As any poker player will tell you, two aces are better than one.
Ask the San Francisco Giants, and they'll confirm as much.
This winter, the Giants went shopping with money to burn and holes to fill in the starting five. According to Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle, they pursued reigning ERA king Zack Greinke, who opted out of his contract with the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers. But Greinke wound up spurning San Francisco and Los Angeles and inking a six-year, $206.5 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
So the Giants shifted to Plan B and signed Jeff Samardzija for five years and $90 million. Then they tossed six years and $130 million at Johnny Cueto.
Both pitchers crossed the Golden Gate toting baggage, as we'll get into shortly. Two months into the season, however, they've been nothing short of fantastic and have joined stud left-hander Madison Bumgarner to form one of the best top-of-the-rotation trios in baseball.
As Greinke struggles in Arizona, the Giants are basking in some early even-year vindication.
Through 11 starts, Samardzija sports a 2.84 ERA with 66 strikeouts and 18 walks in 76 innings. Cueto, meanwhile, owns a 2.31 ERA and has fanned 72 while walking 14 in 81.2 innings.
Most importantly, San Francisco is 17-5 when Cueto and Samardzija take the hill.
"As well as they're throwing, it's been impressive," manager Bruce Bochy said of his shiny new weapons, per Alex Pavlovic of CSNBayArea.com. "You do your homework and watch these guys, and we knew we were getting two outstanding starters that could throw 200 innings and have good years for us."
Indeed, Cueto and Samardzija have notable track records. Samardzija was a breakout All-Star in 2014 with the Oakland Athletics and Chicago Cubs, and Cueto led MLB in strikeouts and innings pitched that same year with the Cincinnati Reds.
Last season, however, both men wobbled.
In his first and only season with the Chicago White Sox, Samardzija led all pitchers with 228 hits and 118 earned runs allowed and watched his ERA balloon to an unsightly 4.96.
Cueto finished with better numbers, posting a 3.44 ERA, but he struggled in stretches after a trade-deadline swap to the Kansas City Royals and entered the winter trailing doubts about the health of his elbow.
The hope for San Francisco was that the injury bug wouldn't bite and both pitchers would benefit from the Giants' excellent infield defense, the steadying influence of franchise catcher Buster Posey—the second-best pitch-framer in baseball, per StatCorner—and the spacious confines of AT&T Park.
So far, so great.
With Samardzija and Cueto meeting or exceeding expectations, the Giants—who sit in first place in the National League West—don't need to bask in schadenfreude. Still, it has to feel at least a little good to glance at Greinke's 4.71 ERA and .281 opponents' batting average.
Maybe Greinke would have fared better in San Francisco, for the reasons explained above. Or, maybe not.
Right now, the Giants don't need to play the what-if game. They know what they've got, and the results speak for themselves, as CSN Bay Area's Ahmed Fareed spelled out:
It's not as if Cueto and Samardzija are getting by on smoke and mirrors either. Samardzija's FIP—a stat that's supposed to strip away factors beyond a pitcher's control, such as luck and sequencing—is 2.95. Cueto's is 2.42.
Samardzija has lasted seven innings or more in six of his 11 starts, and Cueto has hit or exceeded that threshold nine of 11 times. Along with Bumgarner's reliable workhorse tendencies, that's saving the bullpen and taking pressure off back-end starters Matt Cain and Jake Peavy, who have shown flashes but struggled with injury and inconsistency.
Samardzija is locked in for the duration of his deal, but Cueto can opt out after two years. Depending on how things go, that could be the best result for the Giants, as I argued in April.
Then again, as Schulman recently opined, "during [Cueto's] ongoing honeymoon with San Francisco, the thought of him not being with the Giants in 2018 seems as absurd as his performance thus far."
For now, the Giants' focus is on getting back to October and doing their every-other-year thing. The success of Samardzija and Cueto along with Bumgarner and a balanced, largely homegrown lineup make that seem attainable.
Greinke got away. But sometimes, Plan B works out pretty well.
All statistics current as of June 1 and courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.