In his Three Strikes, Tom Verducci explains the keys to success for the San Francisco Giants, how Tim Lincecum thinks he'll be able to fix himself and offers news and notes from the MLB playoffs.
ST. LOUIS – When does the luck of small samples turn into something with merit? Why do the Oakland Athletics keep losing postseason games, particularly close ones, and why do the San Francisco Giants keep finding ways to win them?
The A’s are 15-23 (.395) in 38 playoff games since 2000, including 4-7 (.364) in games decided by one run. The Giants are 26-10 (.722) in 36 postseason games since 2010, including 11-1 (.916) in games decided by one run, including a National League record 10 in a row.
Pure luck? Surely fortune comes into play, but so do the tangible strengths of the Giants in a postseason environment that is different from the regular season. They win because of timely hitting, stout pitching and defense, an astute manager, Bruce Bochy, with great skill running a bullpen and a contact-hitting lineup that can win games without the home run.
“Pitching and defense keep you in the game,” said Giants third base coach Tim Flannery, “and then it can be a matter of executing just once at the right time. [Former Cubs manager] Mike Quade used to say, ‘Boys, we’re going to San Francisco. It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be windy and it’s going to be 2-1.’”
Think about the importance of the home run as a winning ingredient. Teams this year won only 37 percent of the time when they did not hit a home run. But these Giants have won 67 percent of their homerless games in the postseason (10-5).
You want to know about the importance of pitching and defense? The Giants are 26-0 when they don’t give up an unearned run and 12-0 when the opponent gives them at least one unearned run. They own the edge in unearned runs, 21-6.
Finally, the run of 10 straight wins in one-run games under Bochy is so amazing that in postseason history only one other team ever won more than eight consecutive one-run games: the 1998-2001 Yankees, whose 12-game streak ended with Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Is it a fluke? The luck of small samples stitched together? That would be not giving the Giants enough credit for how they play baseball.
In fact, Bochy’s Giants are beginning to resemble the early stages of manager Joe Torre’s Bronx dynasty, and it's time to start thinking of them that way. Like those Yankees teams, these Giants are winning more than 70 percent of their postseason games, they find a way to win the close games and they create a huge differential in unearned runs. Here is how the two teams compare in their first 36 postseason games:
|category||2010-14 Giants||1996-99 Yankees|
|Overall record||26-10 (.722)||27-9 (.750)|
|1-run games||11-1 (.916)||6-2 (.750)|
|W-L when hitting 0 HRs||10-5 (.667)||5-8 (.385)|
|Unearned runs allowed||6||5|
|Unearned runs scored||21||26|
|Home runs allowed||24||36|
|Home runs hit||29||38|
2. Father knows best
Everybody seems to have a theory about how The Freak became just another pitcher. Over the past three years, Tim Lincecum is 32-38 with a 4.76 ERA, the worst ERA in baseball among all pitchers who made at least 90 starts. Assumptions were made: he lost velocity, he lost command, he was worn out from his workload, he was too small to hold up. Now there is a theory from Lincecum himself: he misses the guidance of his father, Chris.
“I thought I could put my big-boy pants on and go out on my own,” Lincecum said Friday. “I’m 30 now. But I guess I can’t. He knows me better than anybody and I’ll go back to him.”
Asked when he last worked closely with his father, Lincecum said, “My [second] Cy Young year [of 2009].”
Lincecum said he needs to return to the mechanics taught to him by his father, and will do so this offseason. Chris crafted Tim’s unique, high-torque delivery from the time Tim was a small boy. The father knew the son so well that when Tim was in college Chris would listen on the radio to Tim’s road starts and “see” exactly what Tim was doing wrong. After the game they would talk on the phone and it was as if Chris saw every pitch.
Until they go back to work this winter, Lincecum is a man without a spot in the Giants’ rotation, yielding to three pitchers older than him: Tim Hudson, Jake Peavy and Ryan Vogelsong. Lincecum is a two-time Cy Young Award winner sitting in the San Francisco bullpen, waiting for his moment in the National League Championship Series.
“Moments,” he corrected.
He has tried to fix his mechanics on his own. He has always been a Formula One engine on the mound, an intricate series of kinetic actions that need superlative timing for all of it to work right. One hitch, one mistimed action, and it goes kerplunk. That’s been the story for Lincecum this year. It began with too much of a body turn away from the hitter. “Too much Looie Tiant,” he said, referencing the Cuban righthander who spent 19 years in the majors, the last in 1982.
It continued with eagerness out of the stretch position. Lincecum jumped too quickly at the hitter, causing his front side to open up early, which caused his arm to drag, which caused his pitches to flatten out. He has paid special attention to working from the stretch in his side work since his last appearance 13 days ago.
The key to all it – where the real magic happens in the engine – is what Lincecum calls “dangle.” It’s the moment when he brings the baseball behind his butt after taking it out of his glove. He wants his arm to be loose as a whip as he curls his wrist, right before he snaps back up to the loaded position. “Just like a whip,” he said. Lately, he said, this swinging of his arm down and up has been more labored, feeling like he is pushing and pulling, and less like a whip.
Lincecum, the man with the 2.47 ERA in 12 postseason games, didn’t throw a pitch in the NLDS against Washington. In a seven-game series against the Cardinals with two evenly matched teams, though, you have to believe there is a spot or two for him. Maybe the ball in his hand will even feel the way it did back in 2008 and '09, when he won his Cy Youngs; or 2010, when he pitched six times in the postseason, winning three of those games; or even four months ago, when he threw his second no-hitter in as many years. Maybe there is a spot where he can feel the magic once again – the “dangle” – and once again it will be as if Chris is right there next to him.
3. News and notes
• Why we love the postseason, reason number 1,638: in the regular season, 30 percent of games were decided by one run. This postseason, 59 percent of the games have been decided by one run (10 of 17). Twelve of the 17 games have been decided by one run or extra innings.
• You don’t think something weird is going on with these Royals, the first team to win four extra-inning games in one postseason and now 5-0 in the postseason after waiting 29 years to get into the playoffs? They have hit four extra-inning home runs in these five postseason games. They hit one extra-inning home run all year. The four extra-inning dingers, by the way, have been hit by three key homegrown players: Mike Moustakas (twice), Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon.
• The Royals are looking like a very different offensive team, with the focus and plate discipline seeming to improve with every game. Moustakas and Hosmer especially are playing like different players – more like the stars many scouts thought they would become.
• Baltimore's Jonathan Schoop had two walks leading off an inning all year, until Kansas City reliever Brandon Finnegan walked him to start the sixth inning with a one-run lead in ALCS Game 1. Schoop scored the tying run on a brilliant, if daring bit of baserunning: he broke for home on a bloop behind the mound that barely eluded Kansas City shortstop Alcides Escobar.
• Billy Butler is an .037 hitter when the ball stays in the infield. Of course, he managed an infield hit Friday night, just hit ninth of that variety all year.
• More weirdness: Escobar hit his first home run off a righthander in 150 games, dating to April 20.