Evaluating the Giants’ Rotation

Since the start of the San Francisco Giants’ remarkable World Series run, the team has boasted a strong rotation. From 2010 to 2014, when three championships were won, the rotation had the seventh best ERA in the league, with a 3.73 mark. A disappointing 84-78 record last year shouldn’t be blamed on the starters — injuries to key players played a big role in their failure to make the postseason. Still, the front office was (understandably) uncomfortable with their rotation for 2016. As a result, the team made two big splashes in free agency, signing Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija.

While the rotation is now composed of big names — Madison Bumgarner, Cueto, Samardzija, Jake PeavyMatt Cain, and Chris Heston — it’s not as strong as it appears. In the second half of last season, those six starters combined for a less-than-inspiring 4.46 ERA. Even worse, if you take out Bumgarner’s stellar performance, the rest of the group had a 4.93 ERA, which would have ranked fourth-highest in the major leagues. So, what should we believe? Is the impressive track record of those players a sign of dominance in 2016, or should the Giants be scrambling for more help after last season’s apparent mid-year collapse?

Madison Bumgarner

Every great rotation needs an ace, and the Giants are set in that regard. There’s not a whole lot that needs to be said about Madison Bumgarner, who has been dominant since breaking into the league in 2010. The only two things worth mentioning regarding Bumgarner are his performance away from AT&T Park and his workload. Bumgarner’s 4.15 ERA away from home in 2015 is a bit surprising, and something to keep an eye on next season. Still, he had a 3.39 xFIP, so it’s probably not worth worrying about.

The other cautionary detail about Bumgarner is that he’s thrown the seventh-most regular-season innings in baseball since his first full season in 2011, and another 88.1 postseason innings puts him just third in baseball behind James Shields and Clayton Kershaw. This is both a testament to Bumgarner’s durability and a possible concern in the future. We saw the same thing happen last year when James Shields signed — he’s so durable that some teams worried he’d eventually break down. That said, it’s just something to keep in the back of your mind, not a major red flag.

Jeff Samardzija

The new and most noteworthy part of the Giants’ rotation is their second and third starters — Samardzija and Cueto. I already wrote a detailed profile on Samardzija’s 2015 season and outlook for 2016, which can be found here. But all in all, his prospects for next season and the future aren’t very encouraging. Samardzija’s 2015 involved some bad luck, but he still led the majors in runs allowed and hits. He lost velocity on his fastball, movement on his sinker, and command of his splitter.

Samardzija’s pitch mix was also changed for the worse in 2015, so an alteration in that regard could help him find some success. Still, he’ll need to improve his velocity, command, and movement on three of his most important pitches if he wants to get back to 2014 levels, and that’s hard to envision. Samardzija’s track record is strong, but in this case, his future performance isn’t likely to reflect that. It’s a pessimistic outlook, but the 30-year-old shouldn’t be expected to be more than a four or five starter next season and beyond.

Johnny Cueto

Luckily for the Giants, they got a very good pitcher in Cueto. The righty is second to only Kershaw in ERA since 2011, and has been an outstanding pitcher for years. He’s a fly-ball pitcher, which makes his strong performance in the small Great American Ballpark all the more impressive and improves his outlook in the spacious AT&T Park. Of course, with every pitcher, there are some risks attached, and in Cueto’s case, his health is a concern. Although Cueto missed just one start last season, it was due to an elbow injury. More specifically, he suffered a minor flexor tendon strain. The injury wouldn’t be that notable, but the issue may have contributed to his 4.34 ERA in the second half. The Giants are adamant that his MRI was clean, though.

There’s a good chance that his second half was an aberration that will be corrected, but any elbow injury followed by poor performance is an ominous sign. Although it is a risk, if the Giants got a healthy Johnny Cueto, they netted themselves a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter.

Jake Peavy

Although Peavy isn’t the explosive pitcher he used to be, the 34-year-old is still a decent option in the latter half of the rotation. The thing is, Peavy isn’t much more than a four or five starter. This may seem a bit extreme, given that he had a 3.58 ERA last season, but a variety of risks and question marks going into 2016 make for lower expectations.

