In 2010, the San Francisco Giants made the postseason by refusing to allow runs during September. The Giants only allowed 50 runs over 26 September games to go 18-8 down the stretch—stealing the National League West from the San Diego Padres in the process.
This September, the Giants 3.63 team ERA was good, but not nearly as great as it was two seasons ago.
The offense actually carried the Giants down the stretch this season. As a team, the Giants hit a robust .297/.350/.448 with 142 runs scored—fifth best in the game—during September.
If the Giants are going to win their second World Series title in three years, the offense and the bullpen may have to do the heavy lifting this time around. The Giants starting rotation is simply not as dominant as it was two years ago.
That doesn't mean that they can't get hot during October, but they are not trending in the right direction entering play on Monday night.
While that difference in ERA is subtle, the September trends of this year's rotation are more startling. Madison Bumgarner has been the co-ace of the staff with Matt Cain this season, but he's looked gassed down the stretch—putting up a 5.47 ERA in five September starts.
Ryan Vogelsong was in the Cy Young discussion during the first half of the season, but he recently went through a lengthy rough patch that has put his postseason role in question. He's put up a 5.11 ERA during the second half. On the bright side, Vogelsong has only allowed two runs over his last two starts, albeit against the light-hitting San Diego Padres.
Vogelsong has replaced Jonathan Sanchez on the Giants staff, and he's arguably a better pitcher than Sanchez was two years ago, although Sanchez (3.08 ERA in 2010) had a lower ERA than Vogelsong (3.46) has this season.
Cain and Bumgarner are just as good, if not better, this season than they were two years ago, though Bumgarner has faltered down the stretch.
However, Tim Lincecum is just not the same guy he was two years ago. In 2010, Lincecum put up a 3.43 ERA, 3.15 FIP and a 3.04 strikeout-to-walk (K/BB) ratio. In 2012, he's put up a 5.18 ERA, 4.19 FIP and a 2.11 K/BB ratio.
After a miserable first half in which he went 3-10 with a 6.42 ERA, Lincecum appeared to turn it around during the second half before his final two outings of the season. While his overall numbers are better during the second half (7-5, 3.83 ERA), he's thrown 10 innings over his last two starts while allowing nine hits, six walks, four home runs and 12 runs, good for a 9.90 ERA.
Cain has been the best pitcher on the staff all season, and he's hot going into the postseason (2.51 September ERA). Barry Zito has also been very good down the stretch, going 4-0 with a 3.03 ERA in five September starts. However, Zito remains in a battle with Vogelsong for the final spot in the postseason rotation.
Despite Zito's hot September, Vogelsong has better stuff, a less pronounced platoon split and the better overall season, making him the better choice for the postseason rotation.
In the end, with Cain being the steady ace of the staff and Vogelsong and Zito throwing well of late, the postseason success of the rotation hinges on the shoulders of the suddenly struggling Bumgarner and Lincecum. Both guys stepped up big two years ago in the playoffs, but faded to the finish line this year.
Of course, the Giants could just continue mashing the ball all the way to the World Series, making the performance of the pitching staff less relevant.
However, it will be harder to score runs against the stiffer competition that the playoffs provide. Alas, the Giants will not be able to schedule any postseason games against the horrific Colorado Rockies' pitching staff.
Thus, if the Giants are going to win it all once more, they're likely going to need to pitch better than they have in recent weeks. It's been a disappointing year for Lincecum, but some October magic would change the narrative as he enters his final season before free agency.