Since there’s no baseball today or tomorrow, I figure I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a stab at a first half review. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll divide it into three segments: the starters, the offense, and the bullpen. Without further ado…
Oh, Matt Cain. Where to begin? Right as the offseason was drawing to a close, the Giants signed Cain to a rather massive long-term extension, tying up roughly $150M in him through 2018. I was pleased with the deal, but as I noted, pitchers tend to a) get worse with age, and b) get injured. Cain has done neither those of things. In fact, at age 27, Cain is currently performing better than he ever has.
He’s struck out one in four hitters that have come to bat against him, which is far and away the best strikeout rate of his career. And while the strikeouts have gone up, the walks have actually gone the other direction. Of the 473 batters he’s faced this season, only 23 have drawn an unintentional walk. Put the two together, and Cain’s tallied nearly five strikeouts for every walk; that’s significantly higher than his previous best (2.9 K/BB in 2010), and it’s more than double his career rate (2.4 K/BB). Cain has also tossed quite a few memorable games this season, including one particular game that solidified his place in the history books.
Put simply, Cain has been nothing short of spectacular thus far, and his performance even earned him the nod as the National League starter for this year’s all-star game — a role which he, unsurprisingly, handled well, tossing two scoreless innings to set the pace for the NL.
Madison Bumgarner has pitched, well, as expected. He’s been great. The strikeouts disappeared for a while at the beginning of the season; through the first eight starts, he had only recorded 30 strikeouts. Then he proceeded to strike out ten Brewers in his next start and from that point forward, he was himself (he’s got 69 strikeouts over his previous nine starts). Overall, Bumgarner’s seasonal strikeout rate has slightly dipped, but he’s also shaved off a few walks. His control, of course, has been remarkably consistent this season; in all but one start, he’s allowed two walks or fewer.
In other words, Madison Bumgarner has been Madison Bumgarner. Halfway through the season, he’s at 2.0 fWAR and 1.5 rWAR — although with that last start in Washington in which he allowed three home runs, his numbers sort of took a beating. Anyway, he’s still 22 years old, and he still never ceases to amaze me. Of particular note was that recent one-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds, a team that had feasted on left-handed pitching all season long.
Before 2011, Ryan Vogelsong was somewhere on the list of the top 100 worst pitchers of all time. 315 career innings pitched, 217 runs allowed. Then he made his first major-league appearance in five years, and went on to have an all-star season, finishing out the year with a 2.71 ERA. He entered this year at age 34, with a minimal track record of success; given how good he had been in 2011, the expectation of “solid fourth starter” seemed reasonable, but Vogelsong was anything but a sure thing.
To say he’s exceeded expectations would be an understatement. Through 16 starts (110.2 innings), Vogelsong has actually managed to post a lower ERA (2.36) than he had in 2011 (his FIP, 3.72, while less incredible, is still good). The term “consistent” is often bandied about meaninglessly when discussing baseball players, but I can’t seem to avoid it in writing about Vogelsong. He’s epitomized consistency this season. Here are his innings pitched by start this season: 6.1, 7, 6, 7, 7.1, 7, 7, 6.1, 7, 7, 7.2, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7. Fifteen of those were quality starts.
Vogelsong takes the mound every fifth day for the Giants, so we’re just supposed to accept it as reality at this point. But he still makes no sense to me. In 2010, he was released by two organizations. Now he’s got the third best ERA- among qualified starters over the past season and a half. There he is on a pitching leaderboard, right between Clayton Kershaw and Roy Halladay. It’s absolutely crazy.
I expected the worst out of Barry Zito this season. He was downright awful in 2011, even by Zito standards, having surrendered 35 runs in 53.2 innings. And his peripherals were no more promising, as his 5.60 FIP had marked a new career-worst. With Zito another year older, coming off a dreadful season, I figured he’d reached the end of his effectiveness.
In his debut, he pitched a four-hit no-walk shutout — in Coors Field, no less. And it was on that day that I ate crow. Zito went on to pitch two solid months to begin the season, in fact. Through May, he had a 3.41 ERA in ten starts. Then he crumbled. He ended up finishing out the first half with a 4.01 ERA, though the peripherals tell a different story. Zito has struck out just 12.7% of the hitters he’s faced, and his walk rate (11.1%) is also quite poor; not to mention, he’s got a 0.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his last six starts. If you go by FIP (5.05), Zito has been replacement level material thus far.
So despite the fact that his 4.01 ERA has come as a pleasant surprise, I can’t help but continue to have the same concerns about Zito that I had coming into this season.
