Is the rotation THAT good?
If you’ve seen my writing before, you know that I hate the Giants rotation with a vengeance. At least, according to a lot of Giants fans. What people may be missing is that I don’t think the staff is bad, just not as good as some think. The thing is, many analysts and fans are touting this year’s staff—Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Jake Peavy, and Matt Cain/Chris Heston—as one of the best in the majors. But, it may not be as good as it seems.
To start, if you combined those six starters’ second half numbers from 2015, it would come out to a 4.46 ERA. If you took Madison Bumgarner out of the equation, that ERA would sit at an ugly 4.93 mark: fourth worst in the majors. Obviously, a strong track record of success for most of these starters indicates that the team won’t have an ERA sitting around 5 next season, but how much better will it really be?
The Giants’ ace is Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner’s an elite pitcher, and there’s not much to be worried about with him. He’s a worthy ace for any team in the league. The second pitcher on the depth chart, Johnny Cueto, can also be considered one of the best pitchers in the league…when healthy. Cueto carries some risk, and that risk lies in his elbow. Although Cueto missed just one start last season, it was due to a minor flexor tendon strain.The injury shouldn’t be too worrisome, but he had a 4.34 ERA in the second half. This may or may not be connected to the arm injury, but any elbow injury followed by poor performance is an ominous sign. Still, this isn’t something to get too concerned about, and there’s a good chance that Cueto is another ace for the Giants.
Things get a bit ugly after that, though. The Giants’ third starter happens to be the same pitcher that gave up the most runs and hits in the majors last season. Jeff Samardzija had a disastrous 2015, which was headlined by a career-high 4.96 ERA, and a career-low 6.86 K/9. Although bad defense and bad luck were at fault for some of his performance, a full bounce back to 2014-like levels are unlikely. Samardzija lost velocity on his fastball, movement on his sinker, and command of his splitter. Some issues can be fixed in San Francisco, such as his “supposed” habit of tipping pitches, but mechanical problems that cropped up last year are troublesome and not very easy to correct. Despite a strong track record for Samardzija, it’s tough to envision him keeping his ERA much lower than 4.00 next season, making him a decent pitcher, but certainly not the possible top of the rotation starter that many expect him to be.
Next in the rotation is Jake Peavy. Peavy’s a solid starter, but he may not be much better than a fourth or fifth man in the rotation. Peavy’s troublesome combination of a low strikeout rate and a low ground ball rate don’t go well together. He did have a 3.58 ERA last year, but much of that was due to an abnormally low home run per fly ball rate that is due to rise. In addition, Peavy is not a good bet to throw more than 150 innings, after averaging just 142 innings a year since 2009.
Finally, the Giants can either use Chris Heston or Matt Cain as their fifth starter. Cain threw just 60.2 innings last season after 90.1 the year before, and was wholly ineffective both seasons. After undergoing surgery last season for bone spurs in his elbow, there is some hope that he could improve, but it’s unlikely that Cain is the pitcher he used to be. Realistically, any contribution at all from Cain would be a surprise.
Chris Heston had a nice rookie season last year, with a modest strikeout rate and a 3.95 ERA. But, it’s very unlikely he repeats that performance. A second half ERA of 4.91, along with a 4.74 xFIP, point to serious regression next year for Heston. He’s better served as a long man than a starter for a contending team.
Overall, the pitching staff is solid, but not elite like some may expect. The Giants likely have two aces, but there’s not much after that: a questionable third or fourth starter, an injury prone back end starter, and two other pitchers that could both be disasters next season. The rotation is certainly solid, but it may also be overrated.