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Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Narrative Likability Factor & The San Francisco Giants

The Giants began this season looking much like they have for the entirety of Bruce Bochy's tenure, which began in 2007.  They had pitching, in abundance, led by the youthful trio of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez, but they had a lineup composed primarily of overpaid, over-the-hill veterans who hit very little and fielded less.  After two months, Giants fans must've had an eery feeling of deja vu.  They were still in the thick of the NL West hunt, but the team seemed content wasting at-bats on Edgar Renteria, Aaron Rowand, and Bengie Molina.  It seemed only a matter of time before the Rockies and the Dodgers simply hit their way past San Francisco, just as they had done in each of the last three years.

The first step in Brian Sabean's plan to thwart this inevitability was so obvious, one might call it shameful that he hadn't resorted to it sooner.  He recalled top prospect, Buster Posey, who had done nothing but hit ever since the Giants drafted him.  The fresh-faced Posey was almost immediately inserted in the center of the lineup.  He has been the Giants most productive hitter ever since.  But the remainder of his strategy was neither particularly obvious, nor particularly advisable.  Basically, Sabean decided he was going to the scrap heap, looking for the players other teams were giving up on.  Such players, many of them with some modicum of former glory, would be carrying a chip on their collective shoulders which might further inspire their performance, at least over the short term.  Somehow this motley crew of overweight infielders, former designated hitters, and minor-league journeymen, replete with aching backs, bad knees, and tendonitis, were able to inch the Giants into the postseason, where, suddenly, sporting one of the game's best rotations, they become a serious threat.  As part of my ongoing dissertation on Narrative Likability Factor in the 2010 playoffs, here's a look at the cast of San Francisco's EXPENDABLES:
  • Andres Torres, CF:  The face of the Expendables is definitely Andres Torres, who Sabean signed to a minor-league contract prior to the 2009 season.  At the time, Torres was 30-years-old and had been through six different organizations without being granted more than 168 at-bats at the major-league level.  His most recent cup of coffee had come with the Rangers in 2005 and had lasted all of eight games.  Torres had long ago been reckoned "organizational depth."  The Giants were unenthusiastic, even following Torres's excellent performance at AAA in '08.  They gave younger, mid-level prospects like John Bowker, Nate Schierholtz, and Travis Ishikawa every opportunity to win the job that fell, finally and reluctantly, to him.  Torres responded to his first ever shot at regular playing time by becoming the most valuable center-fielder in the National League.  His 6.0 WAR trails only Matt Holliday and Carlos Gonzalez among NL outfielders and his 21.5 UZR was best in the league.  Meanwhile, he'll take home the league minimum and won't be eligible for free agency until 2014, by which point he'll be 36.  If the Giants win the pennant, Andres Torres becomes the future subject of a Disney biopic.  You heard it here first.
  • Juan Uribe, SS:  The long-time White Sox shortstop also joined the Giants prior to the '09 season.  Sabean gave him a minor-league contract and the opportunity to win a utilityman job for just 20% of the salary he'd made the previous season. Clearly, there wasn't a bidding war following a year in which Uribe missed substantial time, posted a 682 OPS, and quarreled with Ozzie Guillen.  Uribe played 300 innings at three different positions in '09 and hit well enough that the Giants resigned him this past offseason.  In May he became their everyday shortstop, potentially the fattest everyday shortstop in the history of major-league baseball, and responded my posting career highs in homers (24) and RBI (85).
  • Aubrey Huff, 1B:  Huff has had a helluva ride the last few years.  After an extended tenure with the Devil Rays, Huff signed a sizable deal with the Orioles and rewarded them with a big year in 2008, when he won a Silver Slugger and even got some MVP votes.  The following year, however, he was so bad that the Orioles traded him to Detroit at the deadline for a bucket of balls and a minor-league reliever.  This offseason, as he recovered from a back injury that kept him out of the lineup for much of the stretch run, nobody wanted anything to do with him and he ended up signing a one-year deal with the Giants for less than half of what he'd become accustomed to making.  Following a slow start, he has once again turned himself into an MVP candidate, leading the Giants in runs, homers, RBI, and OPS.  Of this cast of Expendables, he looks the most like a washed-up Hollywood action hero.
  • Santiago Casilla, RP:  The 30-year-old reliever spent three years doing mop-up duty in Oakland before being unceremoniously released by Billy Beane during the offseason.  Across the Bay, Sabean saw something he liked.  Casilla has blossomed in San Francisco proper, becoming one of the Giants top set-up men and posting a miniscule 1.95 ERA in 55 innings of work.  A big-bodied flame-thrower without a second pitch, Casilla is basically the Latino Bobby Jenks.
  • Pat Burrell, LF:  Pat the Bat also fell from grace in a hurry.  The longtime Phillie signed a sizable deal with the Rays prior to '09.  He was awful as their DH and ran amok with teammates and management to such a degree that the cash-starved Rays released him, eating about $7 Million in salary.  Sabean swooped in with a minor-league deal and Burrell eventually became the team's everyday left-fielder, swatting 18 HR and driving in 51 in half a season.  This man clearly should've never again played the outfield, but he's still good for the occasional 440 ft. moonshot.
  • Ramon Ramirez, RP: Ramirez joined his sixth organization prior to his 29th birthday.  It was the fourth time he'd been traded, most notably on the other end of deals for Jorge De La Rosa and Coco Crisp.  Ramirez had been a very valuable, durable middle reliever for two seasons in Boston, accumulating a 2.74 ERA in 141 innings between '08 and '09.  But when he started slow, the Boston brass looked to unload him for a 23-year-old with a 4.09 ERA at AA.  As the Boston bullpen imploded down the stretch, it might've been nice to have the guy who has given up only two earned runs since joining the Giants (0.67 ERA).
  • Jose Guillen, RF:  Perhaps feeling invincible by this point, Sabean netted Guillen in a waiver trade with the Royals in August.  Guillen is most famous for being such an unbelievable pain in the ass that the Angels asked him to leave during a season in which he had driven in over a hundred runs.  He also has one of the ten best throwing arms in major-league history (according to MLB Network).  The Giants are Guillen's tenth major-league team.  Always a tantalizing talent, Guillen never managed to make an All-Star team and had just that one lonely season of 100+ RBI.  This one has had only modest returns thusfar, as Guillen has been merely replacement level since joining San Francisco.  However, he's a notoriously streaky hitter, if he got hot in October it could be exactly the thing to spur the Giants to an unlikely pennant.
  • Cody Ross, OF:  Ross was unexpectedly DFA'd by his former team, the Marlins, after two solid seasons as their centerfielder.  For the Giants, he plays against southpaws, pinch-hits, and comes in as a defensive replacement.  He's performed admirably in that capacity. 
If there has every been a gaggle of baseball grinders with something to prove, this is it.  And that makes the Giants a lovable underdog.  They are old, they are slow, occasionally to the point of provoking laughter.  They swing for the fences with great frequency and miss with greater ferocity.  They are, like Sylvester Stallone, often aggravating and painful to watch.  If the Giants advance, it will be primarily because of their stable of flamethrowing 25-year-olds.  But in order for that to happen, the 35-year-olds are going to have a grind out at least a couple runs a game and when it happens, it's cause for the kind of elation usually reserved for middle-aged men who hit homers at fantasy camp.

