Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Your 2015 Giants: Rotation

I see a lot of consternation with the Giants rotation and the depth.  The great blog Raising Matt Cain has had some comments about this (like this one).

ogc thoughts

The rotation right now is Bumgarner, Cain, Hudson, Peavy, Lincecum, with Petit as long man/6th starter.

Madison Bumgarner

Most are not worried about him except for the 270+ inning he threw in 2014.   While it is true that Bumgarner has never thrown that many innings before (covering 4,000+ pitches), something else one has to consider is that in 2010, he threw 3,393 pitches between the minors and majors, while still keeping up with his routine of throwing on the side:  every day!  Pitchers in the majors, he discovered, did not throw every day, in order to conserve strength for their starts, and at some point he decided that he should do the same thing too.

So it is very probable that Bumgarner has already thrown more than 4,000 pitches in a season before, in 2010 when you include his throwing every day, and he did not have any problems with that then, and thus he should not have any problems with it in 2014.  And who is kidding who, while he might not throw every day, I would bet that he still throws more than most pitchers do between starts.  Furthermore, many pitchers have thrown over 300 innings and had long careers in the past.  And look at the guys who have the bodies to handle that type of work - Feller, Ryan, Clemens - Bumgarner has the type of body that I would categorize as "farm boy" who seem to be able to handle the workload jess fine sir.

So while I understand the concern, there are mitigating factors as to why it is not a problem.  Though, really, this is the least of anyone's worries, I'll note.

Matt Cain

Obviously, people are worried about his recovery from elbow and ankle surgery.  I'm not sure exactly why.

For me, the major danger from these surgeries is the possibility of infection and of a mistake being made.  We are past the point of infection as it should have healed over by now.  And if there was any mistake, it should have been obvious to Matt by now because he should have started his off-season throwing program by now and there would be talk about him possibly needing to go under the knife again.  So neither of these should be in play anymore.

That then leaves the irrational fear that surgery means something could have changed for the worse.  It didn't, it changed for the better, as he had the chips removed from his elbow, which is very minor (relatively) surgery as arthroscopy is minimally invasive, which he's been dealing with since forever and the bone spurs on his ankle.  It is not like they did some structural change or move body parts around (like in TJS).  Despite these long term impediments, he has pitched very well as a major league pitcher for his whole career.

So my minimum expectations is that he'll return to prior goodness, the Cain we have known and loved during this extended period of competitiveness, 2009-2013.  And, as a possible bonus, perhaps be better than ever, now that he's not impinged in any way now.  And I realize that he was pretty good before, and perhaps I'm being too simplistic, but basically he was healthy before but pitched well in spite of the chips being in the way sometimes, but now he has no chips to worry about, but still has healthy as before.  Seems obvious to me that he should at minimum return to prior goodness.

Tim Hudson

I can see the fear that people are having, due to him getting surgery at age 40, and especially on the ankle that was horribly broken not that long ago.  Again, I'm not seeing why the fear is so large.

Yes, surgery can be dangerous.  It should be a number of weeks for the sutures to heal, so infection is still a possibility, but at under 1%, it is very uncommon and unlikely.  So surgery today, while not 100%, is generally safely done.

And bone spurs are not that big a deal to be operated on (same thing Cain got done too).  This is a relatively common and easy surgery, from what I understand.  Arthroscopy has made such surgery much safer, as it is minimally invasive, speeding recovery time as well.  Roughly 80% of such a simple problem have good or excellent results.  So while there is a chance of a problem, it is more likely that he will be OK.

In addition, two factors mitigate any issues regarding delaying Hudson's start of the season.  First of all, many teams operate with only four starters for the first month or so, and the Giants could chose to do that.  They have generally not done that in recent years, especially after a playoff season, but could.  Secondly, they have Petit around to take up the slack, should the Giants chose to go with a 5-man rotation to start the season, until Hudson is ready.   And Petit has done well when placed in the rotation and not an emergency starter, as I get into below.

Jake Peavy

For Peavy, his prior stretch of poor performance, particularly punctuated by his very bad first half of 2014, when he lost, like, 9 starts in a row, then lost his first one with the Giants, has scarred Giants fans memories, overshadowing his great performance with us.   They fear that the first half is more representative of his future than the second half with us.

I don't share that concern.  If you look at Peavy's PQS stats, over the past 4-5 seasons, he's been very good at putting up high DOM% (i.e. quality starts) and not throwing a lot of disaster starts.  Except, that is, for the first half in 2014, when he wasn't doing as well.  That's why I place my bet on Peavy's performance with us being the real deal and not the first half, as the first half is the anomaly over the past few years and not the second half.  And pitchers with great PQS stats, while no guarantee that they will have great stats, generally end up with great stats.

If you look at his stats, the bad years appear to be a correction, regression to the mean.  His career ERA and FIP are almost exactly the same.  However, in recent years, his FIP has been less than his ERA.  In his bad seasons, the FIP has been much less than his actual ERA, except for the first half of 2014, which again is the outlier in the whole period.   Something to be concerned about, sure, since we don't have any idea why he was bad for that period of time, but since he returned to his prior goodness with us (he reported that he really loved working with Posey and Susac, and basically he waited for the Giants to come to him, instead of moving on when the Giants were pursuing Lester), I am not as worried about this struggles in the first half ow 2014.

