SF Giants' Big-Name, Big-Money Rotation Suddenly Far from a Sure Thing

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 22, 2016

Mar 16, 2016; Peoria, AZ, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija (29) talks with pitching coach Dave Righetti (19) and catcher Buster Posey (28) during the fourth inning against the Seattle Mariners at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco Giants did what they needed to do with their starting rotation this winter, rebuilding it into a unit strong enough to put them back atop the NL West.

But now, their rebuilt rotation is having trouble even surviving spring training.

On paper, what's there still looks good. Madison Bumgarner, Major League Baseball's most Hugh Glass-ian ace, and the $220 million dynamic duo of Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija form an impressive trio. Bringing up the rear is former Cy Young winner Jake Peavy and perfect-game maestro Matt Cain. 

"I can't think, in all my years, where we were this solid," Giants skipper Bruce Bochy said of his rotation last month to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com. "And that's saying a lot, because we've had some very good rotations here. But when you add two guys like this, they make you that much better."

Following a modest 84-win season in which Bumgarner basically had to do it all on his own, the Giants' 2016 rotation will indeed be a dandy if all goes well. Call it a hunch crossed with some well-calculated numbers, as FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus both offer strong projections.

But the Giants rotation is making it hard to have faith in the "if all goes well" part. Its spring training performance has led to this table full of eye-poppingly large numbers:

SF Giants Rotation in Spring Training
Jeff Samardzija519.02751248.53
Jake Peavy412.2274738.53
Madison Bumgarner37.21339010.57
Johnny Cueto24.1924216.62
Matt Cain12.2711310.12

The good news? There are some small sample sizes here. Bumgarner, Cueto and Cain have combined for fewer starts than Samardzija and Peavy.

The bad news? Health woes are responsible for that. Bumgarner lost reps to foot and ribcage issues. Cain just recently returned to active duty after having surgery on his right arm. Concerns over Cueto's workload delayed his spring debut, and he recently took a line drive to his dreadlocked noggin.

In times like these, our instincts tell us to stand in front of a mirror, say "it's only spring training" three times and wait for the spring training fairy to show up with a reassuring pat on the back. But last week, even Bochy was starting to feel uncomfortable.

“All these guys, we think we’ll have them ready,” Bochy said, per Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News. “At the same time, the margin of error is getting cut back a little bit.”

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

There is one reason for everyone to chill. The ugliest number up there is the rotation's 9.76 ERA, but Mike Podhorzer of FanGraphs tells us that spring ERAs are "completely useless" as a predictive tool.

As for which spring stats are predictive for pitchers, strikeout and walk rates pass the grade. To this end, Bumgarner suddenly doesn't look so shabby next to his 9-0 K/BB ratio in 7.2 innings. And with a 4-2 K/BB in 4.1 innings, Cueto could be doing a lot worse.

It's too bad that's only 40 percent of San Francisco's starting rotation. With the other 60 percent, it's not quite as easy to think in terms of rainbows, gumdrops and sunshine.

Samardzija's strikeout issues are a continuation of a not-so-awesome trend that's been ongoing since 2012. And when his strikeout rate finally dipped below league average in 2015, he failed to prove he could survive with so many extra balls in play. In posting an ugly 4.96 ERA, he led the American League in hits (228) and home runs (29) allowed.

It doesn't take a good pair of spectacles to see Samardzija's root problem. High-velocity fastballs from him used to be as common as misspellings of his surname, but Brooks Baseball shows his fastball velocity is also declining.

And as Eno Sarris of FanGraphs observed last week, the radar gun had further troubling news to report during Samardzija's shellacking at the hands of the Seattle Mariners:

Eno Sarris @enosarris

Didn’t see anything >93 from Samardzija, mostly 92. Getting to point I’d worry. See some Lincecum signs: no command stuff guy losing stuff.

As Mike Fast found at Baseball Prospectus in 2011, spring training velocity readings can indeed carry over into the regular season. If that happens with Samardzija, the $90 million roll of the dice the Giants made on his 2015 season being an outlier could turn out snake eyes.

In a way, the concerns about Samardzija extend to Peavy.

The 34-year-old's velocity is long gone, and his strikeout ability is following suit. And though he managed a 3.58 ERA despite that in 2015, the 27 hits he's allowed this spring look like a warning. The curiously low .267 BABIP he posted last year puts him in line for a harsh regression. It seems it's already begun.

Small sample size be damned, it's probably safe to put Cain in the same boat as Peavy. 

The 31-year-old's velocity and strikeouts are also past their prime. And though we're only looking at one start, the ease with which he was hit is in line with his reality in recent seasons. Between 2009 and 2013, he allowed 7.4 hits per nine innings. Since 2014, that figured has jumped to 9.1.

The recent realities department also makes it harder to ignore Cueto's rough spring. The nine hits he's allowed in his 4.1 innings call to mind the many hits—101 in 81.1 innings, to be exact—he gave up as a Kansas City Royal last summer. That didn't stop the Giants from spending $130 million on him, but he hasn't erased the questions about whether he deserved that much.

If poor performances don't bring down the Giants rotation, maybe injuries will.

Feb 19, 2016; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain (18) throws to starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija (29) during a workout at Scottsdale Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

That concern definitely applies to Cain, whose arm injury this spring is a reminder of the setbacks that have limited him to just 26 starts over the last two seasons. Peavy's track record of injury proneness extends even further. He's averaged only 23 starts per season since 2008.

Cueto and Bumgarner may not be safe either. Though it sounds like his head is fine, the way in which Cueto has been pampered this spring calls to mind his history of shoulder trouble and the questions orbiting around his right elbow. And though durability has been one of Bumgarner's many virtues, he's racked up enough mileage to suggest that maybe this spring's aches and pains are overdue.

Thus concludes our look at the many excuses to freak out about what's going on with the Giants rotation this spring. Exactly how much everyone should be freaking out, though, is another question.

The answer isn't "a lot." As bad as it all sounds, we're still only talking about spring training. Even things that have some predictive powers aren't foolproof, and even the cruddiest pitching staffs during the spring can go on to do great things. Look no further than last year's Chicago Cubs.

But the answer isn't "not at all" either. 

Look closely at the projections above, and you get a picture of a model rotation. Bumgarner, Cueto and Samardzija are projected to post ERAs in the 2.70-3.40 range and eat a bunch of innings. Peavy and Cain, for their part, are expected to be perfectly serviceable back-end starters with ERAs in the 3.60-4.10 range across decent innings totals.

But like with the Royals and what's expected of them in 2016, this is one of those situations where the projections should be served with a grain of salt or two. The Giants rotation may look like a model group in theory, but reality is and always has been another story.

In theory, the Giants rotation has three of the best pitchers in baseball up top. In reality, that front three contains one legit star and two stars who are teetering on the edge of being fallen stars. In theory, the Giants are lucky to have two pitchers like Peavy and Cain at the back end. In reality, the Giants will be lucky if either their health or their performances allow them to stay at the back end.

There's no escaping the notion that the Giants rotation was due for a reality check eventually. That's what they've been hit with this spring, with the only real surprise being Bumgarner's involvement in it. Aside from that, well, it all adds up.

An optimist will say that it's better for reality checks to happen during spring training than in the regular season or the postseason. And hey, not even Negative Nellies like ourselves are going to deny that.

But all the same, the Giants must now hope that what's happened in spring training will stay in spring training. Otherwise, the top of the NL West could continue to elude them.

Regular-season stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. Spring training stats courtesy of MLB.com.

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