[hat-tip to MrLefty for the title idea and for the “O Brother” theme suggestion]
A lot of (virtual) ink has been spilled this season about the Giants’ bullpen woes, and until recently, that was justified–the bullpen was clearly the weak link of an otherwise surprisingly good team. Conversely, as the offense got off to an underwhelming start and the bullpen struggled, the rotation was carrying the team through the first six weeks or so.
That has all changed. The Giants, an off weekend in Washington D.C. aside, are generating plenty of offense these days. Indeed, even in yesterday’s blowout loss, they scored six runs in the first three innings. And the bullpen has been substantially better since a low point (two late blown leads/two straight walk-off losses) in Pittsburgh last month.
The once-stellar rotation, however, has begun to falter. There are some obvious explanations for this, but rather than simply listing them, I thought we’d take a cue from yesterday’s Peacock announcers, who kept citing the “Soggy Bottom Boys*” (the fictional band from the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) to refer to Giants relievers Conner Menez and Zack Littell. Long-time readers of this column will remember that I riffed on this movie once before, but it was awhile ago (August 2017), and since Jon Miller and Mike Krukow brought it up…well, I can’t resist going there again.
*It should be noted that aksisterfan trotted out “Soggy Bottom Boys” for Menez/Littell well over a week ago, providing still more evidence that the announcers and beat writers are stealing all their good stuff from TWG.
Anyway, the Soggy Bottom Boys performed three songs in the movie, and we will use those as a guide to discuss the current state of the Giants’ rotation.
“You Are My Sunshine”
“Governor, it’s one of our favorites.” Those of you who are familiar with the movie will remember that the Soggy Bottom Boys were escaped convicts who were pardoned by the Governor of Mississippi, Pappy O’Daniel, who then ordered them to lead a crowd in a chorus of “You Are My Sunshine.” Similarly, Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani received a “pardon” from “Governor” Farhan Zaidi, who rescued their floundering careers by signing them with the Giants. Gausman has been so good this year that there’s a legitimate chance he could start the NL All-Star Game. As for DeSclafani, he just leads the majors with two complete-game shutouts, both of which flirted with being a “Maddux” (complete-game shutout under 100 pitches). DeSclafani’s two masterpieces were 100 and 103 pitches.
Now we can all sing “You Are My Sunshine” when it’s the Gas Man’s or Tony D’s day to pitch.
“In the Jailhouse Now”
“In the Jailhouse Now, fellers. Neighborhood of B.” The Soggy Bottom Boys, who are both running from the law and from an angry mob at a Ku Klux Klan rally, sneak into a political event and crash the stage. One of the characters, Delmar O’Donnell (played by the great Tim Blake Nelson), calmly instructs the band to play “In the Jailhouse Now,” and the Soggy Bottom Boys begin singing just as if they were scheduled performers. But they’re not. They’re convicted criminals and they’re even wearing fake beards.
Alex Wood is the poster child for this song. He’s a fake and he’s now trying to avoid going to “the jailhouse” (a 10-day suspension) by renouncing his life of crime (using illegal substances when he pitches). Grant Brisbee did an article this week on the coming MLB crackdown on pitchers using illegal substances and predicted, based on stats about spin rates, that Wood was the only member of the Giants rotation who might be affected by this abrupt policy change. Wood is not even trying to deny it, either. Here’s a quote about it from Susan Slusser’s gamer after yesterday’s dismal outing.
Having reduced ability to get a good grip, Wood said, “I would compare it to playing golf and then somebody telling you you can’t use a a grip on your golf club anymore, so there’s obviously going to be adjustments that need to be made.”
Wood went on to say that he didn’t think the change affected his (bad) results yesterday, but…as Brisbee notes, he came from the Dodgers, who have been leading the world in artificially improved spin rates over the last couple of years. After a great beginning to his season, he has an 8.50 ERA in four starts in June, mainly from an inability to command his slider.
Anyway, we’ll have to see if Wood can become a reliable member of the Giants rotation again.
“Man of Constant Sorrow”
“I am the man of constant sorrow/I’ve seen trouble all my days..” The Soggy Bottom Boys’ runaway hit was “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and the crowd at the rally went wild when they started singing it. But it’s a sad song, and right now it could apply to Logan Webb and Tyler Beede, two homegrown pitchers who have struggled with injuries and consistency. Webb seemed to finally be putting things together this year but developed a sore shoulder, and he’s on the injured list with it for the second time this season. Beede was the Giants’ first-round pick in 2014, made his major league debut in early 2018, and struggled with command in various appearances in 2018-19. He looked sharp and ready for a breakout season in 2020, but even before COVID shut things down, he injured his elbow and had to have Tommy John surgery. Now he’s rehabbing in Sacramento and has been so ineffective that the Giants have had to extend his rehab assignment there. It might be an overstatement to say the Giants were counting on getting him back in June, but they were certainly hoping for it.
You could also add Aaron Sanchez to this category (remember him?). After 2019 shoulder surgery that caused him to miss the entire 2020 season, he signed with the Giants. He made six starts of 4-5 innings, logged a decent ERA (3.18), but his velocity was down and his durability was a question. Then he went out in early May with biceps tightness that necessitated a surgical consultation. He left a rehab start in Sacramento this week with a blister issue. It’s hard to be optimistic about this “man of constant sorrow.”
Here’s the ironic thing about this song and its role in the movie. If you watch the above video clip, you can see that George Clooney looks a bit stunned by the crowd’s reaction to them and the song. There’s a reason for his bewilderment. The Soggy Bottom Boys had recorded the song at a remote radio station to earn a quick ten bucks, but they had been hiding from the law and had no idea that the record had even been distributed, let alone turned into a sensation. You could also say that the Giants’ season has turned into a “surprise hit,” and no one really knows what to make of it.
[Hard to Categorize]
I wasn’t sure where to put Johnny Cueto in this three-song scheme. He’s been up and down this season. After a dazzling performance in the home opener, in which he nearly pitched a complete game, he quickly ended up on the injured list. Since his return, he’s gritted his way through several starts, never dominant but never really terrible. His low-4s ERA and 5-3 record is perfectly acceptable for, say, a #4 starter in a good rotation. The problem is that the Giants don’t seem to have a #3 starter or a #5 starter right now.
“Damn! We’re in a Tight Spot!”
Jon Miller misquoted this line yesterday during the broadcast, but George Clooney (who plays the lead character, Ulysses Everett McGill), memorably said this at several points when he and his motley crew were on the verge of being captured.
When it comes to their rotation, the Giants are, indeed, currently in a tight spot. They have two solid starters, a couple of scary question marks in Wood and Cueto, and then a fill-in-the-blank item at #5. There are no reinforcements in sight at the moment. Webb and Sanchez are not close to returning. Beede has been very ineffective. Even prospect Matt Frisbee, who was fast-tracked to Sacramento from Richmond a couple weeks ago, hasn’t been effective since his promotion. Going further down the list, Sean Hjelle had to be helped off the field with an apparent leg injury a couple days ago.
“Keep on the Sunny Side”(?)
There’s a bright and a sunny side too
Tho’ we meet with the darkness and strife
The sunny side we also may view (Ada Blenkhorn, 1899)