The 2010 San Francisco Giants: The Best Starting Rotation in Modern MLB History?

Bleacher ReportSenior Writer ISeptember 24, 2010

The 2010 San Francisco Giants: The Best Starting Rotation in Modern MLB History?

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Everyone knew the San Francisco Giants' starting pitching would be the team's strength heading into the 2010 season.

    However, even those lofty expectations didn't prepare the Major League Baseball world for what would unfold in the month of April—the starters came out firing bullets.

    Extremely accurate and effective bullets.

    Tim Lincecum roared from the gates (1.27 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 43:7 K:BB) and three of the other four starters were right on his heels.

    Barry Zito (1.53 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 24:11 K:BB), Jonathan Sanchez (1.85 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 33:13 K:BB), and Matt Cain (3.80 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 16:4 K:BB) did their best freakish imitations.

    However, the lads cooled considerably when the calendar began turning pages as Lincecum embarked on a Cy-Young-self-seeking journey that lasted several months and "Baked Zito" regressed badly.

    That and the presence of the original (and underwhelming) fifth starter, Todd Wellemeyer, killed any historical talk regarding the Gents' rotation.

    Of course, things have changed.

    Rookie-phenom Madison Bumgarner grabbed the No. 5 slot in late June, and the 21-year-old hasn't shown even a slight hint of relinquishing it.

    In fact, you could make a strong argument that the grizzled veteran, Zito, is the weakest link at this point.

    When a 32-year-old former Cy Young could be the worst option in a rotation, it's time to think about attaching "all-time" to any flattering description.

    But, first, let's take a closer look at the suspects:

No. 5 Starter—Madison Bumgarner

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    2010 Statistics: 17 GS, 106 IP, 6-6, 3.06 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 79:25 K:BB (3.16 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .269/.315/.416

    I say again, the youngster is only 21 years old.

    In fact, he spent his first month of the 2010 campaign (July) tossing to big-league hitters as a wet-behind-the-ears 20-year-old.

    That's pretty impressive no matter the circumstances, but it's freakin' unreal considering "MadBum" was asked to help steady a contending ship that had gone rudderless when Tim Lincecum lost control of his arsenal in the middle months of the 162-game slate.

    Of course, what's most intriguing about the southpaw is that he's already made adjustments. After struggling through the month of August, Bumgarner has bounced back in September to throw 27 innings of scintillating baseball (1.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP).

    That and the rookie leads a ferocious staff in strikeouts per walk.

    Not too bad for a kid who had 10 major-league frames to his credit before this year.

    If the Giants can emerge from the late-season scrum with a playoff berth in hand, there's no telling what Madison might do.

    He's already well over his career-high for innings pitched, but he's shown no signs of slowing down so there's no guarantee he'll get the David Price treatment (relegated to being a postseason bullpen weapon).

    Either way, the die has been cast for this blue-chipper and the Bay Area likes what it's seen.

    Because you can never have too many aces on one staff.

No. 4 Starter—Jonathan Sanchez

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    2010 Statistics: 31 GS, 182.1 IP, 11-9, 3.16 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 194:87 K:BB (2.23 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .206/.306/.348

    As you can see, Sanchez is another left-hander with filth for days.

    The 27-year-old has given the Giant faithful glimpses of his considerable potential ever since being inserted into the Orange and Black rotation.

    His no-hitter against the San Diego Padres in 2009 quickly became the stuff of legends in the City, but that wasn't the only time he'd toyed with the loyal fan base.

    The current season didn't appear to be any different—though "Dirty Sanchez" was more consistent than past seasons, he still was frustrating on a regular basis.

    However, Jonathan might've finally turned the corner. No pitcher will ever be perfect every time he takes the bump, but the southpaw has authored six gems of various clarity in his last seven trips to the mound.

    Aside from a shellacking in the Cincinnati bandbox the Reds call home, he's conceded only four earnies since August 13th.

    And this is San Francisco's No. 4 starter.

    Of course, that label might not be accurate much longer—if this team is, in fact, headed for the playoffs, Sanchez is making a very strong argument to take the pearl for Game 2 or 3 as the Giants' third-best flamethrower.

No. 3 Starter—Matt Cain

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    2010 Statistics: 31 GS, 210.1 IP, 12-10, 3.00 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 165:59 K:BB (2.80 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .220/.277/.361

    Matt Cain isn't the Giants' flashiest pitcher and his stats might not blow your skirt up, but he's been the linchpin in the San Francisco rotation all year.

    While he's had a couple rough spots like most mortals, "Cainer" has undoubtedly been the team's most reliable option from April through September. 

    The soon-to-be 26-year-old single-handedly kept the rotation from dissolving when the real Tim Lincecum went AWOL, especially in May and June.

