Insider's note: There are two things you need to know about "The Month That Was." First, it’s a passion project for me, something I started doing when I got on the beat in 2012 in order to provide a different form of coverage. Enough people ask about it every month that I’ve just continued to do it all this time, and I hope to do it every month here at my new stop, too. The second thing you need to know? It’s never actually posted within shouting distance of the month that was. But here on May 12, we’ll look at the stats, people, quotes, plays etc. that stood out from April. We’ll go with 16 categories this month, in honor of the center fielder who returned, found a new spot in the lineup and hit .341 in the season’s first month. Enjoy!
1. April Swoon: The main reason the Giants were able to win a title last year despite that June/July swoon was because of how hot they were the first two months. Specifically, they were 17-11 through the end of April in 2014, outscoring opponents 120-102.
Playing the whole month without Hunter Pence and Matt Cain, and most of it without Jake Peavy, the Giants went 9-13 this April. It arguably could have been worse, as they got outscored 94-66. Only the Phillies and White Sox scored fewer runs last month.
2. Hesto Presto: Where would the Giants be without Chris Heston? (Last place, probably.) The rookie stepped in and gave Bruce Bochy another reliable starter and innings-eater, and while Heston can be knocked around when his sinker is up, his four-pitch mix looks capable of keeping him up here even if the veteran starters get healthy. Heston led all National League rookies last month with 26 innings pitched and was second with 21 strikeouts, and he posted a 2.77 ERA in his first month in a big league rotation. With that mark, he became the fifth San Francisco Giants rookie to post a sub-3.00 ERA in the first month of the season.
3. Max Surprise: There was a funny 48-our-or-so period this spring when Pence got hurt and national reporters and Red Sox beat writers started writing that the Giants should go get Allen Craig. It was odd, especially considering Craig is still owed about $26.5 million and was, you know, not good last year. The Giants felt they internally had a Pence replacement.
“He had a great spring,” Bochy said of Justin Maxwell early in April. “He’s going to be in the mix here. I’m trying to get him as much playing time as I can.”
Maxwell went out and hit .255/.333./.510 in April, with three homers and outstanding defense in right. Craig was recently optioned to Triple-A, but I mean, thanks for the offer, Boston.
4. Starts at the Top: It’s actually kind of surprising that the Giants scored so few runs last month, because they couldn’t have asked for much more out of the 1-2-3 spots. Leadoff hitter Nori Aoki hit .303 with a .392 on-base percentage; No. 2 hitter Joe Panik hit .280 with a .325 on-base percentage; No. 3 hitter Angel Pagan hit .341 with a .372 on-base percentage. The trio combined for 78 hits and 23 walks but scored just 24 runs.
This, more than anywhere, is where the Giants missed Pence, who not only has power but had the speed to avoid double-plays, and an ability to put the ball in play with a runner on third and less than two outs.
5. Timmy 2.0: Is this a new Tim Lincecum? Even here, midway through May, it’s too soon to tell, but there were some really encouraging signs in April. He has worked to keep the ball down, and his groundball rate last month was 57.8 percent, which would be the highest of his career and is 10 points higher than his rate last season. He had his lowest April line-drive rate since 2011 and allowed just one homer in 22 innings after allowing six in the first month last year. The 3.27 ERA was his lowest in April since 2011, and he hasn’t given up a run in May yet. We’ll know much more when I recap May in, oh, about a month or so, but the Giants are thrilled with the way the first month went for No. 55.
6. Replacing Morse: The Giants didn’t try and replace Michael Morse’s power, they simply tried to find another left fielder who could produce. Aoki did it in a very different way, but like Morse in 2014, Aoki got off to a hot start.
Morse last March/April: .302/.351/.581, 6 home runs ... Aoki this April: .303/.392/.371, 6 stolen bases
Throw in the defensive upgrade and the fact that Aoki is much more likely to sustain this — Morse couldn’t last year — and the Giants did just fine when it came time to find a new left fielder.
