San Francisco Giants: Starting Pitching and Defense Remain Problematic

Mark ReynoldsCorrespondent IIMay 27, 2013

The San Francisco Giants enter play on Monday with the National League's third-worst rotation ERA at 4.66. The Giants also rank just 17th in baseball in defensive efficiency—a Baseball Prospectus stat that measures the percentage of balls in play converted into outs by the defense.

The good news is that the Giants are tied for first place in the National League West despite their defensive woes and the struggles of the rotation.

The bullpen and the offense have carried the team. The bullpen is first in the National League with a 2.76 ERA. The offense leads the National League with a .272 batting average. The Giants also rank third in the National League in on-base percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS).

However, the lack of production on defense and in the rotation has made this year's team inconsistent. The Giants lost five straight games starting on April 23. They followed that up with a six-game winning streak before dropping two out of three to the Phillies.

After taking three of four in impressive fashion from the Braves, the Giants lost five of six on a brutal road trip through Toronto and Colorado. They followed that up with a solid 4-2 homestand.

The Giants will need to get better starting pitching and defense starting immediately because their schedule is doing them no favors. On Monday, they begin a stretch of games against some outstanding teams, including Oakland (28-23), St. Louis (32-17), Pittsburgh (31-19), Arizona (28-22) and Atlanta (30-19). It's hard to envision the Giants being able to consistently out-slug those quality teams.

The Giants will have to solve their starting pitching and defensive problems internally at this point. As San Francisco Chronicle reporter Henry Schulman tweeted on Sunday, the cavalry isn't coming—especially with two months until the trading deadline.

In the rotation, Madison Bumgarner has been the only starter to consistently pitch effectively. He's delivered seven quality starts in 10 turns while putting up a 2.89 ERA.

Barry Zito has given the Giants what they've grown to expect from him. His 4.13 ERA is a close match to what he gave them in 2009 (4.03), 2010 (4.15) and 2012 (4.15)—which is perfectly acceptable for a back-end starter.

Ryan Vogelsong gave the Giants just one quality start and a 7.19 ERA before going on the shelf with a broken hand. Prospect Michael Kickham will replace him in the rotation. 

Kickham is the organization's fifth-best prospect, according to Baseball America. He should be able to give the Giants an ERA better than 7.19. However, he isn't likely to match the exceptional 3.05 ERA that Vogelsong gave the Giants over the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

Ace right-hander Matt Cain got off to a brutal start in April. The Giants lost five of his six starts as he went 0-4 with a 6.49 ERA. He's been much better in May. He's gone 4-0 with a 3.48 ERA, and the team has won all five of his starts.

Even though Cain has pitched better in May, he's still not all the way back to where he was from 2009-2012 when he put up a combined ERA of 2.93. His high walk and home run rates show that his control and command have been the issues setting him back this season. His rate of 1.7 home runs allowed per nine innings pitched is the fifth worst in baseball.

Tim Lincecum might be the toughest pitcher on the Giants to figure out. From 2008-2011 he went 62-36 with a 2.81 ERA. He won two Cy Young Awards and finished in the top 10 in the voting in all four seasons.

Since the beginning of last season, he's gone 13-19 with a 5.07 ERA.

Even though Lincecum has lost four miles per hour off of his fastball since he came into the league, he's still missing bats at a high rate. He struck out 24.3 percent of hitters when he entered the big leagues in 2007, and that's exactly what his strikeout rate is this season. His strikeout rate leads the staff and it's the 21st best in baseball.

Unfortunately, his 10.3 percent walk rate is the worst in the rotation and the 10th worst in baseball.

He also continues to have problems pitching from the stretch. Opponents put up an OPS of .804 with runners on against Lincecum last season compared to .740 with the bases empty. This year, opponents have put up an OPS of .853 with runners on base compared to just .597 with the bases empty.

If Lincecum could throw more strikes, he could pitch from the windup more often and thus have more success.

The Giants' run-prevention problems go beyond the rotation. The defense has not given the staff much support.

Center fielder Angel Pagan has cost the Giants nine runs with his glove, according to the advanced metric Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Second baseman Marco Scutaro leads all second basemen with eight errors.

Catcher Buster Posey has thrown out only seven of 24 base stealers. Part of that could be the failure of the staff to hold runners. However, backup catcher Guillermo Quiroz has thrown out three of seven, so Posey's throwing seems to be an issue.

The Giants need to pitch and catch the ball better to compliment their outstanding offense. The ability is there. With virtually the same roster last season, the Giants finished fifth in the National League in rotation ERA.

To get back to that prior level of excellence, Cain and Lincecum will need to consistently pitch like aces again. Getting better defensive support would certainly help their cause.

The Giants are in first place despite the struggles of the rotation and the defense. Imagine where they'd be if the rotation pitched as well as it did last season.

All statistics in this article are courtesy of ESPN, FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.