And we close it out on an especially miserable note, with Tim Lincecum. He allowed 66 earned runs in 2011. He’s allowed 69 earned runs in 2012 …through 18 starts. I had hope that after dominating the Los Angeles Dodgers to carry the Giants into first place, he had finally started to turn things around. That he did not. Lincecum closed out the first half with disastrous starts in Pittsburgh and Washington, and here we are now: Lincecum, halfway through the season, has the worst qualified ERA in the majors. This isn’t August 2010. He’s ventured deep into this mess of a season, and he has yet to return to form.
Over at Baseball Nation, Jeff Sullivan recently took an in-depth look at Lincecum’s season. Lincecum has been Lincecum with the bases empty, which seems like a good sign. I’m not sure what the root cause of his struggles are; his command disappears when runners reach base — is it mental? Mechanical? At this point, I have no idea what to expect from Lincecum. He’s an enigma. I’m almost at a loss for words. I’m cautiously optimistic that he’ll find his groove eventually, but we’re dangerously close to Brad Penny starting games for the San Francisco Giants.
Barry Zito has had good stretches before. As recently as 2010 he strung together four starts in May which were even better than the four he made this April. So, what follows should not be mistaken as a declaration of renewed trust in the One-Hundred Million Dollar Enigma. I’ll declare a Barry Zito “renaissance” around the same time Ryan Theriot wins a batting title. What Zito accomplished this past month was definitely aided by his opponent’s BABIP of .188 (5th best among NL starters) and strand rate of 91.4% (3rd in the NL). His FIP is more than two runs higher than his ERA. So, to put it lightly, some regression is imminent.
That said, sometimes a pitcher does “make his own luck” and Zito’s success this April has been founded not only on good breaks, but on a conscious change in approach. I believe this change has helped him cut his walk rate in half, while generating much less hard contact. His line drive rate currently sits at 13.8%, compared to 19.8% for his career, and over 21% since he became a Giant.
This new approach, I believe, is built upon three major adjustments. First, he has learned (again) to trust his slider. (Grant Brisbee discussed this is some detail last week.) Second, he is throwing a cut fastball. And, finally, thanks in part to these new additions, he is varying his pitch selection from start to start, based upon matchups and upon the quality of his various pitches on any given night.
Backing up this impression with statistics has proven somewhat difficult, because Zito’s new repertoire has thus far been a challenge for pitch-charters. Distinguishing the pitches in Zito’s arsenal can be very difficult because he does not have a talent for, how shall we say it, changing velocities. Zito’s changeup, when he overthrows it, looks a little like a flat slider. His two-seam fastball, his slider, and his new cutter all have overlapping ranges of both velocity and movement. His mistake pitches, especially, are hard to classify, which might make some of his pitch data unreliable, particularly in small samples.
However, no matter whose data you use (or if you watch the games), it is clear that Zito has made changes, it’s just difficult to tell exactly what they are. The following chart show three sources of pitch type data:
As you can see, there is little consensus as to what is a cutter and what is a slider. In fact, as of last week, when I began trying this analysis, Brooks Baseball was listing the cutter among Zito’s pitches. They have since given that up.
With the above caveats in mind, I want to nevertheless offer some analysis which might be interesting to consider as we view tonight’s start against the Marlins.
According to the PitchFX linear weights, the slider has been Zito’s most effective pitch since 2009. However, one could question the accuracy of that data, because prior to this season Zito never leaned too heavily on the pitch. With infrequent use, he didn’t risk overexposing it as much as, say, his curve. However, this season, the slider has become Zito’s bread and butter.
Regardless of whose data you believe, it’s evident he’s throwing the slider far more often than he has in recent years. For the first time since he became a Giant, Zito has a pitch that he can throw for strikes which doesn’t look like batting practice. Zito throws the slider with better command and control than either his fastball, curve, or change-up. According to Brooks Baseball, 62% of the time he puts it in the zone or in play.
What’s great about Zito’s slider is not quality, but consistency. Although he uses the slider with regularity in every start, it is never his most commonly used pitch. In Zito’s best starts, he doesn’t need it all the much. When he shutout Colorado in his first start, he only threw sliders about 14% of the time, as he pounded the Rockies with the sinking two-seamer. However, unlike that pitch, which Zito struggles to command from game to game, the slider shows up every night, thus giving Barry a pitch he can count on when he’s behind in the count, while he figures out what else in working on any given day.
Unlike the slider, Zito’s cutter is a brand new pitch, developed this offseason. When it’s working, the cutter breaks much like the slider, but has fastball velocity, and comes from the same release point as both pitches. The cutter has thus breathed new life into Zito’s mediocre fastball, both by making it less necessary for him to throw it, and making it’s “straightness” surprising when he does. Zito’s called strike percentage has gone way up on both his fastball and his sinker as a result. I believe this improvement stems directly from opponents getting caught expecting a cutter or a slider to move down, away, and off the plate against lefties, and instead standing and staring at something right over the plate.
