Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Scarce Six: A Look at the African-American Players in the Giants Organization

I just realized this fact after I saw Emmanuel Burriss get transferred to the 60-day Disabled List on May 22 to make room for Santiago Casilla: the Giants haven't had one African-American player take the field for them this year. Burriss has been hurt and on the disabled list all season, and Fred Lewis, the only other African-American player on the 25-man active roster this Spring, was traded away to Toronto shortly after the season began.

In my mind, this is incredible, and may be the first year in a long time that the Giants have not had an African-American player take the field in a Giants uniform. I mean, this is a franchise that has housed great African-American players like Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, Hank Thompson, Willie McCovey, Bobby Bonds, Jeffrey Leonard, Kevin Mitchell, Ellis Burks, Reggie Sanders, Kenny Lofton (for a half-season anyways), Ray Durham, and of course, Barry Bonds.

Now, I don't think you can blame this one on the Giants organization or use the racism card on Bill Neukom or Brian Sabean (though I wish we could because it would get Sabean fired). The lack of African-American ballplayers on the Giants roster is simply a reality of the game nowadays. It's not just the Giants that lack African-American players, a lot of teams are. Last year, in a tweet, Bill Simmons joked that the Red Sox "had more Jewish guys on their team than African-Americans." Hence, anybody claiming the Giants as a "racist" organization  may have a hard argument to make.

That being said, the organization isn't completely bare of talented African American players. Let's take a look at the African-American players in the Giants organization and how soon (or if) they will see playing time in a San Francisco Giants uniform.

Emmanuel Burriss, 2B/SS

Stats this season: None (Has been on Disabled List all year due to a foot injury).

Burriss has plenty of experience on this Giants team and may be the only African-American player in the Giants organization that could play for the Giants this year. Burriss is coming off a foot injury this Spring, which is disheartening mainly because the strongest aspect of his game is his speed (he stole 11 bases last year in 61 games). Burriss doesn't have much power (.046 and .030 ISO the past two seasons), but he had a very strong BB/K ratio in 2008 (0.96) and he has a strong propensity to make contact at the plate (career 87.6 percent contact rate in the Majors). Burriss isn't a bad defender, but his UZR suggests that he may not be as good as advertised (minus-17.7 UZR/150 at shortstop in 2008; minus-3.9 UZR/150 at second base last year).

The biggest roadblock to Burriss' path in the Majors this year (other than his injury) may be the crowded Giants infield. With Juan Uribe, Freddy Sanchez, Edgar Renteria, and Matt Downs all vying for playing position at second base and shortstop, there just may not be any room for Burriss at the Major League level this season. In all likelihood, when he comes back, Burris will be playing most (if not all) of the year in Fresno, which isn't necessarily a bad thing considering he's only played 21 total games above the Advanced Single-A level.

Darren Ford, OF
Stats this season: .247 average, .319 OBP, .673 OPS, 19 R, 14 SB in 38 games in Richmond (Double-A).

Darren Ford turned some heads after a strong year in San Jose in 2009 (.384 wOBA, 81 runs scored, 35 stolen bases) and a surprising Spring Training (11 hits, 11 runs scored in 22 at-bats). While Ford did not make the active, 25-man roster (tough to justify that one when the highest level he played before Spring Training was Advanced Single-A), it was safe to say that Ford earned his spot on the Giants' 40-man roster after Spring Training ended.

So far in 2010, the results have been mixed for Ford. While he has stolen 14 bases, Ford hasn't hit particularly well in the Eastern League for the Flying Squirrels. Granted, this isn't necessarily too big a deal (the Eastern League is known to be a pitcher's league), but the 23.3 percent strikeout percentage and 9.1 walk percentage (he also sports a 0.42 BB/K ratio; almost a ten point dip from 2009) certainly don't make you as a Giants fan feel particularly hopeful that he will get a callup anytime soon.

Ford's speed definitely is attractive, especially considering the Giants' only legitimate stolen base threat is Andres Torres at this point. However, unless he's able to really turn it around, it's safe to say that the soonest Ford will be up with the Giants will be in 2011.

