Usually, through the beginning of June, a team with exceptional starting pitching — including a two-time Cy Young award winner, a lefty that’s tossed a no-no and… whatever the really good Matt Cain is — isn’t anchored by a sophomore and a journeyman. Usually. Yet it is the case of the Giants, at least so far this year.
Win-loss records sure don’t tell you much. I mean, usually. (Or always.) This is especially the case for the Giants’ young left-hander, Madison Bumgarner, this year. Also, though this often is not the case, past results do not always repeat themselves. Ask Ryan Vogelsong.
When we’re evaluating pitching performance we turn to simple, long-used statistics like Earned Run Average (ERA), and also simple (though less so), luck-neutralizing stats like FIP (fielding-independent pitching). And it’s within these two measures that we find the unlikely ballasts of the Giants’ rotation in 2011, Bumgarner and Vogelsong. It is these two, and not the Tim Lincecum-Jonathan Sanchez-Matt Cain trio, that are leading the Giants’ heralded rotation.
During the on-paper portion of the MLB season — this is when the pundits told us, definitively, who would win each division back in spring training and before — the Giants’ biggest weakness was a lack of starting pitching depth. So if the Giants happened to lose one of Timmy through Barry (one through five), which they indeed did when Zito went down in early April, they were to be doomed. It was not thought, early on, that their biggest deficiency was an offense roughly effective as a football team without a quarterback. (I mean literally, not figuratively as is the case of the San Francisco 49ers.)
Somehow, though, the Giants turned Vogelsong into some magical pitching wizard or he himself into one. And if not for a bit of luck — sometimes opportunity and good fortune arise in the most unlikely way; like when a player, Barry Zito in this case, who had never missed a start from injury since he was a kid suddenly becomes injured — Giants fans may never have come to know this. Starting pitching depth was not to be their weakness. Not by a long shot.
Devoid of reliable options, or so we thought, the Giants brought up their long-lost prospect, Vogelsong, when Zito went down. He’d pitched well in spring and to that point in Triple-A, and anyway they didn’t have any other good options. He had been ineffective, injury-plagued and to far-places like Japan in his career. Gone since they swapped him for Jason Schmidt and only in the Giants’ system because of a minor league flyer, he proved virtually everyone wrong.
Vogelsong leads the Giants’ rotation after nine starts with a sub-two ERA (1.96). He is second on the staff with a FIP of 2.96, which is the 13th best FIP in the NL for starters with 50 innings or more. He’s made seven quality starts in nine chances and has given up two or fewer runs in all but one turn.
What a story. If he’s not the front-runner for Comeback Player of the Year, then I’m not certain of anything in this world.
(We ought to also give some or a lot of credit to Dave Righetti, who has shown a great ability to get the most out of every arm he’s given, not to mention the sprinkle of pixy dust from the little pouch he possesses which he uses to turn every staff he leads into home run per fly ball overachievers.)
And then there is Bumgarner. He who struggled in his first few starts; it seemed as though every ground ball he earned found a hole the outfield — he undoubtedly owed some of this misfortune to say, Miguel Tejada. It seemed as though every single hit against him came with runners in scoring position. He had at least one nightmare inning in each of his first few starts.
But since he’s been remarkable. With a blend of getting a good number of ground balls, striking out a good number of batters (though not in bushels), preventing home runs (though a bit too well, and perhaps at an unsustainable rate so far), and agressively throwing strike after strike, he’s been exceptional with nine quality starts in a row.
Despite his 2-8 record, which he owes to the the Giants’ abysmal and injury-riddled “offensive attack”, he leads the staff with a 2.70 FIP and is second only to Vogelsong with a 3.23 ERA. The fierce competitiveness about him, shown so brightly in Texas on Halloween night of 2010, also helps. Not to mention he can swing the stick a little bit. (So too can VogelStrong.)
So the next time you are at a bar and discussing the brilliant staff that the Giants have, the filthy changeup of Lincecum, the sneaky left-handed fastball of Sanchez and the soft-contact coaxing abilities of Cain, be sure to mix in some pleasantries about Vogelsong and Bumgarner as well. Much of their 3.24 FIP (second in the NL to only the mighty Phillies) is owed to them. After all, it has been these two that, at least by these statistical measures, have been most impressive on a staff that has no shortage of talent.
And if the Giants plan to be so bold, and assuming Zito is healthy and throwing better, they actually do have the flexibility to move an arm in the right deal. Maybe for this guy; though they’d probably only match up in some sort of three-team deal given Atlanta’s starting pitching abundance. Because, you know, Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart aren’t exactly ‘getting it done.’
(A tip of the cap to the bullpen is in order too. Without their 2.95 FIP, which is currently third best in all of baseball, the starters probably wouldn’t be fairing quite so well.)