San Francisco Giants: Should They Have Sent Down Michael Kickham?

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San Francisco Giants: Should They Have Sent Down Michael Kickham?
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Michael Kickham's MLB debut started off well. Then, Derek Norris hit a demoralizing home run, and Kickham fell apart.

Kickham, who was called up by the San Francisco Giants on Monday, May 27 to replace injured hurler Ryan Vogelsong, went 2.1 innings and surrendered four earned runs, taking the loss against the Oakland A's.

Despite retiring the first four batters he faced and throwing a mere nine pitches in the first inning, Kickham was taken out early, as he lost his command and paid for it. Oakland hit him hard in the second and third innings, and it picked up a fairly easy win as a result.

While Kickham's start didn't go well overall, most thought the Giants would give him more chances. Instead, the Giants' brass shockingly decided to send Kickham back to Fresno.

With Kickham's career off on the wrong foot, it's likely that people will start questioning the Giants' brass for sending Kickham down after just one start. He didn't throw the ball well, but he showed flashes of potential.

With a plethora of inexperienced options and one long reliever on the table for the team, it's a bit perplexing that the front office had Kickham on such a short leash. However, it has made lots of good decisions lately, and it could be right with this one.

Let's take a look at whether Kickham deserved to get sent down.

 

Kickham's First Start: Game Summary and Stats

 Kickham pitched 2.1 innings and gave up four runs, even though he didn't pitch too poorly.

Because it was his first career start, Kickham didn't have much margin for error. He threw 65 pitches, with 56 of them coming in the last two innings. Kickham was able to find Buster Posey's glove on a good amount of his pitches, and he kept the ball down in the strike zone while still intrepidly attacking the zone.

Well, he did at the beginning of the game.

The results were positive in the first inning, and he started the second inning with another promising strikeout. Then, Kickham collapsed.

With two outs in the second inning, Kickham threw a low pitch that was a bit below Posey's glove. It wasn't a bad pitch, but Norris still jumped on it, taking it deep for a two-run home run to left field. While Kickham threw the ball relatively well in the second inning, he fell apart in the third.

Coco Crisp grounded out to start the inning, but the next five batters reached (one reached on an intentional walk). Kickham started to fall behind on counts and miss the outside corner, which enabled the erratic southpaw to walk two batters (not including the intentional walk).

With the Giants trailing 3-1 and Kickham in hot water, he left a pitch up in the zone for Nate Freiman. Freiman whacked the ball into right field for a base hit, scoring one run and ending Kickham's night. Kickham threw 65 pitches, and 36 went for strikes. If you don't include the intentional walk, Kickham threw 36 strikes on 61 pitches, which is about 60 percent.

Kickham struck out three and walked four, which isn't great. Kickham also retired just seven of the 15 batters he faced, meaning Oakland registered an inflated .533 on-base percentage (OBP) against him overall.

Eight of the last 11 batters Kickham faced reached base, so those hitters posted a mind-blowing .727 OBP against him. In addition, Oakland hit .364 off of him, which also left something to be desired.

Unfortunately for Kickham, he won't be able to fulfill that desire.

 

Game Analysis

How Would You Grade Michael Kickham's First Start?

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At the beginning of the game, Kickham's command was masterful. Then, he lost his command.

Kickham suddenly failed to find the strike zone, as he threw 26 balls in his last two innings. In addition, Kickham went through a stretch in the third inning in which 12 of his 20 pitches were balls, which is definitely concerning. This year in the minors, Kickham has averaged 3.7 walks per nine innings, which is poor.

Oh, and over the course of his minor-league career, his BB/9 ratio is an appalling 4.5.

So, it wasn't extremely surprising to see Kickham throwing so wildly with nerves acting as a major factor and the MLB's second-most patient team taking close pitches. Catcher Buster Posey saw Kickham hit his target easily early in the game, and he gained confidence in Kickham.

That's why he set up on the outside corner often, which gave Kickham little margin for error. Unfortunately for the Giants, Kickham missed Posey's glove and didn't get the call on some close pitches. Kickham wasn't able to maintain his composure after getting into a jam in the third inning, as evidenced by Oakland's offensive outburst.

Promise was shown throughout the game by Kickham, as he didn't make any glaring mistakes. Norris' home run came on a low pitch, one that wasn't far from Posey's target. Kickham threw some pitches that were well outside, as he stopped attacking the strike zone when he got into a jam.

Kickham did throw one strike to Freiman, but it was a mistake. Bochy, knowing that his struggling pitcher was one more mistake away from forcing the Giants to face an insurmountable deficit, took Kickham out, ending his night and his brief stint in the majors.