7. Replacing Sandoval: Per FanGraphs, the Giants ranked dead last in the Majors with negative 0.5 WAR from their third basemen in April. Most of that was Casey McGehee, who had a .169/.222/.271 slash line in his first month in San Francisco and also played sketchy defense.
Here’s the funny thing, though: The Giants actually didn’t lose much from April, 2014 to April, 2015. Pablo Sandoval had a .177/.262/.302 line in the first month of his last season with the Giants. If you’re wondering why Bochy is so patient with veterans, there’s one reason.
8. Play of the Month: Crawford and Panik had a stretch going back to Game 7 where they glove-flipped three times in a span of just 14 starts together. They seem to get along. Panik had the first one in the World Series and Crawford had two last month, including this gem (bonus points for doing it to the Dodgers).
9: Belt Tap of the Month: At some point, somewhere during the 2013 season, the “Play of the Month” basically became the “Crawford Play of the Month.” It’s hard to knock him off that perch, but the other Brandon deserves some GIF-love too. So, we’ve got the Belt Turkey Tap of the Month, a new feature here. First one in the line of fire this season: Maxwell.
10. Quotes of the Month: Kind of a quiet month here (which will happen when you lose eight straight) but here are the highlights …
“I’m not sure why they chose to do this in an odd year. But I trust that it was well thought out.” — Bobby Evans, after getting promoted to GM.
“There is no place I’d rather be than right here in San Francisco with the Giants. I couldn’t have a better situation. I am extremely proud to be a part of this great franchise and I look forward to continuing to work with everyone in the organization to build on the success of the last several years.” — Bochy, after signing a new contract.
“I’m just on Cloud Nine right now. I’m ecstatic.” — Heston, after picking up win No. 1 and getting a beer shower.
“If this stuff is happening early in the season then we’ve got problems. And we’ll go from there.” — Peavy, after his final start of the spring. It turned out they had problems.
"It's a mood-setter. That’s going to be fixed. I would hate walking in there and they're all sleeping.” — Bochy, after he walked into a new clubhouse that was very poorly lit.
"If I tell you, you're going to laugh.” — Pagan, when reporters asked why Derek Norris was barking at him.
"That's not a thing I like to happen. But that's the nature of the (game). We're playing with so much adrenaline.I get excited, but I was angry. I didn't feel I did anything wrong and then I got thrown at right here in my chest.” — Pagan, explaining how Norris got mad about a piece of gum.
“He’s still here.” — Tim Hudson, when told by a reporter that Madison Bumgarner carried the Giants last October.
11. Quotes of the Month, Part II:
“He truly amazes me. He’s one of the best I’ve played with. He just makes so many great plays. He’s a wizard over there at shortstop. He makes all the routine plays and makes the tough plays look routine. That’s the true mark of a good shortstop. For a guy like me, keeping the ball down and pitching to contact, he’s a breath of fresh air.” — Hudson, after Crawford helped him with a huge defensive game down in San Diego.
“Of course, Bumgarner was down there waiting, too.” — Bochy, after explaining an extra-innings pinch-hit assignment that went to Maxwell.
“It didn’t feel like they were there. If it’s 85 to 88 and getting outs, that’s all that matters to me.” — Lincecum, after his velocity dipped in his season debut.
“It shouldn’t be a real difficult fix.” — Bumgarner, talking about his mechanical bug after his second start. He has given up 10 runs in five starts since this quote.
“It felt like someone stuck an ice pick in it. It’s one of those where it’s like, I don’t know if I want to keep taking steps. It’s kind of embarrassing, really, to not make it down the first base line. It’s kind of embarrassing when you’re talking about a bone bruise. What it felt like and what it is didn’t add up.” — McGehee, after he got good news regarding what looked to be a terrible knee injury.
“I really want to try to take in as much as I can. When I catch, I get caught up in — no pun intended — making sure I’m ready. I still want to make sure I’m ready, but it’s a special day. You need to appreciate it.” — Buster Posey, talking about his third ring ceremony.
"No, I'm ready to rock. Pitching is pitching.” — Heston, when asked if he was nervous two hours before the home opener.
