The First two Weeks of the 2017 MLB Season: Rigorous Notes, Random Finger Pointing, and Damning Pronouncements

Let’s See Where We’re At
The start of the 2017 season has been challenging for several high-profile teams, including the San Francisco Giants.

First the Toronto Blue Jays, whose alarming 2-11 start is supported nicely by their -21 Run Differential.

The Jays will face several significant mountains before they can even think about climbing up the AL East ladder: Boston is 9-5, Baltimore 8-4, and the New York Yankees 9-5 with a sweet +20 DIFF.

Two other highly touted AL teams are struggling like a Trump cabinet member testifying under oath before Congress.

The Texas Rangers, picked by many to win the AL West and go deep into the playoffs, are 5-9; and the Seattle Mariners are trying to distance themselves from their own 6-9 start after making a boat-load of off-season trades to get better.

In the National League, thanks to bullpenning and increased defensive shifting, Manager Bryan Price has re-made the Cincinnati Reds into the newest advanced analytics team on the block. Their 9-5 start and +21 DIFF is the result.

Well done Reds!

It may be surprising to some that San Francisco (6-9) and the St. Louis Cardinals (5-9) both are struggling early. But everyone should be very comfortable with San Diego’s well-earned 5-10 record and -32 DIFF.

Prior to the start of the season the Giants happily ignored the rolling disaster known as their outfield and the foundational problems in their bullpen. And, just maybe, the idea of playing a slap hitter with a clanky glove at third base might not have been the best idea.

In right field the sometimes awesome Hunter Pence is now 34 years old and ongoing injuries limited him to just 52 games in 2015 and 106 games in 2016.

Center fielder Denard Span is 33 years old and so far this season he’s outdoing his terrible 2016 OPS (.712) with a disastrous .563 OPS.

As for left field, no one was actually hired to play there before the season started. So there’s also that.

Since only 9 of the team’s 30 blown saves in the 2016 regular season occurred in the 9th inning, the addition of a high priced closer didn’t solve a number of troubling bullpen issues.

And at third base, Eduardo Nunez may be only one of several hitters left in baseball who still swings a singles bat at the plate. If the Giants ever consider using defensive shifting on a regular basis, maybe Nunez can cover third and left field.

Refusing to be Influenced by the Facts
It’s always both amusing and disturbing to see the Bay Area sports media happily substitute the San Francisco Giants’ corporate party line for actual news.

Earlier this year the Giants announced a sham Spring Training “battle” for the 5th starter spot in the 2017 rotation. Supposedly battling away were veteran Matt Cain and young pitchers Ty Blach and (at various times) Tyler Beede.

San Francisco had no intention of further downgrading their shaky bullpen by stuffing Cain into the mix (or eating his hefty contract). He was going to be the 5th starter from day one.

Cain entered his last Spring Training start with an 8.10 ERA. In that game against the Cubs, Cain gave up 4 ER in 5.1 IP, a 6.79 ERA. He finished Spring with a 7.82 ERA.

This is from the San Francisco Chronicle’s sports report the next day: “On Tuesday, in a 99-pitch start against the World Series champs, Matt Cain provided the coaches and front office an argument to pick him over Ty Blach.”

Really? Welcome to the new world of “alternate facts” and corporate media management. Just close your eyes, follow directions, and drink this sugary red colored beverage.

What Mark Melancon Won’t Do to Win
After he signed a 4 year $62 million deal with the Giants, closer Mark Melancon made it clear that the #1 reason he signed with the Giants is that they plan to only use him to close the 9th inning.

Like fireballing closer Aroldis Chapman, Melancon has no interest in getting more than three outs, working more than one inning, or coming into a non-save situation.

How refreshing at a time when we’re seeing significant changes in how relievers are used around the Majors. An increasing number of teams understand that the critical tipping point in any game can come in the 6th, 7th, or 8th innings, not just the 9th inning.

Here’s today’s quiz: When the opposing team has the bases loaded with one out in the 7th inning of a tie game, is it smart leave your best relief pitcher sitting in the bullpen reading the comics?

You know, because he only pitches in the 9th inning, and then only when it’s a save situation.

Buster Posey: Behind the Mask, Future Games, Then Play On
Fleetwood Mac CD titles say it all when it comes to All Star catcher Buster Posey. The distressing 94 MPH fastball from Arizona’s Taijuan Walker that hit Posey in the head a week ago just could be the beginning of the end of his tenure behind the plate.

Thankfully Posey has been declared healthy and he has returned to the Giants lineup. But how long before the next foul tip catches him on the side the head or in the mask?

Even under the best circumstances catching has not historically been a long-term career position.

Buster Posey has played in 880 games—706 at catcher, 174 at 1B, and 19 as a DH (the rest as a PH).

In the first week of 2017 the three active players with the most games at catcher are Russell Martin of Toronto (1,372 games), Brian McCann of Houston (1,379 games) and Yadier Molina of the Cardinals (1,590 games).

Posey has caught just 44% the games that Molina has to date, so it would seem that he could still play many more seasons behind the plate. But the literal game-changer here is the number of head hits catchers take from foul tips, HBP, and swinging bats.

Because concussions can end a catching career at any time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define a concussion as “a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or by a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth. This sudden movement can cause the brain to bounce around or twist in the skull, creating chemical changes in the brain and sometimes stretching and damaging brain cells.”

In 2013 Minnesota’s Joe Mauer announced he would be giving up his catching career after 920 games behind the plate due to two head hits that caused concussions. He permanently moved to 1B at the start of the 2014 season.

As of last season Mauer was still battling post-concussion symptoms like blurred vision.

The Posey debate seems to center on the fact that in the past five or six years the Giants have emphasized and paid for strong starting pitching. That pitching needs a smart, solid leader behind the plate and Buster Posey has been that leader.

A move to first base (his only logical position alternative) not only takes Posey away from expertly directing the pitchers, it also displaces Brandon Belt who has been the de facto #1 offensive player on the team the past three years and is a defensive standout at first.

These are not insignificant matters, and while injuries are a daily part of Major League Baseball, there is almost an Indy 500 watch for the next catcher to crash and burn. And that’s depressing.