    In reality, he's the squad's No. 2 hurler, but the vagaries of baseball thought and tradition prefer a right-left staggering to the rotation so the burly right-hander got bumped down a notch on the ladder.

    But in name only.

    Like many horses, Cain kicks his game into another gear as the stakes are raised. He's working on 13-straight scoreless innings in which he's give up six baserunners as San Francisco comes down the stretch.

    If los Gigantes' postseason aspirations become reality, Bruce Bochy and the organizational brain trust will have a tough decision to make—lead with your two best starters or go right-left-right to shake up the look given to the opposition.

    And the question only gets more difficult with each successive doughnut.

No. 2 Starter—Barry Zito

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    2010 Statistics: 31 GS, 192 IP, 9-13, 3.98 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 142:77 K:BB (1.84 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .246/.324/.392

    Against the rest of the Giants' rotation, Zito's numbers look suspect and they become downright laughable when you attach his infamous price tag.

    That said, Barry was a very large part of the team's hot start and he's starting to find his groove again when the games mean the most.

    After an utterly grotesque month of August, "Zeets" has twirled a decent September despite a tough opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    He gave up four earned runs in four innings that day, but has rebounded to post a 3.32 earned run average and a 1.06 walks-plus-hits per innings pitched.

    Again, those rates look pedestrian when compared to the ones posted by his mates, but that's more a testament to the rest than an indictment of Zito.

    Further enhancing his '10 value, Barry Zito is the only San Francisco starter who has any playoff experience (with seven starts).

    Many in the Bay Area are probably rooting for the former Oakland Athletic to be bullpen-bound should the squad make the second season, but don't dismiss the one-of-a-kind pressure that awaits.

    And Barry's experience dealing with it.

The Ace—Tim Lincecum

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    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

    2010 Statistics: 31 GS, 197.1 IP, 14-10, 3.60 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 211:72 K:BB (2.93 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .248/.316/.373

    If you just saw that stat line with no name attached and then were told it had inspired widespread panic for much of the baseball season, you'd think the story was too ridiculous to be true.

    Lincecum leads the team in wins, has broken the 200 strikeout plateau, his earned run average and walks-plus-hits per innings pitched are better than league averages, and opponents aren't exactly drubbing him all over the yard as the slash line proves.

    Nevertheless, this has been a down year for the two-time defending National League Cy Young Award winner.

    And that pretty much says it all.

    So thoroughly has the diminutive "Franchise" spoiled the City that we look upon what is actually a good stat line (in a vacuum) as catastrophic.

    In our defense, Timmy is the face of the franchise and you don't usually expect the team to stay afloat when its leader is in the doldrums.

    But that's exactly what the San Francisco Giants were able to do thanks to the rest of their dominating rotation.

    Now, Lincecum seems to have rediscovered his award-winning stuff and that could be very bad news for a potential playoff opponent.

    Because they'll be seeing the ace at least twice.

But the Best in Modern MLB History?

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    PHOENIX - SEPTEMBER 06:  Pitching coach Dave Righetti of the San Francisco Giants watches from the dugout during the Major League Baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on September 6, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Giants defeated
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Having seen what the Giants' rotation has done in 2010, it's clearly been one of the best in Major League Baseball. When you stack it up, one through five, you can make a very persuasive argument that it has been THE best.

    Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and Jaime Garcia give the St. Louis Cardinals a nice trio at the top of the rotation, as do Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels for the Philadelphia Phillies.

    Additionally, the Cincinnati Reds, Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics, and San Diego Padres all feature some exceptional young talent, Nos. 1-5.

    But the Cards and Phils are front-loaded; they suffer badly on the back-ends. Meanwhile, the youth belonging to the Reds, Rays, A's, and Friars is still too inconsistent to enter the fray—mixing blinders with blunders far too frequently.

    Consequently, the question becomes: Where do these Giants stack up against their historical competition?

    For the record, I'm not a fan of comparing players across generations because the game has changed so considerably. I mean, I could pretend to make an argument distinguishing between a Dead Ball Era rotation and one plying its trade in the modern era, but it would be absurd to the point of being meaningless.

    So, for these purposes, I've excluded anything prior to 1969—Bob Gibson's inhuman achievements of 1968 forced the Show to shave five inches off the pitcher's mound prior to the '69 season so it seemed like a natural barrier between markedly different versions of the game.

