The first three spots in San Francisco’s starting rotation appear to be set for the playoffs: Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum. That leaves San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy with some decisions regarding the postseason roles for his other two starting pitchers: Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito.
At some point, a fourth starter will probably be needed, so either Vogelsong or Zito has to be prepared for that call. Depending on the series, it could be either one. The odd man out could then have a specific role in the bullpen. More on that later.
First, it must be determined which one should round out the starting rotation.
Each won 14 games this season, proving to be reliable—even stellar at times—in the back end of the rotation. Less than two months ago, Vogelsong led the National League in ERA. But since then he has been the worst starting pitcher on his team.
Zito has never been dominant since being overpaid to cross the bay from Oakland to San Francisco, but he is playoff-tested, and he has pitched effectively in the last month.
So it’s a tough call. It’s good problem to have, though. Some playoff teams will likely be embarrassed to run out their fourth starters.
ERA is generally the best measurement of a pitcher’s performance—in which case, Vogelsong would seem to get the nod. His 3.49 ERA this season pops out next to Zito’s 4.19. However, since the All-Star break, Zito has actually been better than Vogelsong, posting a 4.41 ERA compared to Vogelsong’s 5.11 ERA—though neither number is particularly impressive.
Zito would seem to have an obvious edge when strictly looking at September, during which his 3.03 ERA destroys Vogelsong’s 6.46. So then Zito appears to have the hot hand heading into the postseason, right? Except that Vogelsong has been spectacular in his last two starts, giving up just one earned run in a combined 12 innings.
So, Zito has been solid for a longer stretch heading into the postseason, while Vogelsong has been more impressive the past week or so.
There are other ways to break down these two: home and away performances, past performances against the other playoff teams and the balance of lefty-righty hitters in their opponents’ lineups.
This season, Vogelsong was strong against Atlanta, spectacular against St. Louis, passable against Cincinnati and putrid in one start against Washington. Zito was excellent against Atlanta, Cincinnati and St. Louis, but he hasn’t faced Washington in 2012.
Zito, who is a southpaw, kills left-handed batters but gets killed by righties. Vogelsong, while pitching slightly better against right-handed hitters, handles both sides of the plate rather evenly.
That probably gives Vogelsong the edge against the right-heavy Nationals and the balanced Cardinals. Zito is probably the better choice against Atlanta and Cincinnati, which have lineups heavy with left-handed boppers.
Zito has a 3.25 ERA in seven career postseason starts (which is seven more postseason starts than Vogelsong has), but he hasn’t pitched in the playoffs since leaving Oakland after the 2006 season. His ability has decidedly regressed since then.
So, what to do?
Well, it depends.
Both pitchers are quite capable of brilliance and misery, so when that fourth spot in the rotation comes up, it will be best to play the matchups. Since it’s still unknown whether they will play Cincinnati or Washington in the divisional series, the first call can’t be made yet.
Either way, Bochy should decide on one of them as the fourth starter before each series, leaving open the possibility of swapping in the other for any subsequent series. The one who isn’t starting could simply be used in long relief, or the Giants could borrow the “piggyback” strategy implemented by division rival Colorado this season.
If, say, the Giants face the Reds in the divisional series, Zito should start. Vogelsong, meanwhile, should be prepared to replace Lincecum and/or Zito relatively early, considering Lincecum and Zito are prone to meltdowns.
Plus, Lincecum, Zito and Vogelsong all have averaged less than six innings per start this season, so none of them should be expected to go deep into a game, anyway.
One snag, though, is that Lincecum is likely slated as the third starter, so he would have to be moved up to the second slot in order to give the piggybacker more rest between appearances. That could work just fine, since four innings of Lincecum and three innings of Vogelsong is rather formidable.
If Lincecum and the fourth starter each went four, maybe five innings, and then the piggybacker picked up the next two or three innings, it would incorporate all five starting pitchers while keeping the bullpen fresh—and it would allow San Francisco to ride its dangerous pitching staff deep into the playoffs.
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