Thomas Neal, OF
Stats this season: .263 average, .332 OBP, .706 OPS, 3 HR, 23 RBI, 15 R, 5 SB in 44 games in Richmond (Double-A).

The hype around Thomas Neal amplified after a breakout year in San Jose last season. In the California League last year, Neal hit 22 HR, scored 102 runs and posted an OPS 1.010 and a wOBA .444 in 129 games. The performance had such an impact on the Giants brass and media that it earned him a non-roster invite to Spring Training, and a spot in the Top-Five of every Giants Prospect Rankings publication, blog or Web site.

However, this year has been anything but kind to Neal. After a disappointing, short Spring Training stint (Neal has only two hits in 11 at-bats), Neal hasn't necessarily been showing the power he displayed in the California League in 2009. This year, he has hit only three home runs and his slugging percentage sits at .374 (his slugging hasn't been under .444 since his first stint in the Northwest League).

The biggest concern with Neal though has to be his plate patience, which has been a bit questionable this season. After posting walk percentages over 9.5 percent the last three years, Neal currently has a walk percentage of 7.1 percent. This has affected his BB/K ratio, which currently sits at 0.37 (last year in San Jose it was 0.66).

Neal eventually is going to see more balls drop for hits. That's just the reality of the game and playing in the Eastern League. However, he has to improve his plate patience if he wants to live up to that billing of being a Top-Five prospect in the Giants organization.

Wendell Fairley, OF
Stats this season: .283 average, .367 OBP, .677 OPS, 15 RBI, 2 SB in 33 games in San Jose (Advanced Single-A).

Fairley was a first-round pick for the Giants in the 2007 first-year player draft. However, despite his draft position, many draft experts felt he was picked in the first round for cost reasons rather than his talent (the Giants had four first round picks in 2007).

Like many experts have predicted, Fairley has disappointed in his tenure in the Giants organization. While he posted a solid wOBA (.363) and BB/K ratio in (0.70) in Arizona Rookie League in 2008, he tumbled greatly in his first season in the South Atlantic League with the Greenjackets in 2009. Fairley went down in wOBA (.307), average (.243), stolen bases (only two stolen bases in six attempts), and BB/K ratio (0.35). And he did this with an improvement in BABIP (it jumped from .308 in 2008 to .338 in 2009).

However, things have turned around a little bit for Fairley in 2010. He started the year off well, holding his own in Spring Training as a non-roster invitee (he had two hits in five at-bats).  He has transitioned that strong impression to a pretty solid year so far in San Jose. While he may not hit for power (his slugging is very underwhelming at .310), his ability to get on-base (.367 OBP) has some Giants fans and management people turning their heads a little bit.

Fairley could use some more refinement at the plate (his BB/K ratio is 0.33). That being said, considering how well he has played lately (he is hitting .324 in his last 10 games), it isn't out of the question to think that Fairley can continue to progress in the California League, and improve in his power and plate patience categories. If he is able to build upon this recent hot streak, it will definitely help him shed that "Tumbler" label he's been tagged with since 2008.

James Simmons, OF
Stats this season: .227 average, .299 OBP, .670 OPS, 7 SB, 9 RBI in 33 games in San Jose (Advanced Single-A).

I really don't know much about Simmons, and I don't think many Giants fans do either. Simmons was a 24th round draft pick in the 2005 MLB amateur draft and came out of Vernon Junior College in Texas. He hasn't been listed in any of the Giants Top Prospects lists, and he has only played in the Arizona Rookie League and the South Atlantic League in addition to the California League (where he currently plays).

What can I tell you about Simmons? He has some athleticism, and has the ability to steal a base. In 2008, he stole 25 bases for Augusta. Last year, he stole 15 bases while doing another tour of duty for the Greenjackets, but he only got caught once. This year, he has been similarly effective, with seven stolen bases on eight tries.

