Do the Giants have the best top of the rotation in baseball this year?

MadBum, Johnny Beisbol, and The Shark In The House
by Jim Silva

    This was the off-season of free agent starting pitchers and the Giants jumped into the pool with their clothes on and their iPhone in their pocket. They signed not one, but two high-priced veteran arms to take the #2 and #3 spots in their rotation spending $130 million to ink Johnny Cueto for 6 years and another $90 million to tie up Jeff Samardzija through the 2020 season. Did they spend their money wisely or will Brian Sabean regret this off-season for committing so much of their resource pool to two guys who have better reputations than skill sets?
    Here is how the off-season starting pitcher market turned out. Listed below are the top ten starting pitchers, ordered by average salary, who signed free agent deals this off-season.
(data for salaries taken from spotrac.com)

Name
Age
Signing Team
Length of Deal
In Years
Total Dollars
Average Salary
David Price
30
Boston
7
217,000,000
31,000,000
Zack Greinke
32
Arizona
6
206,500,000
34,416,667
Johnny Cueto
30
San Francisco
6
130,000,000
21,666,667
Jordan Zimmerman
29
Detroit
5
110,000,000
22,000,000
Jeff Samardzija
31
San Francisco
5
90,000,000
18,000,000
Wei-Yen Chen
30
Miami
5
80,000,000
16,000,000
Mike Leake
28
St. Louis
5
80,000,000
16,000,000
Scott Kazmir
32
Los Angeles
3
48,000,000
16,000,000
Ian Kennedy
31
Kansas City
5
70,000,000
14,000,000
J.A. Happ
33
Toronto
3
36,000,000
12,000,000

A couple things stand out from a quick glance at this table. First of all nobody, other than the Giants, signed two of the top ten pitchers on the list. Also note that the two guys at the top of the list are making substantially more a year than the rest of the guys on the list who are mainly clustered around a median of $16 million a year. Does this mean that they are the two most valuable starters who were on the market this year? Let’s look at the table in a different way.