Narrative Likability Factor: A


Dan said...

A few hometown nicknames for our lovable expendables:

Pro At Bat Pat, cause he always gives professional at bats. like no on else on this trigger happy squad, he stops a potential one-two-three inning by looking at strike one, and strike two, grinds out a battle, and finishes with a walk, or a bomb into the night or a rip down the line. I think he has one opposite field hit all season.

Saint Casilla. Nobody stops the bleeding and heals the inning like this man. Comes in with runners on, and throws strikeouts and double play grounders.

Buster Baseball. No explanation needed.

Sanchez-Cisco. No real reason, just some local pride.

Juan Gone Uribe. The nephew of the tragically late and great shorstop Jose Uribe from the Hummm Baby era late '80s clubs, when he dies his goatee orange, he actually really looks like a DR Wesley Snipes action hero. Oh, and when he crushes hanging breaking balls for hugely clutch go ahead homers, he throws out his hands in a little Broadway jazz hands gesture that is pure thrill.

Huff-Daddy. Pat Burrell called him this back when they played in College together. I thought it was because he was a Daddy, he had a child last month. But it's from back when Puff Daddy was big. It sounds funnier in that context with that inflection too.

The Gun: Nate Schierholtz. His arm needs to get rated. His knowledge of playing the carooms in notorious right-funk of McCovey Cove, make his cannon nasty nas. He's gunned down two runners in a game at least once this season.

Ian said...

I've been hooked on this "Narrative Likability" series ever since I first discovered it, because I suppose I too would be considered a "baseball humanist." I don't necessarily care who the "best" team is, I care about the players and teams involved and whether I'd be happy to see them win. I've been saying all year that we have a ton of teams that make great stories (a stark contrast to last season), and it's good to see I'm not the only one who's noticed.

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