The 1971 Baltimore Orioles

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    Associated Press

    Starting Rotation:

    Mike Cueller—38 GS, 292.1 IP, 20-9, 3.08 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 124:78 K:BB (1.59 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .234/.285/.355

    Pat Dobson—37 GS, 282.1 IP, 20-8, 2.90 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 187:63 K:BB (2.97 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .235/.278/.343

    Dave McNally—30 GS, 224.1 IP, 21-5, 2.89 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 91:58 K:BB (1.57 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .229/.282/.367

    Jim Palmer—37 GS, 282 IP, 20-9, 2.68 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 184:106 K:BB (1.74 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .221/.295/.319 

    Right away, we see the problem in transgenerational comparisons—the '71 Orioles only used a four-man rotation which can explain the obscene totals (by today's standards) in games started and innings pitched. The increased workload can also explain the depressed strikeout numbers.

    If you're expected to go deep into the game over 35 times a year, you're probably going to be pitching to contact more frequently to avoid high pitch counts.

    Despite the substantial differences in starting pitching since its historic year, the 1971 rotation must be mentioned because wins still meant something back then and each of the quartet tallied 20 (or 21) of them.

    It's the only modern collection to do so and the first one of any kind to hit the mark since the 1920 Chicago White Sox.

    Furthermore, the ratios are all pretty snazzy and one other thing—all four studs received MVP consideration while McNally finished fourth in Cy Young voting.

The 1972 Oakland Athletics

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Starting Rotation:

    Vida Blue—23 GS, 151 IP, 6-10, 2.80 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 111:48 K:BB (2.31 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .215/.277/.314

    Dave Hamilton—14 GS, 101.1 IP, 6-6, 2.93 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 55:31 K:BB (1.77 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .249/.304/.357

    Ken Holtzman—37 GS, 265.1 IP, 19-11, 2.51 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 134:52 K:BB (2.58 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .236/.276/.353

    Catfish Hunter—38 GS, 295.1 IP,  21-7, 2.04 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 191:70 K:BB (2.73 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .189/.241/.296

    Blue Moon Odom—30 GS, 194.1 IP, 15-6, 2.50 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 86:87 K:BB (0.99 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .234/.319/.314

    The '72 A's get a little shaky at the back end of the rotation with Odom and the Blue/Hamilton combo. Nevertheless, they demand consideration if only because of Catfish Hunter—honestly, who throws almost 300 innings while suffering less than a baserunner an inning?

    That's all kinds of crazy. Almost as wackadoo as his justifiable fourth-place finish in the AL Cy Young voting that year.

    Holtzman wasn't too shabby as Hunter's No. 2 (though I have no idea what the actual rotation was) and even Blue Moon managed to keep runs off the board.

    His peripheral stats aren't exactly magical, but he was clearly tough to hit for any kind of power as evidenced by his opponents' .314 slugging percentage.

    Finally, Hamilton was in his rookie year and, much like Bumgarner, was asked to contribute to a contender. Something he managed to do for the 1972 World Series Champions.

The 1986 New York Mets

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Starting Rotation:

    Rick Aguilera—20 GS, 141.2 IP, 10-7, 3.88 ERA, 2.28 WHIP, 104:36 K:BB (2.89 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .263/.314/.425

    Ron Darling—34 GS, 237 IP, 15-6, 2.81 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 184:81 K:BB (2.27 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .234/.300/.354

    Sid Fernandez—31 GS, 204.1 IP, 16-6, 3.52 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 200:91 K:BB (2.20 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .216/.300/.324

    Dwight Gooden—33 GS, 250 IP,  17-6, 2.84 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 200:80 K:BB (2.50 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .215/.278/.321

    Bob Ojeda—30 GS, 217.1 IP, 18-5, 2.57 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 148:52 K:BB (2.85 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .230/.278/.330

    Although Doc Gooden's 1985 season was better than his splendid '86 campaign, the entire Mets' rotation answered the call in '86.

    Not only was Gooden's effort a decent approximation of his almost-unhittable previous one, but Ron Darling pitched to many career bests and Sid Fernandez was an unwelcome blimp on the mound—a guy who looked like he should be on a beer-league softball team somewhere, but came out and confounded major-league hitters.

    Meanwhile, Ojeda might've actually been second-best starter in the rotation and Aguilera was no cupcake.

    Additionally, this quintet played a large role in the '86 Mets memorable defeat of the Boston Red Sox in the Fall Classic.

    Perhaps more incredible on an individual level—Gooden and Fernandez (tied for seventh), Darling (fifth), and Ojeda (fourth) all finished in the top 10 of NL Cy Young voting.

    Unfortunately, all that talent wasn't good enough or strong enough to beat cocaine.