For one, Peavy has all but lost the ability to strike batters out. Peavy’s 6.34 K/9 last season was 34th-worst in baseball, and unlike some of the other pitchers with low strikeout rates, he doesn’t have the high groundball rate to offset the lack of whiffs. In fact, his 37.9 percent ground ball rate was 14th-worst in baseball. One of the only reasons why his 2015 was so successful was due to an abnormally low home run per fly ball rate — one that is bound to rise next season. In addition, Peavy is not a good bet to throw more than 150 innings, after averaging just 142 innings a year since 2009. Peavy may be a solid presence in the back of the rotation, with an ERA just under 4.00 and poor strikeout numbers, but that’s about all that can be expected of him.

Matt Cain

Another previously great pitcher who has had his performance precipitously drop over the past few years is Cain. Cain threw just 60.2 innings last season after 90.1 the year before, and was wholly ineffective both seasons. Although his 2013 campaign was disappointing, his peripheral numbers at least showed potential for improvement. At this point, though, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for him bouncing back. Cain stopped striking batters out, walked more, induced fewer ground balls, and saw his velocity fall even further last season, which is certainly not a good sign. Bone spurs in his elbow and a strained flexor tendon could be the answer for some of his struggles, and there’s a chance that he is healthy for the first time in a couple of years going into 2016. Still, it’s quite hard to imagine much of a contribution from Cain next season, despite being listed as the fifth starter on the depth chart.

Chris Heston

If Cain or Peavy flop or are injured next year (which wouldn’t be a surprise), the Giants would have to call on their current sixth starter, Heston. Heston came out of nowhere last season, throwing a no-hitter and finishing with a 3.95 ERA and reasonable strikeout rate. His low-90’s at best fastball and lack of flashy secondaries, as well as a lack of track record, make people hesitant about his breakout 2015. This is understandable, and it’s hard to see him repeating last season’s sub-4.00 ERA despite peripherals that support the performance.

Heston collapsed in the second half, with a 4.91 ERA, and that performance was deserved, according to his 4.74 xFIP. The final numbers were balanced out because of a 3.39 ERA and 3.53 xFIP in the first half, but the Giants can’t be feeling good about the potential of sticking Heston in the rotation next year. He profiles more of a long man at this point, and it’s hard to see him getting much better.

All in all, the Giants’ rotation isn’t as good as it may seem on the surface. The front end is very strong with aces Bumgarner and Cueto, but the supporting cast is anything but. The team will need a big bounce-back year from Samardzija if they want him to be a good third starter, and I’m not optimistic that will happen. In addition, Peavy is a big health risk, and with a capped upside, he’s probably not much more than a fourth starter. Rounding out the rotation is the corpse of Cain, and if he’s injured or ineffective, Heston.  Unfortunately, neither of them seem to fit the role of even a fifth starter.

There is some upside in this rotation, but it’s lacking some depth. The deeper you look into the Giants’ starters, the more it looks like what the Los Angeles Dodgers are dealing with: a very top-heavy staff with little depth and stability in the latter half. Will their offense be enough to overcome some weaker outings by Peavy, Cain, Heston, and Samardzija? We’ll see, but the rotation is unlikely to be as dominant as Giants fans are used to next season.

10 Responses

  1. Cove Chatter

    You were right in saying this is a very pessimistic outlook. I have to compliment you for the research you put into this piece, but there are a couple of claims I completely disagree with.

    1. A disappointing 2015 shouldn’t be blamed on the rotation: Yes, the injury to Pence stung, and all of the late-season concussions caught up with them, but the Giants offense was a very good all season despite all that. Their rotation, however, was wildly inconsistent. Aside from Bumgarner and a league-average Heston (who really faded down the stretch), the Giants only decent SP was Peavy who only pitched for half the year. From my viewpoint, it was the team’s inability to find consistent starting pitching that kept it from the postseason.

    2. Samardzija shouldn’t be expected as more than a #4 or 5 starter going forward: Here’s where we are completely apart. A lot of things contributed to Shark’s dismal 2015, and you did a nice job pointing them out. Lack of velocity was not one of them however, as he maintained his 92-95 sinker all season. His fastball velocity still ranks him among the top tier of starting pitchers.

