Postseason Grades: Brett Pill

The Postseason Grades series continues with a look at Brett Pill.

Brett Pill seems to be a AAAA slugger, inasmuch as those rare creatures actually exist. A career .301/.340/.511 hitter in over 1700 AAA plate appearances, Pill has never managed to break out during his 248 days on the big league rosters from 2011-2013. Looking a little more closely at Pill minor league record shows why he isn’t, and never really has been, a good candidate for greater playing time in San Francisco.

First, Pill’s four triple-A seasons happened during when he was age 25-28, a hitter’s physical peak. In general, a hitter will never be as good as he is when he is between the ages of 25 and 28. Second, the Pacific Coast League is an extreme hitters league. In 2010, the league had a .780 OPS; in 2013, it had a .756 OPS. In context, Pill’s .851 OPS during those years is not as impressive as it seems. In fact, Pill’s .340 AAA OBP is below the 2013 league .342 OBP. Third, a closer look at Pill’s stats reveal one huge hole in his game that has thus far been exploited in the majors: his batting eye. Although Pill has shown a propensity for avoiding the strikeout in the minors – career 12.9% K-rate, 11.4% K-rate in AAA – he also has shown an aversion to walks. In his minor league career, he has walked in only 5.8% of plate appearances, a rate that drops to 4.9% in AAA and 5.0% in the majors. From 2011-2013, according to the website MinorLeagueCentral.com, 62% of pitches Pill saw in AAA were in the strike zone. In the same time period, only 47% of pitches he saw in the majors were in the strike zone. While the percentage of pitches Pill swings at has stayed basically the same in the majors and minors (2011-2013: AAA Swing%, 50.9%; MLB Swing%, 51.9%), the percentage of pitches he sees in the strike zone has decreased by 15%.

A player without plate discipline is going to struggle in the major leagues. Yes, there are exceptions – there are always exceptions – but by and large a player has to be able to tell the difference between a ball and a strike. Pill is pretty good at making contact. His MLB career K-rate of 17% is decent, and his 77% contact rate is only a couple percentage points below the league average. If only he could hold off of a few more sliders, he could be a useful bench bat.

But Pill is 29 now. Baseball players are not known for making career-altering changes to their approach at age 29. In all likelihood, his time with the Giants is near an end. He was yo-yo’d around a bit in 2013 – he was called up from Fresno three separate times – and now he is out of options. Next year, the Giants must keep him on the active roster all year; if they want to demote him they have to put him through waivers first. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pill traded or waived outright next spring, or sooner.

Britt: C-

Reuben: C-

Nathan: C-

Overall: C-

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Postseason Grades: Jeff Francoeur

The Postseason Grades series continues with a look at Jeff Francoeur.

Sigh. What is there to say about Jeff Francoeur? The numbers are ugly: 63 PA, .194/.206/.226, 2 extra-base hits (both doubles), one walk, twelve strikeouts. He was so bad. By this time next year, you will likely have forgotten Francoeur was ever on the Giants. Do you ever play the “who can name the more obscure Giant?” game with your friends? I sure do. In five or ten years, you will win that game if you can remember Jeff Francoeur.

The circumstances that led to his signing are defensible. He was good in 2011, and he’s been good against lefties in his career. With Andres Torres starting in center field after the injury to Angel Pagan, the team needed a right-handed platoon partner for Gregor Blanco in left field. The odds of Francoeur contributing significantly to the Giants in 2013 were long, but what did the team have left to lose? They had just completed a 10-17 June and they were 1-6 so far in July. They were in fourth in the NL West, 6.5 games out of first.

Brian Sabean and the front office were in a desperate situation. Instead of gutting the farm – like they did in 2011 to acquire Carlos Beltran – they decided to roll the dice of a few different long shots. Jeff Francoeur was one of those long shots. I can’t fault the thought process, even though it didn’t work out.

