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Off-Season Haiku: We Are All Wilson Ramos

    Home, with family We feel safe, comfortable Protected, at ease   Is it real, or not The safety, security Or just a belief   Who is watching you Are your neighbors friend or foe How you ever know   The games we play, games ...

HangingSliders is back. Sort of.

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted here. Almost two months. But if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you know I’ve been busy writing about baseball. Very busy. In early September, I started writing weekend features for Bas ...

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Home, with family

We feel safe, comfortable

Protected, at ease

 

Is it real, or not

The safety, security

Or just a belief

 

Who is watching you

Are your neighbors friend or foe

How you ever know

 

The games we play, games

For sport, for fun, for a chance

Oh, the games we play

 

Games fill us with joy

With passion, with connection

Provide an escape

 

Escape to something

Escape from something, up, out

To more, to better

 

Do games make us safe

Do games make us vulnerable

Yes, games do just that

 

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It’s been a long while since I’ve posted here. Almost two months. But if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you know I’ve been busy writing about baseball. Very busy.

In early September, I started writing weekend features for Baseball Nation. These pieces run the gamut from baseball poetry to baseball analysis to baseball humor. Just exactly what you came to expect on HangingSliders. If you haven’t seen those posts or if you want to just catch up with old favorites, you can find my Baseball Nation archive here.

In early October, I started writing twice weekly for FanGraphs. These posts tend to have more straightforward analysis, but with the kind of story-telling that you found in my analytical pieces on Hangingsliders. If you haven’t seen those posts or if you want to catch up with old favorites, you can find my FanGraphs archive here.

So what’s next for the blog? I’m not entirely sure. Writing for Baseball Nation and FanGraphs keeps me pretty busy (not to mention my two kids).

But I’m working hard to find the time for writing here at least once a week during the off-season. Baseball haikus. Thoughts on Giants’ trades and free-agent signings. Whatever else comes to mind that doesn’t fit neatly at either FanGraphs or Baseball Nation.

I was inspired by a friend over the weekend to write a haiku on the Wilson Ramos kidnapping in Venezuela.  That’s where I’m starting. It will be the post just above this one on the home page.

If there are topics you’d like to see me write about, let me know in the comments or drop me an email through the Contact button.

Thanks for helping make HangingSliders a success.

Come back soon.

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By now you’ve heard that San Francisco Giants Managing General Partner and CEO Bill Neukom will be leaving that position soon, to be replaced by Giants President Larry Baer.  The news broke in a story by Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News around 4 pm Wednesday afternoon.  If you haven’t done so already, read Purdy’s story in its entirety. The link is here.

According to Purdy, the Executive Committee of the Giants’ ownership group forced Neukom out after tensions arose over certain financial decisions by Neukom.  For their part, the Giants are calling it a “planned transition” by which which Baer will take over day-to-day operations and Neukom will become the Chairman Emeritus.  Neukom and Baer will hold a press conference Thursday morning at 11:00 am.

It’s very difficult to believe that Neukom is voluntarily participating in a “planned transition.” Neukom had a very successful career as General Counsel of Microsoft, is extraordinarily wealthy as a result, and genuinely appeared to cherish the role of running the baseball team he has loved all his life. Oh, and he just presided over the first World Series Championship for the Giants since their move out west in 1958.  That is not a recipe for a “planned transition.”

According to Purdy, the dispute centers on Neukom’s use of the winner’s booty: the millions of dollars the Giants earned from additional merchandise and tickets sales after the World Series victory.

It wasn’t necessarily that Neukom authorized his baseball people to spend $22 million on a new contract for first baseman Aubrey Huff, or decided to add millions of dollars more to the payroll by trading for New York Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran in July. It was that the Executive Committee believed Neukom, as part of his fiduciary duties, should have consulted with them about his major decisions. Instead, the Executive Committee members were infuriated when they sometimes learned of Neukom’s decisions through news reports.

. . . .

Neukom’s falling-out with the Executive Committee, the baseball sources said, began over how to spend the additional millions of dollars that flowed into team coffers after the World Series championship. For example, one source says that since October, the Giants’ merchandising revenue alone has increased by $1.5 million to $2 million per month over previous years. Ticket sales also boomed. The Giants have effectively sold out every game this season.

Neukom, it is said, believed that this was his money to spend as he saw fit — and he did so, increasing payroll and buying new technology for the baseball department, among other expenditures. Instead, the Executive Committee wanted the money to be put in a “rainy-day fund” for use in leaner times.

