What Has Gone Wrong with the San Francisco Giants' Once Dominant Pitching?
The San Francisco Giants have won two of the past three World Series titles, and it has been their pitching that has led the way.
This season, however, is a completely different story.
The Giants' offense has been more than respectable, but their pitching has let them down. Early in the year, everything was looking good, as the Giants jumped out to a 19-12 record in their first 31 games.
Since then, however, the Giants have struggled to a record of 19-25 and are only one game above the .500 mark. Their once vaunted pitching staff has been very inconsistent.
The pitching woes have included both the starting rotation and the relief corps.
There are three primary reasons behind the Giants' mound problems. The first issue is fatigue. In two of the past three seasons, including 2012, the Giants played more baseball than any other National League team.
The intense grind of the playoffs and World Series meant that the Giants pitchers threw more innings than any other staff in baseball. These were also very high-stress innings, so fatigue—both mental and physical—is an issue.
The second issue is that opposing teams and hitters have made adjustments to the Giants' pitching tendencies. The most notable thing is that many teams are taking more pitches and running up the pitch count on Giants' starters earlier in games.
In order for Giants' pitchers to have success, it's their turn to readjust against opposing hitters. In an interview I recently conducted with Buster Posey, he stressed how making adjustments was one of the keys to success, both as a hitter and for his pitchers.
The third issue plaguing the Giants' pitching staff is injuries. With Ryan Vogelsong and Santiago Casilla both out, plus George Kontos' ineffectiveness, the Giants have called upon several minor league pitchers to try and hold the fort.
Although some of these Triple-A pitchers had initial success, they are beginning to struggle as manager Bruce Bochy has had to rely on them far too much.
Let's take a closer look at the Giants' pitching staff and we will see that the stats don't lie. The Giants' pitching has not been very good this year.
All stats courtesy of baseball-reference.com
Matt Cain has been the Giants' most consistent pitcher since 2010. Nicknamed "The Horse", Cain has always been very steady, solid and reliable.
Cain has thrown over 200 innings and made at least 32 starts in each of the last six seasons. In 2012, including the postseason, Cain made 37 starts and threw 249.1 innings, the most in his illustrious career.
Cain got off to a very slow start this year, but has come on strong lately. In his last four starts, Cain has worked 26.2 innings. allowed 18 hits and only six earned runs. His strikeout-to-walk ration is excellent with 25 strikeouts and five walks.
The Giants count on Cain to be the leader of the pitching staff, and he has been doing that recently. Each of his past four starts were quality starts and manager Bruce Bochy needs that trend to continue.
Cain has a proven track record, so look for him to be good for the remainder of the season. His current ERA of 4.55 is easily the highest of his career, but that number should improve now that Cain seems to have found his rhythm.
It's hard to believe that Madison Bumgarner is still only 23 years old because he pitches with a maturity far beyond his years.
Bumgarner has been the Giants' most effective starting pitcher this season. He is 7-4 with a 3.25 ERA and 1.010 WHIP.
In 97 innings of work, Bumgarner has allowed only 69 hits and 29 walks. He has also struck out 97, averaging one strikeout for every inning he's pitched.
Bumgarner struggled mightily in May, but has pitched much better in June, having won his last three starts.
With Cain and Bumgarner at the top of the rotation, the Giants have every right to believe they will be in the thick of things and battling for a playoff berth.
Oh my, how the mighty have fallen.
Tim Lincecum won back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009. He was also a four-time All-Star selection.
However, in 2012, Lincecum appeared to be at a total loss to figure out what had gone wrong. He finished the season with an ERA of 5.18 and WHIP of 1.468. He was the worst starting pitcher in baseball for much of the 2012 season.
Lincecum salvaged his season by pitching very well out of the bullpen in the postseason, where he contributed mightily as a reliever in helping to lead the Giants to victory in the World Series.
Lincecum has been slightly better in 2013, but he is still having problems with his command and mechanics. In 89.2 innings pitched this season, Lincecum has allowed 85 hits and an alarming 40 walks. He has struck out 89 opposing batters.
Lincecum currently is 4-7 with an ERA of 4.52 and WHIP of 1.394. His velocity is down to an average of 90-91 mph on his fastball, so it's incumbent upon him to have command of his pitches in the strike zone.
