San Francisco Giants Playoff Push: Starting Rotation Suddenly an Issue
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This isn't 2010.
Pitching, the bread-and-butter and pretty much everything else for the Giants the past three years, have been in shambles for a while now. Nobody has noticed, and if you have, there hasn't been much urgency from the fans and the manager. Winning does that. Six games up in the division against the hated rival Dodgers does that.
Surprisingly, a somewhat deep and potent offense does that as well. With Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro stabilizing the top of the lineup and Buster Posey playing like an MVP, there's been little issue with the offense. This, of course, glosses over the fact Hunter Pence is merely batting at an average rate since joining the Giants and Pablo Sandoval is having severe hitting issues a la 2010.
None of the above facts matter. Not one bit. Not even in the slightest if the starting rotation keeps performing the way they have been for the past month and a half. The vaunted starting rotation of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong have struggled and have been pitching poorly (for their standards) for a while now.
Is it BABIP (batting average on balls in play) suggesting that they've been unlucky? However, it's hard to argue that all four have been unlucky. Is it fatigue then? Bumgarner is only 23 and hasn't had real rest since before 2010 and Lincecum, Cain, and Vogelsong are always near the top pitch counts in the league.
Taking a look at each starter for the season shows the answer may lie both in fatigue and unluckiness.
Who is most likely to bounce back from the current struggles?
Matt Cain splits:
1st Half: 2.62 ERA, .254 BABIP, 8.8 Strikeout/9
2nd Half: 3.53 ERA, .292 BABIP, 6.9 Strikeout/9
Ryan Vogelsong splits:
1st Half: 2.36 ERA, .255 BABIP, 6.3 Strikeout/9
2nd Half: 5.37 ERA, .345 BABIP, 9.2 Strikeout/9
Tim Lincecum splits:
1st Half: 6.42 ERA, .338 BABIP, 9.7 Strikeout/9
2nd Half: 3.22 ERA, .301 BABIP, 8.7 Strikeout/9
Madison Bumgarner splits:
1st Half: 3.27 ERA, .277 BABIP, 7.7 Strikeout/9
2nd Half: 2.97 ERA, .255 BABIP, 9.2 Strikeout/9
The numbers certainly don't tell the whole story, but these help illuminate some of the issues. Matt Cain just hasn't been the same since the perfect game, but he still remains the staff ace despite his strikeout rate declining, thus more balls in play.
He has pitched better as of late and is the No. 1 and most consistent.
Surprisingly, Lincecum has kept his strikeout rate high and has seen a huge ERA decrease, implying that a little unluckiness with balls in play was an issue. However, he still has fastball command issues leading to walks, and it is tough right now to trust him as the same guy who led the 2010 Giants to the World Series.
Vogelsong's case is especially peculiar, as his strikeout rate has jumped up along with the amount of balls put in play and ERA.
Simply put, he isn't locating his pitches and he is refusing to pitch anything other than his fastball in all counts. It has remained in the low-90s and even touching 94 at times but he doesn't seem to know where it is going. Fatigue may be the source of his command struggles.
Bumgarner's numbers are the least concerning, but this doesn't take into account his outing in Colorado yesterday. He has allowed 4, 4, 4, and 5 runs in his past four starts and while it may be just a small bump in the road, let's keep in mind he hasn't pitched non-stressful innings since 2009.
If the postseason started today, Barry Zito probably won't be on the roster or at least the rotation, but he may sneak his way in if any of these four aces keep struggling. As well as the offense has been playing, the Giants have no shot of getting out of the divisional round without superb starting pitching.
A snowball effect of the poor pitching from Lincecum and Zito throughout the season has exposed the bullpen's struggles this year as well. As much as Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo have stabilized the back of the bullpen, the middle relief still remains an issue.
An assortment of George Kontos, Jose Mijares, Dan Otero, Guillermo Mota and Brad Penny are being thrown out there in the fifth and sixth inning. That's not a good thing. How do you eliminate these problems? Get those four starters pitching into the seventh.
Seemed pretty simple two years ago, and even last year, but this season is a little different. A little too many 20+ pitch innings from Lincecum and Vogelsong (hence the high strikeout rate) will do that to a team.
As far as we know, there is nothing physically wrong with the pitchers. Surprising, considering what other teams have to deal with. Ask the Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds.
Granted, these are all small sample stats and could all be chalked up to a couple bloopers in key situations but we're getting into the part of the year where small sample size is the key to the championship.
Maybe a little overreaction and hyperbole? Maybe, but with a big six-game lead, the Giants can afford to throw out a spot start here and there.
Their top pitching prospects Clayton Blackburn and Kyle Crick are still in lower minor league ball but an extra couple days of rest could work wonders for their top pitchers. Tim Lincecum, for example, has pitched better on more rest, according to Tim Kawakami of MercuryNews.com.
Say the Giants are up five games with 10 games left to go. Pitching Eric Hacker in a spot start to get someone rest may be in their best long-term interest.
Once the postseason starts, throw everything out the window. Even Edgar Renteria can become a hero. With the Giants seemingly on their way into the postseason, they must now focus on what's most important; not Pablo's chronic weight issues, not middle relief, not who is playing left field, but what exactly is ailing the cornerstones of the franchise, the starting pitching.
Because for the Giants to win, one reliable starter in Matt Cain isn't enough. The 2012 championship hopes still and always will ride on the shoulders of Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong.
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