Angel Pagan

Top 10 San Francisco Giants surprises (so far)

We arrived in San Diego on Thursday, and we’re heading to L.A. today and will stay there until Thursday. As always, I feel weird when I’m out of town and can’t watch (almost) every pitch of every San Francisco Giants game — so it’s really going to be an adjustment in July when my wife and I travel to Europe for over three weeks. My wife says I can’t even bring my computer since we’ll be backpacking, but I think it’s because she doesn’t want me blogging or messing around on Twitter or with my fantasy baseball teams.

Anyway, I glanced at my phone yesterday afternoon and saw that the Giants defeated the Cubs, 2-0. The craziest thing about yesterday’s win wasn’t Barry Zito’s line (8.1 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 5 K), but how unsurprised I was by Zito’s line. It would be an exaggeration to say that I expect brilliance from Zito every five or six days, but it’s to the point now where competence from the 34-year-old lefty seems to be the norm.

The Giants go into Monday’s game at 30-24, only three games behind the Dodgers and a game out of both Wild Card spots. 54 games means they’ve completed one-third of their regular season. So far, the season has included several surprises. Here are ten:

1. Losing Pablo Sandoval wasn’t the end of the world.

They lost their first two games after Sandoval’s hamate bone injury pushed him out of action, but since then they’ve gone 18-10. After scoring all of 12 runs in the last five games WITH Sandoval, many expected the Giants to struggle to average 2 runs per game in his absence. Actually, they’ve averaged almost 4 runs per game (3.97) without the Panda.

2. So. Many. Errors.

Nobody expected the defense to be this bad. 10 errors for Brandon Crawford, who does seem to have gotten more comfortable in recent weeks (Crawford also makes up for his errors to a certain extent with tremendous range — according to UZR he’s actually the second-best defender on the team behind Gregor Blanco, for what it’s worth). In fact, the entire team has tightened up the glovework of late, and they’re finally below their earlier pace of 1+ errors per game (after Sunday the Giants had committed 51 errors through 54 games). Still, the first month and a half of this season was an embarrassment in that department. We’ll see if the first six or seven weeks was a clue as to how bad this team is defensively, or if they were in a team-wide slump in the field that’ll be a distant memory in August and September.

3. Maybe we all just imagined Scott Cousins’ existence.

Bochy will occasionally label Buster Posey’s surgically repaired ankle as “cranky.” This is just speculation on my part, but I’d imagine Posey’s playing through pain either frequently or constantly, but says absolutely nothing to the media (and not much more to the training staff). The fact that Posey’s tied for third on the team in games played with 48 is astounding considering what happened last year. He’s also been extremely productive, with an OPS+ of 128 and 29 RBIs, which leads the team. And yes, I’m aware RBIs is a “counting stat” that makes me seem like a 90-year-old for even giving it any attention in today’s advanced metrics world. But Posey’s slash line with RISP (.296/.359/.426) is pretty impressive, especially compared to the line the entire team has put up with RISP in 2012 (.211/.296/.306).

4. Tim Lincecum: worst pitcher on the staff.

He was considered a likely Hall of Famer just a couple months ago. There’s no reason why he can’t become a dominant pitcher once again, and he’s shown some signs recently that he’ll come out of this funk he’s been in since Spring Training. Still, his ERA has hovered around 6.00 for quite some time, he’s walking more guys than ever and he hasn’t looked like himself since last September.

5. Brian who?

The Giants are very particular about their bullpen, to the point where Sergio Romo is only used as a closer on the rarest of occasions. When Brian Wilson blew his arm out (completely) on April 12, many wondered if the Giants would go with a closer-by-committee situation and/or if the rest of the relievers could pick up the slack. Even after a disappointing stint for Dan Otero to start the year and losing Guillermo Mota for 100 games due to a positive drug test, the pen has been nothing short of outstanding. Santiago Casilla has shown Giants fans that the 9th inning doesn’t have to be a frightening exercise on a near-nightly basis, and along with Romo, Javier Lopez, Jeremy Affeldt and Clay Hensley, the Giants have a “furious five” that matches up with any other team’s set of relievers. Additionally, even Shane Loux has pitched well and Steve Edlefsen has been serviceable.