Command and consistency have been Lincecum's biggest problems. Although he can still show signs of brilliance, his overall body of work is mediocre.
Lincecum is at the end of his contract and can become a free agent following this season. It will be very surprising if the Giants are able to retain him.
If Lincecum turns it around and does well, another team will offer him huge money that the Giants won't likely match. However, if he continues to struggle, the Giants won't want to pay him what it will take for him to stay.
Barry Zito has pitched extremely well at home and very poorly on the road this season. Overall, Zito is 4-5 with an ERA of 4.40, but that does not tell the whole story.
In the spacious confines of AT&T Park, Zito is 4-1 with an ERA of 1.98 and WHIP of 1.23. On the road, Zito has struggled to an 0-4 record with an ERA of 11.28 and WHIP of 2.27.
Zito is in the final year of his contract and is due a $7 million buyout in 2014. The Giants, who may be without Tim Lincecum next season, will try to structure a contract extension for Zito, which will encompass that $7 million figure.
Zito likes San Francisco and the Bay Area and would ideally like to stay if the Giants can work something out that benefits both teams.
Ryan Vogelsong was having trouble with his mechanics and getting hit very hard. Ever the grinder, Vogelsong seemed to be working his way out of his funk and was having his best start of the season when he broke his finger.
Vogelsong swung at a pitch that was riding in on him and the ball hit his pinkie finger, which resulted in the break.
Prior to the injury, Vogelsong had pitched 46.1 innings with an ERA of 7.19 and WHIP of 1.727.
A potential cause of Vogelsong's poor start was that he pitched a career-high 214.1 innings in 2012 and he also had to get ready early after he committed to pitch in the World Baseball Classic. The lack of rest on Vogelsong's arm may have affected him early on.
It could be that Vogelsong's injury will turn out to be a blessing in disguise. His arm is resting while his finger heals and if Vogelsong can come back strong, he will be a huge asset to the Giants.
Vogelsong will be 36 years old in July so the additional rest, although unwanted, may enable him to be strong through the remainder of the season.
Chad Gaudin pitched very effectively as a long-innings man in the Giants' bullpen.
When Ryan Vogelsong was hurt, Gaudin was pressed into duty as a starter. He has been a "life-saver" and done quite well in any role the Giants have used him.
Gaudin has not had a season-long ERA under 4.00 since 2006. It is quite likely that he is currently pitching over his head with an ERA of 2.60 and WHIP of 1.173.
Gaudin can pitch in as a starter and reliever. He has done a fine job replacing Vogelsong, but when he returns, Gaudin will likely find himself back in the bullpen.
Gaudin took a line drive off his pitching elbow in his last start and has been placed on the 15-day DL. In the meantime, Michael Kickham will likely get his starts.
Jose Mijares was acquired at the trade deadline last season, giving the Giants three quality lefties out of the bullpen, which manager Bruce Bochy utilized to perfection during the stretch run. In 17.2 innings last year, Mijares allowed only 14 hits with an ERA of 2.55 and WHIP of 1.245.
Mijares has not been nearly as effective in 2013. He has lost a lot of the confidence of Bochy and rarely pitches late in close games. In 26.1 innings, Mijares has allowed 34 hits, compiling an ERA of 2.73 and WHIP of 1.595.
Although Mijares' ERA is decent, his WHIP is way too high and he has not been able to shut down or stave off rallies. If the Giants had another option, Mijares might find himself out the door.
When Jean Machi first came up from the Giants' Triple-A affiliate in Fresno, he pitched very well. However, a combination of being overused and the fact that opposing hitters are getting a book on him has led Machi to struggle of late.
In his last five outings, Machi had thrown a total of 3.1 innings, allowing 12 hits and six earned runs. His pitches had lost the bite they displayed earlier in the year and he was replaced on the roster by George Kontos.
At the age of 31, Machi had been a minor league player for the vast majority of his career. To expect continued strong performances from him is asking too much.
Machi may get another chance, but with Santiago Casilla returning soon, he may also have seen his ship sail off into the sunset.
