Great pitching has Giants looking very scary

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Barry Zito and three relievers blanked the Reds last night, as the Giants pitched a shutout for the 16th time in 120 games. San Francisco has allowed the fewest runs in baseball with 441 in 120 games, which is 31 fewer runs than any other staff, and you wouldn’t know it from his 8-11 record but Zito has quietly bounced back nicely from a disastrous 2008 season that saw him go 10-17 with a career-worst 5.15 ERA.
This season his ERA is down to 4.26 in 25 starts, and 114 strikeouts versus 56 walks in 148 innings is Zito’s best K/BB ratio since way back in 2002. He’s certainly not the top-of-the-rotation stud he was in the early Oakland days, but Zito is far better than he was during his first two seasons in San Francisco and has a 2.36 ERA in seven starts since the All-Star break. Zito reemerging as a solid starter has the Giants looking like a very dangerous opponent should they get into the playoffs.
The entire pitching staff has been fantastic with a 3.47 ERA, but even that includes some poor performances from guys who wouldn’t touch the ball in October. Tim Lincecum is the best pitcher on the planet and Matt Cain is 12-4 with a 2.49 ERA. Toss in Zito and those are the three guys who could start nearly every playoff game. Beyond that the primary relievers have all been excellent, including closer Brian Wilson saving 30 games with a 2.75 ERA, 61/21 K/BB ratio, and .203 opponents’ batting average in 55.2 innings.
Setup men Jeremy Affeldt and Justin Miller both have ERAs under 2.00, Bob Howry and Brandon Medders are obviously no slouches with ERAs in the mid-3.00s, and rookies Sergio Romo and Merkin Valdez have also stepped up with a combined 2.21 ERA during the past month. Because of all the off days during the playoffs teams typically need three main starters, with the occasional fourth starter in the mix, plus three or four key relievers. Here’s what the Giants could trot out there under those circumstances:

SP1   Tim Lincecum       2.37 ERA, 207/46 K/BB in 178 innings
SP2   Matt Cain          2.49 ERA, 126/56 K/BB in 162 innings
SP3   Barry Zito         4.26 ERA, 114/56 K/BB in 148 innings
CL    Brian Wilson       2.75 ERA, 61/21 K/BB in 56 innings
SET   Jeremy Affeldt     1.80 ERA, 38/25 K/BB in 45 innings
SET   Justin Miller      1.83 ERA, 34/18 K/BB in 54 innings
SET   Bobby Howry        3.50 ERA, 33/12 K/BB in 46 innings

Not bad, huh? Those seven guys have combined for a 2.83 ERA and 613 strikeouts in 690 innings, and Medders, Romo, and Valdez are certainly capable of soaking up any loose work. Oh, and if the Giants need a fourth starter at some point Jonathan Sanchez has a 3.22 ERA and 52/18 K/BB ratio in seven starts since rejoining the rotation with a no-hitter in mid-July. Come playoff time the Lincecum-led pitching staff has a chance to shut down anyone.
Of course, scoring runs have been a problem for the Giants all season, which is why they’re 4.5 games back in the division and a game behind the Rockies for the Wild Card despite the league’s best pitching staff. San Francisco’s lineup ranks 14th in the league with 4.0 runs per game, but has improved since adding Freddy Sanchez and Ryan Garko last month and does have one big-time threat in 22-year-old hitting savant Pablo Sandoval. If they can get there, the Giants would be my playoff sleeper pick.

Nick Markakis: ‘I play a kids’ game and get paid a lot of money. How can I be disappointed with that?’

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Earlier today, the Braves inked veteran outfielder Nick Markakis to a one-year deal worth $4 million with a club option for the 2020 season worth $6 million with a $2 million buyout. Though Markakis is 35 years old, he’s coming off of a terrific season in which he played in all 162 games and hit .297/.366/.440 with 14 home runs and 93 RBI in 705 trips to the plate. Markakis had just completed a four-year, $44 million contract, so he took a substantial pay cut.

Per David O’Brien of The Athletic, Markakis asked his kids where they wanted him to play and they said Atlanta. O’Brien also asked Markakis about the pay cut. The outfielder said, “I’m not mad at all. I play a kids’ game and get paid a lot of money. How can I be disappointed with that?”

This seemingly innocuous comment by Markakis is actually damaging for his peers and for the union. Baseball as a game is indeed a “kids’ game,” but Major League Baseball is a billion-dollar business that has been setting revenue records year over year. The players have seen a smaller and smaller percentage of the money MLB makes since the beginning of the 2000’s. Furthermore, Markakis only gets paid “a lot of money” relative to, say, a first-year teacher or a clerk at a convenience store. Relative to the value of Liberty Media, which owns the Braves, and relative to the value of Major League Baseball itself, Markakis’s salary is a drop in the ocean.

That Markakis is happy to take a pay cut is totally fine, but it’s harmful for him to publicly justify that because it creates the expectation that his peers should feel the same way and creates leverage for ownership. His comments mirror those who sympathize first and foremost with billionaire team owners. They are common arguments used to justify paying players less, giving them a smaller and smaller cut of the pie. Because Markakis not only took a pay cut but defended it, front office members of the Braves as well as the 29 other teams can point to him and guilt or shame other players for asking for more money.

“Look at Nick, he’s a team player,” I envision a GM saying to younger Braves player who is seeking a contract extension, or a free agent looking to finally find a home before spring training. “Nick’s stats are as good as yours, so why should you make more money than him?”

Contrast Markakis’s approach with Yasmani Grandal‘s. Grandal reportedly turned down a four-year, $60 million contract offer from the Mets early in the offseason and settled for a one-year, $18.25 million contract with the Brewers. Per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Grandal said on MLB Network, “I felt like part of my responsibility as a player was to respect the guys that went through this process before I did. Guys like Brian McCann, Russell Martin, Yadier Molina, These are guys who established markets and pay levels for upper-tier catchers like me. I felt like I was doing a disservice if I were to take some of the deals that were being thrown around. I wanted to keep the line moving especially for some of the younger guys that are coming up … to let them know, if you’re worthy, then you should get paid what you’re worth. That’s where I was coming from.”

Grandal’s comments are exactly what a member of a union should be saying, unapologetically. The MLBPA needs to get all of its members on the same page when it comes to discussing contracts or labor situations in general publicly. What Markakis said seems selfless and innocent — and I have no doubt he is being genuine without malice — but it could reduce the bargaining power players have across the table from ownership, which means less money. They are already being bamboozled, at least until the next collective bargaining agreement. They don’t need to be bamboozled any more.