Insider's note: A new season comes with new discoveries, like hitters blaming the strength coach after wins, the shortstop overriding the BP soundtrack in multiple stadiums, and the first baseman turning into a Texan Joey Votto. But some things never change, and as we have done for four previous years, it's time once again to sum up the prior month with the most relevant stats, best quotes, most interesting GIFs and more. Before I get to all that, one more reminder that we have a podcast now, and the episodes are rather evergreen so you can listen to them at any time. That's a new tradition, this is an old one. This is The Month That Was ...
1. What We Learned: The Giants wake up today in a tie for first in the NL West, but that's only because the division has been the definition of mediocre so far. That allows you to keep pace even if you have an average start, and the Giants had a very average start. They were 12-13 in April, scoring 124 runs but allowing 121. Sixty percent of the rotation was excellent, but that's been balanced by 40 percent struggling terribly and the bullpen getting off to a shaky start. The lineup is deeper than it's been in years, but some big names got off to slow starts and again the drop off has been steep when starters need a day or two to rest or heal. (Who knew the Ehire Adrianza injury would have such an impact?)
All in all, Bruce Bochy should feel ... fine? Not too good, but not too bad, either? The Giants will find a better way to compete at the back end of their rotation (keep an eye on Tyler Beede, who is starting throw very well at Double-A) but Bochy also knows that a true injury bug hasn't hit yet. Sergio Romo is the only one missing extended time, and the lack of depth is already showing. It's clear that this team -- with the three guys at the top of the rotation, a good defense and deep lineup -- will be a tough out in the postseason, but they've got some issues to clean up to have a shot at getting there.
2. The Right Approach: The Giants only put their full lineup on the field a couple of times in spring training, but that was enough to give them confidence that this would be a group of grinders. In April they ranked fourth in the National League with a walk percentage of 10.5 percent, and they also ranked first with a strikeout percentage of just 16 percent (by comparison, the famed Cubs lineup is at 19 percent).
That’s a pretty solid way to wear down pitchers and score runs. The Giants scored 124 runs in 25 April games. Last year, they scored just 66 runs in 22 April games.
3. The New Big Three: The new guys, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, lived up to expectations from the start. Cueto was 4-1 with a 2.65 ERA and Samardzija went 3-1 with a 3.86 ERA in April. Most importantly, they did the one thing Bruce Bochy was hoping for all season: Soaked up innings. Cueto and Samardzija showed that they’ll go six or seven even when they don’t have their good stuff, finishing second and ninth, respectively, in the National League in April innings pitched.
Throw in Madison Bumgarner and you’ve got a Big Three that’s on pace for about 650 innings. A reminder, here's what Bochy told Larry Baer in the offseason: “Get me another 200-inning starter and I’m good.” Looks like they got him two of them.
4. The Bottom 40 Percent: Bochy isn’t totally “good,” because 40 percent of the time this season he has had to try and patch together nine innings. Of the 62 National League pitchers who threw at least 20 innings in April, Matt Cain and Jake Peavy ranked 56th and 59th in ERA. Cain had a 7.00 ERA in April and Peavy was at 8.61, which was his worst ERA for a full month since July of 2003 (8.86). Already, this has become the story of May.
5. Hare Race Update, 1.0: Well, Joe Panik was right. I asked him this spring if the Tortoise Race would return for a second year, and he suggested a “total hits” race between the second and third basemen. Panik thought that would be closer, and through one month he’s dead on. Panik had 26 hits in 93 April at-bats; Matt Duffy had 24 hits in 95 at-bats.
6. Play of the Month: This spot is usually reserved for Brandon Crawford, and he was his usual Gold Glove self in April (some advanced metrics even have him a step above 2015). But anytime a pitcher hits a homer off Clayton Kershaw, that's your best play of the month. And, well, when he's done it for the second time in two years, it's even better.
7. The Breakout: I hate to say or write that Brandon Belt is breaking out, because Belt was pretty damn good last season. He finished second for the Gold Glove, was fourth among NL first baseman in WAR (4.3), and was top 10-15 in the NL in advanced hitting metrics that account for the fact that the Giants play their home games in a park not suited for Belt’s power.
The early signs this year, though, are that Belt might be turning from a good hitter into an All-Star/bottom-of-the-MVP ballot type of hitter.
Belt had a clean .300/.420/.500 slash line in April, showing off a much better approach at the plate. He had an 18 percent walk rate and 14 percent strikeout rate in the first month, a vast improvement over 2015’s 10 percent/26 percent splits. He’s also hitting the ball to left about 10 percent more than he did in 2015. The numbers are even better in May so far.
A visiting scout who watched the Giants all weekend had this to say: “We tried to get him for two years. We knew this was coming eventually.” Other teams are out of luck.
8. Quotes of the Month: “It’s ‘potential,’ but I think we understand that we can hit top to bottom. It’s a matter of everyone going out with the same focus every day and not taking it for granted.” — Duffy, talking about the lineup on Opening Day.
