Giants Report Part 3: - Starting Pitchers
Noah Lowry is not improving with age (AP Photo)
with Phillip Ramirez
Posted Oct 10, 2007


The San Francisco Giants wrapped up the regular season with a record of 71 wins and 91 losses, good for last place in the NL West. There were many reasons why these Giants lost 90-plus games for the first time since 1996, but their starting pitching cannot be counted among them.

San Francisco Giants starting pitching ranked 7th in the majors and 4th in the NL in earned run average (4.24) to go with 6th and 4th in opponents batting average (.258), while also leading all senior circuit teams in innings pitched (968.2 – 6th in MLB).  Unfortunately for their win/loss records, they also collectively got the 28th lowest run support in the majors at 4.52 per game, with the Giants’ offense scoring the second fewest runs in the majors.  They also had a tendency to hurt themselves at times as well, leading the NL in walks with 400 (2nd in MLB), but overall they are a solid bunch that gives the team a solid foundation to build upon.

In this third of a (now) four part recap of the Giants 2007 season (6-month old twins…don’t get me started), I’ll be taking a closer look at the performance of the Giants’ starting pitchers. 

Starting Pitchers

Starters 1 –4: Barry Zito, Matt Cain, Noah Lowry and Tim Lincecum

The Fives: Kevin Correia, Jonathan Sanchez, Russ Ortiz, Patrick Misch, Travis Blackely

Barry Zito – 11-13, 4.53 ERA, .244 BAA, 1.35 WHIP, 3.80 BB/9, 5.99 K/9 

The Giants’ new $126 million man, Barry Zito, struggled through a rough 2007 season as he adjusted to his new surroundings and status as the richest pitcher in baseball.  While he pitched better than his final numbers may indicate, inconsistency plagued the veteran lefty, particularly as he battled through a rough stretch in June and July.

Barry Zito

IP H ER BB SO HR ERA BAA
April 3 - June 4 74.3 65 32 35 44 6 3.87 .236
June 9 - July 27 46.7 56 43 23 37 9 7.52 .295
Pre Aug. 1 121.0 121 77 58 81 15 5.28 .260
Aug 1 - Sept 30 75.7 61 28 25 50 9 3.33 .217

 

Barry Zito WHIP H/9 BB/9 K/9 HR/9 BR/9
April 3 - June 4 1.35 7.87 4.24 5.33 .73 12.11
June 9 - July 27 1.69 1.80 4.44 7.14 1.74 15.23
Pre Aug. 1 1.48 9.00 4.31 6.02 1.12 13.31
Aug 1 - Sept 30 1.14 7.26 2.97 5.95 1.07 10.23

He was hit particularly hard by his former teammates across the bay.  In two starts versus Oakland, “The Other Barry” was 0-2 and gave up 11 runs (10 earned) on 15 hits and 8 walks in just 8 innings pitched. 

On the other hand, Zito finished strong and was as durable as ever, not missing a single start (even pitching once for the first time in his career out of the bullpen) and ranking 6th in the NL with 103 pitches per start.  Fourteen times he pitched into the 6th or later while allowing 2 or fewer runs and 11 times he went 7 innings or more without giving up as many as 3 runs, including in 5 of his final 9 starts.

Run support, which plagued all of the Giants’ starters to some degree, really affected Zito as he ranked 67th (out of 84 – min 160 IP) in the majors with just 4.44 R/9.  Giants fans can hang their hope on Zito building on his strong finish and bouncing back to lead a very talented young rotation in 2008.

Matt Cain – 7-16, 3.65 ERA, .235 BAA, 1.26 WHIP, 3.56 BB/9, 7.35 K/9

The knock on Matt Cain last year from some was lack of a second pitch.  Not only has he improved his curve in the last year, he’s also bettered his slider and his change up, giving him 3 solid options to compliment his notoriously tough fastball.

Then this season, as he began racking up walks in droves, the critique was on his control - or lack thereof.  Thanks to a vital mid-season reckoning, that issue has been addressed as well.   

After getting shelled in back-to-back starts against the Cubs and the Braves in mid-July, the young right hander, who turned 23 October 1st,  admitted trying to do too much; a result of the anemic run support he had received up to that point.  Cain up had walked 63 batters in just 123 innings (4.61 per 9 IP) and struck out only 89 (6.51 per 9 IP) while posting a 4.03 ERA and a .245 BAA. 

It was then that he turned things around by getting aggressive with hitters.  In his last 12 starts of the year, Cain posted a 3.03 ERA and a .220 BAA while striking out 74 in 77 innings (8.65 per 9 IP) and walking just 16 (1.87 per 9 IP).  During that span, Cain pitched at least 6 innings and gave up no more than 3 runs in all but 1 start (that one start was the shortest of his career - 6 runs in 2.2 IP in Coors Field).  8 times in his final 12 starts, he allowed 2 or fewer runs.  

