A Look At The Giants Roster: The Pitchers

I’ve taken a look at the position players, now it’s time to take a look at the pitchers.

Starting Pitchers: Tim Lincecum (probably), Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito

WARNING: CONTROVERSIAL AND POSSIBLY UNPOPULAR OPINIONS AHEAD

About a week ago, Buster Olney created a bit of a hubbub amongst Giants fandom when he ranked the Giants’ rotation only the ninth-best in baseball. Here’s the thing – I’m not sure I disagree with him.

Or at least with the points he made in the article. Madison Bumgarner faded down the stretch last year and looked fatigued at times. He had a 5.89 ERA in his last 7 starts with an uncharacteristic 10.1% BB% (his career mark is 5.6%). I am not worried about him going forward, but you can’t talk about his 2012 without mentioning that. He had a superb start in the World Series (7.0 IP, 0 R, 2 BB, 8 K) but he also had two poor starts in the postseason before that (10 ER in 8 total IP). Anyway, I’m not that worried about Bumgarner.

Nor do I have any worries about Ryan Vogelsong. 369.1 IP over the last two years, and he’s got a 3.05 ERA and a 114 ERA+. And in the fact that he’s pretty cheap and he’s pretty much the ideal 3rd or 4th starter.

And Barry Zito is Barry Zito. If Zito can pitch 184.1 innings with a 4.15 ERA again in 2013 like he did in 2012, then he’ll be an extremely competent 5th starter. However, his margin of error is extremely small. If he really has discovered the secret to being a successful “crafty lefty” – call it The Jamie Moyer Factor – than he’ll be valuable to the Giants. But for the time being at least I’ll be nervous every time Zito takes the mound.

So here’s the thing about Matt Cain: he’s awesome. Along with Buster Posey, he’s the face of the franchise. He’s the only pitcher in Giants history – San Francisco or New York – to pitch a perfect game. He’s one of the best postseason pitchers in franchise history. Actually, strike that – he’s one of the best pitchers in franchise history, period. So here’s my question: is Matt Cain an Ace?

First, a couple of qualifiers to my question. An Ace, with a capital A, doesn’t just mean a team’s best player. There aren’t 30 Aces in MLB at any given time. An Ace is true #1 pitcher, of which there are maybe 10-15 in the majors at any given time. It sounds weird, but an Ace is more of a feel thing than a stats thing.

That said, let’s look at the stats. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, Cain is 10th in ERA among qualifing pitchers, right between David Price and R.A. Dickey. That’s a good start. His FIP is 14th, between Jered Weaver (ok) and Doug Fister (hrm). His xFIP is, get this, tied for 50th. But there’s reason to discount those numbers somewhat. Cain has shown a consistent ability over the course of his career to suppress his HR/FB ratio, as well as his BABIP.

Let’s look at things a bit less tangible than his stats. He doesn’t have a single pitch that one would grade “plus-plus,” to use the scouting parlance. This would be a pitch like David Price’s fastball, for example, or Dickey’s knuckler. But he does have four pitches that all range from above-average to well above-average, in both movement and command. He’s shown an ability to raise his game when it matters most. I’d say yes, he’s an Ace, with a capital A. But I can see an argument that he falls just short.

The most important piece of the rotation going into 2013 is, without a doubt, Tim Lincecum. His struggles were well documented, and don’t need to be rehashed here. But his peripheral stats were good. His strikeouts were fine, his walks were up a bit, his homers were up but so was his HR/FB, which means he might have just been unlucky. Looking at his Pitch F/x data gives us a little more insight. He threw fewer changeups and more sliders and curveballs. His fastball velocity was down, and that might be the most disturbing trend. Here is a graph of his fastball velocity over time.

Tim Lincecum’s fastball velocity graph (via Fangraphs)

Is Lincecum’s success predicated on a 92-94 mph fastball, and will he struggle if his fastball stays instead in the 89-91 range? It’s possible. I think that, with good pitch sequencing and fastball command, he can still be effective as a 2nd or 3rd starter type. But, with his contract up at the end of the season, 2013 is a big make-it-or-break-it year for him.

There is the possibility floating around that Lincecum could become either a John Smoltz-type shutdown closer, or a 120 IP super reliever who’s available for 3 or 4 innings at a time twice or more a week. I doubt that happens this year, for a couple reasons. I doubt Lincecum, in a contract year, would want to so dramatically alter the way he’s used by the team. If he struggles through the first half of 2013, he might become more open to it, but I don’t think he’d like to open the year in that role. And two, I just don’t see the need right now. There isn’t a good candidate to replace him in the rotation, the bullpen is pretty solid as it is, and it was only one bad year that wasn’t even that bad if you look at his peripherals. If he struggles through 15 starts in 2013, the team will undoubtedly revisit this idea, but don’t look for it to start the year.

A last note about the rotation: the Giants really have no rotational depth to speak of. This wasn’t an issue in 2012, and the only pitchers other than those five to make a start were Eric Hacker and Yusmeiro Petit. Giants fans should hope for the same good luck when it comes to injuries in 2013, because there isn’t much help behind the starting five. Chris Heston was AA Pitcher of the Year, but scouts have questions about whether his stuff will get batters out at higher levels, and he could use some additional seasoning at AAA. Mike Kickham showed promise as well at AA in 2012, but he needs to harness his command before he can be declared ready for his debut. The remaining depth are all AAA lifers and failed former prospects like Petit, and Boof Bonser, and Brian Burres.

Relievers: Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, George Kontos, Javier Lopez, Jose Mijares, Sergio Romo (definitely on OD roster)

Those six will make the Opening Day roster, barring an injury. Casilla and Affeldt both received 3-year extensions in the offseason, and while I have plenty to say about that I’ll save my opinions for another post. The truth of the matter is that these top six will anchor what is likely to be a very strong bullpen in 2013. I expect Bochy will again run a closer-by-committee at the back end of the bullpen, with Romo, Casilla, Affeldt, and Lopez all likely to see save opportunities. I love this approach. Bochy plays the matchups with his bullpen perhaps better than any other manager in the big leagues, and the closer-by-committee was very effective last year.

The last spot in the bullpen will come down to a competition between several different players. Jean Machi, Dan Otero, Dan Runzler, Sandy Rosario, and Scott Proctor, as well as several spring training non-roster invitees will get a chance to compete for the last spot.

All in all, it should be a very solid unit, and I wouldn’t worry about them. They’ll be fine.

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