Kirby Lee/USA Today

Giants Struggling Starters Need An Uptick

San Francisco's list of woes is lengthy in 2017, but the struggles of their starting rotation are among the most crucial.

The Giants have made a smoldering crater out of their 2017, having set up shop in the NL West cellar and offering very little indication that they aren’t settled in that spot for the long haul. This was a team that went to the 2016 postseason and had the entirety of that core coming back, presumably healthier than they’d been.  What happened?

In comparing the Giants and Padres, I noticed that on this date (5.11.17) they’d allowed the same amount of runs. I dug deeper to see which part of their respective pitching staffs was hurting each the most, and I got divergent answers. For San Francisco, it’s been the starting rotation, and the causes have been as varied as the culprits.

San Francisco’s starting rotation has given up more earned runs than any other staff in the National League. Their collective BABIP is .301, so it’s not that they’ve been unlucky as a group. They miss bats at about a league average rate (8.1 K/9 7th in NL) and they have third lowest walks per nine innings of any Senior Circuit staff.  These are good things.

What’s not good is allowing home runs, and the Giants’ starters have collectively done  a bit too much of that. San Francisco’s 1.31 HR/9 is fourth-highest in the National League.  Even given that, however, it’s a good idea to look at the Giants’ starters by a case-by-case basis and see what’s happening.

For our purposes, we are excluding Madison Bumgarner and his rotation replacement Ty Blach.  Blach has been good in his time replacing Mr. Dirt Bike, and Bumgarner was his usual effective self when he was pitching.  The Giants will clearly get a boost when he returns, but he’s still only gonna be pitching one of every five games at the most, so let’s move on to the other members of the rotation.

With the exception of Jeff Samardzija, the Giants’ starters have essentially pitched to ther ERA’s.  A couple of their pitchers have had minor BABIP misfortune (the aforementioned Samardzija and Matt Moore) and a couple have had some minor BABIP luck. Samardzija has a 5.44 ERA but has pitched to a 3.46 FIP and a 2.90 xFIP.  Moore has a 6.52 ERA and has pitched to a 4.84 xFIP, so while it’s fair to say he’s been a tad unlucky (.317 BABIP), it’s also a stretch to say he’s been “good” or even “categorically mediocre.”

When it comes to The Matts, Cain and Moore, we get to some of that previously alluded to divergence.  Moore’s problem, above all others, is an inability thus far to keep the ball in the ballpark.  His 1.63 homers/9 are way up from his 1.13 mark in ‘16 and his 1.04 career mark. His BB/9 is not out of range from his career, and overall he’s not allowing harder contact with greater frequency. His line drive rate is slightly down from last season, so it’s not like he’s getting hit harder across the board. The hard hit balls he is allowing are leaving the yard way too often for him to be successful.

Per FanGraphs, Moore’s least effective pitch is his fastball, which he is throwing 47% of the time as compared to his cutter, which he is throwing 25% of the time and which is currently his most effective pitch based on runs allowed per 100 pitches.  Just because he’s not walking people doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not struggling with command.  The inability to spot your fastball, which no matter who you are will always be the pitch you throw most (excluding knuckleballers), is simply not something you can negotiate if you’re a pitcher.

Two of the seven homers Moore has allowed have been on the first pitch, and two others have come on an 0-2 pitch. We can’t say definitively that they were hit on fastballs, but the fact that four of the seven have come with the count even plus his FanGraphs pitch value rating imply that his heater is not doing what he needs it to do right now.   Whether he’s got mechanical issues or is simply in the midst of a slump, it’s key that Moore needs to work on his fastball command so that his pitches don’t so frequently end up as souvenirs.

Matt Cain’s bane has not been filling the stands with baseballs but rather filling the bases with runners due to walks. Despite velo numbers that are down across his pitch repertoire, Cain is actually allowing significantly fewer line drives (18% vs. 24% in 2016) and turning those into ground balls (43% up from 37% in 2016).  This is a good thing. He’s also allowing only 1.01 HR/9, a number which the other Matt would embrace.

What is not good is his 4.29 BB/9 rate, which really exacerbates the fact that he’s not missing bats anymore.  He has a 6.81 K/9, and bereft of a truly dominant fastball or breaking ball to get rally-quelling contacts, Cain is really creating problems for himself. He’s walked six batters on a 3-1 count, which seems to be an acknowledgement of his decreased fastball usage and the realization that he can’t throw his most effective pitch, the change-up, when he’s behind the count. Not really sure there’s much hope for improvement here consider the lack of velocity.  His command needs to be vintage to compensate for stuff that never again will be, but even at that he’s probably in for a long 2017.

Samardzija’s profile is quite volatile, making for the split between his ERA and his xFIP. He’s had some poor batted ball luck (.325 BABIP), and he literally does not have a plus pitch per FanGraphs.  The one hurting him the most is the one he throws the least, the cutter. He has a whopping -5.47 pitch value despite the fact that he’s only thrown it 7.2% of the time.

One of the biggest keys to Samardzija’s struggles is a 58% left-on-base percentage. The worst team in the league has a 66% left-on-base percentage. Just last year Samardzija’s LOB% was a more than acceptable 74%.  He’s still maintaining his velocity and that K/9 rate suggests the stuff is there. Look at that xFIP again, and he gets the silver in terms of most likely to stabilize the Giant rotation.

Finally, we arrive at Johnny Cueto, the 1A to Bumgarner’s 1. Cueto’s been hurt by his slider more than any other pitch despite the fact that he’s only thrown it 4% of the time. Cueto’s difficulties have been an amalgam of his rotation mates. He’s walking more people than usual and he’s been hit by the dinger bug as well. Cueto’s 2.45 BB/9 is up from last year’s stellar posting of 1.84, and his HR/9 is at 1.64, a full homer up from his performance in 2016.

The strikeouts are still there, as evidenced by his 8.18K/9, which is actually better than his career rate of 7.53. He is giving up more line drives and fly balls, neither of which is good. However, the line drive and fly ball rates are not up at the same rate as his HR rate is, and given that he’s gonna pitch the rest of the year in AT&T Park, it’s unlikely that he continues to be victimized by the long ball at his current rate.

Eventually the Giants are gonna get Bumgarner back, Cueto should settle down, and Samardjiza is due some batted ball luck. If the Giants are to escape the cellar and approach contention in 2017, it’s gonna take a lot of reversals in all facets, but with Brandon Crawford coming back all is not quite lost in San Francisco just yet. The jury is still out on the Matts however, and the Giants are gonna need them to improve lest they get an earlier look towards 2018 than anyone anticipated.

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