After stuttering through a disappointing season by the Bay in 2013, the Giants are looking onward and upwards going into next year.
If the recent pattern of Giants’ World Series wins is to continue, beating the Rangers and Tigers in the last two even number years, 2014 will be another magical year at AT&T Park.
Of course baseball doesn’t work like that, and since Sergio Romo’s two seam fastball froze Miguel Cabrera in October 2012, the NL West landscape has morphed into a new beast, headed by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The storied franchise in Chavez Ravine has been doing its best impression of the New York Yankees since late 2012, spending money with little or no restrictions in order to send out a championship team. The team’s budget spiralled above $200m by the beginning of 2013 and the new ownership team lead by Magic Johnson soon erased the McCourt era from fans' minds.
After a spluttering start to the 2013 season, the LA juggernaut reached top gear during the long days of the summer, going 43-8 in one blistering spell, only to come up short against the Cardinals in the Championship Series.
The Giants meanwhile finished third last season, requiring a ninth inning turnaround in game 162 against the lowly Padres to avoid fourth place in the division. It was a dramatic fall from grace for the franchise who had ridden one of the game’s best rotations to success in 2010 and 2012. It is this pillar of the team’s two championships which the Giants believe will help them challenge the Dodgers for the top again in 2014.
The Giants currently have three men assured of starting spots next year - Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum. The trio were drafted and developed in the team’s farm system while being locked up through at least 2015 and have drawn comparisons to their near neighbour Oakland’s trio of dominant pitchers, Mulder, Hudson and Zito in the early 2000s.
Ironically, Zito has now been cast off by the Giants after coming to the end of his seven-year, $126m albatross contract. Meanwhile the Giants have declined the contract option of another member of their 2012 World Series rotation, Ryan Vogelsong, leaving two big holes to fill in the starting five.
Any hopes of a rejuvenated rotation will probably lie with their big three with the Giants front office seemingly unwilling to invest in front line starters this offseason. Instead, they have indicated their shopping will be likely done at the lower end of the free agent starter market, looking at innings eaters with limited upside from a list which includes the likes of Bronson Arroyo, Dan Haren and Tim Hudson.
These pitchers will be relied upon to improve the statistics put up by the final two spots of the last year’s rotation. A mixture of seven starters in 69 starts, 44 of which were made by Vogelsong and Zito, combined to produce an ERA of 5.43 in 362.2 innings.
How the top of the Giants' rotation produces starting next April will go a long way to determining the fate of their 2014 season. A look at the numbers behind the top three’s recent seasons could help to predict whether they can improve upon last year.
After stellar seasons by the big three in 2010 and 2011, with combined ERAs of 3.23 and 2.94 respectively, their numbers have regressed over the past two seasons to marks of 3.71 in 2012 and 3.70 in 2013. The 2012 World Series run notably relied more heavily upon the bullpen and a more dynamic offense than in 2010 as a result of the reduction in the trio’s effectiveness.
A return towards the levels produced in 2010 and 2011 would stand the Giants in good stead to reach the playoffs again in 2014 but the question is whether this be achieved based on the patterns within their recent body of work.
First of all, let’s take rotation ace Matt Cain whose 4.00 ERA was his highest since 2006. Looking at the numbers on Fangraphs, it would appear that Cain was the victim of an increase in his home run to flyball rate, a number which a pitcher is unable to fully control.
Pitching in AT&T Park has usually suppressed this number in the past allowing him to average a strong 7.2 per cent, however his 2013 rate was 10.8 per cent, below the league average. A return towards Cain’s normal home run to flyball rate run will likely see Cain build upon a strong second half last year and produce a typical Cain season in 2014.
Madison Bumgarner, the young left hander, slots in at the number two spot after producing the rotation’s standout performance in 2013. Bumgarner had a sub three ERA for the first time, striking out 199 hitters in 201.1 innings.
The numbers on Fangraphs suggest Bumgarner may have been lucky to an extent last year with a slight regression likely for the upcoming season. Most notably his batting average on balls in play, a stat which pitchers have limited control over, was at an unsustainably low mark of .251 and will probably regress towards the league average mark around .300 next year. This could be negated slightly by reducing his walk rate from 2013 (2.77 per nine), the highest of his career.
Tim Lincecum, or the freak as he is known in San Francisco, has recently received a two-year $35m contract extension to be the third pitcher in the Giant’s 2014 rotation. The contract was said to be excessive by some baseball executives and comes of the back of the two worst years of the right hander’s career to date.
Things fell apart for Lincecum in 2012, posting an uncharacteristic ERA of 5.18 that placed him within the bottom echelons of major league starters. A definite improvement in 2013 prompted the Giants to dole out the new contract and they will hope he continues to show improvements in 2014.
Like Cain, Lincecum may also have been unlucky over the last two seasons based on home run to flyball rates of 14.6 per cent and 12.1 per cent respectively. In 2012 this rate at home, a notorious pitcher’s park, was at 17.5 per cent, a significantly higher mark than the league average.
Lincecum’s walk rate of 3.46 per nine was his best since 2010 while maintaining a high strikeout rate. This would suggest Lincecum has begun to adjust to the diminishing velocity of his fastball and started to command his new arsenal much better. Look for another improvement from Linceucm in the coming season.
Barring injury of course the big three will likely take a step towards the form of 2011 and 2012 next season. Expect Sabean’s budget additions to improve upon the back end of last year’s rotation and the pitching staff will help push the Giants back into the race for the NL West title in 2014.
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