sox in what would turn out to be the only loss of that marquee series. Tomko has returned from the DL with two straight strong outings but must prove his bloated ERA earlier in the season is behind him. The pitching must improve, pure and simple, for this team to truly threaten for the division crown, and especially to have even a mild chance of advancing in the postseason.
Stay healthy. Though Damon Minor was adequate, the return of JT Snow can only help the Giants build on their recent momentum. The key will be to keep anyone else from passing him on his way back from the DL. Bonds and Schmidt are the obvious ones who absolutely cannot miss any extended time, but complementary pieces like Grissom, Alfonzo and oft-injured leadoff man Ray Durham are almost as important to keep in the lineup. Keep an eye on Schmidt, who allowed 4 ER in each of his last two starts vs. Oak and LA after being nearly unhittable for several months before. If the 120+ pitch outings are catching up with him, the Giants could be in real trouble down the stretch.
Strategic Acquisitions. Late in the offseason, when the outcry over the perceptions of an inept winter of personnel moves was at its peak, I wrote a piece with the recurring theme of "In Sabean We Trust". With this recent run to the top of the standings, the team has put the Giants revered GM back in the spotlight to earn that praise. What a month or so ago looked likely to turn into a firesale has shifted completely, to the point where the Giants will be looking to add the missing ingredients for another pennant run. With the resurgence of Alfonzo and the strong season-long production from Pedro Feliz, the search for a big bat to protect Bonds has died down, even if the historic run of intentional walks has not. But pitching clearly appears to be the bigger need. The Giants do have some attractive trade bait, but recent comments from Giants management make it clear that they are justifiably reluctant to mortgage the future for quick fixes. But there are some players out there who make a lot of sense. Royals slugger Mike Sweeney is available and signed for 3 more years, so he is an option for the middle of the lineup and at 1st base, where Snow is on borrowed time with a 1 yr deal. Pitching is less plentiful, with Seattle's Freddy Garcia, the main prize, already shipped off to the ChiSox. The Pirates Kris Benson and even former Giant Russ Ortiz are expected to be available. It remains to be seen which way they will go, but the amazing return to the top of the NL West ensures that GM Brian Sabean will again have the opportunity to be creative and aggressive as the trade deadline nears.
All About Barry:
Walk This Way
As Bonds passes 100 walks for the season, which he just did, and quickly approaches Rickey Henderson's all-time record for most career walks, it's time to revisit the image that has come to symbolize the Giants-- #25 strolling to 1st base with a free pass.
The Giants management has so far addressed the pitching-around-Bonds issue by doing nothing further to get a big bat to protect Bonds. In fact, they have turned the frustrating regular occurrence into a marketing ploy, collecting $10 a pop selling rubber chickens for fans to wave every time Bonds saunters down to 1st after four wide ones.
Whether the Giants need to better support Bonds is not the easy question it seemed a month ago. Nobody can completely protect Bonds, first of all, but they at least need to cash in the bonus baserunners a good percentage of the time, something the Giants have done far better recently with the resurgence of Alfonzo, Tucker and Pierzynski, among others. A Mike Sweeney or Carlos Delgado would still look awfully nice batting 4th behind Bonds, but for now, Alfonzo holds the key, and recently it has been the key to a remarkable resurgence, for not only the Giants 3rd baseman but the team as a whole.
Bending the Rules
With all of the intentional walks Bonds is receiving, once again the arm chair rules makers have weighed in with various suggestions for new rules forcing teams to pitch to Bonds, or other players they might avoid. And, while none of these rule changes are likely to happen, what the hell, I might as well take a shot too. Here is my suggestion for a rule change.
Unlike others I have seen, this suggestion actually increases the strategy, the chess match aspect that most appeals to most hard core fans.
Here is the Yearout intentional walk rule:
Any time a player is walked on four consecutive pitches (the sole definition necessary, since it is obviously impossible to determine intent), it is considered an intentional walk, even if the pitcher theoretically intended to throw strikes and merely missed four straight times. If even one strike occurs during the at bat, by definition this is no longer an intentional walk and this rule does not apply.
After an intentional walk (defined only as a 4-pitch walk), the manager of the batting team has the option of selecting a pinch runner from his available bench players. That runner will be awarded first base and the batter who was intentionally walked will remain at the plate, with a fresh count. The manager also has the option of declining the pinch runner and simply having the batter take his base.
In the event the decision is made to use the pinch runner, once the inning is over, only one of the players, the batter or the pinch runner, may remain in the game. The other player is replaced and, as is currently the case, can no longer be used for the duration of the game.
Though in theory the pitcher could simply walk the batter again on 4 pitches, both the pitcher and the manager of the batting team would have to consider several factors in figuring out their strategy.
For the pitcher, if he walks the batter again on four pitches, then he has placed two runners on base and the opposition has the option to again keep the batter at the plate.
For the batting team, each time they insert a pinch runner, they are getting another fresh count for the batter, but they are also using up a bench player. Game management becomes crucial. If this situation occurs early in the game, would the manager want to use up one or more of his available bench players in an attempt to "force" the opposition to pitch to their star? Would the pitching team want to risk that the opposing manager would do just that, in which case intentionally walking the batter would only put more runners on base for the same hitter they are trying to pitch around?
Baseball is already the best sport in the world because it is half athletic performance and half a chess match. This proposed rule change, unlike many I've seen, sticks entirely to that spirit. It matches wits and sets up some truly delicious games of poker.
Imagine a team walking the bases loaded, with Alou cleaning out his bench, and Bonds would still be standing at the plate. If the opposition gets him out and gets out of the inning, all three pinch runners have to be removed from the game (or two of them along with Bonds) and the bench is completely used up and the pitching team has clearly won the staredown.
At the very least, there would be a lot more drama, strategy and accountability than there is now.
That's about it for now, Giants fans. Let's hope the G-men can keep their momentum heading into the season's 2nd half. No matter what happens, we'll be here to cover it all in the next segment of McCovey Cove Musings.
John Yearout is a Giants season ticket holder and is currently working on a crime novel centered around a fictional Giants star pitcher. His two year old son already features a mean curve ball and is slated to make his Giants debut during the 2022 season.
John welcomes your feedback on the Giants, baseball or the best tasting beer at the ballpark and looks forward to doing further research on all three topics during the next homestand. He can be reached at: email@example.com
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