As important as what Zito is throwing (cutters and sliders), is what he isn’t throwing (four-seamers and curveballs). PitchFX has Zito throwing the four-seamer only 11% of the time. His career rate is 44%. As discussed above, the straight fastball has been more or less totally replaced by cutters and sinkers.
The curveball has not been replaced, but it has been rejuvenated. What happened during Zito’s Giants tenure, prior to this season, was that as his faith in his fastball decreased, he became more and more reliant on his Bugs Bunny curveball. He’s thrown it more than 20% of the time since becoming a Giant. As hitters got more looks at it and Zito started using it in more predictable patterns, it was less effective.
That’s changed this season. Zito throws the curve less (~15%) and thus it is again generating whiffs and weak contact. Consider some anecdotal evidence from last week’s start in Cincinnati:
Zito got off to a rough start, giving up a single and two walks in the first inning. With two outs and two on, Zito faced Jay Bruce. He got him to strikeout swinging on a 73 MPH curveball down and away. It was only the second time Barry had thrown his curve during the 25-pitch opening frame.
Zito ended up throwing only 15 curves in the game, seven of them to Jay Bruce, who went 0-for-3 and twice struck out to end an inning with men on base. He reserved the curve for situations in which it would be most effective and did not condition the Reds (save, perhaps, Bruce) to waiting back on it. Contrast his most recent start (6% FB, 14% CB) with Zito’s last trip to Cincinnati, during which he relied almost exclusively on fastballs (46%) and curves (20%), one of which Jay Bruce pounded into the left-field bleachers, driving home three of the five earned runs Zito yielded in five innings.
The existence of the slider and the cutter allow Zito to keep the curve in reserve, for when he needs it most. It has also allowed him to be less reliant on his sinker, which is frequently his best pitch, but is also unreliable on a game to game basis. In his four starts this season, according to PitchFX data, he has thrown the sinker as much as 30% of the time and as little as 10% of the time. Somewhat similarly, he’s thrown the changeup as much as 20% and as little as 10%. In four starts, he has never used an even remotely similar pitch distribution, as shown by the following table:
There’s no getting around the fact that Bruce Bochy has done a terrible job managing these past several games, especially when it’s come to handling his pitchers.
4/21: With the game tied at one, Ryan Vogelsong at 95 pitches, and a runner in scoring position, Bochy left Vogelsong in the game. Vogelsong struck out, and then allowed a couple runs in the seventh inning.
Yesterday: With the Giants losing 2-0, Bruce Bochy sent Matt Cain (at 108 pitches already) out for the seventh inning. He promptly gave up a home run to Ryan Ludwick, and his day was over after the next batter. The Giants finished that half-inning with the game far out of reach (down 8-0).
Today: Barry Zito was at 100 pitches. The Giants had a slim (2-0) lead. Bruce Bochy sent Zito out for the seventh inning anyway. After serving up a homer to Scott Rolen, the first batter he faced, Zito’s day was over.
In all fairness to Bochy, Clay Hensley and Jeremy Affeldt were messy in relief, and Dan Otero was horrible the day before. There’s an argument to be made that leaving Zito in the game — with a short leash — wasn’t such a bad decision. I don’t personally agree, though. After all, his previous inning had included a single and a couple flyouts to the warning track; and it’s not as though the bullpen needed more rest.
“As the game goes on, the hitter has a progressively greater advantage over the starting pitcher.” This is basic stuff. Bochy has tried to milk his starters dry, and the results have not been pretty. Chris over at Bay City Ball was on to something.
Another quibble: Bochy’s refusal to use Sergio Romo in the game’s most important situations is inexcusable. He waited until the eighth inning — when the Giants were already losing by a couple runs — to use Romo. What a waste.
The Giants’ offense blew many opportunities as well: double digits in the hits column, but only a couple runs to show for it. Four times they ended the inning with a couple runners on. I’d expected that the team would draw some better luck with runners in scoring position this season, but nope. Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, and frankly, it doesn’t seem to be a matter of luck (at least, not entirely).
As for Zito, another strong outing. His ERA now stands at 1.67, which is far more than I could have expected — he’s strung four good starts together, something I really didn’t think he had in him. His command was a bit shaky in the first, but he settled down and his pitch location was excellent over the rest of the start. Lots of pop-ups and weak flyballs, and a surprisingly high amount of swing-throughs.
This isn’t the first time he’s had several nice games in a row. But I can’t help but feel confident about his pitching going forward. Coming into the season, right near the top on my list of concerns for this team was the back of the rotation; those worries have all but vanished.