Here is the only thing I can see to be concerned about, and perhaps this explains his first half struggles.  Peavy is at the age where his velocity will eventually decline and he will need to adjust.  And his K/9 has been dropping down in recent years.   Whereas he's been superior for years, he's now down to average range at 6.6 K/9 with us last season.

However, he's already dealt with this before, his K/9 was very high until age 29, when probably whatever physical problems that kept him out of games started to crop up, and so his K/9 went down from 2009-2013, as he adjusted so that he can pitch and stay healthy.   And in spite of the lower K/9, he kept his K/BB at the same level, 3.44 K/BB from 2004-2009, 3.52 K/BB from 2010-2013.

But now it's gone down again, and it would be my speculation that his time with Boston was when he was struggling to adjust to this new reality, and his time with the Giants was when he figured out how to continue to pitch well in spite of this.  He's always been good at keeping walks down while striking out a lot so that his K/BB is still high, as I showed above.  His time with Boston has a much lower K/BB, 2.23, but with the Giants he's back to 3.41 K/BB, in line with what he had done previous.   Again, his time with Boston was the anomaly.

It is very similar to Hudson's career arc.  Circumstances change, but Peavy and Hudson have adjusted to keep their K/BB at a very good level, even as their K/9 goes down.  So barring the usual concerns about a pitcher his age, I think his time with Boston is the outlier, not his time with SF.

Tim Lincecum

Lincecum has a three year record of poor performances:  or does he?  Every season, he has had an extended period of very strong pitching:  the second halves of 2012 and 2013, and in 2014, he had a 3.65 ERA as late as mid-to-late July (when he saved that game).   And his PQS also shows that his performance during that period has actually been good in one very important aspect:  his DOM% is still very high.

Tim's problem the past few years has been his disaster starts.  That is one nuance I've learned in studying this statistic, that a pitcher's ERA can still be good, even if he don't have many quality starts, as long as he's avoiding disaster starts too.  Brad Hennessey was rarely good for us, but he was rarely bad too, and as a result, he could be a serviceable starter like that.  That got me to looking for other pitchers like that, he has mostly what I call MID starts - neither DOM nor DIS, 2 or 3 PQS - and I found that a pitcher can be mediocre even if he can't dominate the other team, as long as he can avoid disaster starts as well.  However, Tim has been horrible in avoiding disaster starts in recent seasons, even as he's been good at throwing dominant starts as well.

This is why I think that Lincecum's father returning to his prior role of game-by-game coach will help Tim return to being a good pitcher again.  Not necessarily Cy Young good, since he's older and not striking out as many, though I would not take that off the table either, frankly since he's been very good over longish stretches, for example, he had a 3.11 ERA over an 18 game stretch from April 15 to July 20 last season.

Some worry that Lincecum would not be able to integrate his Dad's instruction into games.  I totally agree that it is up to Lincecum, but feel that this is not a concern.  This is a nice article (which is mostly a cut and paste of e-mails Chris sent to the blog’s author) with his father describing what he did with his son.   Tim has been throwing with his Dad’s instructions since age 8. He’s been off the tether since age 26 for a total of five seasons now, after getting instruction and game-by-game advise and instruction for 18 seasons before that.  While I agree that he would need to be able to take the instruction into games, given that this is something he has been internalizing starting 23 years ago.

In addition, it hasn’t been like he forgot everything even in 2014 (based on the long stretch of good pitching overall), it seems to me that the key areas his father can help in is diagnosing when he is not following his father’s methodology/mechanics and what he needs to do to get back to where his father wants him to be. As I tried to show above, his problem the past few years have not been being able to throw nice starts regularly, but that when he gets lost mechanically, he’s bad for a long time until he fixes it, resulting in a lot of disaster starts.

So I think that it's clear that he don’t know exactly why and how his mechanics work, but appears capable of working on it until he gets it back into good shape.  However, then, meanwhile, he’s horrible, like a batting practice pitcher, until he does figure it out.  Hopefully his father’s coming back and helping game-by-game will lessen the severity and the duration of these down spells.

But I would note here that even when Dad was around, he had bad months where he was not very good, so it’s not all manna from the heavens. Still, lets say that the first 20 games of 2014 was his talent level (that’s all the starts up to the save game, then he went from very good to very bad, so it appears to me that changing up his routine caused him to change a key mechanical motion, as he didn’t have another good start for the rest of the season): he had a 3.68 ERA during that stretch of bad and good.  I would take that from our 5th starter any day.

I’m not looking for him to be Cy Young Timmy, but given that he’s not far from OK to good performances, hopefully his Dad can help him maintain that consistency over a full season instead of roughly half a season, as he has in recent seasons.  It is not a slam dunk, but I'm glad the Giants are still giving him a chance.