And if you thought Zito’s run support lagged, Cain’s 7-16 record was clearly the result of pathetic run support which saw the Giants score 2 or fewer runs in 14 or his 32 starts and 3 or less in a total of 21.  In fact, of all 84 pitchers with 16.0 IP or more, only Kip Wells (3.43) received less support than Cain’s 3.51 runs per 9IP, with the Giants scoring more than 4 runs for Cain just 4 times all season. 

 11 times in the 2007 season, the hard luck Cain allowed 1 or 0 runs while pitching at least 6 innings.  In those 11 starts, Cain’s record was just 5-4 despite a composite 1.07 ERA and just 36 hits allowed over 76 innings.  Four times the Giants were shut out in games started by Cain, and in those starts, he was 0-4 with a 1.29 ERA and 3.21 H/9 (36 IP, 10 H, 4 R).

All in all, it was a tough season for Matt Cain, who, in addition to the offensive woes, saw his bullpen fail to hold a lead five times. Thanks in part to the veteran influence of Matt Morris (traded in July to Pittsburgh for Rajai Davis), Cain nevertheless did a lot of growing and learning this season.  While Giants GM Nick Sabean will be sorely tempted to dip into his starting rotation depth to improve the lineup, moving Cain is highly unlikely. 

Noah Lowry – 14-8, 3.92 ERA, .266 BAA, 1.55 WHIP, 5.02 BB/9, 5.02 K/9 

To many, Noah Lowry was the Giants’ best pitcher in 2007, winning 14 games (in 26 starts) and posting a 3.92 ERA.  That record, however, was largely the byproduct of unusually good support.  While overall he ranked just 63rd in baseball with 4.85 R/9 of support, that number is deceptive, as the Giants scored 97 runs in his 14 wins (6.92 per game).  That support helped him to offset some disturbingly alarming peripheral numbers. 

In 156.0 innings this year, Lowry walked 87 batters while striking out only 87 and his WHIP and BAA were the worst marks among the Giants’ top 4 starters.  In fact, this season saw a continuing trend in which Lowry allowed progressively more baserunners in each of the last four seasons while also seeing his strikeout rate decline.

Lowry WHIP OBP BB/9 K/9 BR/9
2004 1.29 .312 2.74 7.04 11.64
2005 1.31 .320 3.34 7.56 12.14
2006 1.39 .336 3.16 4.74 12.88
2007 1.55 .364 5.02 5.02 14.25

A strained elbow cost Lowry the entire month of September, and may affect his marketability.  But the Giants have a surplus of young starters, and must consider moving Lowry, who, aside from Cain and Lincecum, is the club’s most marketable pitcher.  He is young (27 on October 10), left handed, signed to a very affordable long-term deal ($2.25 M in ’08, $4.5 M in ’09 and a $6.25 M club option for 2010), and has had success at the big league level.  Pitching carries a heavy price in today’s game; a 14-game winner would go a good ways towards acquiring a power hitting corner infielder.

Tim Lincecum – 7-5, 4.00 ERA, .226 BAA, 1.28 WHIP, 4.00 BB/9, 9.23 K/9 

The Giants top pick (#10 overall) in the 2006 amateur draft, Tim Lincecum made just five starts for AAA Fresno before ascending to the majors in May.  In those five starts, Lincecum went 4-0 with a .29 ERA (1 run, 12 hits in 31 IP) and held hitters to a .119 BAA to earn his promotion to the show.  At the major league level, Lincecum limited hitters to a .226 average in 24 starts, the lowest mark in the majors among rookie pitchers (min 100 IP) and the 7th lowest mark overall.  His .672 OPS against (13th in MLB) also led all rookies as did his 9.23 K/9 (6th best overall).  His 150 strikeouts were second only among rookies to Japanese baseball veteran Daisuke Matsuzaka’s 201. 

Lincecum primarily used his devastating fastball and big breaking curve to dominate and impress hitters throughout the league.  Later in the season, when he was struggling with his curve, he added what his father calls, “an abbreviated fork-ball.” 

Like most rookies, though, he had some rocky moments.  After starting strong with a 3.24 ERA through his first five starts, he had a four-game stretch where he posted a 10.61 mark.  That tough stretch culminated in rough outing in Milwaukee, where he surrendered 6 runs in the first two innings. Lincecum, however, did not give in, and finished by retiring 6 of the final 7 batters he faced in what Giants announcer Dave Flemming termed, “a defining moment” for the rookie right hander.  After that game. he went on an 8-game tear in which he pitched at least 6 innings in every start and allowed as many as 3 runs only once (including 8 shutout innings against those same Brewers).  Over 53.1 innings during that span, The Future allowed just 35 hits and struck out 59 in posting a 1.35 ERA and a .175 BAA. 

