The Giants have compiled 16 starts in 33 games that can be quantified as a quality start (minimum of 6 innings, 3 ER or less). That's less than 50%. If you look it up, you'll notice the previous three years combined featured quality starts in about 60% of their outings.
Let's look at each starter individually:
In a post on May 2nd before Lincecum got shelled against Philadelphia, I wrote the following:
"While we are on the topic of Tim Lincecum, let's look at one stat in particular: his WHIP. This stat (Walks + Hits / Innings Pitched) can be quite revealing. In 2009, the year Tim Lincecum won his second Cy Young Award, his WHIP was 1.047. Right now his WHIP is 1.442. The counter-argument?
"Who cares about WHIP. If a guy walks 3 batters to load the bases, his WHIP is 3.00. Let's say he strikes out one guy and gets the other one to hit into a double play. No runs scored. Sounds like a solid inning to me. But the Moneyball geeks will say the guy sucks because his WHIP sits at 3.00. What a worthless stat!"
Not quite. If Timmy walks the bases loaded and somehow gets into the jam, this tells us two things: 1) Lincecum was lucky to escape the jam, and 2) the probability that he can do that again without giving up any runs is very low.
The point? Tim Lincecum is allowing too many base runners, whether by walk or base hit. When you put guys on base, innings can turn into a hot mess. And Lincecum is nearly at 1.5 base runners per inning. Thus, it's not surprising that despite not walking a single batter, the 10 hits he allowed led to 5 runs. Strangely enough, the Giants won anyway and are now 5-1 in Lincecum's starts."
Make that 5-2 in Lincecum's starts. Sure enough, the WHIP bit Lincecum in the ass at home against the Phillies, and until he can command his pitches again, he will remain maddeningly inconsistent. The case for sending Lincecum to the bullpen is starting to gain steam again, but who would replace him? Let's look at the top 3 internal options currently throwing in Triple A:
Player W L ERA G GS CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR HB BB SO WHIP
Chris Heston 3 2 5.82 7 7 0 0 0 38.2 52 28 25 7 2 15 38 1.73
Mike Kickham 0 4 5.65 7 7 0 0 0 36.2 44 28 23 4 0 14 40 1.58
Yusmeiro Petit 2 3 6.69 7 7 0 0 0 36.1 47 27 27 9 0 9 46 1.54
Yeah, that's not very inspiring. Lincecum starts have now become what Barry Zito starts used to be: Just close your eyes and hope for the best.
Matt Cain had an abysmal month of April. I actually attended his first start of the year - the ring ceremony game against St. Louis in which Cain imploded in a single inning.
Let's look at Cain's ERAs through his first four starts in April/May from 2009 to 2012:
2009: 2.08 ERA
2010: 3.80 ERA
2011: 3.42 ERA
2012: 2.37 ERA
Cain's ERA through four starts this year was 7.15. Looking at more data courtesy of FanGraphs may reveal why:
Year K% K/BB GB% LD% FB%
2012 22.0 3.78 37.4 20.9 41.7
2013 20.2 4.00 31.0 23.9 45.1
Cain's strikeout-to-walk rate was acceptable, but he isn't striking out as many batters. This means that those batters are hitting the ball into the field. Considering both his line-drive and fly-ball rates were higher than last year, and you get 9 home runs coughed up before mid-May. This from a pitcher who only gave up 9 home runs in all of 2011.
Matt Cain is a fly-ball/strikeout pitcher who has enjoyed a very forgiving BABIP for much of his career. Before you chastise the Giants for giving him a monster contract, remember that a regression in BABIP does not render Matt Cain into a practice tee. His BABIP through his first 4 starts was .299! As of mid-May it has dropped to .256, which seems right in line with his career BABIP of .268. All this means is that the law of averages is starting to swing back his way.
