If you haven't been following the San Francisco Giants this season, you might be surprised to know that their starting pitching has brought them down.
The team's starting pitchers have combined for a WAR of minus-1.9, meaning the pitchers have cost the team an estimated 1.9 wins. Madison Bumgarner has done well this year, as he is 4-2 with a 2.89 ERA. Tim Lincecum's stats aren't great, but he has pitched very well in some games and has probably been San Francisco's second-best pitcher.
Barry Zito has done a decent job but has struggled lately. Then, you have Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong, two talented pitchers who have struggled mightily this year. Cain has been able to get it together, and he should be just fine. However, right after Vogelsong started to throw the ball well, he fractured his hand.
Vogelsong is going to miss at least six weeks, and extra rehab to build up his throwing strength should cause him to miss at least two months. To turn around the fortunes of the staff, the Giants will need Michael Kickham, Vogelsong's replacement, to step up.
Kickham has performed extremely well lately in the minors. Kickham's stats for the year aren't too great, but his 1.72 ERA in his last five starts is encouraging. He entered the year as San Francisco's sixth-best prospect, and he can ride his hot streak into the majors. Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus wrote that Kickham has a major league arm and could be a back-of-the-rotation workhorse.
With Kickham in the back of the rotation, the rotation wouldn't fall apart. If Kickham is called up and throws the ball well, the rotation could start dominating as a whole. After all, all of the other pitchers have had lots of success in the past.
It's realistic to expect Cain to bounce back, and it's realistic to expect Zito and Lincecum to see good results for their stellar pitching. Both have thrown well lately, but both have been the recipients of some bad luck. Lincecum's 4.75 ERA is very misleading, as he has been able to keep the ball down, get out of jams and avoid the big inning.
For example, on May 12, Lincecum twirled a seven-inning gem in which he surrendered two hits and no runs against a potent Atlanta Braves offense.
Lincecum's FIP (fielding independent pitching) is 3.78, which is decent. This shows that Lincecum's ERA should be lower and that he has pitched well, even though it doesn't include anything about location and how well a pitcher throws the ball. Lincecum has faced potent offenses, and batters have been lucky enough to find gaps on good pitches.
As the season goes on, that won't keep happening.
Zito opened the season by throwing two seven-inning shutouts, but he has been mediocre since. Zito's 4.13 ERA isn't something to drool over, but it's not terrible. When Zito can locate his breaking ball, he's extremely effective. However, as we know from disastrous outings in Milwaukee and Toronto, Zito has had trouble locating his pitches. If he can locate them, however, he will be effective.
Bumgarner hasn't struggled at all this year, as all of his pitches have been effective. Opponents have a .249 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) off of him, meaning opponents are hitting .249 on balls in play. This shows that while he has been a bit lucky, opponents are making weak contact off of him. As long as Bumgarner can continue to jump ahead in the count and put batters away with curveballs in the dirt or perfectly placed fastballs, he will stay effective.
Why? Because Bumgarner has an 8.68 K/9 ratio, meaning he is striking out about one batter per inning. When you combine that with the weak contact opponents have been making, you have a great pitcher.
Cain is another great pitcher, but he has been brought down by his HR/FB rate (17.6 percent). This means that a whopping 17.6 percent of the fly balls hit off of him have left the ballpark, which isn't acceptable. As a result, Cain's inflated ERA is 5.00. As long as Cain can avoid the occasional mistake (which has turned into home runs for him), he will return to his old self.
For the current starters, things will likely fall into place. Location is the key for all of them, though. Zito's HR/FB rate is a marvelous 6.3 percent, but opponents have managed to hit a remarkable .304 off of him. Zito is only striking out 5.4 batters per nine innings, meaning he isn't putting away batters and is letting opponents get hits off of him.
And that's certainly not a formula for success.
Because Zito has trouble reaching 85 miles per hour (MPH) with his fastball, he needs to locate his pitches to stay effective. In some games, he hasn't been able to locate his pitches at all. Zito started the season with two shutouts, and three of his first four starts were seven-inning shutouts. However, he has been very inconsistent, and it's all because of location.
Cain's location is key as well. His career HR/FB rate is 7.2 percent, meaning that his HR/FB rate this year is more than 10 percent higher this year. His location is key for this, because he's been giving up tons of home runs (1.85 per nine innings). As long as he can keep the ball down like he's done in the past, he will be fine.
For Bumgarner and Lincecum, they need to do the same thing they've been doing. Two of the three run-scoring hits Lincecum surrendered in his most recent start came on low, well-located pitches, meaning he didn't make many mistakes. The Giants are 6-4 when Lincecum pitches, and his FIP shows that he has thrown the ball well this year. The same goes for Bumgarner, who has clearly performed like an ace this year.
Every Giants pitcher is capable, but things haven't gone right this year. As long as Kickham can succeed and as long as the Giants' current pitchers can locate their stuff, the rotation as a whole will perform up to par.
And once that happens, the Giants will start winning more games.