    It’s also very difficult for me to buy the argument that Samardzija is simply done as an impact pitcher (as he certainly would be in the future scenario you suggest) when you take into account the fact he was one of the best pitchers in the NL in 2014. There are other pitchers who have struggled in one league vs the other. The White Sox also had one of the worst defenses in baseball last year, a stark contrast to the Giants, whose infield is one of the most talented in baseball. That, combined with the difference in the home ballparks of Chicago and SF, and the elite reputation of Giants pitching coach Dave Raghetti, has me feeling very optimistic about a resurgence of Shark as an impact pitcher. Failing to mention all of those factors just doesn’t address the whole picture in my mind.

    The Giants rotation was the biggest sore spot on the team in 2015. I feel very confident that the Cueto & Samardzija acquisitions now gives them one of the strongest staffs (and teams) in the NL heading into 2016. It sure beats the alternative of another year with Vogelsong, Lincecum and Hudson at the back end of the rotation.

    Reply
    • Ben Diamond

      I appreciate the comments. To address your first point: it may have seemed that their rotation held them back, but the staff was actually ninth best in the majors in terms of ERA (3.73). The offense scored the 12th most runs in the majors, so neither side deserves to be credited with costing them the post season. Something that really hurt them was a 19-28 record in one run games, which can be attributed to bad luck (their bullpen was very good last season, so it wasn’t their fault).

      If you’d like to check out Samardzija’s average velocity, it can be found right here. His fourseam fastball lost over a mile per hour, and all of his other pitches lost over a half of a mile per hour of velocity. It’s not a major change, but it’s not something you want to see from a then-29 year old that just got signed to a big contract. I wasn’t pointing out that his sinker and fastball were slow pitches, but the fact that the pitches were losing velocity is a concern and red flag.

      I don’t think that Samardzija’s hopes of returning to 2014 form are gone, but for him to get back to those levels, a few things would have to break right, and I’m not overly confident in that happening. He’s not going to lead the majors in runs allowed or hits again, but you’re relying on a huge bounceback to call him an impact pitcher again. I’m not sure if you read my longer Samardzija article yet, but that may clear things up that I couldn’t explain as clearly in the condensed space of this article.

      My article was certainly a pessimistic take on the rotation, and I can see how you would think it’s a little over the top, compared to other takes out there. That said, I really don’t have confidence in their depth beyond the front two, which can be disputed depending on your opinion of Samardzija and Peavy. I just happen to be down on both of them going into next season.

      Reply
  2. MosesZD

    1. There’s more to Samardzija’s problems than Samardzija. The White Sox defense was so bad that the saber-guys at Fangraphs came to the conclusion that the Top-3 White Sox pitchers were all punished by about a run. Samardzija was the worst hit with 1.17 added to his ERA.

    Also, I’m not sure what ‘velocity loss’ Samardzija had. According to PitchFx, his 4-seam was 94.3 with a career average of 94.5. His 2-seam was 94.3 vs career 94.4. His cutter was 92.0 vs career of 91.4. His splitter was 85.0 vs career 84.8. His slider 85.4 vs career 84.8. In short, all the data points to is no real velocity loss and only typical pitcher variation.

    BTW, Samardzija says at least part of his problem was tipping pitches. A problem not corrected by his pitching coach until late in the season. There were also some other issues. Issues Samardzija and his pitching-coach didn’t see eye-to-eye on.

    So, we’ll see. But as for velocity. Nope, don’t agree. PitchFX says he was too close to his normal seasonal variations for that to be considered the ‘issue.’

    2. Yeah, Cain. Cain’s problem wasn’t really velocity, which like Samardzija, was way too close to his career norms to be the smoking gun. Rather, it was location. Cain’s command was way off and he left way too many pitches up in the strike zone and down the middle of the plate.

    Reply
    • Ben Diamond

      Hi, appreciate the response. To address your first point, Samardzija’s velocity loss can be seen right here. It’s nothing shocking, but a big red flag. Samardzija was certainly hurt by bad luck, but his ERA is still somewhere around 4.00 with league average defense. I don’t view that as much higher than a 4th starter, and I don’t think he is much better in 2016. I forgot to mention tipping pitches, and that is something I probably should have taken into account. I still don’t know how much better he will be without that working against him.