The 1988 New York Mets

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    Associated Press

    Starting Rotation:

    David Cone—28 GS, 231.1 IP, 20-3, 2.22 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 213:80 K:BB (2.66 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .213/.283/.293

    Ron Darling—34 GS, 240.2 IP, 17-9, 3.25 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 161:60 K:BB (2.68 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .245/.294/.383

    Sid Fernandez—31 GS, 187 IP, 12-10, 3.03 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 189:70 K:BB (2.70 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .191/.271/.305

    Dwight Gooden—34 GS, 248.1 IP, 18-9, 3.19 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 175:57 K:BB (3.07 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .256/.301/.333

    Bob Ojeda—29 GS, 190.1 IP, 10-13, 2.88 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 133:33 K:BB (4.03 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .225/.261/.317

    I was still a devout St. Louis Cardinal fan in the mid-to-late 1980s (the official transition to San Francisco happened at some point in the 1988 season after my family moved to the Bay Area) so I absolutely loathed these Mutt teams—there's nothing worse than getting your team's keister handed to you on a silver platter by a bunch of braying, boastful donkeys.

    But such was life for much of the National League while New York was establishing itself (briefly) as the class of the Senior Circuit.

    The starting rotation was, much like in the 1986 World Series, a large part of the franchise's success in that decade. The '88 collection didn't reach the same ultimate heights of the '86 version, but the raw numbers suggest the failure might've been caused elsewhere.

    Truth be told, swapping out Aguilera for Cone could've made this a more formidable group along with better numerical seasons from Fernandez and Ojeda.

    The issue remains open, however, because Gooden had already started to shoot some of his potential up his nose and Darling wasn't quite as stellar.

    Only Cone would make a ripple in the NL Cy Young voting this time around, finishing third.

The 1993 Atlanta Braves

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Starting Rotation:

    Steve Avery—35 GS, 223.1 IP, 18-6, 2.94 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 125:43 K:BB (2.91 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .261/.295/.362

    Tom Glavine—36 GS, 239.1 IP, 22-6, 3.20 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 120:90 K:BB (1.33 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .259/.327/.376

    Greg Maddux—36 GS, 267 IP, 20-10, 2.36 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 197:52 K:BB (3.79 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .232/.273/.317

    John Smoltz—35 GS, 243.2 IP, 15-11, 3.62 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 208:100 K:BB (2.08 K/BB), and an opponents' slash line of .230/.309/.369

    OK, technically Pete Smith was a member of the rotation. But he only made 14 starts and didn't break 100 innings, so I consider him to be more of a spot-starter, i.e., toss his mediocre derriere.

    What you're left with is a much more accurate idea of the Bravos' rotation that enabled them (with a little help from Fred McGriff) to chase down my beloved Giants in the "Last Great Pennant Chase." Avery, Glavine, and Smoltz were all All Stars in '93 and the one guy who wasn't (Maddux) would win the second of four consecutive NL Cy Young Awards at the end of the season.

    Let's see...what else?

    Smoltzie would win a Cy Young in 1996 and Glavine already had his from 1991 (though he'd win a second in 1998).

    Alas, poor Steve Avery ended up being the red-headed stepchild from the group—no Cy Young and the '93 season would be the pinnacle of his individual career.

    The so-so southpaw notwithstanding, this is still a group that blended excellence of both the single-season and career-long varieties like few other rotations of the modern era have.


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    Doug Mills/Associated Press

    When all the dust settles, you won't find a more subjective question with a more tightly packed field of contenders.

    Actually, the field is even more cluttered because I omitted a few for brevity's sake—the remaining Brave rotations of the '90s, the three-headed monster in Oakland (Tim Hudson, Mark Moulder, and Zito), and a few others.

    Regardless, the real cream of the crop has been mentioned, and the 2010 San Francisco Giants' rotation measures up quite nicely.

    It's tough to argue Bumgarner, Cain, Lincecum, Sanchez, and Zito have had the best single season considering what the '71 Orioles (although, remember, the designated hitter didn't go into effect until 1973) and '86 Mets did.

    Furthermore, it's FAR too early to start measuring them up against the lasting brilliance of those Atlanta rotations considering Glavine, Maddux, and Smoltz will all be early-ballot (if not first-ballot) Hall of Famers.

    Shoot, only Zito has more than six years in the Big Leagues while Lincecum only has about four full years and Bumgarner's working on his first.

    But, when you look at the fantastic years the Giant starters are having and consider the potential dominance still awaiting its transformation into the kinetic kind, it doesn't take a real creative genius to imagine this quintet stifling the opposition for years to come.

    And doing it like none before them ever has.

    When that time arrives, THEN the San Francisco Giants will have the best starting rotation, top to bottom, in modern Major League Baseball history.

    But not yet.

    Until then, my vote goes—begrudgingly—to the 1993 Atlanta Braves and the ability of that rotation's nucleus to blend singular greatness with enduring excellence.

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