We’ve officially played a month of baseball and the Giants have done surprisingly well. Their current record of 13-16 puts them at 3rd place in the National League West. A traditionally strong NL West has looked slightly weaker this year than previous years. The Rockies and Padres have both gotten off to slow starts and both share the same 11-17 record and last place. The Dodgers are in 2nd place with a 14-13 record and the Diamondbacks look like one of the best teams in baseball at 20-8.
The Giants’ 13-16 record is a little misleading because the team still has some big problems, namely the ability to put runs on the board — 15th in the NL in runs scored and 14th in OPS — and play defense. The Giants Revised Zone Rating of .806 is lowest in the National League and Pythagoras says that our record should be closer to 10-19 than 13-19. This team just isn’t one or two pieces away from being good again.
But enough of the weak points, how’s one of our perceived strengths, pitching, been playing out? It’s been a mixed bag. Lincecum and Sanchez have been great, Cain has struggled some, Correia got hurt, and Zito has been tremendously bad. Let’s check out some numbers.
1. Matt Cain 1-2, 4.41 ERA
2008 Career FIP 4.73 3.97 BABIP .300 .272 K% 19.7 20.2 BB% 15.6 10.5 LD% 23.1 17 GB% 36.3 36.7 FB% 40.7 46.3
The first thing that pops out at me about Cain’s numbers is his BB% which is ungodly. Cain has always had some control issues — a career 10.6 BB% that could use some lowering before he takes another step forward as a pitcher — but never this bad. In 32.2 innings he’s walked 23 hitters. In 6 starts, Cain has waked 5 in two games, 3 in three games, and 4 in one game. Even in his first win of the season against the Rockies, he didn’t pitch marvelously, having trouble throwing strikes. His release point and arm slot really got out of whack in the Rockies game and he appeared to be “slinging” the ball.
I’ve always thought that Bochy was hard on Cain last year and in the first start of this season Bochy ran Cain out for 114 pitches. His control issues will be something to keep an eye on. I think it’s easy to forget that Cain is only 23 and on precipice of the injury nexus for young pitching. Let’s hope he’s healthy.
Otherwise, most of Cain’s numbers are inline with his career. He’s giving up less flyballs and more line drives right now, which has contributed to his higher-than-usual BABIP. If Cain can move his BB% back to his career levels and give up a few less LD’s, we should see some improvement but it’s all going to start with better control of the strike zone.
2. Tim Lincecum 4-1, 1.73 ERA
2008 Career FIP 2.68 3.41 BABIP .352 .307 K% 26.4 24.7 BB% 9.9 10.4 LD% 21.7 16.6 GB% 46.7 47 FB% 31.5 36.4
Tim Lincecum has been the best pitcher for the Giants in 2008, a true ace. Notice how good his numbers look despite that really high BABIP — a testament to the Giants terrible defense. I suspect most Giants starters are going to have higher BABIP’s than normal because of the defense. Balls hit into play that would be turned into outs by an average defense are falling for hits. So much for the defense part of speed and defense?
Lincecum is doing a bunch of things right this year. He cut his BB% slightly and raised his K% by almost 2 percent. What’s always amazed me about Lincecum is the amount of groundballs he gets. League average GB% is around 42% and Lincecum is 4-5% above that. His line drive percentage is a little higher than usual and if he rolls it back some to previous levels, his numbers should improve even more. Lincecum is basically the best type of pitcher you could ask for, great strike out rate and when hitters do make contact, it’s usually on the ground and easier to turn into an out. You can’t hit a groundball over the fence.
Speaking of home runs, even though I’m not posting the HR/FB percentage for each pitcher, Lincecum’s is impossibly low right now at 3.4%. He’s given up 1 home run in 36.2 innings pitched and pitchers tend to give up HR’s at a percentage of 10-12%. So, Lincecum will most certainly see some correction at some point in this season in terms of giving up the longball.
3. Jonathan Sanchez 2-1, 3.48 ERA
2008 Career FIP 3.41 4.21 BABIP .304 .334 K% 27.7 23.8 BB% 11.1 11.8 LD% 15.7 19.5 GB% 39.8 38.1 FB% 44.6 42.4
If Lincecum has been the best Giants starting pitcher this season, then Sanchez has been the 2nd best. He owns the best K% of any starting pitcher, even surpassing Lincecum. His BB% is high and in a perfect world, would come down, but Sanchez has always had some command problems. When he’s throwing strikes, he’s tough on hitters.