6. Brandon Belt hasn’t hit a home run this season. 

After seeing him go 3-for-3 and effortlessly swat a ball into McCovey Cove on the second-to-last game of the 2011 season, it seemed like all that stood between Belt and some serious power numbers were Bruce Bochy’s lineup permutations. Belt hasn’t been handed the starting job at first base, but he hasn’t exactly demanded the job with his play either. A patient hitter playing for a manager who values guys who “put the ball in play,” Belt isn’t impressing his boss with his .347 OBP … because his slugging percentage is a slappy .340.

And now we get to the portion of this list where we look at how Spring Training either gave us clues or totally fooled everyone…

7. Gregor Blanco’s spring wasn’t a mirage.

Blanco’s “vroom” game was extraordinarily fun to watch in Arizona. But after an inability to stick with any big league team over the last few years, most figured that at best he’d be a 5th outfielder who’d mostly be used as a pinch runner. Instead, Blanco’s play pushed Nate Schierholtz to the bench and infused the top of the Giants’ lineup with the kind of contagious patience they’ve needed for what seems like forever (or at least since Barry Bonds left).

8. Angel Pagan’s spring was a mirage.

Many wanted Pagan parked on the bench after he couldn’t hit a lick in March (.171/.203/.303 in Arizona), and he didn’t bring his regular season average above .200 until game No. 11. Since then, he’s been a machine at the plate, pushing his numbers to .314/.354/.464 going into Monday’s game. Pagan had a 20-game hit streak, followed by an 11-game hit streak, followed by a current 12-game hit streak after Pagan hit a single on Monday afternoon. Sabean made a fantastic decision in trading for Pagan, who was available after an injury-plagued 2011 (.262/.322/.372) masked the fact that he’s been this kind of hitter for a while (Pagan’s slash line for 2009-10 combined: .296/.345/.448).

9. Zito figured something out.

What did he figure out? It doesn’t matter. Don’t ask questions. Just enjoy the ride … brah. During Spring Training Zito wasn’t just awful, he allowed 44 baserunners and 5 homers over 19.1 innings. Staying behind to work on his mechanics seemed like a desperation move with no hope for success, but Zito’s 2012 debut was a 4-hit shutout in Coors Field. Since then he’s only had two bad starts — a 7-walk outing over 3.2 innings against Miami and a recent start in Milwaukee where he allowed 8 runs (4 earned) over 3 innings. Occasional hiccups like those are easily forgiven when you see an ERA under 3.00 for the season and the fact that Zito’s averaged 6 innings per start.

After watching him get shelled by the Padres in Peoria, I wrote a satirical post about how the Giants should make Zito become a falconer to fix the seagull problem at AT&T Park. Guess I’m the birdbrained one, now.

10. Melky Cabrera: MVP candidate.

It’s not just the Tony Gwynn numbers he keeps putting up. Cabrera is a complete player. Fancy catches, high-velocity throws with pinpoint accuracy from either corner outfield spot, deft baserunning that goes beyond his 9 stolen bases. When Sabean traded Jonathan Sanchez for Cabrera months ago, the going wisdom was that what he did in Kansas City (201 hits, 18 HR, 20 SB) was the best the Giants could hope for. There’s still plenty of season left, but Cabrera has looked like nothing less than a star up to this point. If the Giants can keep moving up in the standings and make it to the postseason, Cabrera could earn the most National League MVP votes since Bonds won the award in 2004.

Honorable Mention: Ryan Vogelsong proving last year wasn’t a fluke; Aubrey Huff’s DL stint due to anxiety; Joaquin Arias’ contributions. I’m sure I’ve missed one or two.

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