No, Kickham didn't pitch as poorly as his inflated 15.43 ERA suggests. However, he did concern the Giants with his sudden loss of command and his failure to shut the door in key situations (the A's hit .600 with a .714 OBP off of him with runners on base).

 

Other Options

Bochy was considering calling up Shane Loux, Chris Heston and Kickham for Tuesday's start, but it's possible that none of those three pitchers will start on Sunday in St. Louis.

Chad Gaudin pitched three innings in relief of Kickham, which kept the Giants in Tuesday's game. Gaudin has proven time and time again that he is the best option to replace Vogelsong, as he has posted a tremendous 2.05 ERA this year.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Chad Gaudin has been masterful this season.

Unfortunately for Gaudin, he likely won't be able to start for the duration of Vogelsong's absence with the lack of depth in the bullpen. The Giants don't have anyone else to fill the long reliever role, which the Giants will need with the inconsistency of the rotation.

Kickham could still start if another player gets placed on the DL, and center fielder Angel Pagan is a candidate. If Pagan does get placed on the 15-day DL, Kickham will likely make another start. If not, Gaudin will likely take the ball.

Bochy said Gaudin will likely start on Sunday, but unless the Giants add another long reliever, he's unlikely to assume the fifth spot in the rotation. If Gaudin doesn't start on Sunday or if he starts on Sunday but doesn't take the job permanently, Loux will likely take the job.

Loux fired a complete game three-hitter on Monday night, and he has experience pitching in the MLB. While his ERA is 4.09, his record is 5-2 and opponents are hitting just .223 off of him.

Loux has only struck out 17 batters in 50.2 innings (about one strikeout per three innings), but opponents' BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is a mind-boggling .237. This does suggest that Loux has been a bit lucky, but if opponents are hitting .237 off of you when they put the ball in play, you have to be something right.

While Loux has been inconsistent, he has the potential to be dominant. However, it's hard to hand someone with a -1.7 wins over replacement (WAR) and a 5.94 ERA over the course of their career the ball for two months.

On the flip side, the Giants can't keep going through starters, and if Loux does start one game, he'll likely stay.

Loux won't be threatened by Heston, who was torched in spring training and has posted a horrendous 5.63 ERA with Triple-A Fresno. If the Giants do decide to go with a hurler from the farm system, it's likely not going to be Heston.

He isn't quite ready for the majors, and other pitchers have thrown the ball better. However, none have been great, and none of the options have Giants fans buzzing. Kickham may not have been great in his debut, but it's hard to say anyone will fare better.

 

Conclusion

Did the Giants Make the Right Call By Sending Down Michael Kickham?

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San Francisco isn't laden with top-flight prospects, and with an injury to Santiago Casilla, the bullpen lacks depth. Without another reliable option, the Giants' decision seems a bit questionable.

The bullpen has done well, but it could get overworked. Bochy isn't likely to break up the bullpen and rearrange roles, even though he did it last year. The Giants adopted a closer-by-committee format in 2012, but there were two months remaining. With four months remaining in the season, changing roles isn't a likely option.

In other words, the Giants will need someone to step up from the minors.

If the Giants can obtain a long reliever soon, Gaudin could take over one of the rotation spots. If the team adds a starter, Gaudin could settle in as the long reliever while Loux, Kickham and Heston continue to develop in the minors.

However, teams know that the Giants are in hot water, and that could lead them to ramp up their trade demands. That would delay any move the Giants want to make, and it would shrink the probability of the Giants making a trade. Making a trade takes time, and obviously, no trade happens instantly.

Gaudin is more experienced than Kickham, and he's currently a better pitcher. However, the decision to send Kickham down remains questionable. Kickham entered the clubhouse riding the hot hand, and he showed promise for the present and the future in his first start.

If Kickham had stayed, he would have calmed down on the mound, as nerves would have impacted him less and less. This would have led to better pitching, which is all the Giants want right now.

Loux didn't exactly shine in 2012 with the Giants, as his ERA was 4.97. Unless the Giants can pull off a trade quickly and allow Gaudin to fill a huge void in the rotation, this decision seems odd.

Kickham has great stuff, and giving him some experience now would allow him to prepare for seizing a rotation spot in 2014, when Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong could all be gone. The 33-year-old Loux isn't a long-term answer, and Heston simply isn't ready.

In other words, Kickham is the best option for the present and the future, and the fact that the Giants sent him down is a bit surprising. Don't be surprised if this decision backfires on the team.

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