For the San Francisco Giants, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Some of the names of the Giants hitters have changed this year, but as a unit, Giants bats are still well below the major league average in virtually every meaningful hitting category. They still don't hit for power and they still don't walk. But nobody's arguing about whether the Giants offense has undergone a massive change.
There has been, however, a fair amount of debate over who the Giants' new ace starter is.
The incumbent No. 1 starter, Tim Lincecum, has struggled epically to find his missing velocity, confidence and control this year. The results have ranged from awful to halfway decent. Whenever Lincecum has flashed some semblance of his old form, writers and fans jump on board, claiming the Giants' former ace is "back."
Lincecum is not back. And he'll never be the pitcher he was.
Matt Cain has received some well-deserved praise as the Giants' new ace. Cain did toss the first perfect game in Giants history a few weeks ago, and he's had excellent numbers this year. But lately, Cain has faltered. In his last month (spanning six starts), Cain's walk rate has increased, his strikeout rate has dipped, and he's given up eight home runs (half his season total).
Don't get me wrong—Cain's numbers have been worse lately, but it's not the end of the world. It just means that his season is normalizing. After his poor stretch, Cain has essentially regressed to his recent career averages. Based on his past, we can expect him to perform somewhere at a level between his excellent stretch to start the season and his last six starts. In short, Cain has gone from being the great pitcher he was for two months back into the very good pitcher he's been for his whole career.
He's not the Giants' ace, either.
Recently, there's been a lot of talk about Ryan Vogelsong being the Giants' new ace, which is actually a little ridiculous. Vogelsong deserves credit for his amazing streak of quality starts and his impressive ability to get hitters out with average stuff.
But the fact is that Vogelsong is a pretty darn good pitcher who has benefited from some similarly darn good luck—namely a .251 batting average on balls in play and an ERA that's more than a run lower than his FIP. From a WAR standpoint, Vogelsong's been only slightly more valuable than Lincecum this year.
Vogelsong's a good pitcher and a great story, but he's absolutely not the Giants' ace.
That leaves Madison Bumgarner, who, just as he was last year, is the real ace of the Giants' staff.
Bumgarner's dominance over the last year and a half has been as quiet and understated as the 23-year-old himself. In 2011, when Lincecum was still "sort of, almost" Lincecum, Bumgarner was the Giants' best pitcher. He accumulated a team-leading 5.5 WAR and was best among Giants starters with a 5.5 percent walk rate, a better than 4-to-1 K-to-BB ratio and 2.67 FIP.
This year, it's been no different. Bumgarner again leads all Giants starters in a number of categories, including walk-to-strikeout ratio, overall walk rate, strikeouts and groundball percentage. He is currently tied with Cain for the team lead in WAR and FIP. But when you take into consideration Bumgarner's consistency, and the fact that Cain has been trending downward for over a month, the debate about the identity of the Giants' ace becomes pretty one-sided.
Throw in the fact that Bumgarner is five years younger than Cain and will make less than one quarter of Cain's salary over the next five years, and it's even clearer that Bumgarner is the Giants' true ace.
Just like he was last year.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.