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Friday, July 15, 2011

Huff responds to doubters and one Padre taunt

With all eyes on him, most peering through skeptical lenses, Aubrey Huff did the most difficult thing in sports: he hit a home run. With the game on the line in the ninth inning. With no balls and two strikes. Against one of the top closers in the game. Who. Doesn't. Give. 'Em. Up.

It wasn't the ultimately decisive blow in the Giants' 6-2 win over the Padres Thursday, but none of the craziness of the five-run 12th would have happened without Huff's game-tying drive.

Against all odds, he answered his critics -- including me. I'd spelled out the numbers showing that Huff's difficulties stretch back to last year: he's hit .246 since last August 5 with only 15 HR and 65 RBI, which was an indicator that the stress of high expectations may be too much for the veteran first baseman.

He hadn't had a home run in 34 games, dating back to the June 2 three-HR game against St. Louis. He'd hit .206 since June 23. Huff was basically a rollover groundout machine. Pressure was mounting for Huff to straighten out his act soon, calls for bringing Brandon Belt back up from Fresno began to get louder, but the Giants' party line was to hope Huff would come out fresh after a nice three-day rest.

Huff's first three at bats had the scent of his first-half struggles: a standard grounder to second (more sharply hit than most, but a 4-3 in your scorebook nonetheless), a broken bat line drive caught by a diving Chris Denorfia in right field (just another example of the bad luck he's hit in), and an ugly strikeout in the seventh, Huff chasing a curve in the dirt, finishing 0-for-3 and continuing his frustrations against Aaron Harang (1-for-13 lifetime).

Perhaps Huff needed a spark from the outside. Last week, it was reliever Chad Qualls spiking the ball and yelling at Andres Torres after tagging him at home plate. Torres responded the next day with a big game. Thursday night, Mat Latos looked like he was taunting Huff after he ran out of room chasing a foul pop that landed near the Padres' dugout.

An inning later, Huff went deep. Not sure you can draw a cause-and-effect line between the two incidents, but it didn't hurt to maybe have Huff going up to the plate a little angry. 

Huff fell behind Heath Bell two strikes -- looking for all the world poised to take an 0-for-4, perhaps preparing to take another round of flak for the same ol' same ol. But there he was, fighting off a pair of two-strike pitches before Bell tried to get him on a breaking pitch low. It stayed up, and Huff jolted it out of a ballpark that usually swallows long flies live.

Huff's in-game rebound was not unlike the main characteristic of the Giants: they can look ugly all game, but suddenly piece together a couple timely hits to pull out late-game victories, as they have all season.

It was the first home run Bell gave up since April of 2010, when, yes, the Giants went deep on him. It was a Juan Uribe home run on a hanging slider (I remember it vividly; I remember thinking why would a guy with a 97 MPH fastball allow Uribe, a great mistake hitter, to speed up his bat with a slider?). That one tied up the game in the ninth, too, 2-2, though the Padres won it the next inning, 3-2.

Those were different times, when the Padres could do no wrong against the Giants and appeared poised to run away with the division title.

Huff's home run provided a truly emotional moment for the Giants, and by the reaction in the dugout, it went beyond the drama of a game-tying ninth inning home run. Huff is a leader in that clubhouse and dugout, and his teammates are just waiting to jump on his back as they seek to repeat as champions. That was a cathartic home run.

Though they would ultimately win in the 12th on a bizarre five-run rally, and Santiago Casilla was awarded the victory, there is no doubt that Huff was The Man in that clubhouse in the victorious aftermath.


Just a thought on Pablo Sandoval, who extended his hitting streak to 22 (if you want to count the All-Star game, it's 23). Forget what Tim McCarver said in the All-Star game telecast (maybe the worst ever in the history of the game) about Sandoval getting as many hits on bad balls as good pitches. That was old Conventional Wisdom. Last year's news.

This year, and particularly the last 10 or 15 games, Sandoval has become as disciplined a hitter on the Giants. He has learned to lay off pitchers pitches, build the count to favor him. The irony is this: pitchers still try to get him to bite outside of the strike zone, and are falling behind in the count as a result. Hence, Sandoval is getting great count leverage, getting good pitches to hit on 2-0 or 3-1 counts.

The other part of his discipline is in his swing: he is not overswinging. He's driving pitches where they're thrown, as exhibited in his off-field two-run single in the 12th (and the single he pulled in the first inning off a curve).

It is a joy to watch him play again, but it is even more satisfying than in that first big year of his in 2009 because of the new mental skills he gained from the long road he traveled to get his swing back.


Watching Brandon Crawford making plays on defense is akin to watching Sandoval hitting. He made three brilliant plays on defense that went under the radar if only because he made them seem so easy.