“We took him to the vet. He said he’s healthy.” — Matt Duffy, on Skeeter the 35-pound cat.
“People were yelling, ‘Hey Duffy, nice cat!” — Duffy, after hitting a homer in the middle of Skeeter Mania.
“Yeah, man, I thought about making a couple laps around the field. But our outfielders might have been upset about it.” — Bumgarner, on mounting a horse on Opening Day.
12. Quotes of the Month, Part III:
“It’ll at least give me a chance to see if they all have teeth. I haven’t seen their teeth all week.” — Bochy, when the Giants took an eight-game losing streak into the ring ceremony.
"It's a mohawk/pompadour/Skrillex thing.” — Lincecum, on his new haircut.
“You know what, if I get a nice thing, I like to wear it. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever received.” — Belt, explaining why he often wears his World Series ring while others don’t.
“I was one for one. If you want to talk about it, I will.” — Bochy, on his luck stealing bases.
“My first reaction was, now I know what NFL kickers feel like when they’re getting iced at the end of a game. It felt like a while. Up and good. I guess I hit the field goal right away.” — Panik, when Don Mattingly argued for approximately 90 minutes right before Panik’s walk-off sac fly.
“I feel I’m kind of better in these situations. It kind of feels like back in 2011, where every start I wasn’t sure if I would get another one. Maybe this is pressure I need. Maybe this is what I need to get my head out of my butt, so to speak.” — Ryan Vogelsong, after a good start against the Dodgers.
"He needs to know we're with him.” — Bochy, on a slumping McGehee.
“These are the kinds of wins that get us going as a team. The tough, grind them out, come in to play against a really good team (wins). We needed it … We didn’t want to go into tomorrow trying to salvage one game. We’re in position now to win the series.” — Hudson, after a tight win at Coors Field on April 25.
“You could kind of tell they were poking fun at me. Everyone was like, ‘Congrats, but our ring is made out of all gold.’” — Aoki, after he was given his Royals AL champion ring.
“I’m not sure what it is, maybe it’s these old bones. They start getting lubricated up a bit.” — Hudson, when asked about getting better in the late innings of his starts.
13. Joe Chill: Some small-sample-size fun with the young second baseman, who has adjusted to the adjustments …
Panik in 2014: .305/.343/.368
Panik in April, 2015: .280/.325/.373
May has been one of his best months as a pro, too. There are no signs of him slowing down.
14. Shortstop Goes Deep: Crawford hit just .235 last month, but the rest of his numbers put him up there with just about any shortstop in the league. His .350 on-base percentage was third among N.L. shortstops who had at least 50 plate appearances, and his .471 slugging percentage (thanks to four homers) ranked him fourth. Add it up and Crawford had a .821 OPS last month, which was his fourth-highest in a full month since he got to the big leagues. Crawford led the Giants in homers and RBI last month. I’m sure his close friend, Posey, didn’t hear about that at all.
15. GIF of the Month: You owe me one, Schulman, because the runaway winner for GIF of the Month could have been a certain beat writer spitting out a candle! I don’t even know what’s going on here, but I feel like Bochy summed up a lot of what Giants fans were thinking last month. Responsible Javier Lopez was a good one, too (thanks as always to @carmenkiew for compiling these) and MLB did a nice job of summing up the glove-flippers.
The winner, though, is the man who is loose on the field as any star can be. The man who appeared to be wearing a do-rag under a tilted brim in his last start. Here’s Lincecum, without a care in the world.
16. The Month That Will Be: The Giants are currently 14th in the National League in runs, but that should change by the end of this month, and not just because Pence will be back soon. They play 13 of the next 16 on the road, but those games are in Denver, Houston, Cincinnati and Milwaukee. The individual hitting numbers should look better after those trips, but the pitching will get tested. The three home games during that stretch come next week against the Dodgers. Without looking, I’m guessing Clayton Kershaw will pitch one of those games because he always does. That first Dodgers game would seem to be a nice day for Pence to return, too ...