Friday, June 1, 2012

San Francisco Giants: How Far Can the Rotation Take Them?

The San Francisco Giants have managed to stay afloat so far, and with the tight battle in the NL East, could eek out a playoff spot despite the Dodgers command on their division. The Giants have their question marks like any other team, but how much of that really comes into play in the starting rotation?

Ryan Vogelsong returned to the show last season after 5 years between Japan and the Minor Leagues. When Vogelsong left the states he had put together several years of generally ineffective pitching and after bouncing through 3 organizations before returning to the Giants in 2010 and joining their AAA team. He had clearly learned more in those few years than could be put into words. He re-emerged last season as a 33 year old ace caliber pitcher. He has so far this year managed to continue his dominance. He has so far pitched no less than 6 innings in any given outing, and has only given up 3 or more runs on 3 occasions this season. He does walk an abnormally large number of batters, 26 so far over his 61 innings but while he’s walking about 10% of batters faced, he is striking out around 18% as well, and has limited opposing hitters ability to put good wood on the ball, so far only 16% of balls in play have been line drives. Vogelsong has been effective so far, and more importantly very consistent on top of it. It looks like Vogelsong’s hot year last year was no fluke. Though I’d like to see him limit walks a bit more, there’s no arguing with his results, I don’t know that he’ll keep up this pace but he certainly has the ability to really help keep the Giants in the playoff race.

Madison Bumgarner didn’t start the year with his best performance, but has since that disappointing 4 inning outing, he has gone 6+ in each start having compiled 6 quality starts in 10 opportunities so far this season. So far in 66 innings he has sent 47 batters back to the dugout without contact, and has given up only 14 free passes. While the strikeout rate isn’t overwhelming, giving up less than 2 walks per 9 is very encouraging. Bumgarner seems to be relying on ground balls a bit more this season than he has over the past 2 seasons, racking them up a bit more than half of the time while keeping opposing batters to an extremely anemic 12% line drives. I wouldn’t look for the line drive rate to continue, but even if it comes up a bit it shouldn’t absolutely destroy the young pitcher. He has given up 7 home runs so far, which isn’t overwhelming, and is more in line with reality than the .5 per 9 he gave up last season. Bumgarner looks pretty good all things considered, but I’d be very surprised if he was able to force opposing hitters into making bad contact like this all year, in all likelihood he’ll stay effective, but will probably start giving up a few more hits as batters start adjusting and making better contact.

Matt Cain is putting up some excellent numbers this season, and is so far building upon his dominance from last year. He’s walking less than 2 batters per 9, has struck out 66 batters already, and has thrown 71 innings over his first 10 starts. He made quite the statement going back to back with 9 inning shutout performances (though the 2nd was not a complete game). Cain has been a beast so far, compiling 8 quality starts in 10 attempts and generally improving in almost every way from last season. The biggest concern one could have with Cain is that he’s regressed in his groundball/flyball splits. He’s giving up an overwhelming amount of fly balls, though he has shown that he can be incredibly effective when pitching like that. The NL west is known for allowing flyball pitchers to appear incredibly effective while being much less well suited to playing in a more hitter friendly stadium/division. Cain is making every effort to make good on his extension though, and looks like he’s going to be well worth what they’re paying him out in San Fran this year, even if he’d look less impressive on the east coast.

Tim Lincecum is looking like he’s taken an overall nosedive in effectiveness. Lincecum has been able to eat innings, but with mixed results and nothing approaching his dominance over the past 4 seasons. His walk rate is through the roof at 34 free passes in 60 & ⅓ innings. Lincecum’s BABIP is up to an ugly .333 likely in large part to his 22% line drive rate and his decreased effectiveness in getting ground balls. He’s never been a ground ball pitcher per se but he is typically more effective in keeping the ball on the ground than he has been this year, and for a pitcher who has averages 26+% strikeouts he can certainly give up a few fly balls without hurting his ERA. This season, everything seems to be betraying him however. He’s walking roughly ⅛ of the batters he faces and while he’s still striking out more than 1 per inning,  he’s getting fewer strikeouts than in the past. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him start to round into form as the year progresses but there’s not really any reason for hiccup in effectiveness. Perhaps he’s battling minor injury, perhaps he’s seeing a small mechanical issue, maybe he’s tipping pitches, but what is for sure is that he’s not quite right, and his walk rate has shown that more than anything else.

Barry Zito has continued to be the worst investment that the Giants have made in the last several years finally started providing a return on the Giants investment. Zito has had his rough starts this year, but so far he’s only really left the team hanging twice. He came out in his first start and put together a complete game shutout and followed that up with 3 more solid performances. Zito is still walking a lot of batters, so far 26 in his 58 innings pitched, and he’s most certainly a contact pitcher having only struck out 34 so far. He’s doing a good job of keeping hitters off balance and avoiding line drives (15%) but otherwise looks relatively pedestrian. I don’t know exactly what the Giants can expect out of Zito for the season, but at the moment he’s contributing, and that’s all anyone can really expect from him after 5 years of consistent disappointment. Zito might not actually be any better than he’s been over the past few years, but the extended stint on the DL last year might have been exactly what he needed to finally get himself right.

Overall it looks like the rotation is a strength in San Fran again this season, despite Lincecum’s troubles, the rest of the rotation really has stepped up to make for a very strong rotation. The Giants have the 4th best team ERA in the NL so far, and if Lincecum can right the ship, their rotation will be as formidable as any in the MLB. Their offense has been something of an interesting study, they have the 5th best batting average, but the 8th OBP and 10th most runs. Despite being quite proficient in making contact as a team, they’re not walking, and not hitting for power. I see them as a legitimate contender to snag a wildcard spot given the close race in the NL East preventing any given team from running away with that division. Their lineup could do with an upgrade, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them make a move or two near the deadline to really help make a strong push, especially if they can see weakness out of the Dodgers.

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