While I Was Away…

As you may (or may not) have noticed, this corner of the Interweb has been strangely silent the past few days. I suffered a minor fall that had some challenging side effects and I’ve been largely out of commission. But things are back to whatever passes for normal in my life these days, so I’ll resume my commentary on things Giant and Niner.

The Giants went on a mini-tear while I was out of commission (but watching more games on TV), climbed into a tie, then a half-game temporary lead in the NL West. But they’ve lost their last three in a row and are now 1-1/2 back of the Dodgers in what is shaping up as a two-team chase. The Padres are 6-1/2 out of first with the D-Backs 7 out and the Rockies 7-1/2 out, so the bunch-up behind the two essential co-leaders is pretty interesting in and of itself.

SANTIAGO CASILLA has lots of trouble with lefties

SANTIAGO CASILLA has lots of trouble with lefties

If there’s a common thread in the current three-game skid, it’s hard to find. The series-ending loss to the Braves on Monday night could be attributed in large part (but not entirely) to an extremely rare error by SS Brandon Crawford. But if the Giants had a closer who could shut down left-handed hitting as effectively as Santiago Casilla handles righties, the error wouldn’t have resulted in an explosive rally that brought the Giants to their knees.

Casilla’s overall stats (2.82 ERA and 15 of 18 save opportunities) are sterling. But when you break him down lefties vs righties, it’s a different story. Left-handed batters are ripping him at a .382 clip. That’s beyond abysmal. And it’s second worst on the team; Sergio Romo holds the “top” spot with a .421 BAA (batting average against) by lefties.

Who’s the Giants pitcher outside the starting rotation with the best record against left-handers? Javier Lopez has a BAA of .074. Gene Machi (.105) and George Kontos (.152) aren’t far behind. But only Lopez among those three has any experience as a closer, which is a whole different breed of pitcher, as you know.

Manager Bruce Bochy has been having conversations with management about cutting the pitching roster by one recently, a move that may happen as soon as the end of this series against the Pirates. But if Casilla is going to be the closer, Bochy may have to platoon closers based on whether they are facing left- or right-handers. That would suggest not reducing the size of the pitching staff.

It may be worth noting that Casilla’s lifetime BAA for lefties is a respectable .261, so he may just be going through a rough patch at this point. With the team playing well overall, maybe it’s too soon to change gears. But with the season nearly at the one-third mark, it’s not wise for the Giants to wait too long to see if Casilla is a ship that can right itself.

Tonight the Pirates will send their veteran ace A. J. Burnett (5-1, 1.81 ERA) to the mound against the hottest pitcher on the Giants’ roster, Chris Heston (5-3, 3.82). This is as crucial a game as you can have one-third of the way through the season. It’s important to avoid long losing streaks (where long is anything longer than 3). But Burnett has a certain amount of ownage against the Giants, whom he is facing for the first time this season. In 2014, the team batted .138 against him.

I’m predicting the Pirates to win tonight by two. And hoping I’m wrong.

Go, Giants!

He Who Hesitates…Looks Less Insightful

Casey McGehee Loses Roster Spot May 24, 2015

Casey McGehee Loses Roster Spot May 24, 2015

Four days ago, I made myself a note that said simply, “Time to bench McGehee?” I put it on my list of future blog posts. Then other more important things kept crowding it off my ToDo list so I never got around to writing it.

Here’s how Comcast SportsNet Bay Area announced this morning’s shocker:

The Giants made a surprise move on Sunday morning, designating the 32-year-old McGehee for assignment and installing 24-year-old Matt Duffy as their everyday third baseman. The move was made in part because the Giants wanted to keep 13 pitchers during this stretch, and that meant adding Hunter Strickland to the roster.

“Designated for assignment” is a baseball euphemism for “cut”. He’d have been sent straight to the AAA Sacramento River Cats but his status as a contract veteran made that impossible. He may choose to report there or he may try to catch on with some other MLB team. He said he’s going to talk to his family before making a final decision. Given his age, his pitiful performance at the plate, in the field and on the bases in the first 35 games of the season, he’s not likely to be an attractive candidate anywhere else in baseball but his age and status make a AAA assignment distasteful.

McGehee was picked up from the Marlins during the offseason as a potential replacement for last year’s third-sacker Pablo Sandoval. When they signed him, they knew he wouldn’t approach Panda’s power, but nobody expected this sputtering start. He was barely hitting .200, had struck out 24 times and knocked in a meager 9 runs. And he was leading the National League in one statistical category: GIDP. Which means “grounded into double plays.” Ouch.

MATT DUFFY settles in as new regular 3rd baseman

MATT DUFFY settles in as new regular 3rd baseman

The G-Men will go with Matt Duffy as their regular third basemen, which I think is clearly their best move and what I’d have suggested in my almost-written column. The swap marks a noticeable improvement for the team overall.

A lot of folks are probably asking themselves why Bruce Bochy didn’t make the move sooner. One reason is McGehee’s veteran status; you figure a guy with his playing time would find his way out of the terrible slump and inattentiveness. Another is that Duffy was still a bit of an unknown at the start of the season; that’s no longer the case. He’s hitting .299 with two homers and 19 RBIs. And he’s been solid, at times brilliant, with his glove. At the ripe old age of 24, I think it’s safe to say he’s our third baseman for some years to come.

Where is the Strike Zone SUPPOSED to Be?

Everyone who’s played or watched a lot of baseball at almost any level knows that the strike zone is one of the most elusive concepts to attempt to identify. It varies with the umpire and many umps, even in the majors, are pretty inconsistent in how they call it.

Periodically while watching a game with friends, someone will ask, “What’s the strike zone, Shafer?”

There are two answers.

The practical response is that the strike zone is wherever the umpire behind the plate says it is for each pitch. Good umps try to be consistent, at least within a single game and preferably over time. But as someone who spent over a decade umpiring baseball and softball, I can tell you that getting it right even 90% of the time is pretty hard. Most of the umpires behind the plate in MLB are pretty good at balls-and-strikes. Some are notoriously not.

Behind the plate for tonight’s (May 20) game between the Giants and the Dodgers at AT&T Park in San Francisco was Angel Hernandez, one of the most often criticized officials in the big leagues. Giants’ broadcaster Duane Kuiper said after a particularly awful performance from Hernandez in a game against the A’s in 2014, “Angel Hernandez is not a good umpire and in my opinion, he does not belong in the big leagues. And I think Major League Baseball knows this, they just don’t know how to get rid of him.”

Before the game tonight, Kuiper described Hernandez’ strike zone as one that “breathes. It expands and then it contracts and then it expands again.” In other words, it’s unpredictable, which is the worst criticism that can be leveled against a plate umpire.

I must say that as the game went on, I agreed with Kuip more and more. Angel Pagan came close to getting tossed at one point when Hernandez made a horrendous call against him for strike two, effectively taking the bat out of his hands. And he wasn’t the only player on either side to get steamed.

The second answer to the question of where the strike zone is where the rule book (specifically Rule 2.0) says it should be. It’s a pretty straightforward rule that any fan can understand easily. Here it is in its entirety:

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

I’ve noticed that most major league teams have their team name/logo stitched across the front of the jersey a bit higher than the top of the zone. I’m just guessing but I imagine this is because that is the largest block of type on the uniform and might distract pitchers into missing high a lot. For all I know, it works.

But when the hitter is in his normal batting stance, prepared to swing at a pitch, the zone is different — at least for most hitters — than when they are casually standing in the batter’s box. Umpires are supposed to take the hitting stance as the baseline,though I can tell you from years of personal experience that’s easier said than done.

One thing to be said for Hernandez is that he’s slow with the thumb. He doesn’t eject many players or managers, giving them time to vent his calls. Maybe he knows how bad he is.

Giants Blank Dodgers Second Straight Time Behind Lincecum and Posey (Again)

Buster Posey was scintillating at the plate and on defense and Tim Lincecum tossed a real gem as the Giants won their fifth straight by shutting out the Dodgers at AT&T Park, 4-0 tonight.

TIM LINCECUM. On a tear, ERA down to 2.04.

TIM LINCECUM. On a tear, ERA down to 2.04.

Except for the fact that he walked LA’s starting pitcher, Brett Anderson (which never ceases to annoy the crap out of me), Lincecum was about as close to perfect as you can get. Posey drove in three of the four runs and made a spectacular catch over the Dodgers’ dugout fence.

In picking up his fourth win of the season, Lincecum also dropped his ERA to a remarkable 2.04. He came into the game at 2.35.

The Giants are now just 2-1/2 games back of the league-leading Dodgers, with whom they finish their three-game brief homestand tomorrow with a rare mid-week day game. Madison Bumgarner starts for the Giants, facing LA ace Clayton Kershaw. He has struggled against the Giants this year, making six starts against them and having an 0-1 record to show for it. His ERA against San Francisco is 5.59.

Bumgarner, meanwhile, has four starts against the Dodgers, a 1-1 record and an impressive ERA (3.16) and an absolutely brilliant WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) of 0.97.

Couple that with the fact that LA is winless in AT&T Park this year and I’m going out on a limb here and predict a rare Giants’ sweep. It may even be a series shutout sweep. Final score? 3-0.

Go, Giants!

Ouch! Niners Gut-Punched by Justin Smith’s Retirement

With everything that’s gone wrong for the Niners during the off-season, the last thing they needed was to lose the heart of their defense. Monday, that’s what happened.

justin-smithJustin Smith, a 14-year veteran who spent the last seven years of his career in a crimson-and-gold uni, announced his retirement from the game. “Cowboy”, as his teammates called him, was quite literally the heart and soul of the Niners’ D. The five-time Pro Bowler leaves a huge vacancy that will be impossible to fill for this season and perhaps several seasons to come.

Smith is just the latest in a series of losses on the defensive side of the ball that the Niners have suffered in recent months. They’ve also said good-bye to Patrick Willis and second-year man Chris Borland.

As Sacramento Bee Niners’ beat reporter Matt Barrows said, “Smith’s retirement means that only three 49ers who started on defense in the Super Bowl just two and a half years ago remain with the team. They are Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith. Five members of the team’s Super Bowl starting offense remain: Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Vernon Davis, Colin Kaepernick and Joe Staley.”

They’ve also lost three other defensive starters in the off-season to free agency: corners Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver and linebacker Dan Skuta.

That means over half of the starting defense from 2014 is no longer on the roster.

That combined with the highly questionable decision to switch head coaches to the unproven puppet manager Jim Tomsula all adds up to a 2015 season whose prospects for the Niners are, at best, mediocre.

Every team goes through this cycles. If Jim Harbaugh were still here, I’d be confident he could build a contender out of the scraps and draft choices and free agent pickups. Maybe Tomsula will surprise me.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Go, Giants!

NFL Announces Major PAT Rule Change. I Like It But I’d Have Done More With Scoring

NFL owners this week voted 30-2 to adopt a new rule, the first major rule change to affect scoring in a long time.

football-goalpostsUnder the new rule, point-after kicks — which have become routine, ceremonial plays with all the drama of drying cement and the impact of a mosquito landing on your arm — are going to take on a whole new adventurous meaning.

The change has two aspects.

First, rather than kicking PATs from the two-yard line, the ball will be placed at the 15-yard line for the attempt. Although that’s still not a real challenge for an NFL place-kicker, it does increase the margin for error and give the defense the ability to build up a hard charge intended to deflect the kick. And of course, the PAT becomes a 25-yard field goal. (In the 2014 season, there were approximately 250 field goal attempts inside 30 yards and kickers made all but five of them.)

So maybe it won’t be that much more difficult for the kickers. But the second aspect of the rule change is that if the defense blocks the PAT, they will be allowed to recover the ball and run it back for a two-point score. (I don’t know if they’ll call this a safety or give it another name.)

Nice Move, But Not Far Enough!

As I said, I like the rule change even though its impact is likely to be small.

But I’ve been advocating another scoring rule change for years that I’d still like to see the NFL implement at some point. And that relates to the number of points scored for a field goal.

Long field goals are hard, so you’d think I might be in favor of giving teams more points for long kicks than for chip shots. But you’d be wrong. Follow me here.

Every drive is intended to produce a touchdown. (A college coach told me back in the day when I was writing sports full time that every play is designed to score a TD, thus the vast majority of plays were failures.) The closer a team gets to the goal line, the closer it comes to its real goal. If they get stymied just shy of the six-pointer, I think a field goal should be worth more than one kicked from 50 yards away by a team that could barely get the ball into enemy territory.

In other words, by my way of thinking, you reward the team with points dependent on the overall offensive drive’s performance, not on the basis of one guy’s strong, accurate leg.

So,  here’s how I’d do it.

Distance    Points
————    ——–
1-10               3
11-30             2
31+                1

Call me crazy but I think that would spice games up a lot. I hate to see a team win in the waning moments of a hard-fought game by moving the ball to just across the 50 and then punching in a long field goal. Make them work for those points!

What do you think?

Giants Bats Quiet, Dodgers Quieter in Shutout

The Giants shut out the LA Dodgers at AT&T Park tonight, 2-0 behind Tim Hudson (2-3) who gave the men in orange and black 6-1/3 innings of solid pitching, scattering five hits. Sergio Romo got credit for a hold and Pablo Casilla nabbed the save.

Buster Posey was the offensive story for the Giants, collecting the only RBI of the strange night game. The Giants left nine runners on base and hit only 2-for-7 with runners in scoring position. But tonight it was enough to win their fourth straight.

Every other team in the NL West won tonight but the G-Men picked up a full game on the Dodgers and are now 3.5 games back at 21-18.

Tomorrow’s game pits Tim Lincecum (3-2, 2.43) against the Dodgers’ Brett Anderson (2-1, 3.50). Timmy’s coming off a rough start in Cincinnati where he went just 4-2/3 while giving up five hits and three earned runs before giving way to the pen. But his two previous outings were strong. Back in front of the home crowd, I think he rebounds and pitches a solid game to lead the Giants to their fifth straight victory. Call it 5-2.