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.
Over their previous five games, the Giants had drawn 33 walks — 31 of them unintentional; this is a team that’s been all about swinging at the first pitch, putting the ball in play, and avoiding strikeouts at the expense of working the count and drawing walks, but for once, it seemed as though they had begun to adopt a more patient approach. Sunday’s game against Bartolo Colon — who had walked eight of the 237 batters he’s faced this season — presented this team with a good test.
And at first, it looked like they would fail that test. Gregor Blanco struck out on three pitches to lead off the game. Brandon Crawford then struck out on three pitches as a follow-up. Melky Cabrera popped a ball up into left field that fell for a double, but Buster Posey grounded out to end the inning. It was going to be an afternoon of quick see-ya’s and weak contact.
But in the second inning, Angel Pagan got the Giants on the board by way of some excellent baserunning — first by barely stretching a single into a double (he’s now hit safely in 31 of his last 32 games), then by tagging up twice on flyouts.
The Giants scored their first two runs via the sacrifice fly, bringing their running total to seven sac flies over the last four games. They had seven sac flies through their first 36 games. Hey, if they’re not going to get hits with runners in scoring position, at least they’re finding other ways to get the runs in.
Except, those would be their only two runs on the day, as Colon held them in check for five innings — and, in the process, racked up the strikeouts. Colon had struck out five hitters over his last three starts, but managed to K seven Giants in his five innings of work.
The fifth inning was particularly ugly, as the Giants failed to capitalize on a bases-loaded less-than-two-outs situation. Angel Pagan worked the count full, then struck out looking on an inside pitch which — to Colon’s credit — had some beautiful movement. Then, in an at-bat that featured some pretty bold and arguably ill-advised two-strike takes, Belt eventually did the same thing: struck out looking on a 3-2 pitch.
As for the pitching side of things, that wasn’t too pretty either. The A’s are one of the worst teams in baseball when it comes to hitting right-handed pitchers; as a team, they’ve hit .211/.289/.333 against righties, with an AL-worst 75 wRC+. Today was as good a day as any for Tim Lincecum to give the Giants one of his trademark dominant outings. And through the first three innings, he was. He was throwing strikes, getting whiffs, and keeping hits to a minimum. In the first inning, he struck out the side — all three of ‘em swinging. In the second, he retired the side in order, tallying a fourth strikeout. In the third, he pitched out of a two-out runner-on-third jam, getting Cliff Pennington to ground out.
But in the fourth inning, it all unraveled. Seth Smith and Josh Donaldson hit back-to-back singles. Daric Barton drew a six-pitch walk. And with the bases loaded, Lincecum fell behind to both Kurt Suzuki and Colin Cowgill, eventually serving up RBI singles to both of ‘em. Lincecum eventually got out of the inning with a Pennington foulout; but the damage was done: four runs on four hits, two walks, and a grand total of 41 pitches.
Lincecum wasn’t exactly hit hard, but his command was all over the place, and it was more or less the same struggles we’ve seen out of him all season long. We’re now nine starts into the season, and Lincecum’s ERA is still over 6.00; he’s had one quality start, and even in that outing he walked four hitters, and only struck out five. DIPS says he hasn’t been all that bad — his FIP is at 2.93, which is identical to his career mark. But I have a hard time buying into the notion that he’s been as good as his underlying peripherals would suggest, and while I still expect him to bounce back, his command (paired with the dropoff in fastball velocity) is a very serious concern at this point.
- The Giants struck out looking eight times on the day, which is uncharacteristic of this team. Entering today, only 22% of their strikeouts were looking — which puts them in the bottom-10 in the majors. In fact, when Crawford struck out looking in the seventh inning of yesterday’s game, it had ended a streak of 21 consecutive swinging strikeouts.
- Aside from his sac fly, Belt had a rough day at the plate, as he accounted for three of the Giants’ strikeouts. It’s only a matter of time before Aubrey Huff takes back the starting first base job.
- Melky Cabrera accounted for four of the Giants’ eight hits on the day, as he extended his season total to a major-league-leading 20 multi-hit games. His hits today weren’t especially impressive — a grounder that found a hole, a pop-up that dropped in for a double, and a couple bloops — and he’s bound to slow his pace eventually, but that’s not to take away from what he’s accomplished; he’s now within inches of .300/.400/.500 territory (currently hitting .353/.396/.497).
- Bruce Bochy continued his trend of leaving pitchers in the game too long. After Shane Loux had already given the Giants two scoreless innings, Bochy left him in the game to hit in the sixth inning, and he gave up a two-run shot to Josh Reddick upon coming back out for a third inning of work. For a manager generally lauded for his handling of pitchers, Bochy’s been unimpressive in that regard this season — to say the least.
After surrendering 16 runs across his first 13.2 innings, Tim Lincecum finally settled down and got good results, allowing one run through five innings of work.
- Lincecum struck out eight of the 23 batters he faced, and had them whiffing on his fastballs. Of course, swing-and-miss stuff hasn’t really been the problem for Lincecum so far. Through his first three starts, he actually had a 23.2% strikeout rate; while that is the lowest he’s ever had in a season, it’s not a terribly significant dropoff.
- One extra-base hit: a double. This, on the other hand, was a problem for Lincecum in his first three starts. In those previous 13.2 innings, he had allowed seven doubles, two triples, and two homers (that’s a .265 ISO!). That’s really been the root of his troubles this season — that he’s been hit hard. So it’s very nice to see this step in the right direction.
- A strong first inning. Lincecum had allowed nine runs in three first-innings this season, so his not getting into a jam right away was a positive sign.
- Lincecum walked five of the 23 batters he faced. Control hasn’t been Lincecum’s problem in the early going — in fact, the 5.8% walk rate he brought into this start was a career-best — but it’s slightly concerning to see him revert to these control issues. At the risk of jumping to conclusions, I wonder if this might suggest that he had been trading walks for hard contact — meaning this start constituted a change in his approach.
- According to Brooks Baseball, Lincecum averaged 89.8 mph on his four-seamer, topping out at 91.9 mph. No improvement there.
- 108 pitches. This is, of course, directly related to the high walk total.
So…is Lincecum back? Perhaps, inasmuch as he’ll be an effective pitcher from this point forward. I can’t say with any confidence, however, that Lincecum will finish 2012 with better numbers than 2011. I think this very well could be the worst season of his career. Is that a big deal? Not entirely. Pitchers tend to peak at a pretty early age, and it’s not at all atypical that Lincecum is experiencing a downward trend at this age. I’m becoming increasingly worried about the possibility of the Giants offering him a lucrative contract extension, though. It’s probably not going to be worth taking on that kind of risk, particularly given that they’ve already invested in Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain.