Thursday, July 07, 2016

Strength in Numbers

Strength in Numbers was the Warriors' motto last season, but as the San Francisco Giants approach the All-Star Game break, it occurs to me that it's also the headline for their success so far this year.

At the moment the Giants enjoy the best record in the majors.  Thanks to a Dodgers' loss today, they have a 6.5 game lead atop the division.  The question is why?

Especially when so many regulars have lost significant playing time with injuries, and right now three or four are unavailable (it's not clear about Span) for the final weekend before the break.  Plus one of their top relievers (Romo) has just gotten back, and one of their starting pitchers (Cain) may be ready for the second half but has been out of the rotation for several weeks--just as he seemed to be getting back on track.

And even factoring in the injury to Romo, the bullpen has underperformed, both in contrast to past years and to the league right now--with a high number of blown saves.

So why are they winning?  There's one clear stand-out star of the first half: new starting pitcher Johnny Cueto.  But he pitches just 1 out of every 5 games.  Three other starters are also pitching at a high level.  Madison Bumgarner has run into some bad luck with run support and reliever failures, Jeff S. has been inconsistent recently and Jake Peavy took awhile to get sharp, but together they are clearly among the top starting pitching staffs in the league.

That's strength in numbers.  So is the high level of the starters in the field who've managed to stay healthy: Brandon Belt is having an All-Star year, as is Brandon Crawford, though thanks to a totally bullshit selection process, they might not be recognized as such.  Buster Posey is their MVP, for even when he's not hitting, he's guiding these pitchers and playing his position admirably.  And quite a lot of the time, he is hitting.

But strength in numbers really comes into play with the rookies and substitutes, the guys who've been sent out on the field to replace the injured starters, and to do what the team needs to win.  And by and large, they've been doing it.  Playing unfamiliar positions or bouncing around the batting order, they've mostly come through.  And among the rookie pitchers, Cory Gearrin has been heroic, pitching effectively in tight spots probably more than he should be asked to perform.  Suarez is another--bouncing back and forth from the minors, asked to relieve, asked to start, he's been pretty solid.

You have to assume that part of this is due to the team culture.  Other players envy the SF Giants organization and their clubhouse.  They were factors in getting Cueto and Jeff S. to join up.

That brings us back to the Golden State Warriors, with the same quality organization and team chemistry.  It's a smaller group in the clubhouse now that has to embrace a bunch of new players, but at Kevin Durant's signing press conference Thursday, it's clearly a great deal of why he's come to the Warriors--and he said so:

"When I met these guys, I felt as comfortable as I've ever felt," Durant said. "It was organic, it was authentic, it was real, and it was feelings I couldn't ignore."

He was reassured that there wouldn't be ego trips or selfish play.

 Of the core players he said: "It felt like they just loved each other unconditionally."

It's kind of a strange thing for an athlete to say about other players.  And yet, it seems to be crucial to the success of these two Bay Area teams.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The Closer (Also the Starter)

On Wednesday in San Francisco, it's all good.  Johnny Cueto pitches a complete game victory--his fourth so far this season, in an era where even one is rare--and his 13th win (highest on the Giants in the first half of the season in almost a quarter century) against one loss.  The victory over the Rockies gave the Giants the best record in MLB.  And with the Dodgers' loss, a 6 game division lead.

Pretty good day for Pittsburgh, too.  After falling behind the Cards 5-1, the Bucs roared back to win 7-5 for their seventh straight.  Bullpen again was key.  The victory secured second place in their division, 8.5 games back of the Cubs.  And the Cubs are next.

Not such a great night in San Francisco on Tuesday, though, as six strong innings by Madison Bumgarner were wasted by another bullpen implosion.  Corey Gearrin, who gave up the 3-run homer that blew the lead, was placed on the 15 day DL to rest an aching shoulder.  The rook had been the most reliable reliever on the staff until recently, and probably was overworked.  Let's hope not fatally.  The bullpen remains the Giants biggest weakness, as they are tied with the lowly Reds for the league lead in blown saves.

Meanwhile across the Bay, the past year's Golden State Warriors team continued to disassemble.  Barnes and Bogut leaving were expected consequences of Durant,  and Ezeli was probably gone in any event, but Leandro Barbosa was a fan favorite and personification of Strength in Numbers.  He declined to stay for the vet minimum and took a two-year deal from Phoenix. Free agent Brandon Rush also left.  That leaves Shaun Livingston and Iguodala, with Speights still to be determined.  The Warriors still have four roster spots to fill.

Surprisingly, veteran head coach Mike Brown has joined the Warriors' staff as an assistant, as Luke Walton takes the Lakers head coaching job that Brown once held.  Brown won Coach of the Year at, coincidentally I'm sure, Cleveland.