Besides, I personally have a soft spot for Francoeur, one of the good guys in the sport. I write up a paragraph about why, but Joe Posnanski has already done a far better job of that than I could:

Jeff Francoeur is one of the greatest guys in baseball. Everybody thinks so. He’s always smiling. He’s always friendly. On the field, he always tries. Lord, he tries. Runs out those grounders. Throws home with gusto. Off the field he’s always doing something cool like signing an autograph or chatting up a kid or appearing at a charity event or helping a teammate or talking to a young reporter who was nervously looking for someone to talk with. When you’re a kid, you might imagine how you would act as a big league ballplayer — and you would probably be imagining the life of Jeff Francoeur.

Well, you probably would imagine yourself a better hitter — which is the real life part of the story.

Francoeur will probably catch on with someone next year – he always seems to. He’ll likely toil away in AAA, or maybe he’ll have a hot spring and make a 25-man roster somewhere. I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Jeff Francoeur. I just hope it’s the last we’ve seen of him in a SF Giants jersey.

Grades:

Britt: GDIP

Reuben: lol

Nathan: D

Overall: D

Postseason Grades: Kensuke Tanaka

Our series continues as Nathan looks at Kensuke Tanaka.

If he didn’t have such a great story, Kensuke Tanaka is exactly the kind of player you would forget about as soon as he was gone. You can’t sum up Tanaka’s season by looking at his stats (34 PA, .267/.353/.267); if I tried this wouldn’t be a very long article. Tanaka’s 2013 wasn’t about the stats; it wasn’t about the 15 games he played in, the 21 days he spent on the active roster, or the 0.3 WAR he contributed. It was about the culmination of a 14-year long journey, and a dream realized.

From a baseball operations standpoint, Tanaka was little more than a shot in the dark. When he signed with the Giants in January, Tanaka was a 31-year-old international free agent who had played the first 13 years of his career for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of the Nippon Professional Baseball League. A career .286/.356/.384 hitter in Japan, he was brought in to compete for the backup second base job, along with Wilson Valdez, Tony Abreu, and Nick Noonan. He didn’t get the job and went to Fresno, where he split time between second base and left field. He was called up on July 9th, and appeared as a left fielder and pinch hitter until he was sent back down on July 29th. Unfortunately, he was not brought up when rosters expanded in September.

Tanaka reportedly passed up a guaranteed contract worth $3 million in Japan to sign a minor league contract with the Giants. When asked why he would give up a guaranteed contract for a minor league deal with the Giants, he said “I wanted to learn the culture of America, I wanted to play baseball here. And I wanted a challenge.” (From an Andrew Baggarly column last spring.) Tanaka met that challenge head-on and gave it everything he had, even switching to a position he hadn’t played since 2006 in order to get a shot. A shot is what he earned, and he made the most of it, even getting a few highlight-reel plays in the process.

Listen to crowd in that second clip. Watch as the relief, exhilaration, and joy wash over his face. First career hits are often fun highlights to watch, but Tanaka’s has something special.

It feels a bit strange to end this post with our grades of Tanaka’s season, because his season wasn’t about the grade. On one hand, he was a largely-forgettable second-baseman-turned-outfielder. On the other, his season was the triumphant culmination of a life spent playing baseball, one that peaked with 21 days at the top of the baseball world. My hat is off to you, Kensuke Tanaka. Congratulations.

Nathan: B-

Reuben: C

Britt: C

Overall: C+

Postseason Grades: Heath Hembree

Continuing the Postseason Grades series, let’s talk about Heath Hembree. Hembree also gets a grade of Incomplete – throwing only 7.2 innings in the majors will do that – but I wanted to spin him off into his own post because he should be a major part of the bullpen next year and for years to come.

Hembree was drafted in the fifth round of the 2010 draft out of College of Charleston, and since then has been perhaps the best relief prospect in the Giants system, ranking #3 in Baseball America’s top 10 Giants prospects list before the 2012 season and #7 on the same list before the 2013 season. He was invited to spring training this March and was expected to compete for a spot in the bullpen, but he wasn’t as good as advertised in Arizona and so was sent to Fresno to start the year. At the beginning of the year, lowered velocity and a poor slider led to a tough first couple months in AAA. On July 1st, he found himself with a 5.08 ERA and 16 saves in 33.2 IP.