The first was his back hand grab on a tricky hop and throw deep from the 5 1/2 hole to nab Chase Headley; the second was a grab and throw to third to nail Cameron Maybin trying to advance on ground ball to the left side in the second inning. Maybin's got great speed, and it took a real deft transfer from glove to throwing hand and quick release to get him. And, in the fourth, he took a slow chopper and quickly threw to second to narrowly force out Maybin on a play that many shortstops would have simply gone to first on. It got the speedier Maybin off the basepaths and kept a double play in order.


  1. This blog is becoming key to my game understanding, given how hard it is to watch 4AM first pitches (not to mention 12 innings.) Dankeschoen, Steven Harmon.

    I trust the Jints will be quite patient with Crawford's hitting development, because he sure cemented the infield D.

    Re: Huff. Except for the elite stars, most ballplayers who reach the show are within the same window of skills, with some having an abundance of a particular tool to overcome a deficiency in another. Thus, performance hinges greatly on psychology. No?

    comments on Mad Bum's outing?

  2. A great article. Glad I found this link in your comment on Extra Baggs.

    "Huff's in-game rebound was not unlike the main characteristic of the Giants: they can look ugly all game, but suddenly piece together a couple timely hits to pull out late-game victories, as they have all season.

    I think this is the statement I've been looking for to explain what metrics cannot. The Giants are proving in spite of protestations to the contrary, that intangibles do exist..

    I have to say this is one of the most fun Giants clubs I've ever seen, and I saw my first game in 1958.

    I scribbled my own thoughts on it here Steve. Along with a link from to GiantWatch. Keep up the great work.

  3. As for Crawford, I think the Giants will have a lot of patience. He never seems to have bad at-bats. He has a great eye and has been clutch. He has found ways to get on base or advance the runner. Crawford as an 8 or 9 spot, great defensive shortstop and perfect attitude for this team, he is a great call up!

  4. Nice rundown of the dynamics of the game. I've felt that way about the Giants since last season, that intangibles are helping them do more than what seems possible.

    Actually, Huff hit OK at the end of last season from Aug 5, he hit .246/.357/.412/.769 with 6 HR in 187 AB (31 AB/HR or roughly 20+ HR rate).

    That is fine for him. No hitter will be hot the whole season, and his career numbers have been somewhere around .800 OPS, give or take 50 points, so I think he was fine during the end of last season.

    And FYI, nowadays, the comparator for how a hitter does includes OBP and SLG, if not OPS (which is my preference).

    About the Bell homers, I've see that reference to Uribe elsewhere but the question that I had after hearing that is who was the last one before Uribe? Is Bell like a new Greg Minton, going long stretches of no homers, or did this streak just began recently?

    About Sandoval, he actually was pretty much himself in terms of batting discipline last season, his walk and strikeout rates were in line with his prior performance in the majors. There were two major differences: his BABIP was horribly low and his power was horribly low as well.

    He actually was Panda-like for a number of short periods last season, though that ebbed and flowed. Particularly at the start of the season, April. I think it is pretty clear that the divorce and child custody issues were greatly affecting him. If you look at this hitting patterns, he would go from a very high batting line to a very low one suddenly, there was a clear one after about a month, then it was downhill from there.

    While it is speculation what exactly happened in the first half of the season, though I am pretty sure he was affected based on the second half, where he had two public events that marked two major declines. First was when he flew down home to sign the divorce papers. He was hitting good before that, then he was cold for a while. Then he started hitting again for a bit, when he nearly lost his mom in the San Bruno pipeline explosion, and he was down again. Late in the season, he started hitting again like Pablo, but by then the season ended.

    Also, in the off-season, it was noted that his weight affected his hitting while right-handed against LHP. That affect don't show up greatly when when looking at his overall numbers because most hitters don't face enough LHP, plus he was down overall anyway, so there was a lot of noise there.

    Obviously, this season, being slimmer means he now can hit LHP.

    Yeah, Crawford has been a dream defensively, and at least he isn't overmatched so far as a hitter, his strikeout rate and walk rate is pretty good, especially in light of how badly he did in the minors in that regard. He just needs to figure out how to hit the ball with authority when he connects instead of making all those outs, and we would have our starting SS for the next 6 seasons. And it won't take much if he's batting 8th, the average 8th place hitter in NL is hitting .242/.312/.351/.663. He doesn't need to hit much higher to reach that, and particularly if he can get his OBP, currently at .292, up to, say, .350-ish, that would be an asset down there (only takes him hitting .250 with those walks to reach that).

  5. OT, I hate how Microsoft has to mess around with Google sites with IE. I couldn't save my comment here using IE, but Safari (and Chrome), no problem. I'm getting to point where I abandon IE because of this.

  6. Latos has a fat f'ing mouth and some of his teammates need to take him out behind the woodshed and teach him a few things. His mouth and attitude cost the team a possible win last night and the Madres are now firmly mired in last place. Dude, I think the team is reading your blog. Every time you go off on a player? He comes up with a really big game. You need to go off on Cody and Lincecum next.

  7. Latos is quickly becoming the Giant's "tenth man"