The Giants’ current .370 win-loss record – only the hapless Phillies are worse – and last-place standing at 23 games back in the NL West have shaken their fan base to the very core, and even the team’s years-long sellout streak appears to be in jeopardy.
By now we all know what the woes are about. Pitching ace and all-around confidence-enhancer Madison Bumgarner has been on the DL for two months. Shortstop Brandon Crawford continues his defensive dominance but he’s having a lackluster offensive season, hitting only .238. Brandon Belt, at .231, still hasn’t risen to the power levels that have been expected of him, and his reliance on walking rather than swinging the bat isn’t helping out a team that can’t seem to produce RBIs. Ty Blach, the promising young starter, has one win, one no-decision, and three losses in his last five starts. The best offensive left-fielder that the Giants have started this year, Austin Slater, promisingly hit .333 with a couple of homers and then injured himself, although he returned to the lineup today. At third base, the health of Eduardo Nuñes continues to be an intermittent issue while once-hot-hitting Christian Arroyo has been sent back to the minors to find his swing again. Hunter Pence, in right field, has made a number of mind-blowingly strange errors in defensive judgment. The bullpen has been a revolving door, and closer Mark Melancon has been a disappointment, culminating in a trip to the DL for him today with a pronator strain.
I’m in the middle of reading former Giant Aubrey Huff’s book Baseball Junkie, which is a chronicle of his struggles with mental issues and drug dependence, even while playing on a World Series team. What’s most fascinating about the book is Huff’s recounting of the ways in which baseball players – who in the minds of most fans should savor every minute on the field while they rake in their huge salaries – can be overcome by depression, boredom, and bitterness when they play for a losing team. In his own experience, he says he was “uninterested, unengaged,” and that pressure and performance anxiety can be debilitating. He talks about the fact that success at the major-league level rquires precision and razor-sharp focus. It demands total mental engagement. “Ask any pro,” he says, “and they’ll tell you the same thing. Regardless of how well any season starts, or how pure your intentions. Losing game after game starts to drag you down. You’ll soon find yourself not really firing on all cylinders. Going through the motions.”
From a fan’s perspective, that’s exactly what it appears some of the Giants are doing. There are even rumors of dissesnsion in the clubhouse. We’ve already seen the normally placid Buster Posey lash out at Brandon Belt.
Before the season started, the Giants hired their first full-time mental performance coach, Bob Tewksbury. He is undoubtedly working overtime these days, aiming to improve the gametime performance of the players by treating whatever mental challenges and attitude problems they’re experiencing.
The Giants most likely will not make it to the postseason – let’s be real – but for those of us who love baseball, there’s no question that there are plenty of reasons to continue those sellouts. In my book, those reasons lie in the youngsters.
The kids coming up from the minors are not going to be burned out. They’re not going to be unengaged. They’re going to do whatever they can do to keep themselves in the bigs, including staying keenly tuned in to everything happening on the field. (They may, in fact, overthink things.) They’re going to be too hungry to get disinterested.
Jae-gyun Hwang got his first MLB start today, at third base with the Giants. Last year was his sixth All-Star year with the Korean Baseball Association, during which he hit .335 with 27 home runs, 25 stolen bases, and 113 RBIs. He was hitting .287 in the minors with 7 homers and 4 triples before his callup, and the infielder smashed a home run for his first major league hit in his first major league game today, breaking a 3-3 tie with Colorado and injecting life into a game that the Giants would go on to win.
It was a jolt of youth, exuberance, and sheer power for the dugout.
With nothing to lose regarding an unattainable postseason, look for the Giants to try out other young talent as the season goes on, and to make some moves before the trade deadline, with trade-bait possibilities being pitcher Johnny Cueto or even someone like Brandon Belt. New players, and youth, may be what this clubhouse needs to at least play some respectable games in the second half of the season.