Baseball: Watch Those Predictions
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 16, 2006

BASEBALL IS the most unpredictable sport, with quite different results from day to day, as we were reminded in the very first A’s series this year, when the Yankees scored 16 runs in the opener but the A’s won the next two games.

By midseason in an NFL season, the contenders are clearly separated from the pretenders. It didn’t take that long for the 49ers and Raiders last season. The 49ers were clearly going nowhere after the first four games. The Raiders insisted they would be in the playoffs but, since they were on the losing side of the ledger from the first game, they were fooling only themselves.

In baseball, though, early results can be misleading. The A’s seemed totally out of the race in May but by the end of August, they were leading the AL West, though they slipped back in September. The Cleveland Indians, too, had a great midseason run and for a time, looked like the best team in baseball – but like the A’s, they missed the playoffs.

Teams can have winning streaks when it seems they’ll never lose again, or losing streaks when it seems they’ll never win again. Sometimes the streaks come consecutively. The Dodgers lost 13 of 14 and now have won 17 of 18. The Giants won five straight and then lost 14 of the next 17.

Years ago, 1980 if memory serves, I wrote off the Giants just before I took a family vacation, though they were on a modest winning streak. Owner Bob Lurie was incensed and wrote a complaining letter to The Chronicle. By the time it was published, the Giants had lost six straight and were never again in the race.

This year, though the Giants were on that win streak, I wrote in my Examiner column that they should trade Jason Schmidt while his market value was at its highest because they won’t be around in October. I also said that for a taping of “The Last Honest Sports Show.” Host Dennis O’Donnell said, “How can you say that, Glenn? They’re only half a game out.” By the time the show aired, on Saturday night, the Giants were in first place, but you know what’s happened since.

SO, WHEN I analyze baseball teams, I try to evaluate what their chances will be in the long haul, based on what they’ve done to that point and what they have to do to win. It’s not an exact science. I was among those who wrote off the A’s last May.

This year, when I looked at the A’s I saw a team plagued by injuries (and illness) but I also saw young players who could probably recover from that.

Nick Swisher had fallen off sharply because he had what apparently was mononucleosis and had lost 15 pounds, but he has gotten his weight and strength back and is once again hitting homers and knocking in runs, 25 and 70, respectively for the season. Milton Bradley has come off the DL to be a big factor, at the plate and in the field. Eric Chavez has had his power production severely reduced because of tendinitis in his forearms but he’s slowly getting his strength back and hit a game-winning home run a week ago against Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, his defensive play reminds me of Brooks Robinson. Bobby Crosby has been out with back problems but he’ll be back. There’s even hope that Rich Harden will be back in September – and be a factor in the postseason.

I could also see a solid organization which had been supplying the major league team with pitchers when the many injuries hit the bullpen. I saw an underestimated manager, Ken Macha, who has been able to keep the club stabilized and focused under trying circumstances, and who also has a good feel on his pitching decisions.

WHEN I LOOKED at the Giants, I saw a very old club which would inevitably hit the wall in August, an organization which has sadly ignored its farm system and a manager who should have retired two years ago.

There was no way that team was going to be in the playoffs.

The Giants’ hopes were always fragile. They needed another big year from Barry Bonds, who turned 42 last month and has had three knee operations. They aren’t getting that year from Bonds. His knees keep him from getting down to hit a ball low in the strike zone, or to pull the ball with regularity. When he hits a home run, it’s usually to left center or even dead center, not into McCovey Cove. He has to look for a specific pitch to be able to hit it, and if he gets another pitch, he can look very bad. Umpires allow great hitters to establish their own strike zones. In previous seasons, they seldom called strikes on Bonds if he didn’t swing. This year, he’s swung at so many pitches off the plate, umpires are calling those strikes, too, which is why Bonds has complained about calls – and even got tossed in one game.

Without the 2004 Bonds, the Giants lineup doesn’t scare anybody. Moises Alou is a good hitter but he’s always had injury problems – he missed two whole seasons and has had only five seasons out of 14 when he played as many as 140 games – so it was unrealistic to think that he would stay healthy at 40. Ray Durham had a nice streak, but Durham has always been a streak hitter, not one who could carry a team. Omar Vizquel is a marvel, seemingly as good as ever at 39, but he’s a table-setter, not an RBI guy.

The pitching staff, with only one consistent starter, Schmidt, and a problematical closer, Armando Benitez, wasn’t good enough to overcome that. Trading Schmidt would have weakened the staff this season but it would also have given the Giants a jump start at the big transformation that is coming next season.

THERE’S ANOTHER factor: Successful organizations have to be able to adjust to change because not everything goes according to plan.

With the A’s, Billy Beane has often made important moves at midseason. Brian Sabean has done that for the Giants, too, in the past. The last couple of years, that’s changed – and I think it’s more owner Peter Magowan’s plan than Sabean’s. The moves the Giants have made have been desperation moves, bringing in veteran players who are (except for Vizquel) well past their prime. It wasn’t difficult to see that last year’s team, without Bonds, was going nowhere. The signs showed early this season, too. But the Giants refused to acknowledge them, and now, they’re paying the price.


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