Despite that solid baserunning ability however, Simmons hasn't showed much with the bat. This year he is hitting .227 in San Jose, and the same has been true throughout his four years in the minors. He really jumped onto the scene in 2006, posting a .360 wOBA in Rookie League, but for the next two years he didn't have a wOBA over .292 at any level (he bounced around from Augusta to San Jose). In 2009, he picked it up and posted a wOBA of .343, but considering that it was his third go-around in Augusta, those numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt.

So, what kind of hopes can Giants fans have for a guy like Simmons? Not much, really. But then again, he was a 24th round draft pick, so it makes sense why you can't expect too much from the guy.

Evan Crawford, OF
Stats this season: .273 average, .355 OBP, .718 OPS, 22 R, 9 SB in 42 games in San Jose (Single-A).

Crawford was the Giants' ninth round pick in the 2009 first year player draft. For some reason, I have a lot of hope for this kid (he seems to have a good head on his shoulders). He played three seasons at Indiana University, and had a solid campaign in 2009, posting an .847 OPS and 27 stolen bases. Immediately after he was drafted, Crawford head to Arizona Rookie League, where he hit .273, scored 14 runs and stole nine bases in 16 games. When he was promoted Salem Keizer of the Northwest League, Crawford played even better, posting a .316 average and a wOBA of .381.

Now, it's tough to tell how good Crawford's Volcanoes campaign really was. While his wOBA was high, as was his OBP (.375), there were some concerning numbers. For starters, his BABIP was .412, which is extremely high and probably means he was extremely luck when it came to finding hits (which isn't sustainable, especially as you advance through the minor league system). Second, his BB/K ratio wasn't exactly impressive at 0.30. A high strikeout percentage (26.3 percent) most likely happened to be the culprit of his mediocre BB/K ratio, though he seems to be a player that strikes out a lot in general (he had a 22.7 percent strikeout rate in Arizona Rookie League).

This year, he began the year in Augusta and for the most part, it has been solid.  He hasn't showed much power (.364 slugging), but that's been true since his college days (he hit only four home runs total at Indiana). Additionally, while he still shows a lot of speed (nine stolen bases) and he certainly can get on-base (.355 OBP), the strikeouts (37 in 165 at-bats, which is a 22.7 percent strikeout rate) still are a bit of a concern. To look at it on the bright side, at least Crawford is now getting better at drawing walks. This year, he has drawn 18 walks (9.8 percent walk percentage) and has a BB/K ratio of 0.49 (which is 19 points higher than his BB/K ratio in Salem-Keizer).

Crawford may be a year or two away from even sniffing the Giants roster. However, this kid certainly has under-the-radar talent, and considering his improvement in plate discipline this year with Greenjackets, I wouldn't be surprised if he continues to progress and surprise as a ballplayer as he moves up through the Giants farm system.


  1. The absence of African-Americans on the Giants occurred to me when Fred Lewis was traded and Burriss on the DL. I have been a Giants' fan since the early '50s, and I believe this season is the first since mid-July 1949 -- when Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin integrated the team -- that the Giants have had no Black American players on the team. It has nothing to do with racism, as there are numerous Black Latinos on the roster.

  2. I certainly agree with you on your points. I am not pointing out racism or anything close to that when it comes to the SF Giants' lack of african-american players. However, I wrote this post to give Giants fans an idea who the players are in the system. I think people definitely know about Burriss, but after Neal, I'm sure more Giants fans don't have a good idea who the other players are. I think they ought to be recognized and analyzed, especially considering how few African-Americans there are not just in the Giants system, but in baseball in general.

  3. Racism or not, would it be an issue if there were no White players on the Giants starting team, much less on the entire roster? It would not go unnoticed nor unaddressed nor should it. The rationale would be, as it should be with African American players, based on the history, tradition and contributions of White players to the Giants organization and to the game, it is unacceptable to have NONE on our team. The phenomenon is not peculiar to the Giants, true, but we like to think of ourselves as leaders and pace-setters in California, the Bay Area in particular. This is not the example we should set.