Giants Rotation Hoping for Giant Rebound

Based strictly on run prevention, the Giants starting rotation had consistently been one of the best staffs in baseball. Until 2013. Rather than once again rank in the top 10 in ERA, the collective group of starters posted a mark that ranked just 24th. Their disappointing performance could be illustrated by this sexy graph:

Giants ERA

As the National League average ERA has declined, the Giants ERA has skyrocketed. Of course, that’s what happens when nearly all your starters are terrible, performing well below their established norms. With the exception of Madison Bumgarner and surprise performances by Chad Gaudin and Yusmeiro Petit in limited work, the magic that fueled the consistent peripheral outperformance in previous years vanished.

Though unlike many other teams, the opening day starting rotation appears to already be set. Our depth charts only go seven deep, and given the names listed, it suggests to us that there will be little in the way of drama during spring training.

Matt Cain will once again head the rotation, likely garnering the opening day nod. But he was one of the reasons the rotation underperformed so badly. My detailed recap of Cain’s down, then up, season was published two weeks ago, but the bottom line is that this was the exact same Cain he has always been. The only difference is that the luck dragons weren’t too fond of him in the first half, but took a liking to him in the second half. While the condition of his elbow cannot be completely ignored, his skill set remained virtually unchanged. Assuming his home run prevention skills return, then he’ll be back to normal. Though normal meaning an ERA close to his career average, rather than a sub-3.00 mark that had required a hefty amount of good fortune.

Slotting in behind Cain is the man who has really become the team’s ace, Madison Bumgarner. His fastball usage has declined in every single season, as he has instead chosen to up the usage of his three other pitches. With another bump in his changeup and curve ball usage, his SwStk% surged and pushed his strikeout percentage up to a career high. But, a nearly 40% rate of sliders cannot be good for his long-term health and it’s not often you see a pitcher throw his fastball less than 40% of the time. So although the results have been good, it’s hard to imagine this pitch selection being sustainable. His ERA is also due to rise as his SIERA was identical to 2012 and actually worse than 2011, but great defensive support led to a tiny .251 BABIP, which won’t last.

Behind Bumgarner is another of the Giants recent disappointments, and Tim Lincecum has earned that tag for two straight seasons now. After debuting in the Show with a 94+ mph fastball, Lincecum’s velocity has steadily dropped and sat at just over 90 mph this past year. While his SwStk% has remained intact, his strikeout rate has been in free fall. But still, although SIERA agrees that his skills have taken a hit, it also suggests that he hasn’t truly pitched as bad as his results would seem to indicate. Beginning in 2012 and continuing on through 2013, he has suddenly developed a bit of gopheritis and lost the ability to strand runners. I don’t know if the decrease in velocity is a large factor here or it’s just a coincidence that the poorer fortune coincided with the starkest velocity decline. But while it’s clear that he’s nowhere near what he was when he was a rookie and vintage Lincecum is not reappearing, I’m still betting on a sub-4.00 ERA in 2014.

The Giants did make an offseason move to bolster their staff, and that was to sign veteran Tim Hudson. The sinkerballer is recovering from surgery to repair a broken ankle to return for his 16th MLB season. Amazingly, the 38-year-old’s skills have been extremely stable. With the exception of his 4.14 mark in 2012, his SIERA has narrowly ranged between 3.53 and 3.85 since 2007. He’s also only lost 1.8 mph off his fastball since debuting in 2002, which is less than what Lincecum lost from just 2011 to 2012. He should be a nice addition and should enjoy better LOB% luck.

Lastly, Ryan Vogelsong rounds out the rotation and he was just another bust that contributed to the team’s starting pitching woes. Vogelsong missed over 10 weeks with a fractured right hand, but he was terrible when he actually took the mound. His fastball velocity fell nearly 2.0 mph and his already low SwStk% dropped even further to a dangerous level. It’s no surprise that hitters were crushing the ball all over the field, as evidenced by a 27% line drive rate and 13.4% HR/FB ratio. Vogelsong had been enjoying a career resurgence due to his ability to get called strikes. That skill hasn’t gone away, but when hitters swung, they didn’t miss or foul it off. They hit it, and hit it hard. Given his track record, it’s hard to bet on a rebound.

Mike Kickham appears as the sixth man and the southpaw was named as the organization’s sixth best prospect, with the thought that his ceiling is that of a #4 starter. He has struggled with his control in the minors, while posting unremarkable strikeout rates. He’s not someone to get excited about.

At the bottom of the depth chart is Yusmeiro Petit, who had pitched all of 4.2 innings in the Majors since 2009 before this past season. Always an extreme fly ball, strike-throwing machine, Petit came armed this time with a lethal curve ball and exceptional changeup. Given poor velocity on his fastball, Petit needed his secondary pitches to be effective for another shot in the Majors. Unfortunately, he’s never done anything like that before and his high fly ball rate means that he’s always walking the tight rope when runners are on base. There is a large range of possibilities that his performance could fall into, but who knows if he’ll even be asked to join the rotation at some point to begin with.

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Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. He also sells beautiful photos through his online gallery, Pod’s Pics. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Lincecum has a lot of trouble pitching from the stretch which accounts for his LOB percentage woes more than “luck.” While overall, era estimators like SIERA are more predictive than ERA, you still need to look at splits/ team defense/ well hit percentage and the like when evaluating chronic underperformers.