There’s a great deal of concern tonight in the Bay Area about what Neukom’s departure means for the immediate and long-term future of the Giants.  You can read a range of opinions and analyses herehereherehere and here.  I recently wrote a post praising Neukom after the Giants released Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada while still owing them more than $15 million on their guaranteed contracts.  That was the right decision for team and for the franchise. I hope that decision did not precipitate today’s events.

One interesting piece of the story for me is the role played by Giants majority investors Tori Burns and Trina Burns Dean, the daughters of the late Harmon Burns and Sue Burns.  It was Harmon Burns, together with Peter Magowan and Larry Baer, who formed the investor group to buy the Giants and keep them from moving to St. Petersburg, Florida in the early 1990s. Harmon Burns died in 2006 and Sue Burns died three years later, leaving their Giants ownership interests to their daughters.

In the Chronicle’s obituary of Sue Burns, it noted that she was a close friend of Barry Bonds “through his best and worst times.”  I remember when the Giants held a special ceremony to honor Sue Burns after her death, Bonds flew in from L.A. to be a part of the on-field activities.  I remember thinking about how emotional Bonds appeared to be, how deeply moved he was by Sue Burns’ death, and his clear love and affection for the Burns daughters.

There’s been a lot less of Barry Bonds in the Giants world under Bill Neukom’s leadership. He attended fewer games; made fewer appearances.  Granted, Bonds has been busy dealing with his criminal trial and related legal proceedings. But is there more to it? Did Neukom take steps to distance the Giants from Bonds in the wake of the steroids scandal and ensuing indictment and trial?  Many have asked why Bonds’ number 25 hasn’t been retired by the Giants and why Bonds hasn’t been inducted into the Giants Wall of Fame.  Even Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper have remarked recently about how much they miss “the big fella.”

I don’t know the answers, but I wonder if Neukom’s apparent effort to keep a distance from Bonds drew a wedge between him and the Burns family.  It seems far-fetched that Neukom would be ousted over the team’s relationship with Barry Bonds. But it also seems far-fetched that Neukom would be forced out because he authorized the purchase of additional technological tools to be used by General Manager Brian Sabean’s baseball operations without getting sign off from the Executive Committee. They could all be pieces of this strange puzzle.

I could be way off base on the Bonds angle. Or I could be on to something. We will learn more in the days and weeks ahead.

For now, I share in the sentiment expressed throughout the Bay Area tonight: great surprise over Neukom’s departure and deep concern about the commitment of the Giants ownership group to invest in a winning franchise now and in the future.

 

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All of a sudden, there is some intrigue in the race for the playoffs in the National League. Yes, the Braves are in a tail spin, but their chances of making the playoffs as the Wild Card team are still 94.5%, according to Baseball Prospectus. There just isn’t enough time for the “surging” Giants to leap frog over the Cardinals and catch the Braves, although every Giants fan went to bed last night dreaming of revenge for 1993.

No, the intrigue in the National League is over whether the Diamondbacks or the Brewers will end the season with the second-best record to the Phillies, thus securing home field advantage in the Division Series.  The Brewers held that position for a while, but their recent slide opened the door for the Diamondbacks.  Those teams are now tied at 86-62.

That got me thinking about potential Division Series match-ups. And that got me thinking about which National League contender has the best set of bench players, because having a good bench–or not having one–often plays a big role come playoff time.

Phillies In First

Not surprisingly, the Phillies boast the best bench in the National League.

I assume Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Placido Polanco will be healthy and in the starting lineup every day in the playoffs. If so, I see Charlie Manuel adding utility guys Wilson Valdez, Ross Gload, John Mayberry Jr. and Ben Francisco, along with backup catcher Brian Schneider, to the playoff roster.

Off that group, only Mayberry’s hit consistently well all season. In nearly 250 plate appearances over 89 games, Mayberry’s batted .263/.331/.509 with 13 HRs and 7 SBs.  His wOBA is .362 and his wRC+ is 127, putting him in the top 20 in wRC+ for all National League outfielders this season.  Mayberry’s September numbers are a bit below his season line, but not by much. In 20 PAs, he’s hitting .250/.350/.438 for a wOBA of .354.

With the injuries to Rollins and Utley, Valdez saw consistent playing time in April and May and then again in August. Overall, he’s had more plate appearances (285) than any other Phillies utility player. It’s been an up-and-down year for Valdez at the plate, but he’s come on strong in August and September. His season line is .249/.293/.345 with a wOBA of .275 and a wRC+ of 67 but in 87 PAs since August 1, Valdez is batting .293/.328/.472 for a wOBA of .332 and a wRC+ of 106.5.  Valdez performs best in high leverage situations and with men on base–just the right combination for playoff baseball.

