I ended the spring with an article about how exciting it was to be a Bay Area sports fan. The championship contenders, the high expectations, the marveling success rate. The spotlight was shining on Silicon Valley as we prepared ourselves for the dog-days of summer. We fans might have been ready, but that wasn’t enough to push our teams through what wound up being a dreadful few months. No world championships, heartbreaking trades, and losses stacked on losses seemed to define Bay Area sports for the summer. In case you happened to be on vacation, here is what went down the past few months with each sports team in the Bay Area.
Golden State Warriors
73 wins became what the 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors were as a team. After breaking the previous record of 72 wins by the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls, the Warriors seemed to have accomplished everything that they could have imagined to in the regular season of the NBA. The only problem was that a postseason would follow. Sure, the defending NBA champs had the best team in the league. Sure, they had the most points scored, the best point-differential, best shooting percentage, and finished top-ten in basically every other statistic category. But just how much of a grind was it to win 73 games in the regular season and then have to turn around and win at least 16 more in the playoffs?
At first it didn’t seem like much of a problem for the Warriors. Golden State made quick work of the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers in the first two rounds, winning the best-of-seven series in five games. However things got murky in the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Led by perennial All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder were able to take three of the first four games against the Warriors, pushing their backs against the wall. Staring elimination right in the face for the first time, this Warriors team had to prove their regular season mark meant something. They won game five. They won game six. Game seven was back in Oakland, giving the Warriors home court advantage where they only lost once during the regular season. 36 points from Stephen Curry, 21 more from Klay Thompson, and lockdown defense proved to be the difference in the decisive game seven. Golden State capped off the epic comeback with a 96-88 win to advance to the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year.
As was the case one year earlier, the Warriors would face the Lebron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. After winning the series in six games the first time, Warriors fans felt confident and rightfully so. After all, this was the greatest team in NBA history, according to the regular season numbers. Golden State won the first two games handily before losing game three and rebounding nicely in a game four win. This time the Warriors held the 3-1 series lead. They couldn’t possibly blow this lead, could they? Suddenly, the wheels fell off. The Warriors couldn’t defend the paint, their three-point shooting went cold, and the Cavaliers won the final three games of the series to stun the reigning NBA champs in seven games. It was over. The 73-win regular season didn’t seem to mean so much anymore. The Cavaliers are NBA champions.
Any solace to Warriors fans still trying to recover from the devastating Finals loss? They were able to make the biggest splash in free agency by signing former NBA-MVP Kevin Durant to a two-year contract. Yes, the same Kevin Durant who nearly beat the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Could this year’s Warriors squad be even better?
San Jose Sharks
There was much uncertainty circling around the San Jose Sharks when they entered the NHL postseason. They weren’t the best team in their division (the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings both finished with better records) and they were one of the most inconsistent teams in the league. The Sharks struggled to win at home and had the worst home record of any team to qualify for the playoffs. Their new goalie, Martin Jones, had never started a Stanley Cup playoff game. The Sharks as a franchise had never even been to the Stanley Cup Finals in their 25 years of existence. 2016 couldn’t possibly be the year.
The Sharks opened up the playoffs by beating the hated Los Angeles Kings in five games. This brought on the Nashville Predators, and in the seventh and final game of the series, the Sharks battered the Predators 5-0 to advance to the Western Conference Finals. Their opposition: the St. Louis Blues, who had not reached the Stanley Cup Finals since 2001. Relatively uncharted territory for both teams. But the biggest names on the Sharks would step up when the team needed them the most. Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture sparked the offense while Martin Jones was stellar in the net. In the sixth game of the series, the Sharks would prevail 5-2 over the Blues and take the series 4-2 in front of a packed house at the Shark Tank, or the SAP Center for the uninitiated. For the first time in franchise history, the chance for a Stanley Cup became a reality as the Sharks faced off against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
From the drop of the first puck it was clear to see who was the better team. The Penguins moved faster, passed better, and attacked stronger than San Jose. Each and every game of the series appeared to be dominated by the Penguins as the Sharks had to defend numerous offensive opportunities. Despite winning a pair of games in the series, San Jose was outmatched and lost the series 4-2 with the series-clincher coming in San Jose. The summer was spent trying to get more speed and prowess on both sides of the puck and the Sharks like where their team stands going into the upcoming season. San Jose believes another deep playoff run is brewing, one that culminates in that elusive Stanley Cup. Can they win one before aging stars Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton retire?
San Francisco Giants
It is 2016 and that should be a good thing for the San Francisco Giants. The Giants won Major League Baseball’s World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Contrast that with the odd-numbered years in between and the Giants missed the playoffs entirely in 2011, 2013, and 2015. So there was plenty of hype surrounding the 2016-version of San Francisco baseball and they lived up to the hype in the early season. The Chicago Cubs were the talk of baseball after starting the season off red-hot in an attempt to end their World Series drought, but it was the Giants who had the best record in baseball at the All-Star break. Sitting at 57-33, things seemed to be quite peachy in The City. They enjoyed a 6.5-game lead over the hated Los Angeles Dodgers and their starting pitching was among the best in baseball.
