If you followed the San Francisco Giants in 2013, you're probably well aware that the production from the starting rotation dipped so dramatically that the then-reigning champs saw a 32-point increase in their team ERA, including an 80-point jump from 2011.
But Barry Zito and his 9.56 road ERA are gone, and veteran Tim Hudson is in as the replacement. Add in Matt Cain's second-half success (more on that in a second) and Tim Lincecum's continuous improvement, and the outlook is relatively bright for the once-heralded Giants rotation. Let's take a look at what to expect from the five starters in 2014.
Cain's numbers from 2013 are a bit deceiving when trying to project his 2014 totals. Yes, his 4.00 ERA was alarmingly high, but consider this: After the All-Star break, Cain had a 2.36 ERA.
Why did the Giants righty make such a drastic improvement? Quite simply, Cain regained his command in the second half. According to FanGraphs, his walk rate dipped from 7.9 to 6.1, and he allowed just 0.87 home runs per nine innings, a huge dip from the 1.29 total that marked his disastrous first half.
That's a testament to Cain's ability to better locate the ball in the strike zone, an inability that plagued him in the first half to the tune of 16 home runs allowed.
Don't expect Cain to come close to matching those fantastic second-half totals this season; he stranded an astonishing 84.5 percent of runners after the break, a total he can't match for an entire season. With that being said, expect Cain to once again return to ace-like form.
Projection: 14-7, 3.05 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 175 Ks
There's not much to say about Bumgarner, except that the Giants could have used four more of him in 2013. The young lefty stepped in as the staff ace when the rest of the staff faltered, and he put together a 2.77 ERA with a minuscule .199 opponents' batting average.
Opponents also had a .251 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) against Bumgarner, fifth-lowest in the majors according to FanGraphs. Conventional wisdom says that total will start to move upward toward the league average, but I'd argue that we can expect a similar BABIP, and thus a similar overall level of dominance, from MadBum in 2014.
Why? Because Bumgarner still possesses his nasty arsenal of pitches, and when he doesn't strike out batters, they're often weakly rolling over his pitches, as evidenced by MadBum's 46.8 ground ball percentage.
"I love the way he goes about it. No emotion," said Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, per Henry Schulman of The San Francisco Chronicle. "He just goes out there and competes. On the field, you just like to see that mentality. He gives up eight, or he shuts them out, and you see no difference in his attitude and mind-set."
Manager Bruce Bochy has similar admiration for MadBum.
"I don't put a ceiling on this kid," Bochy said, per Schulman. "What he did in 2010, how he handled the playoffs and the World Series, he's got a great makeup. He's a big, strong guy who wants to get better."
That drive to succeed, combined with a near-unhittable repertoire of pitches and promising statistical trends, all point toward another dominant season from Bumgarner.
Projection: 17-8, 2.80 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 210 Ks
Once the ace of the staff, Lincecum is now the most unpredictable starter in the rotation. Gone are the days of accolades and record numbers, but can The Freak return to respectability?
After posting an MLB-worst 5.18 ERA in 2011, Lincecum lowered that total by 81 points last season. As he learns to pitch around hitters instead of trying to blow them away, he will continue to experience growing pains, as we've witnessed during the last few seasons. But those growing pains are becoming increasingly infrequent, and the improvement that we've seen from Timmy is a testament to that hard work.
There's also some evidence that points toward a bit of bad luck for Lincecum in 2013. He stranded only 69.4 percent of runners last season, according to FanGraphs, the 10th-lowest total in the majors, and a number that should even out a bit this year. Lincecum also had the 28th-highest BABIP in the majors last season, again a total that could level out a bit.
That doesn't let him off the hook, but it's an indication that he could move closer yet to becoming an average MLB starter, which is essentially all the Giants are asking. Though, with the $35 million the club will owe him over the next two seasons, it certainly wouldn't hurt if he reverted to his Cy Young-worthy performance. (Not going to happen.)
Projection: 11-12, 3.85 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 215 Ks
Hudson is coming off a pretty severe injury to his right ankle, so don't expect any miracles this season. However, consistency is the name of the game when it comes to Hudson's career, and you can expect more of the same in 2014.
Indeed, the veteran right-hander has never compiled a non-winning season, failing to eclipse a .600 winning percentage only twice in 15 seasons. He also hasn't had an ERA above 4.00 since 2006, a number he's reached just twice in his career.
Hudson is now back in the Bay Area, and he'll once again pitch in a favorable pitcher's park. (He compiled a 92-39 record in six seasons with the Oakland A's at the cavernous Oakland Coliseum.)
According to an Associated Press report, via ESPN, Hudson is progressing reasonably well in his return. He "looked good," according to Buster Posey, and Bruce Bochy praised the veteran's mechanics.
"He had a smooth, easy delivery, the same I've seen over the years," Bochy said. "I don't see him changing anything."
Assuming Hudson returns from injury in time for the season and doesn't experience much trouble regaining form, he's primed for a nice return to the Bay Area.
Projection: 12-9, 3.75 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 120 Ks
Perhaps the only pitcher in the rotation who rivals the unpredictable nature of Lincecum is Vogelsong. It's hard to draw much from the small sample size that constituted Vogelsong's 2013 season, but he struggled mightily when he did pitch.
The safe pick would be to project something in between Vogey's 2013 numbers (5.73 ERA, 1.56 WHIP) and his 2012 totals (3.37, 1.23), but I'm going to go out on a limb and expect a return to 2012 form.
Why? For one, Vogelsong is a true competitor, and he's talked about how he shoulders the blame for 2013's failures and how he expects to improve. I also wrote recently that Vogelsong won't have the expectations that followed his 2011 and 2012 success, thanks to his down season and the Giants' overall lackluster performance. He'll begin the season as the No. 5 starter in the rotation, meaning the Giants won't be asking much of him.
Speaking of the Giants' down year, another positive that can be drawn from the failure is the additional rest that the starters received due to their lack of participation in the postseason. Perhaps that time off is just what Vogelsong (and the rest of the staff) needs to come out firing in 2014.
Projection: 13-8, 3.55 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 130 Ks