Perhaps no title-winning team since the 1995 Atlanta Braves relied on its pitching staff more than the 2010 and 2012 San Francisco Giants.
Indeed, the Giants led the league in ERA in 2010, and they ranked seventh in 2012 while riding the staff through the postseason in both instances. That's why it should come as no surprise that San Francisco's disappointing 86-loss performance in 2013 came during the same year in which it finished 22nd in the majors in ERA.
Thanks to a lack of offensive depth and no game-changing offseason additions to the lineup (unless you count Michael Morse), scoring runs figures to once again be at a premium for the Giants in 2014, meaning they’ll again lean heavily on the success of the starting rotation.
Luckily, the outlook is, for the most part, quite positive in that regard. Matt Cain posted a 2.36 ERA after the All-Star break in 2013, Madison Bumgarner posted elite numbers while proving nearly impossible to hit (.203 opponents batting average) and veteran starter Tim Hudson joined the staff in the offseason.
Even Tim Lincecum, who was statistically one of the worst pitchers in the majors in 2012, showed promising improvement last year in slashing his ERA by 81 points.
The one major question mark that remains, other than perhaps Lincecum, is Ryan Vogelsong.
After suffering a broken hand and posting a pedestrian 5.73 ERA when healthy, Vogey heads into 2014 with plenty of uncertainty. Will he revert to Pittsburgh Pirates-esque numbers, a team with which he had a 6.00 ERA, eerily similar to last year’s total? Or will he find the stuff that allowed him to go 29-16 with a 3.05 ERA between 2011 and 2012?
Perhaps the best indicator as to which side of Vogelsong we'll see is that he’s motivated heading into the season. During an interview at the Giants FanFest earlier this month, the veteran right hander said, "I'll take a lot of the blame for what happened here last year, and I'm driven to make sure it doesn't happen again."
In each of the Giants’ title-winning seasons this decade, they’ve received a breakout performance from a starting pitcher. In 2010, it was Madison Bumgarner, who rolled into the season with one big league start under his belt. He posted a 3.00 ERA in 18 regular-season starts that year, then went on to toss eight shutout innings in Game 4 of the World Series.
Barry Zito was that breakout pitcher in 2012, posting 15 wins and coming through with clutch performances in the NLCS and World Series to highlight an otherwise disappointing tenure as a San Francisco Giant.
Of course, trends don’t always hold true, and the Giants rotation could still be successful without another breakout performer this season. But if the Giants want to even think about returning to the Fall Classic, or even playing in October at all for that matter, they’ll need all five starters to be on their game.
That’s especially true because there’s not much in the way of depth when it comes to Giants pitchers, as I noted earlier this week.
If Vogelsong proves he can’t consistently perform, the Giants will have to turn to Yusmeiro Petit or David Huff, neither of whom have proved they can handle a starting role with any semblance of consistency.
Though Petit was solid last season, it was the first time in his career he posted an ERA under four, and he had a 5.54 career ERA heading into 2013. Ideally, he shouldn't be relied upon to carry the load. Huff, meanwhile, was a 5.32 career ERA and has all of one sub-four-ERA season under his belt.
Could Vogelsong be that breakout performer in 2014? He's determined, and he doesn't have much time left in the majors, so he'll likely give it all he's got.
Perhaps best of all, Vogey will begin the season as the No. 5 starter in the rotation, so the team won't ask too much of him. With the lack of pressure and reasonable expectations, Vogelsong can pitch without having to worry about the sky-high hopes that followed the Giants' 2012 season.
But at the same time, the Giants will need their rotation to be firing on all cylinders because the offense lacks the necessary firepower to carry the team. That's where Vogelsong comes in; the Giants' success depends on him.