Fatigue eventually brought the rookie Lincecum back down to earth (5.05 ERA, .278 BAA in his last 7 appearances) and he was a healthy scratch for his final two starts, but Giants fans by now have seen more than enough to know that The Future is now 

The Five’s

Russ Ortiz began the year as the Giants’ fifth starter, but inconsistent pitching, coupled with injuries, limited the veteran in his second go-round with the team to just 8 starts in which his ERA was 6.23 and hitters batted .316 against him.  One injury resulted in his replacement in the rotation by Lincecum, while a second scuttled his chance to replace Morris.  He would eventually throw 5.2 scoreless innings out of the bullpen before his season was ended by Tommy John surgery 

Without a doubt, the candidate for the 5th spot in the rotation with the highest ceiling is 24-year old left hander Jonathan Sanchez, who in 250+ minor league innings, has struck out nearly 12 batters per 9 innings while allowing just over 7 hits.  He began the year in the pen, but made four starts in September, struggling badly in his final two.  Overall as a starter, he went 0-3 with a 7.16 ERA and a .353 BAA, although one bright spot was only 5 walks in 16.1 innings after walking nearly 6 per 9 IP in relief.  He was relatively strong in his first two starts, though he will get a long look next spring unless his high potential finds him included in a deal for a hitter this winter.

Possibly the Giants most pleasant surprise this season was the performance of right hander Kevin Correia as a starting pitcher.  Pressed into an emergency start on August 14th in Atlanta, the former struggling starter turned struggling reliever tossed 4 1/3 scoreless innings to impress his manager who said, “He gave us everything we wanted and needed.”  After two more relief appearances, Correia was moved into the starting rotation for the remainder of the season, where he sparkled.  In 46 innings, he posted a fine 2.54 ERA and 1.11 WHIP.  Additionally, he held opposing batters to a .222 average and his OPS against was just .597.  His performance made the 27-year old a strong candidate to start again next year.

Rookie left hander Patrick Misch made four starts for the Giants and was unimpressive, posting a 6.41 ERA and a .345 BAA.  He was much better in relief (2.18 and .240), where he also spent the majority of his minor league time, and could find himself in a prominent role out of the bullpen next year.  Left handers hit just .238 against him.

Travis Blackley, who made his ML debut in 2004 with Seattle, and was acquired at the close of spring training for Jason Ellison.  Blackley made two starts for the team, pitching okay in the first and poorly in the second.  After posting a 7.27 mark this year, the 24-year old left hander from Melbourne, Australia has a career mark of 9.35 in 8 starts.  In 2003, he went 17-3 at AA San Antonio.  In 2004, Baseball America ranked him higher than Cain, but injuries cost him the entire 2005 season, and he has since seen his prospects dim.  Expect to see him in spring training trying to buck the odds.

Other candidates who will likely get at least a cursory look in March are 28-year old right hander Chris Begg (2-0 in Double-A before being promoted to AAA Fresno where he went 12-5 with a 4.35 ERA in the hitter friendly PCL) and 25-year old righty Nick Pereira (9-9 with a 3.39 ERA and .231 BAA in AA after going 11-4 between class A San Jose and AAA Fresno last year).  Pereira reminds some of Brad Hennessey due to his command, and throws in the high 80’s to low 90’s with curve and a change.  Potential dark horse candidate.

Looking Ahead – Pitchers to Watch

Henry SosaSosa dominated the South Atlantic league, going 6-0 with a .73 ERA while limiting hitters to a .144 average in 13 starts for Augusta before his promotion to San Jose, where he went a modest 5-5 with a 4.38 mark.  He throws in the mid-90’s with a strong curve.

Tim Alderson – The 22nd overall pick in this year’s amateur draft, Alderson throws in the mid-90’s and has good command of all three of his pitches.  In 5 innings in the Arizona League, he allowed just 4 hits and no runs while walking none and striking out 12.  Some project him as a future closer, though Vice President of Player Personal Dick Tidrow insists he will start.

Clayton Tanner – The 19-year old left hander went 12-8 with a 3.59 ERA at Augusta this year, and has drawn comparisons to Lowry.  He has good command (44 BB in 135.1 IP) and a feel for pitching beyond his years.

Wilber Bucardo – Another 19-year old control specialist, Bucardo walked just 11 batters in 65.1 innings in the low minors this year, while averaging over 3 groundballs for every flyball.  He went 6-2 with a 1.94 ERA in 11 starts in the AZL.

Ben Snyder – Brother of Indians OF prospect Brad, the younger Snyder was 16-5 with a 2.09 ERA for Augusta with just 32 walks and 145 strikeouts in 151 innings.  Described as a crafty lefty who works in the mid-80’s with his fastball, he is seen as a future innings eater 

Madison Bumgarner – The Giants’ top pick in this year’s draft (#10 overall), he has yet to make his professional debut, but after going 11-2 with a 1.05 ERA in his senior year of high school, the 18-year old lefty is said to have developed a curveball and slider to go with his plus fastball.

Adam Cowart – 10-1 with a 1.08 ERA at Salem-Kaiser in 2006, the submarining right hander went 14-7 with a 2.39 ERA at Augusta this season.  Deception is the name of the game for this 35th round draft pick although his future may find him working out of the pen.

Kevin Pucetas – Winner of the second annual Most Spectacular Pitcher Award as a result of his minor league-best 1.86 ERA at Augusta, Pucetas was 15-4 with 104 strikeouts and only 21 walks in 145.1 innings.

Richard Van Zandt welcomes comments and debates at richard@baseballevolution.com

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