After the Phillies acquired Hunter Pence, Francisco’s playing time plummeted, but he’s done well off the bench. In 19 PAs since August 1, Francisco has 3 BBs and 7 hits, including 2 doubles. Those kinds of numbers come in very handy in the post season.

Gload also has been hot and cold this season, posting decent numbers in April, very good numbers in May and June, god-awful numbers in July and August, and good numbers so far in September.  Like Valdez, Gload performs better in high leverage situations, but unlike Valdez, Gload seems to wilt with runners in scoring position. He’s strikeout-prone and doesn’t walk alot, and hasn’t hit a home run all season.  I’d expect Gload to be used sparingly in the playoffs.

Diamondbacks A Close Second

With former Blue Jays Aaron Hill and John McDonald now firmly at second base and shortstop, respectively, the Diamondbacks bench consists of Willie Bloomquist, Lyle Overbay, Geoff Blum, Sean Burroughs, and rookies Colin Cowgill and Paul Goldschmidt.  Henry Blanco is the back up catcher.

Goldschmidt arrived in August from AAA and has shown impressive power so far. His overall line is .256/.326/.487 with a wOBA of .389 and a wRC+ of 121, evidencing a good walk rate (9.3%) but a not so good strikeout rate (30.2%).  He has 7 home runs in 129 PAs and all of them seem to come in crucial situations. His first major league home run came off Tim Lincecum at AT&T Park in a game against the then-first place Giants that the Dbacks won 5-1.

Overbay arrived in the desert after being released by the Pirates and he’s done very well off the bench. In 33 PAs with the Snakes, he’s got 3 BBs and 9 hits, including 2 doubles and a home run. That’s considerably better than he performed in Pittsburgh, so small sample size caution is warranted.

Bloomquist saw the most playing time early in the season and then again after shortstop Stephen Drew broke his ankle on July 21 and before Hill and McDonald arrived from Toronto.  Bloomquist seems to prefer regular playing time, as he posted his best months in April and July. Overall, he’s batted .270/.326/.349 with a wOBA of .297 and a wRC+ of just 78. Obviously, he’s not a power guy, but his strikeout rate of 13% is below the NL average, so he puts the ball in play.

The same is true for Geoff Blum. Blum was injured most of the year, returned to the Arizona roster in July, was injured again and returned for good on September 1. In only 34 PAs, he’s batting .267/.353/.500. His wOBA is .363, evidencing his nearly 9% walk rate.

Burroughs is the most interesting bench player for the DBacks. Burroughs was out of professional baseball for five years when Arizona signed him to a minor league deal this year. By May 19, he was in the majors, and he’s been up and down to AAA much of the season.  In 106 PAs, he’s posted a line of .265/.276/.333. He almost never walks, strikes out alot, and has almost no power. He’s been a fun story, but I can’t see Gibson taking Burroughs to the playoffs over Bloomquist, Blum or Overbay.

That leaves Cowgill–a light hitting outfielder who’s played excellent defense but done nothing to speak of at the plate. His overall line of .221/.294/.273 in 85 PA wouldn’t add much to the DBacks’ playoff roster.

Braves In Third

Just before the waiver trade deadline, the Braves added bench depth with shortstop Jack Wilson and outfielder Matt Diaz to compliment Brooks Conrad, Eric Hinske and on-again-off-again-regular Jose Constanza. In 40 combined plate appearances, neither Wilson nor Diaz has drawn a walk nor hit a home run and each has struck out more than 22% of the time.  Not much in the way of depth there.

Conrad and Hinske have had decent seasons off the bench, with Hinske having more playing time due to injuries to Braves outfielders Nate McLouth and Jason Heyward.  Unfortunately for Hinske and the Braves, he’s run hot and cold all season, hitting well in April, May and July, but dreadfully in June, August and September. Hinske strikes out alot (26.7%) but he does know how to work the count, leading to a walk rate of nearly 10%.  The biggest issue is Hinkse’s drop in power over the last few seasons: his .417 slugging is good, but his lowest since 2007. He has no home runs in August and September.