      Cain’s velocity drop can also be viewed here. Command is also an issue, and I should have elaborated on that more, but I still think velocity is a big problem for him.

      Reply
  3. ronthewise

    The writer of this article is overly pessimistic on the Giants rotation. They will be better than he thinks.

    Reply
  4. Steven Claxton

    I’m glad I came to read the comments. I was worried when I read about Samardzija’s velocity “drop”. Also, I think Heston had fantastic movement on his pitches in his first half or so and his main issue was adjusting to the workload. I believe he can replicate his performance last year if he can adjust to the workload and be a formidable #4, with potential to be close to a #3.

    Reply
  5. Stevecoaster

    Mr. Diamond is entitled to his opinion, however I am curious at how he can mention Bumgarner’s innings count since 2010 and yet never mention Samardzija’s. Also, he writes all the negatives about Cain and even goes so far as to say there isn’t hope for him to bounce back, as if Cain’s last start of the year, and his first one free of pain and bone chips in years means nothing. After all, Cain isn’t some 33 year-old derelict but rather someone several years younger with basically few innings over the last two years and a new pitching arm. Nonetheless, we’ll compare notes at the end of 2016 and see who was right.

    Reply
  6. Matt

    Mr. Diamond,
    I’m not quite sure where you got your information from but many of the statistics that you mentioned about the Giants pitching are inaccurate. Jeff Samardzija’s average velocity was in line with his career numbers. There are a few issues that caused Samardzija’s horrible 2015 season and they are all easily corrected. First and foremost Samardzija was tipping his pitches. Second, even though Don Cooper is an excellent pitching coach his philosophy in the manner in which he told Samardzija to pitch to opposing hitters went against his strength causing an uncomfortable working relationship. Third, take a look at video of Samardzija from 2014 and previous seasons when his sinker and slider had more tilt and you will notice that for the majority of 2015 he was throwing his pitches from a lower arm angle which caused him to lose tilt on the sinker and slider. Fourth he pitched in an extremely hitter friendly ballpark with one of the worst defensive teams in baseball playing behind him. The fifth and final contributing factors to Samardzija’s poor 2015 season are combinations of a terrible defensive team, hitter friendly ballpark and Don Cooper forcing his philosophy on how to go about getting hitters out upon Samardzija going away from his strength. Therefore he frequently was not 100% committed to the pitches he was throwing and when you’re not committed to the pitch you are throwing it quite often causes you to throw a bad pitch. All of these factors combined caused a significant lack of confidence which causes poorly located and extremely hit able pitches. Mr. Diamond, taking all of these factors into consideration plus the fact that with the Giants, Samardzija will have the best infield defense in the National League playing behind him he will also have two of the best pitching coaches in baseball to help him make these simple adjustments. I wholeheartedly disagree with your doom and gloom opinion regarding Samardzija’s permanent demise. At the end of the regular season the Giants starting staff will be one of the top 3 in the National League. They will have 3 starting pitchers with 15+ wins, more than 200 innings and the top 3 will have E.R.A’s below 3.50 (with Bumgarner & Cueto under 3.00 E.R.A.). Cain will will be the comeback player of the year. He will be the best # 4/5 starter in baseball.

    Reply
    • Ben Diamond

      Matt–
      To start, the velocity has indeed decreased. You can see that through the link I included in the article, from Brooks Baseball. If you missed that, it can be found here. Tipping his pitches is a factor, and so are mechanics. The former is something easily fixed, but I think you’re underestimating the challenge of altering mechanics and it’s subsequent side effects. This might surprise you, but U.S. Cellular Field is actually one of the most pitcher friendly ballparks in baseball. I’m not sure if you read my Samardzija article, but you’ve ignored some not easily fixable points that I brought up there. And I said nothing of a permanent demise–I even mentioned his upside and that he will improve, I just don’t think he will reach 2014 levels again and may be below expectations. If you’re referencing wins as a statistic to prove that the rotation will be good, I don’t know what to tell you. In addition, you’ve provided no reason to believe Cain will be the Comeback Player of the Year besides your word and opinion.

      Reply

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