But all that will take a backseat on Thursday when Kevin Durant officially joins the Golden State Warriors.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016


Wow.  What else is there to say?  I certainly never expected it.

Kevin Durant announced on Monday that he would be playing for the Golden State Warriors.  In one fell swoop, the Warriors obtained one of the greatest players in the NBA, and defanged its conference rival, the Thunder.

Some other dominoes quickly fell.  Warriors Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes departed for Dallas, and the Dubs obtained from Dallas a year contract for big man Zaza Pahchulia, who with Curry, Thompson, Green and Durant, probably constitutes the 2016-17 starting five.

After their initial elation, Dubs fans at the Bleacher Report obsessed with financials, trying to figure out how the Warriors pay the rest of the team.  But another comment on that site says it all in one word: Surreal.

Yet it makes sense for Durant, and almost anybody.  Because every player envies the players on Golden State for the team culture and the Bay Area atmosphere.  Durant's one question in his meeting with the Warriors was, will I upset the team chemistry?  Everybody knows that's what's special about the Warriors.  Strength in Numbers is more than a slogan. (Rob Mahoney at SI makes this point at length.)  Curry texted Durant, reassuring him of the team ethic, and it's not a team of rivals.  Jerry West expounded on how Durant would fit in perfectly.  All this is at least equal to the prospects of championships to come.

The news of Durant's announcement came as the San Francisco Giants were finishing up their afternoon game at home--Duane Kiper related it during the radio broadcast-- riding homers by Posey and Pagan behind a strong start by Peavy (yeah, the killer P's, inevitably) to beat the Rockies 3-1.  Also notable: Sergio Romo returned to the bullpen, pitching in the eighth.  And for the first time in awhile, the Giants got through the eighth with their lead intact.

They leaned on their rookies again, though mostly for defense.  Parker and Williamson made nice outfield plays on a tricky sun-and-wind day, and Grant Green made an excellent play at second base.

The Dodgers also won so the Giants didn't get any additional space at the top of the division, but their victory did pull them to one-half game behind the Cubs for the best record in the league.  They've won 16 of their last 22 games, the best record in MLB for that period.

The Pirates beat the Cardinals 4-2 to go above .500 and gain a game on second place Cards--they're now just a game and a half behind them.

It's another year of feast and famine so far.  All the division leaders are near or above .600, with Cleveland, Texas and Chicago leading their divisions by at least 6 games (the Giants by 5.)  Most look to be two team races at best.  The American League East is the sole exception.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Revenge of the Rooks II

On Sunday the Pittsburgh Pirates completed a sweep of the A's in Oakland and after winning four straight are back at .500.  Notable in this streak is their bullpen, which hasn't given up a run in 32 innings.

That's in contrast to the San Francisco Giants bullpen, which blew late inning leads in their last two games in Arizona.  After leading 5-1 for much of the Saturday game, a 3-run homer in the eighth gave Arizona the lead and ultimately the win, 6-5.  Before that, the highlight was Mac Williamson's titanic home run that hit the scoreboard, which none of the Giants' announcers could remember seeing before.

On Sunday an even more makeshift lineup (Brandon Belt playing left field because of injuries to Span and Blanco, playing next to Jarrett Parker and Williamson) the Giants nevertheless had a 4-1 lead while starter Suarez was pitching, but blew it once again on a homer in the 8th, this time tying the game at 4.  It took eleven innings for the Giants to win it 5-4, with the bullpen holding the line in the extras.

Brandon Belt had two keys, one of them a 2 RBI double, as well as an important catch in the field, and Brandon Crawford had another stellar defensive game that saved some runs.  But again it was the rooks who were the story--both Parker and Williamson were in the thick of it, and the winning hit came from the hobbling Pena, not fit to field yet but who came off the bench to double in the 11th inning, bringing the speedy Parker around from first.

Williamson hit another boomer, but this time a line drive that was caught.  Announcer Jon Miller gets a lot of joshing from the rest of the crew for fixating on the new stat of bat speed.  But Dave Fleming had to admit that the ball traveling at an exceptionally fast 117 mph off Williamson's bat correlates with a hit 95% of the time.  

So the Giants limp home from a short road trip with, almost unaccountably, 3 out of 5 wins, and still 5 ahead of the streaking Dodgers.  They return with Denard Span awaiting results of an MRI on his neck that could lead to yet another player on the DL.  The good news: Kelby Tomlinson is doing his final rehab thing in triple-A and is close to returning, while Hunter Pence seems ahead of schedule on his possible return, taking batting practice.  Matt Cain is doing his triple-A starts.  And best of all for the beleaguered bullpen would be the return of Romo.