A flyball pitcher, Sanchez gives up a bunch of flyballs which Mays Field should help suppress. Sanchez has also kept his line drives down, almost 4% under his career levels. It’s interesting to see that Sanchez’s K% numbers have actually improved this year as a starter when the previous bulk of his MLB work has been out of the bullpen, which I would assume would add to his K% numbers. Coming out of the pen you can go full steam and not have to pace yourself throughout the game but Sanchez has a stronger K% right now as a starter. FIP tells us that given Sanchez’s current peripherals his ERA is for real. Go Sanchez!
I’ve been extremely pleased with the way Sanchez has thrown so far this season — being a self proclaimed huge fan of him — but he’ll probably hit speed bumps now and then when his control problems flair up. If Sanchez could throw 160 innings as a starter this year and gradually improve his control, it would be a great success for him and the team. He’s off to a great start.
4. Barry Zito 0-6, 7.53 ERA
2008 Career FIP 5.82 4.40 BABIP .346 .271 K% 7.8 17.7 BB% 10.6 9.4 LD% 19.6 19.2 GB% 36.6 38.2 FB% 43.8 42.6
As bad as Zito has been, he’s not the 7+ ERA pitcher that we might think he his. According to FIP, he’s a 5.82 ERA pitcher right now. Hey, you take the small wins wherever you can get them.
His BABIP is enormous, which can be partially linked to our terrible defense but hitters are making a lot of hard contact against Zito with a batting line of (.336/.403/.525). The usual suspects are still problems for Zito — K’s and BB’s — he’s not striking out anybody at 7.8% for his K% and his BB% has slightly moved up from his career numbers. Hitters are only swinging and missing at Zito pitches 8% of the time which means that they’re making a lot of contact and that Zito lacks the command, control, pitch quality, or velocity to induce swing-throughs.
He’s currently in the bullpen working on pitching after taking a beating this month. When was the last time you saw a Cy Young award winner get yanked out of the rotation to “work on stuff” in the bullpen? That’s not a good sign my friends, not a good sign at all. Who knows that the Giants will get when Zito comes back from the bullpen but my bet is that it still won’t be that good.
5. Kevin Correia* 1-3, 4.50 ERA
2008 Career FIP 5.74 4.73 BABIP .254 .259 K% 14.8 17.4 BB% 9.2 9.5 LD% 18.3 19.7 GB% 39.0 39.0 FB% 42.7 41.3
* Correia is currently on the DL with the dreaded oblique strain that has bothered Noah Lowry in the past.
Correia is what-he-is, a decent 5th option in a rotation but the only problem is that Barry Zito has been pitching like a 5th starter if not worse. Primarily a bullpen member and spot starter in the majors, Correia had a nice string of starts to round out the ’07 season and earned himself a rotation spot for ’08. He lost some strike outs it appears from his transition from the bullpen to the rotation, that seems to be expected.
He’s a flyball pitcher that has slightly worse than average control and a slightly lower than average K%. Not too much to get excited about but he’s most likely going to be “serviceable” in the role of 5th starter but with his injury he might not come back into the starting rotation. I’d much rather see Misch get a shot in the rotation than Correia. That’s not a dig against Correia but he’s entirely average, which won’t kill you from his rotation spot, but I’ll take a guy with upside — however slight Misch’s upside is — right now rather than someone who will be average at best. If and when Lowry get’s healthy, the Giants will probably slot him into the rotation and move Correia or Misch back into the bullpen.
The Giants have had some tremendous pitching performances early in the season. Lincecum and Sanchez have been two of the better pitchers in the NL. But the Giants have been absolutely killed by Barry Zito who could be one of the worst pitchers in the entire MLB right now. Cain has struggled with consistency and I pray that he’s not secretly hurting, I’d love to see him get on a roll. And Correia has been about what you would expect from his rotation spot, though I prefer to see Misch get some starts.
I think we can draw one conclusion from the early season and it’s that fans of this team could have drastically overstated our pitching depth. It’s something that I’ve been slightly worried with for some time since Lowry began to have injury problems and declining numbers. At this point you can’t count on Lowry and Zito to be productive pitchers, anything positive they give you is a plus. Sanchez, even with his dynamite start, still has a ways to go before we can count on him to be a corner of the rotation. Cain has struggled and I’ve got this nagging voice in the back of my head about him. And Lincecum has been an elite starter so far. To me, looks like there’s a lot more question marks than certainties right now but the rotation has a good chance to be good, maybe not “the best in the NL” as some fans had dreamed, but good. Let’s see what happens over the next month.
Comment Starter: Report card time! How would you grade our 5 starters thus far? Flunking out or star students?