“I guess we’re doing a Tortoise Race and a Hare Race this year?” — Panik, talking to Duffy in the dugout after both homered on Opening Day.
“I was just saying, ‘Go ball! Come on!’ I’m not necessarily a power hitter. I thought, oh it’s raining, I might have had a homer except for the rain. I almost fell coming out of the box, but when I saw it land, that was one of my most memorable moments in baseball.” — Trevor Brown, on his homer off Chris Hatcher.
“I was thinking about the entire season and I thought I might end up with three.” — Brown, after a two-homer game gave him three homers early on.
“I’m just trying to keep up with this cat over here, this cowboy. It’s good to have a rabbit to chase.” — Samardzija, talking about trying to match Bumgarner at the plate.
"I think he's better looking than I am,.” — Duffy, on his bobblehead.
"One pitch and I've got him. I can actually say I was better than him then, and I'll tell him what to do.” — Derek Law talking about his dad, who was called up to the big leagues years ago but never pitched.
“I just like to get creative. I like to invent when I’m on the mound. I just try to keep the hitter off balance.” — Cueto, explaining all his different deliveries.
“Baseball has a way of humbling you.” — Duffy, during a slump early in the season.
“I think I got caught up in the Giants-Dodgers rivalry a little bit.” — Law, after staring down Justin Turner in his debut. Turner had danced off the bag at third, trying to distract a rookie.
“I respect the Giants and I’ll root for them when I leave, but I’m not going to root for them now.” — Barry Bonds, the day he returned to AT&T Park as a Marlin.
“It’s a very educated fan base with high standards. You want to live up to those standards. As a new guy, you want to prove your worth. Hopefully they saw something they liked.” — Samardzija, after pitching into the eighth and driving in three in his home debut.
“Offensively, I think we’re all table-setters for our pitchers right now.” — Duffy, after Samardzija and Peavy drove in five on back-to-back nights.
“He goes, ‘You want me to teach you how to hit homers off Kershaw?’” — Duffy, telling a story about Bumgarner walking into the video room and seeing hitters watching clips of the Dodgers ace.
“He’s very, very smart. Even in a short time, he’s one of the best I’ve seen in reading swings.” — Buster Posey, on working with Cueto.
“Still didn’t go anywhere, man. I’m going to blame that on our strength coach. I didn’t do that extra set last night. Did two sets, should have done that third set. We gotta talk bout getting a new strength coach, seriously. Because I got everything and I was in good position. The hitting coach, we need to keep him hired, but the strength coach needs to get out of here. That’s all I got.” — Denard Span, starting a trend by blaming Carl Kochan after a double.
"The main point of the entire thing is that Carl Kochan, our strength coach, is not doing his job correctly." -- Belt, after coming up a homer short of the cycle.
“If the reason your rhythm is messed up is that you’re hitting too much, those are some champagne problems. You probably need to worry about something else.” — Samardzija, after a day full of rallies by his lineup.
“I’m counting that. In my head, I hit for the cycle today.” — Belt, after he hit a single, double, triple and sacrifice fly that would have been a homer in other parks.
“No, no. I have too much confidence in these two guys. We’re in April here. I’ve seen some good things and both of them are close. I don’t think there’s an option that’s going to make the staff better. I think these two, when all is said and done, they’re going to get their wins and help us out a lot.” — Bochy, talking about Peavy and Cain in late April. The tone has changed a bit in early May.
9. GIFs of the Month: In Year 5, this section is getting a remodel, because some of you are getting remarkably creative with work that wouldn’t simply qualify as GIFs.
For instance, Grant Brisbee's summary of Derek Law's MLB debut. Or this Vine that @MylesinSF sent out during the Ross Stripling game. As for the GIFs, @CarmenKiew captured Cueto's newest way to throw a pitch, MLB sent out the fun Cueto-Ryan Braun back and forth, and @gidget GIF'd Samardzija and Hunter Pence going nuts during the Stripling game.
We go back to that game for the best social media moment of April: This perfect summary of the moment the Dodgers lost a no-hitter. Turn the sound on for that one and enjoy it a couple dozen times.
10. The Month That Will Be: Remember way up there, 1,800 words ago, when I talked about the average April? It's been more of the same, with the Giants going 5-3 so far in May, scoring 37 runs and allowing 39 (that 13-run inning didn't help). The story of the month will be the back end of the rotation, starting tonight when Peavy faces the tough Blue Jays lineup. Cain gets them tomorrow, and those two are running out of time. Tim Lincecum is still out there, but more importantly, the Giants have dispatched their top pitching minds to Sacramento to see if Chris Heston and Clayton Blackburn can be straightened out. Both are off to slow starts, but Giants evaluators believe they can turn at least one of them around pretty quickly.
There are two other story lines to watch in May. The Cubs are living up to the hype, and they arrive in a couple of weeks. Also, it's time to make up ground before and after that Cubs series. The Giants are just 10-11 against National League West teams, but they have 13 in-division games this month, starting Thursday in Phoenix.