That’s when Hembree turned it all around. He regained some of that lost velocity and worked hard to improve his slider, and from July 1st until his call-up he had a 2.45 ERA in 22.0 IP with 15 saves, breaking the Fresno Grizzlies team saves record along the way. On other thing that changed in that time period – his luck. From the beginning of the season to July 1st, his BABIP was .340. From July 1st onward, it was .273.

Hembree repertoire includes a four-seam fastball that sits 92-94 mph and touches 95 with good arm-side run, which is to say the ball tails inward to a right-handed batter. He also throws the aforementioned mid-80s slider as well as a mid-80s changeup. The effectiveness of that slider-changeup combination will dictate how successful Hembree can be against lefties and righties. For example, George Kontos throws primarily just a fastball and a slider, and while Kontos is effective against righties he has struggled against lefties without an effective changeup. So while Hembree’s development of an effective slider is important and encouraging, he’ll need to use his changeup as well in order to be a true shutdown reliever and not a specialist.

In the past, Hembree was marketing as a “future closer” type, once groomed to take over for Brian Wilson, now the same for Sergio Romo. With the struggles of the Giants bullpen this year – Sergio Romo is the only pitcher I would call truly solid, and your mileage on Santiago Casilla may vary – Hembree could find himself in a high-leverage role pretty early next season. I expect him to start out in a 6th/7th inning role next year, but don’t be surprised to see him shutting down the eighth inning before long.

Grade: Incomplete.

Postseason Grades: The Incompletes

I’d like to introduce a new recurring series for the offseason here on Covefficient: postseason grades for each and every player that appeared in a game for the Giants this year. The plan is to do one post per player per day until we’ve made it through all 44 players who played for the Giants in 2013.

The exception, of course, is today. Five players had 10 or fewer plate appearances or 10 or fewer innings pitched. One of those players is getting his own post, the other four are summed up below.

Johnny Monell, Catcher: 9 PA, .125/.222/.125. Grade: Incomplete.

Monell made his major-league debut this September after hitting for a .858 OPS at AAA Fresno during the year. He appeared in 8 games, 7 as a pinch hitter and once as a catcher. In that one catching appearance, he came in in the seventh inning of what would be a 19-3 Giants win over the Dodgers. He logged his first ML hit in the eighth inning (Video). Monell has a sweet left-handed swing and has a decent amount of power, logging 49 extra-base hits with Fresno this year, including 20 home runs. He’s been in the organization for a long time – he was drafted in 2007 – and it’d be nice to see him back in 2014. If not, he’ll get picked up by another club, likely an AL team given his poor defensive reputation.

Cole Gillespie, Outfielder: 10 PA, .000/.100/.000. Grade: Incomplete.

Gillespie did basically nothing in 3 games with the Giants before being picked up off waivers by the Cubs on July 13. He was a classic minor-league veteran pickup that Sabean likes to make; he had an OPS over .850 the previous three years at AAA in the Diamonbacks system. Minor-league free agent pick-ups are one of Sabean’s specialties. Sometimes they turn into Gregor Blanco, sometimes they turn into…well, Cole Gillespie.

Ramon Ramirez, Relief Pitcher: 5.2 IP, 11.12 ERA, 9 H, 2 HR, 5 BB, 0 K. Grade: Incomplete.

Did you forget Ramirez pitched for the Giants this year? You aren’t alone. RamRam, a deadline day pickup in 2010 and part of the Torres-Pagan trade after 2011, threw 26 fairly good innings for Fresno before being called up in late May. He was terrible in six appearances before being released on June 18th, and he ended the year in the Rays system. Ramirez was pretty bad for the Mets last year, so his implosion this year was not altogether unexpected.

Eric Surkamp, Starting Pitcher: 2.2 IP, 23.63 ERA, 9 H, 7 R, 0 BB, 0 K. Grade: Incomplete.