Name
Mean Innings Pitched 2013-2015
Mean WAR 2013-2015
Projected Innings
Zack Greinke
201
5.83
191.0
David Price
218
4.46
195.0
Jordan Zimmerman
205
4.03
181.0
Johnny Cueto
172
3.90
190.0
Mike Leake
200
2.47
177.0
Wei-Yen Chen
171
2.47
174.0
Scott Kazmir
177
2.03
170.0
Jeff Samardzija
216
1.63
189.0
J.A. Happ
141
1.50
160.0
Ian Kennedy
184
-0.17
164.0
If you order the table to reflect accumulated WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for each of the pitchers, then we see the order shift a bit with Greinke moving to the top, and Cueto and Samardzija dropping a spot or three. Greinke is clearly the best of the pitchers in this chart and Kennedy is a huge gamble, but in between there is a lot of variation from guys who regularly pitch a lot of innings – like Mike Leake, to guys who provide quality, but not necessarily innings – like Happ. Interestingly, Samardzija is the 5th highest paid, but in terms of WAR earned per season, he is third from the bottom.
    So what do you get when you buy the services of The Shark? You get durability for sure. His average of 216 innings pitched per season for the last three campaigns is quite a feat when teams like the Rockies didn’t have even a single pitcher break the 150 innings mark last season.  2014 was Samardzija’s best season and 2015 was easily his worst since he became a rotation regular. Obviously the White Sox traded for Samardzija hoping he would be the pitcher he was in 2014 and his 4.99 ERA was not what they thought would happen. Now the Giants are paying Samardzija to figure out what went wrong in Chicago and find his way back to the guy who in 2014 threw 219.67 innings, striking out 202 and walking a paltry 43 batters. His ERA of 2.99 and WHIP of 1.065 were the sort of numbers aces sport. Samardzija’s 2014 was a real representation of his growth as a starting pitcher. He still threw fastballs in the mid 90’s, but he showed real improvement in his control and kept the ball in the park as his home run rate dropped to 0.8 – the first season he managed a sub-1.0 home run per nine rate since he’d become a full-time starter. Shark’s projections have his control numbers staying steady, but his innings pitched and strike outs dropping off significantly. It is unlikely that the Giants will decrease his workload, which means that the Giants will probably get 200+ innings from the first three spots in their rotation (including Samardzija’s). With his improved control and no health issues, Samardzija will beat his projections throwing half his games in a pitcher’s park. 200+ quality innings will make The Shark a good sign and possibly a bargain.
    Johnny Cueto is a five-pitch pitcher who relies most heavily on his fastball which he throws in the low to mid-90’s and uses about half the time, a cutter he uses about 20% of the time, and a change that he surprises the hitter with around 15% of the time. He is an ace for most teams in baseball, and was highly coveted last season when he was with the Reds. His time in Kansas City was not what anyone expected and it hurt his market value in free agency. There were rumors about him being injured, but anyone who watched him pitch the second game of the World Series and throw a 122 pitch complete game where he only allowed two hits would have a hard time explaining what kind of injury allows that kind of performance. Cueto was not as sharp or consistent with KC as he had been before the trade but assuming the Giants did their due diligence before signing him, then they should be getting a guy who throws a lot of innings – 243.67 in 2014 – with his 3 year average in the table suffering from his DL stint due to a lat strain in 2013. He suppresses home runs reasonably well (home run per nine rates under 1.0 each year but one since 2010), with great peripherals (strikeout to walk ratios over 3.7 each of the last two seasons). In short, he is a beast and the Giants took advantage of the rumors about his health to sign him for less than he would have otherwise been offered.
    One odd statistical bump could account for Cueto’s less than ace-like performance in his short time in KC. His BABIP (batting average on balls that hitters put into play) was freakishly (for him) high. Cueto’s BABIP was .343 in his 13 starts for the Royals although it has never been above .298 during any other season. His 2015 BABIP before the trade was .234 by comparison. There may have been something going on hampering Cueto from making the adjustment to the American League, but more than anything he was just plain unlucky.
    You know it is going to be an interesting season for your team when we haven’t even talked about the ace of the pitching staff and the two guys we have talked about are costing $19.8 million this season alone. Madison Bumgarner is the undisputed ace of the Giants based on his post-season heroics more than anything else. What he did in the 2014 playoffs and World Series will never be forgotten by Giants fans. But his regular season portfolio is a pretty glorious sight as well and it just keeps getting better. Best yet, Mad Bum is only 26. It seems like he should be older because he made 18 starts as a 20 year old and has made no fewer than 31 starts every year since he start drinking legally – that’s five seasons in a row. Over that time period he has pitched at least 201 innings, seen his WHIP drop each season from 1.212 in 2011 to 1.008 last season. Each of the last two seasons his strikeout-to-walk ratio has increased from 3.21 to 5.09 to 6.00 last season. His strikeouts per nine have also climbed from 8.3 in 2012 to 9.6 last season. Bumgarner has also kept his home runs per nine under 1.00 each of the last three seasons. Yeah – basically he is great and still improving. So when will the upward growth stop? Hard to know. 26 is still young for a starting pitcher. That could mean that he will keep getting better for a few years or it might mean that he is going to start declining earlier because of all the mileage on his arm at a young age. The cherry on top is that Madison can swing the bat. He has two seasons in a row with an OPS above .740 smacking 9 home runs over the last two seasons in 159 plate appearances. Wait! Here’s something bad! He had an awful spring training. Not that it counts or matters as he still maintained good peripherals, except for the home runs allowed per nine innings pitched. Nothing to see here folks – move along.
    Let’s stop for a moment. There has been a lot of talk this off-season about who has the best starting rotation in baseball. The Diamondbacks made moves to bolster their rotation and have received a lot of love from the baseball world for their top three. The Mets have the young guns and the depth. The Rays seem to always have rotation depth and some stud like Chris Archer pitching the opener. If the Mets are everybody’s gold standard of what a starting rotation should look like, let’s remember than not one of the top three hurlers in their rotation hit the 200 innings pitched mark, unlike each of the top three starters in the Giants rotation. I know there were reasons that the Mets pitchers needed to be protected a bit, but that is a factor when assessing a rotation too, or at least it should be. When the Mets top three can surpass 600 innings, assuming they can do it while maintaining their same high standards that they set last season, then perhaps they can lay claim to the title. But until they have actually done it and we aren’t just talking about their potential and one great season, then San Francisco’s top three (here it comes) is the best trio at the top of any rotation in baseball.
    Sadly, nobody pitches 400 innings anymore (Where is Addie Joss when you need him?), so most teams need to employ a fourth, fifth, and sometimes a sixth starter. Like almost every team in baseball there is quite a drop off from the 3rd man in the rotation to the 4th. Jake Peavy averaged just under six innings per start in 2015 (5.8) with a fastball that averaged 89 MPH. The 34 year old Cy Young Award winner (2007) who used to strike out a ton of batters is no longer that guy. He has kept his strikeout-to-walk rate in the threes by reducing his walk rate as his strikeout rate dropped – a heady trick. He still punches out 6.3 batters over nine, but he also gives up a lot of fly balls, so it’s good that he pitches in San Francisco. His home run rate more than doubles when he leaves the Bay Area to pitch but overall was 1.0 per nine innings last season. His ERA+ (ERA adjusted to his park and relative to the rest of the league was 105 – slightly better than league average, and his FIP (ERA based only on what the pitcher controls) was 3.87, slightly worse than his ERA of 3.58. Manager Bruce Bochy has announced that he was not going to push Peavy as deep into starts in 2016 as he has in the past based on his stats that show his ERA in the 6th inning is 7.71 which is good compared to his ERA of 15.75 in the 7th inning. Peavy gets by with deception nowadays and becomes less David Copperfield-esque the third time hitters see him in a game. Having guys throw over 200 innings in the first, second, and third spots in the rotation saves the bullpen so that when Peavy, occupying the fourth spot comes along they can pitch a couple more innings of relief. Not only did their free agent signings make the top of the rotation better, they should also make Peavy more effective because he gets to hand the ball over to the pen before blowing up.
    What the hell is wrong with Matt Cain? Homey was a beast through 2012 picking up Cy Young votes three years in a row and hitting the 200 innings mark in six straight seasons through 2012. He has been nicked up for a while now which might explain the ugly trends in his numbers. While his strikeouts-to-walk ratios have remained above two (just barely last year at 2.05), Cain’s hits-per-nine ratio, WHIP, hits-per-nine, and home runs per nine have increased each season since 2012. The annual watch for the return of the prodigal pitcher must be getting old for Giants fans by now. Even the Baseball Prospectus projections are believers in Matty.  IF he is healthy, and IF he can return even halfway to his old form, then the Giants are going to have a really fun season. His last spring outing was solid and he lasted into the 6th so maybe Cain is no longer an ace, but an innings eater – and that would be just fine on this staff this year because they already have three aces. Peavy and Cain just need to get out there every fifth day and last into the 5th or 6th inning so they don’t burn through the pen.
    Waiting in the pen for godawful things to happen to the other starters will be Chris Heston. Heston’s rookie year in the bigs last season was, um, interesting. The 6’3” righty threw a no-hitter after joining the rotation. Heston wasn’t expected to be lights out, but he was for the first half of the season. Here is a wee table to show how he threw a rod in the second half last year, and if you look not too closely, you might also see why.