Ryan Vogelsong seems to have contracted the same illness Lincecum seemed to have last year - the dreaded Inning That Never Ends. In Vogelsong's last two outings, he has compiled 12 earned runs in just 9.2 combined innings, with at least one home run in each of his last five starts. Vogelsong is a late bloomer who didn't put it together until 2011. He's also 35 years-old, and it's fair to wonder if the last two years are the most effective Vogelsong we will ever see. If that's true, it's still a heart-warming story. Nonetheless, the Giants are depending on Vogelsong to contribute this year as a starter, even if they don't expect him to perform like the ace he was in the postseason last year.
Vogelsong continues to be plagued by the big inning. In his last start against the Dodgers, he suffered a massive 5th inning meltdown and was only bailed out by Guillermo Quiroz's walk-off HR in the 9th.
Here's what Vogelsong had to say about that outing:
“I just couldn’t stop the bleeding there,” Vogelsong said. “ … I feel fine physically. It’s a battle. Every pitch is like I’m battling myself.”
Vogelsong is a fierce competitor. But Vogelsong competing with Vogelsong results in self-destruction, which basically sums up his 20's and early 30's. He's currently mired in a mechanical quandary that Mark Gardner and Dave Righetti are in the process of trying to solve. When Vogelsong's mechanics are crisp, he hits his spots, sports solid velocity, and battles each hitter like he's fighting for his livelihood, which when you consider the years he spent pitching before 2011, he basically is.
I think the numbers have less to do with Vogelsong's struggles, and the faulty mechanics are the most likely culprit. That being said, if he can't regain his form, it's fair to wonder if the other shoe will finally drop.
Bumgarner has been marvelously effective and remarkably efficient. He has a 2.31 ERA, a WHIP of 0.94, and his 46 innings pitched are the most by any Giants starter. He's holding opponents to a .204 batting average. He has been the lone beacon of consistency in a very inconsistent rotation.
Despite a few outings in which Barry Zito was shelled like the beaches of Normandy, he has delivered. The Giants usually win with Zito on the mound; take that for whatever it's worth. His ERA sits at 2.75, and though he's only managed to pitch 39 innings in 7 starts (an average of 5.5 innings per start), he has only given up 17 runs, 12 of which were earned.
Put simply, Barry Zito keeps the Giants in games, and when he doesn't, he gives up so many runs that it doesn't matter much anyway.
Surprisingly, the soft-tosser has only given up 3 home runs so far this year, and when you consider he has 25 strikeouts to go along with only 12 walks, Zito has employed better command in 2012 and 2013 than at any point in his Giants' career. He's a perfect example of how location and command of his pitches can overcome a lack of velocity (which he never had much of to begin with).
Perhaps the biggest asset with Zito is his uncharacteristic confidence. He never had much of that either in a Giants uniform, succumbing to the pressures of a monster albatross of a contract. After not making the postseason roster in 2010, he started playing for something more important than trying to justify the millions he was receiving - pride. Zito has done a fantastic job of bouncing back from rough outings with quality starts. His performance against the Phillies to stop the bleeding before a surging Atlanta comes into town was the kind of thing Zito has been doing since he stopped the Giants' opening slide in Colorado at the beginning of last year after getting swept in Arizona.
To expect, or even ask, for anything more than what Zito has provided last year, and so far this year, is to border on delusion. Ultimately, fans shouldn't be surprised if the Giants pick up Zito's option at the end of the year at a price that befits a quality 4th or 5th starter - something that was inconceivable two years ago.
SO, what does all of this mean? In short, Cain is rounding back into form, Bumgarner continues to be brilliant, and Zito is offering all we should hope to expect. Thus, consistency rests in Ryan Vogelsong's ability to fix his mechanics and Tim Lincecum's ability to learn how to become a very different pitcher than he was before 2012. That pitcher is gone, and Lincecum's chances at being a starter in this league hinge on his ability to evolve. Considering it's just as unlikely that Bochy will move Lincecum to the bullpen permanently as it is that he will be traded, we are going to have to ride it out and hope for the best. After two Cy Young awards and two rings, I think he's earned that from Giants fans for one more season, at least. As for Vogelsong, I think he will figure a way out of his funk and emerge as a pitcher worthy of a spot in a major league rotation, although age and declining stats suggest his best years are behind him now.
Let's see where things are in July when the deadline looms large.