I’ll close with the player most likely to have a significant role with the Giants next season. Surkamp threw 26.2 innings for the Giants in 2011 and was expected to compete for a roster spot in spring training prior to the 2012 season. Instead, he sat out until July with forearm/elbow issues before deciding to undergo Tommy John surgery at the end of July. After a remarkably fast recovery, he made 5 starts with San Jose, then made four starts for Fresno before being called up to make a start less than a year after his surgery. I could write an entire post about why that was a poor decision, but what’s done is done. Surkamp got shelled and sent back to Fresno. His Fresno stats after his demotion are quite encouraging: 7 starts, 50.2 IP, 1.95 ERA, 38 K, 11 BB. Depending on what the team does in the free agent market, Surkamp could find himself competing for the fifth-starter job next spring with the likes of Mike Kickham and Ryan Vogelsong. He doesn’t throw heat, but he’s shown the ability to get guys out in the minors using deception and a plus curveball, and he could get the opportunity to show those skills in the majors next season.

Gary Brown isn’t ready

This Giants team is a mess. That much is obvious. They’re 11-24 since June 1st, nine games under .500 and 6.5 games out of first in the NL West. They’ve been hurt by injuries and ineffectiveness. The pitching has actually rebounded from a dreadful start to be somewhat respectable, but they can’t hit at all.

The outfield has been of particular concern. The outlook is bleak for Pagan  returning this season, and the team has had to plug that hole by playing Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres a lot more than they’d like, particularly Torres. Now, Torres is a hero in SF, and rightfully so, after his 2010 season, but this year he looks…well, he looks like a 35-year-old. He can’t hit righties at all (.571 OPS this year), and he’s looked shaky on defense. To help Torres out, the following players have constituted a sort of revolving door of fifth outfielders: Francisco Peguero, Juan Perez, Cole Gillespie, and now Kensuke Tanaka. In addition, the team signed Jeff Francoeur and assigned him to Fresno; he’ll be up within the week.

The purpose of this post isn’t to talk about the various pluses and minuses of the players named above, nor is it to propose a solution to the left field problem. It is to make a simple point: Gary Brown is not the answer. Gary Brown is not ready.

I’ve seen some rumblings around the internet that the Giants should call up “top prospect” Gary Brown to be the next option, either in left or in center (pushing Blanco to left). This is a bad idea. Gary Brown is, right now, not a viable option for playing time in San Francisco.

There are two big reasons for this: one, Gary Brown isn’t that good right now, and two, Gary Brown is still a prospect.

First, Gary Brown has had an up-and-down year in AAA. His April was dreadful (.535 OPS) and his May, while better, was still pretty bad (.692 OPS). Sometime in early June Brown sat down with Fresno hitting coach Russ Morman and Giants’ coordinator of minor league instruction Shane Turner, and whatever they talked about worked. He’s hit .285/.335/.536 in 164 PA since June 1st. 8 of his 11 home runs this year have come since the start of June. These are all good things. That being said he has a 38-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio since June 1st, and a 91-to-23 ratio overall this season. He’s striking out a lot – even when he’s hitting the ball well – and he’d certainly continue to do that in SF.

He also isn’t hitting righties. This year he’s .240/.298/.409 against them, and for his career he hasn’t been much better. Torres also isn’t hitting righties – making a Torres/Brown platoon rather ineffective – and this is the sort of thing he should work on in Fresno.

It’s worth pointing out as well that all of the players I mentioned above , the cast of characters that have paraded in and out of the fifth-outfield spot, has performed better in Fresno than Brown. Brown’s .723 OPS in Fresno is lower than Tanaka’s (.786), Gillespie’s (.816), Perez’s (.838), and Peguero’s (.762), as well as Roger Kieschnick’s (.816) who may also get a shot sometime between now and September.

Which leads me to my second point: Gary Brown is still a prospect. Sure, the prospect sheen of 2012, when he was Baseball America’s #38 overall prospect, has faded, but he’s still a 24-year-old in his third professional season. He’s a developing player who still has a lot of developing to go. Developing doesn’t happen at the end of the bench in San Francisco, it happens by getting four or five plate appearances per day in Fresno.

About That Bullpen

You were probably watching the game. On Monday night, Madison Bumgarner threw a gem: 7.0 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 K. The only real mistake he made was giving up a home run to world-beater Yasiel Puig in the first inning. He had thrown 107 pitches. Despite 8 hits and 4 walks off the Dodgers’ starter, Hyun-jin Ryu, the Giants had only managed to score one run, and so the game was tied at one apiece. In the top of the eighth, the Giants went down in order, and the game proceeded to the bottom of the eighth.