Conrad’s season line is .240/.333/.417 with a wOBA of .330 and a wRC+ of 108.  He’s been much more patient at the plate this year, pushing his walk rate to a career high of 11.2%. Unfortunately, his strike out rate is also at a career high (33.6%), in only 113 PAs. Conrad’s also been hurt in September with a sprained ankle.

And then there’s Constanza. Called up in late July with Jason Heyward hurt and struggling, Constanza hit the leather off the ball in August, batting .365/.392/.452, a walk rate of 7.3% and a strike out rate of only 11%.  But September has been a different story entirely: .235/.235/.235–that’s right, no walks, 4 Ks and 4 singles in 17 PAs.  With no post-season experience, it’s going to be difficult for Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez to count on Constanza for much in the 2011 playoffs.

Brewers In Fourth

The Brewers bench consists of Craig Counsell, Jerry Hairston, Mark Kotsay and Carlos Gomez. Even without looking closely at the numbers, that list does not inspire a lot of confidence.

With 236 PAs, Kotsay has seen the most playing time of the Brewers utility players and he’s been just a hair below replacement level. His overall line for the season is .263/.318/.346 with a wOBA of .295 and a wRC+ of 83.

Counsell is best known this season for his record-tying 0-for-45 hitless streak. His line reads .169/.273/.217 in 177 PAs. Yuck.  Gomez was replaced in center field this season by Nyjer Morgan and then broke his clavicle in July. He’s done nothing to speak of at the plate since his return from the DL.

When Rickie Weeks went down with a severe ankle sprain in late July, the Brewers acquired Jerry Hairston to fill in. And Hairston did a fine job, batting .311/.354/.392 in August. But September has been a whole other story. In 29 PAs this month, Hairston is batting .083/.241/.083.  That is not a typo. And it’s not a good situation for the Brewers.

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The Phillies are the best at everything this season, so it’s not surprising they have the strongest bench in the National League.  The Diamondbacks have done well by adding Overbay, calling up Goldschmidt and getting Blum back from the DL. Arizona’s re-jiggered bench has given the Snakes the added boost they needed down the stretch. On the flip side, the Braves and Brewers are struggling and haven’t received much help at all from their bench over the last several weeks. A weak bench will hurt both teams come playoff time.


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Goings On with HangingSliders

by Wendy Thurm on September 9, 2011

Last week, I made my debut at Baseball Nation, the flagship baseball page of SBNation. It’s a post entitled Meditations on the Stretch Run.  You can find it here.

I will be writing features for Baseball Nation on occasion but still posting here the baseball analysis, commentary, poetry and humor you’ve come to love at HangingSliders.  It’s been a bit sparse in the last week due to the Labor Day weekend and some family events but there are more goodies coming.  So stay tuned and come back often.

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Bill Neukom Means Business

by Wendy Thurm on September 1, 2011

 ”Ownership was apprised throughout the process,” Giants General Manager Brian Sabean said. “That was not a problem.”

Story by Andrew Baggarly on MercuryNews.com

The process referred to is the one that led the Giants to designate Miguel Tejada and Aaron Rowand for assignment on Wednesday. Ownership is Giants Managing General Partner and Chief Executive Office Bill Neukom. Neukom was “apprised” because cutting ties with Rowand without trading him means the Giants remain on the hook for the remainder of his 5-year/$60 million contract–estimated at more than $14 million.  According to Baggarly, Neukom signed off on the decision “without delay.”

It remains to be seen over the next 28 days whether ridding themselves of Rowand and Tejada will turn the Giants season around. I’m not particularly hopeful, simply because there isn’t a lot of time left and, after play on Wednesday, the Giants remain 6 games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks with 25 games to go. The Giants could have–should have–made these moves a month ago, or more. My guess is that the Giants believed they’d plugged an important hole with Beltran trade, that the offense would be heading in the right direction, and that the Diamondbacks would fold. That turned out to be very wrong, and the delay may very well cost the Giants a return trip to the post-season.

But on Wednesday, there was a way to make the team better, for whatever remains of the 2011 season and beyond. Yes, $14 million is a lot of money, even for a World Series Champion with nearly a season of sold out games at AT&T Park. But the Giants owed Rowand that money whether he played or sat on the bench, whether he hit a pinch-hit home run or swung at every slider on the outside corner.

In business it’s called “a sunk cost.”  When the product that led to the sunk cost can no longer perform, you cut your losses and move on.  Good companies do it every day. Baseball teams usually don’t.

Bill Neukom made the right business decision for the long-term success of the Giants.  He did so “without delay.”  For Giants fans, that’s the best and most important news of the day.

 

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