What with the NBA Playoffs (and Silly Season, which I’ll be writing about soon, I promise) and the advent of this awesome thing called the World Cup, I haven’t gotten around to writing report cards for my beloved Bay Area baseball teams yet. So, with the teams passing the mathematical midpoints of their seasons last week, and the traditional seasonal midpoint of the All Star Game happening a week from today, and of course a four game Battle by the Bay series kicking off last night (the A’s took the opener 5-0), now’s as good a time as any. We’ll start, as my life in the Bay Area did, on the eastside of the Bridge.
The OAKLAND ATHLETICS have, with a season of impressive performances and one monster trade, established themselves as a consensus World Series favorite. There have been a million articles written about the performance, so I won’t belabor this too much. Basically, they’ve used an adherence to roster depth, an uncanny ability to evaluate other teams’ minor leaguers, and smart managing by Bob Melvin to build a team that not only has the best record in the Major Leagues, but one that has posted a run differential that, at this point in the season, would mark them as one of the 10 best teams of the last 50 years.
As anyone who has read Moneyball knows, A’s GM Billy Beane evaluates the season in trimesters. The first third is to figure out what your team is, the second third is to improve it, and the final third is to make your run. After the first third, Beane saw what everyone else in baseball did: A deep team that scores tons of runs thanks to powerful performances by All Stars Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, and Yoenis Cespedes (along with a bunch of less publicized contributions up and down the lineup), great defense and solid pitching. Even when something went wrong—new closer Jim Johnson imploding in the first week of the season—the A’s just elevated Sean Doolittle and have seen him notch 61 strikeouts and just 2 walks on his way to earning an All Star berth.
But Beane also saw a team that could stand to improve. Specifically, with two starting pitchers going down to Tommy John surgery during Spring Training, the team’s rotation, which has pitched admirably, was still thin, headed up by the relatively unproven Jesse Chavez, Sonny Gray pitching in his first full season, and Scott Kazmir just more than a year away from being an injury wreck who was almost out of baseball. So Beane pushed his chips into the middle of the table and acquired two starters from the Cubs, former Notre Dame wide receiver/mountain man (seriously, he’s enormous)/personified spelling bee question Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, who had pitched almost as well as Samardzija for Chicago this year.
The deal isn’t without its risks, as the A’s gave up one of baseball best prospects, Addison Russell. Personally, I was crushed that the A’s gave up a shortstop of the future who also totally has a pornstar’s name, and I was hoping if they were going to pay that high a price that they’d get David Price, but they unquestionably solidified their rotation, and Samardiza looked great in winning his first start with the A’s, throwing 95–96 with tons of movement and giving up just 4 hits and 1 run in 7 innings against Toronto. And really, it was a trade they sorta had to make. They’ve been knocked out of the playoffs in excruciating fashion two years in a row, and the window for this group of players, as it always goes with the A’s, probably starts to close after this year. They needed to beef up the rotation to compete with the Tigers— Justin Verlander, who has shut out the A’s in Oakland in Game 5 two years in a row, astutely noted that they made the trade with the Tigers in mind—and now they’ve done it. Will it be enough? We’ll see, but you can’t fault Billy Beane for taking his shot. This team’s time is now.
And then there’s the SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS. Sigh. Things were going so well. At one point they were 42-21, on pace for 108 wins, with by far the best record in baseball. As many writers around the internets noted, however, they had gotten more than their share of good luck early in the season, and regression to the mean is a bitch (Check out this Jonah Keri piece for more detail). The bats, which had been driving in an uncanny number of two-out baserunners and generally blasting balls over all sorts of fences, went cold, and the bullpen, which had been absolutely nails, fell apart. The continuing struggles of Sergio Romo make me so sad I don’t even know what to do with myself.
And then there have been the injuries: Brandon Belt—who really had the most Beltian first month of the year ever, with a ridiculous hot streak and an awful slump—missed two months with a broken thumb, Marco Scutaro has missed the whole season so far, and Angel Pagan is back on the DL again.
Add it all up, and the team fell apart with an old-school-Giants-style June swoon that knocked them all the way out of first place, behind the fucking Dodgers. In a call back to last season, virtually the only highlight in an awful stretch of baseball was a Tim Lincecum no-hitter against the Padres. Actually, let’s go back further: with Lincecum winning three straight starts, giving up just one run across 23 innings, and the team losing nearly every other game, it felt like 2008 all over again.
Here’s the thing, though: It’s not 2008. The Giants aren’t as good as they played for the first two months, but they’re not as bad as they were in June. Taken as a whole, they’re probably exactly where they should be. And if the playoffs started today, they’d be in it (in the one game Wild Card playoff, anyway, which is exactly what I predicted before the season started). It’s not a team that’s a clear-cut World Series favorite in the way the A’s are—but then again, they weren’t in 2010 or 2012, either. All you have to do is get in the dance to have a chance.
The Giants don’t have an Addison Russell in their system, so they’re mostly going to have to rally with what they’ve got. That means they have to hope for Posey and Sandoval to step it up in the second half (fairly likely), Pence to keep it going (I’m cautiously optimistic), Morse to arrest his freefall of a slump (I’m less optimistic), Madison Bumgarner to keep being a horse (definitely), Matt Cain to have a second half resurgence like last year (definitely possible), Tim Hudson to continue being one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball (a mortal lock) and Vogelsong to continue his Renaissance and Lincecum to keep pitching like the ace he has been recently (who the fuck knows?). Will all of these things happen? No. But the Giants just need a few of them to happen to get them back to the playoffs. So as of July 8, I’m going to say that the prognosis for October baseball on both sides of the Bay is pretty damn good.