And Madison Bumgarner came out to pitch in the bottom of the eighth.

Why? Why would Bruce Bochy do this? Bringing in a reliever to start the eighth, rather than waiting to see if/when MadBum got in trouble, was the obvious move even as it was happening. While 107 pitches isn’t an extraordinary amount, it’s not like Bumgarner had been truly cruising. In the bottom of the seventh The Dodgers coming up to bat were Nick Punto (switch-hitter), Mark Ellis (righty), and Yasiel Puig (righty). Bringing in George Kontos to start the innings seems like it would have been a much better decision than waiting to bring him in until there were runners on first and third with none out, as would eventually be the case. Continue reading

Catching Up With The Minors – The Halfway Point

Full-season minor league teams play about 140 games each season, and the teams just passed the halfway point – 70 games – last week, so I thought it’d be good to check in with each team and see how the season is going, both in terms of wins and losses and player development. We’re only talking full-season affiliates here, so short season Salem-Keizer and rookie-level Arizona won’t be discussed.

All stats and records through Sunday, June 24th. Continue reading

2013 MLB Draft Preview – the Hitters

A little while back I previewed some of the pitchers the Giants might be targeting in this year’s amateur draft. Now I’d like to look at some of the hitters.

It’s interesting to note that, since John Barr took over as scouting director five years ago, the Giants have drafted exactly one high school position player in the top 5 rounds — Tommy Joseph in second round in 2009. Past draft preference doesn’t necessarily inform future draft strategy, but I think it’s an interesting note. In general, it seems like the Giants are more comfortable to pick from hitters that have gone through the crucible of college, but don’t show as much of that bias when evaluating pitchers. Continue reading

2013 MLB Draft Preview – The Pitchers

One of my favorite events of the baseball calendar is the annual amateur draft. The draft doesn’t have the fanfare that, say, the NFL draft does, but championships are won and lost based on decisions made on draft day. No one knows this better than Giants fans. Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, and Sergio Romo – among others – were all taken in the June draft over the last 10 years, and there are few teams in the majors who  have had as much success in the draft as the Giants.

The first round through the end of the second compensation round, a.k.a. the first 73 picks, occur on June 6th, with rounds 3-40 spread out over the 7th and 8th. For the purposes of these previews, I’ll only cover players that the Giants might take with one of their first two picks, #25 and #64. There are a couple of reasons for this – one, it’s really impossible to tell who’s going to be on the board after about the first 20 picks, so trying to project anything past the first round is somewhat folly. Also, projecting out any farther means researching the 300 or so players that could get drafted in the first three rounds, which to be quite honest is a bit more work than I want or am able to do.

Things to know before I begin: the Giants draft bonus pool is $4,712,200, which means they can’t pay bonuses in excess of this amount to players drafted in the first 10 rounds without paying a penalty. I’m operating under the assumption that the Giants will go to every measure to stay under this cap. That means that the Giants will most likely not draft a guy who is expected to require a significantly overslot bonus to sign.

The Giants’ war room is run by Scouting Director John Barr, who is helming his sixth draft. His five first-round picks, in order: Buster Posey (2008), Zack Wheeler (2009), Gary Brown (2010), Joe Panik (2011), Chris Stratton (2012). Not bad. In early rounds, Barr has shown a stark preference for college players as opposed to high school players. In his five years running the draft, he’s drafted 26 players in the first five rounds – 23 college players and 3 high schoolers. However, when he takes a high school player, he usually is a hit – the three players he’s taken are Zack Wheeler, currently the Mets’ top prospect, Tommy Joseph, one of the Phillies top-5 prospects, and current Giants top prospect Kyle Crick. So come June 6th, if the Giants take a high school player early, you know Barr must like him a lot.

We’re at almost 500 words and I haven’t even started the preview yet, so let’s begin. Today I’ll preview the pitchers I like for the Giants at #25, and next week I’ll preview the hitters. Continue reading