Starts
Innings Pitched
Walks/9
Home Runs/9
WHIP
ERA
First Half
18
111.67
2.4
0.48
1.200
3.39
Second Half
13
66
4.6
1.36
1.500
4.91
   
Heston’s control went the way of the Dodo with his walk rate almost doubling, leading to more home runs and more home runs with men on base, which of course means an ERA a run and a half higher. Aside from the second half of last year and 19 starts at triple-A Fresno in 2013, Heston’s control hasn’t been a huge problem. His minor league walk rate was mostly in the 2.0 to 2.7 per nine range. And aside from that tough 2013, Heston has limited home runs to below 1.0 per nine innings – his career rate is around 0.7 including both big league and minor league numbers. This spring was rocky for Heston, but his strikeout rate was up and his walk rate was down so… Heston’s game isn’t about strikeouts, it’s about inviting batters to ground out and keeping the ball on this, the grassy side of the fence. If he joins the rotation at some point and makes 20+ starts, he should be able to reproduce his overall numbers from last season or even best them unless his control again eludes him.
    Both Cueto and Samardzija should produce strong performances this year pitching in AT&T park backed by a good defensive team that will score runs for them. The Giants rotation additions will be a stabilizing force on the entire pitching staff allowing the bullpen to be fresh for the post-season. Brian Sabean and crew did a smart thing jumping in on Cueto and Samardzija when they were in “buy low” positions. The quality innings they contribute just might be the driving force that pushes the Giants to the top of the division and, with some luck, far into the post-season.

Author: elfuego25

When I'm not writing about baseball (or shoving kettle corn into my mouth at the ballpark), I am probably walking Daisy, who is a very good dog, researching my Portuguese-Irish roots, or wondering when my lovely wife will return from her latest fabulous trip. Yes, life is good!

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