Heading into the 2010 Major League Baseball season, there was one thing the Bay Area and everyone else knew for sure about the San Francisco Giants. Namely, that the squad would contend as long and as hard as the starting pitching would allow.
It was justifiably considered the organization's backbone and primary weapon on the diamond.
Two-time defending National League Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, as notorious for throwing smoke as he became for inhaling it, was the unquestioned leader of the staff.
His younger wingman, Matt Cain, was coming off his first All-Star team selection and best season of his steadily improving career. Jonathan Sanchez, who registered the first no-hitter by a Giant in over 30 years against the San Diego Padres in 2009 and was firmly entrenched in his prime, would be the No. 4 starter.
Completing the robust rotation were blue-chip phenom Madison Bumgarner, whose arrival was only a matter of time regardless of what the brass told place-holder Todd Wellemeyer, as well as veteran southpaw and local chew-toy Barry Zito.
Even with the can-of-kerosene-wearing Wellemeyer's uniform torching the rotation every fifth day (in reluctant fairness to the right-hander, he was actually pretty good at AT&T Park), it looked like a ferocious group on paper.
For most of the Spring, paper was reality.
Amongst the arms who took the ball in the first inning, only Wellemeyer had an ERA north of 3.80 or a WHIP above 1.18 for the month of April. Both of those ratios belonged to Cainer and, relative to the unmentioned trio, he was an utter dog.
Check the rainy month turned in by "The Freak," "Dirty Sanchez," and "Baked Zito:"
Lincecum—5 GS, 4-0, 35.1 IP, 1.27 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 6.14 K:BB, .175 BAA, .218 OBPA, .254 SLGA
Sanchez—4 GS, 2-1, 24.1 IP, 1.85 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 2.54 K:BB, .167 BAA, .283 OBPA, .202 SLGA
Zito—5 GS, 4-0 35.1 IP, 1.53 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 2.18 K:BB, .167 BAA, .237 OBPA, .200 SLGA
May wasn't quite as stellar because of struggles by both Timmy and "The $20 Million Man," but Cain picked up the slack—6 GS, 3-3, 44.2 IP, 1.81 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 1.94 K:BB, .155 BAA, .251 OBPA, .216 SLGA—and kept the staff numbers respectable with an assist from Sanchez.
After a little wobble in May, the wheels officially came off in the first two summer months.
Gone were the sub-3.00 ERA and the spiffy-looking WHIP. In their places were bloated and flammable shells of the once-dominant staff. June and July saw stretches of brilliance followed by hideous jags of batting-practice stuff and the consequential merry-go-round of opposing baserunners.
Things hit a crisis point in August. Only two starters (Cain and Sanchez) finished the month with ERA's under 5.00 and WHIP's under 1.75. As a team, San Francisco posted an ERA of 4.55 and a WHIP of 1.42.
The vast majority of that damage was done by the starting staff.
What was expected to be the strength of los Gigantes went from just that to terribly inconsistent to downright albatross in the span of about 90 days. If not for a suddenly revived offense, the squad wouldn't be anywhere near the playoffs.
Let alone sniffing them from arm's length.
The question is obvious: what the four-run-first-inning happened?
The answer is a little bit stickier as no one can really say for sure.
Part of the precipitous decline can be explained by the blinding start—the lads weren't going to stifle the opposition so thoroughly for the whole year and, the longer the filth lasted, the more unpleasant the correction would be.
You can see evidence in the rather sublime numbers the starters are still rocking on the season, despite the ugly u-turn:
Bumgarner—13 GS, 79 IP, 3.76 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 2.45 K:BB, .283 BAA, .335 OBPA, .453 SLGA
Cain—27 GS, 182.1 IP, 3.11 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 2.57 K:BB, .228 BAA, .287 OBPA, .370 SLGA
Lincecum—28 GS, 178.2 IP, 3.68 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 2.72 K:BB, .248 BAA, .319 OBPA, .373 SLGA
Sanchez—27 GS, 157.2 IP, 3.54 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 2.12 K:BB, .215 BAA, .314 OBPA, .360 SLGA
Zito—27 GS, 170.1 IP, 4.07 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 1.85 K:BB, .256 BAA, .328 OBPA, .404 SLGA
One flamethrower (Zito's actually better approximated by a blow-drier, but whatever) with an ERA over 4.00? Not too shabby, not too shabby at all.
The entire pitching staff is still in the top five in all of baseball with its 3.66 earned run average, .245 batting average against, and .385 slugging percentage against while the Gents lead the Majors with 8.04 strikeouts per nine innings.
What's more, the 'pen actually hurts all of those averages so the starters' collective body of work has been even better than it looks at first blush.
Unfortunately, the excellence came in a front-loaded torrent. Contrarily, the correction has been more gradual and sprinkled throughout the summer until cresting (hopefully) in August.
Baseball is a game of trends—study its history and you will see certain statistical similarities that hold from year-to-year. One of these is the creeping fade of professional pitchers as the 162-game marathon unfurls one contest at a time.
Throwing a baseball with such violence and velocity is simply not something the human arm was meant to do.
The stress placed on a pitcher's noodle prevents him from recovering as easily after his outings, which is why starters usually get a minimum of five days off between appearances. Compounding matters is the fact that padding the normal respite with an extra day or two doesn't have the profound effect that a two-day ride on the pine does for a position player.
This means most pitchers will be more fatigued than position players (with the possible exception of the catchers) once August and September dawn—it's a reality of the modern diamond.
If you need a little data to persuade you, take a gander at these splits from the last three years (keep in mind there about 100 more innings thrown before the All-Star Game):
2009 Pre-All-Star Game—4.31 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, .261 BAA, .333 OBPA, .416 SLGA
2009 Post-All-Star Game—4.33 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, .264 BAA, .333 OBPA, .420 SLGA
2008 Pre-All-Star Game—4.18 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, .260 BAA, .330 OBPA, .409 SLGA
2008 Post-All-Star Game—4.52 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, .268 BAA, .336 OBPA, .425 SLGA
2007 Pre-All-Star Game—4.35 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, .264 BAA, .332 OBPA, .415 SLGA
2007 Post-All-Star Game—4.60 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, .272 BAA, .340 OBPA, .431 SLGA
Yes, there are more games played before the break.
Yes, the spits aren't too severe and there will certainly be years when the generality doesn't hold, but you get the idea. Even an increase of a few percentage points is significant when the sample sizes are this large so it appears that most pitchers tire as the campaign drones deeper into the calendar.
In 2010, the Orange and Black studs haven't been exceptions.
Lincecum lost the groove of his complicated mechanics, which took his velocity and control along for the walk-about. There was also a healthy bit of bad fortune in several of his poorer starts—several games got away from him on the back of bloop singles and swinging bunts.
In other words, Lady Luck decided to make "Untouchable Timmy" more or less touchable. A truism reflected by his career-high batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .325 for the season and an unconscionable rate of .387 in August.
In fact, that story holds pretty well for most of the Giant suspects we've been investigating—Cain's BABIP shot all the way to .321 in August, Zito's got as high as .359, and MadBum watched his cross the tape at .365. Sanchez' red-lined a month earlier in July at .334.
All of those sit well above the typical BABIP of around .300.
Mix in the mental pressure of picking up the slack created by an uncharacteristic year from "The Franchise," the growing pains of a 21-year-old No. 5 (Bumgarner), the hit-or-miss game of chance often played by Zito/Sanchez, and you get a sense of how everything go so rocky.
Giant die-hards need not despair because another one of those baseball trends reveals that the first day of a new month can have an illogically rejuvenating effect on Major League Baseball players, pitchers included.
For whatever reason, a couple base hits or a couple scoreless frames set against a new page on the calendar can vaporize a slump faster than Darren Ford going from first to third.
Tim Lincecum's gem against the Colorado Rockies might be an example of the new-month elixir, or it might be an extension of the cruel summer teasers. Hopefully, it's the latter because, though the offense has gotten stronger since the anemic ending to the Bengie Molina Era, it's still not prepared for constant heavy-lifting.
The San Francisco Giants won't be able to stand and bang their way into the playoffs with the lumber.
They'll need the starting rotation to do the honors and that means September better be more April than August.
Or else there will be no October.