Rookie Jake Dunning was a surprise call-up to San Francisco this year. He was a 33rd-round draft pick in 2009 and was throwing the ball well in Fresno, but due to injuries and the ineffectiveness of some of the other Giant relievers, Dunning got his opportunity.
It's too early to tell if he's ready, as he's only appeared in five games and thrown five innings.
Thus far, Dunning has done a credible job, and has an ERA of 3.60 and WHIP of 0.80. It's likely that Dunning will be sent back to Fresno for more seasoning when Santiago Casilla returns.
Another stopgap move that GM Brian Sabean made was to call up Sandy Rosario to the majors. Rosario was pitching well in Fresno and has done a credible job in San Francisco.
In 12.2 innings of work, Rosario has allowed 10 hits and walked seven. He has shown a live arm and struck out 14. Rosario's ERA is 2.84 to go along with a WHIP of 1.342.
Rosario's walk total is too high and that is something that drives manager Bruce Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti crazy.
Santiago Casilla had surgery to remove a cyst on his knee and has been out since May 20. His loss has created a huge void in the Giants' bullpen. Casilla is the Giants' setup man and will close occasionally, if Sergio Romo needs a break.
Casilla is due back in early July and that will be a boon for the Giants' beleaguered bullpen. Prior to his injury, Casilla had thrown 19 innings with an ERA of 1.90 and WHIP of 1.211.
The Giants tried to utilize Ramon Ramirez, Jean Machi, George Kontos, Jake Dunning and Sandy Rosario all at different times to cover for the loss of Casilla, but none have had the consistency needed to hold onto the late-innings right-hander job.
Jeremy Affeldt was rewarded with a three-year, $18 million contract prior to the 2013 season. He has been a mainstay in the Giants' bullpen for the past five seasons.
Affeldt was pitching very well for the Giants, but has allowed runs in two of his past three appearances. He was a victim of being overworked as the Giants' starters went through a stretch where they did not go deep into games.
For the season, Affeldt has thrown 26.2 innings, allowed 22 hits, walked 11 and struck out 17. Affeldt has an ERA of 3.04 and WHIP of 1.238. He will also be a prime beneficiary with the return of Santiago Casilla.
Sergio Romo has been very solid as the Giants' full-time closer. Romo has 18 saves and has blown only three chances.
The one concern with Romo is his durability, but the Giants have been so inconsistent that Romo has not been overworked. Romo has thrown 30 innings, allowed 25 hits and walked only five while striking out 34. Romo's ERA is 2.40 and he has an excellent WHIP of 1.000.
Giants' manager Bruce Bochy is careful to give Romo appropriate rest, as he is much more effective when properly rested. If he's overworked, Romo becomes susceptible to injury and his slider loses some of it's bite. He becomes much more hittable.
Romo has had a good year and he is proving to the naysayers that he can handle the closer role.
The Giants Pitchers Will Rebound
It's not time to panic if you are a Giants fan, as they are still in the thick of the NL West race. However, the injury bug has definitely bitten them and they must get healthy if they are to make a legitimate run at the playoffs.
As we saw in 2010 and 2012, once in the playoffs, anything can happen.
In order to get there, the Giants' pitching must once again lead the way. There are three keys to the resurgence of the pitching staff.
The first will be the return of Santiago Casilla, Ryan Vogelsong and Chad Gaudin. Casilla is due back in early July, with Gaudin expected to return only a few days later. Vogelsong is likely to return after the All-Star break.
The second issue is health. The Giants can ill afford more injuries, as they are already playing with too many Triple-A caliber players who are not yet ready for the big time.
Finally, it is up to GM Brian Sabean to bolster the pitching staff. If he can acquire one or two solid relief pitchers, that would alleviate the stress the current bullpen group has succumbed to.
The alternative would be to trade for a quality starting pitcher, enabling the Giants to move either Vogelsong or Tim Lincecum to the bullpen. This would solve two areas of concern, the starting pitching and the bullpen.
Quality starters are tough to come by, but the names of Ricky Nolasco, Bud Norris and Scott Feldman have been bandied about as possible trade option. If the Giants were to acquire one of these pitchers, their entire pitching staff would immediately benefit.
With a little over half the year remaining, with a little good health, plus the expected improved performances and maybe a trade or two, the Giants will be battling it out for the NL West crown.
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