Then the second half began…
The Giants currently sit at 79-69, which is good enough for a playoff spot in the National League, but the collapse is nearly epic. Owners of the best first-half record in baseball, the Giants have the worst second-half record in all of baseball at 22-36. Take a look at some numbers from CBS Sports and it is easy to identify the main culprits for the downward spiral. The offense has been the biggest contributor as San Francisco has hit a measly .248 in the second half. That’s not a drastic drop from their .263 team average in the first half, but the timeliness of the hits has been an issue as well. While it is nearly impossible to track an effective statistic for clutch hitting, FanGraphs was able to look at each team’s offense in high-leverage situations (a mixture of hitting with runners in scoring position and late in the game). During that magical first half of the season the Giants were third best in baseball hitting in those clutch moments but no team has been worse in those situations in the second half.
Now to point out a few of the offensive stars who have gone flat. One is catcher Buster Posey, the former MVP of the league is one of the big boppers in the Giants lineup that they rely on, especially late in the game. His power numbers may not be his biggest strength, but he is a 20-plus home run guy who flashes a lot of power for his position. Where has that power been in the second half? Until their recent home stand against the St. Louis Cardinals, Posey had not hit a homerun in the entire second half, the longest drought of his career. First baseman Brandon Belt is another slugger on the roster who has gone through an extended slumping period since the middle of summer. Belt is hitting .221 and his slugging percentage is .365, low numbers for corner infielders. Giants closer Santiago Casilla lost his job after blowing eight saves this season, the most of any closer in the National League. Oh, and the Dodgers? They now have a 5-game lead on San Francisco. That’s an 11.5-game swing in a matter of months.
But, all hope is not lost in The City. The Giants still own a two-game lead over the Cardinals for the final wild card spot. In 2014, the Giants were owners of that final wild card spot and wound up winning the World Series. But if they don’t turn it around, it will be a collapse for the ages.
Let me be clear in pointing out up front that Oakland Athletics have not had things going in the right direction for quite some time. After their own epic collapse late in 2014 that nearly cost them a playoff spot the A’s have been one of the worst teams in all of Major League Baseball. It usually is the same old song and dance in Oakland in terms of the roster: the inability to sign high-priced free agents and the desire to trade away existing talent. The biggest entity suffering from all of this is the fans, always promised that tomorrow will be better than today, but tomorrow never comes. 2016 was supposed to be a year of sneaky contention with a young roster full of potential as they tried to get into the playoff race.
Safe to say that has not been the case,and the summer months only exemplified that. Almost every aspect of their play on the field has been bad during the year, the biggest talking point has been injuries. Tallying up every single time the Athletics used the disabled list this year brings us to a total of 27 times, the most in the history of the organization. Consider this: baseball rosters contain 25 players. No, not every player on the A’s has been hurt this year, but you could field an entire roster of players with the amount of times there have been injuries. Ace pitcher Sonny Gray has been on the DL twice, as was Rich Hill before he was traded (more on that in a minute), Sean Doolittle, Danny Valencia, Jed Lowrie, Mark Cahna, Jesse Hahn, (insert player here), and so on. It is nearly impossible to be competitive with so much roster turnover.
Speaking of roster turnover, trades are always the norm in Oakland. It began in 2016 with trading speedy center fielder Billy Burns to the Kansas City Royals for outfielder Brett Eibner. Burns enjoyed a breakout year in his rookie campaign in 2015 but struggled to adapt this year. Just two days later at the August 1st non-waiver trade deadline, the fire sale began. Oakland traded starting pitcher Rich Hill and right fielder Josh Reddick to the Dodgers for three minor league pitchers. This trade hit the hardest amongst the Oakland faithful as Reddick was clearly the most popular player on the roster and Hill was the best pitcher in 2016. The return for both players seemed to be a bit disheartening as well, as the Dodgers did not have to give up a top-notch prospect in the trade. After the non-waiver trade deadline, more deals would follow as reliever Marc Rzepcynski was dealt to the Washington Nationals and longtime outfielder Coco Crisp was traded to the Cleveland Indians.
So are there any positives in Oakland? Well, Khris Davis was a trade acquisition in the offseason from the Milwaukee Brewers and in his first season with the A’s he has already hit 40 home runs, the most by any player in Oakland since 2000. Ryon Healy has emerged as a power hitting third baseman with a .311 batting average and 10 home runs in the past month and a half. Shortstop Marcus Semien has enjoyed a breakout year with a career-best 26 home runs. Kendall Graveman and Sean Manaea have developed as solid starting pitchers. So the pieces are there…but for how long?
After a sluggish summer, here’s to a (hopefully) more exciting fall and winter in the Bay!