While I think that Petit right now is better, $18M or no $18M, I think that the Giants need to give Lincecum a chance to show what he can do now that his Dad is helping him again with his mechanics, and keeping it tuned.  Even when he was winning Cy Youngs, there would be a month where he would go off the rails and there would be regular reports that he would lose his mechanics and need his father to help him get back to where he should be. And even in his poor last few seasons, he actually pitched well for around half the season, it would just be that he would blow up at some point in the season, and just lose it, ruining his overall seasonal results.

So I like the Giants position right now that Linceum is the starter and Petit is the long reliever/6th starter. It allows him to keep face, while the Giants use spring training to assess where Timmy is now and how productive he can be in 2015. Petit as the starter with Lincecum in the bullpen is an option that could still be done mid-season (or when necessary) without harming irreparably, their playoff chances. Meanwhile, the Giants can see if working with his Dad will help him reach prior heights, as the Giants don’t need Linecum to be a Cy Young winner again for them to win the division, they just need him to be pretty good, like he has been in long stretches even in recent seasons.

The risk/reward is too high for the Giants not to start Lincecum.  And the logic for why he should return to goodnes, as I laid out above, makes a lot of sense to me.  Despite his poor seasonal results, he has still been a dominant starter and for long stretches.  It has been when he was lost mechanically when his seasonal results suffered.  And his father is the one who knows his form so well that he can tell what is wrong just from hearing what the announcer is seeing over the radio.  Now, his father will be helping him again, as he did in 2009 and for the nearly two decades before that.  Seems like an easy equation to understand.

Yusmeiro Petit

Some fans still don't think much of Petit.  They look at his overall results or question his abilities because the Giants have thus far been reluctant to put him permanently into the rotation.  Other fans think that Petit should be in the rotation.  While I would love to put Petit into the rotation, as I noted above, I like what the Giants are doing.

First off, Petit, when he's been placed in the rotation and not thrown into a start cold, has been a very good starting pitcher.  As a starter at the end of the 2015 season, he was 67% DOM and 17% DIS in 6 starts.  When just thrown into starts in 2015, he had a 33% DOM and 17% DIS, a much lower performance.  In 2014, when placed into the rotation, he had a 57% DOM and 14% DIS in the 7 starts.   Between 2013-2014, when in the rotation, he had 13 starts, with a 3.74 ERA, 9.8 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 for a great 5.4 K/BB, 62% DOM and 15% DIS.  He's been consistently good when placed into the rotation, so that is not a worry for me.

Some question his abilities because the Giants didn't simply put him in the rotation, instead of resigning Peavy or replacing Lincecum.   I don't view it as the Giants being really reluctant to give him a rotation slot, but more as the Giants being really reluctant to not have a backup starter who can deliver the goods as well or better than the starters in the rotation.   That is quite a competitive weapon to have, and on the cheap.

Most teams losing one of their top starters in the rotation usually can kiss the season goodbye (see Twins with Francisco Liriano). If the Giants lose anyone, per the prevailing worries right now (as per above, Bumgarner's innings, Cain's surgery, Hudson's surgery, Peavy's up and down season, Lincecum's poor stretch of seasons), then they can swap in Petit while they try to get the afflicted pitcher back into playing shape.  Or finish the season for him.  

However, it's not very fair to Petit since he probably could be a very good starter for somebody right now and perhaps he could take his return to long relief as a negative.  I mean, not only was he one out away from a perfect game, but also has the record for the longest stretch of consecutively retired batters and which is unique in that he did this as a reliever, mostly, whereas it has usually been starters over two games.  He did it over an 8 game stretch of games.   And not only is his K/9 superior but his walk rate is very low too, for a stupendous K/BB ratio.

However, it's a glass half full situation, because before the Giants took him on and developed him, he was relegated to pitching in the Mexican League previously.  He probably wouldn't be in this position without them, as nobody was willing to give him a chance.  And thus he's probably just happy to be in the majors and earning a great living.

And it's a matter of patience, as Hudson will probably be leaving the rotation after the season, at which point Petit will be the most likely replacement, assuming he can beat out our young prospects like Crick and Blackburn, or maybe even Beede, for the starting spot.  And he's been waiting for a long time anyway, and traveled the life of a journeyman, much like Vogelsong, so he is more likely to be appreciative of the opportunity to pitch in the majors, versus unhappy over not starting full-time.

Starting Rotation

So I see the worries that people have, but I think that they are overly worried.  It is almost like any negative is the end of the world.  It's not and worrying about it does not make the worry any likelier.   Bumgarner is built like the horses that he handles and built himself up to be able to absorb throwing so many pitches.  After all, he's the guy who had Hall of Fame as his long-term goal as a senior in high school.  And the Giants are likely to lessen his load this season by pulling him out sooner.

The other worries are bigger, but still not as bad as people make it out to be.  Cain and Hudson were operated on with minimally invasive techniques, and should be back to normal eventually.  Peavy's outlier was his time with Boston, not the other way around, and he should be back to his prior levels of performance.  And Lincecum, even if his father is no help, can, at worse, eat a lot of innings for us, like he's done the past few seasons, and at a competent 5th starter performance level, while giving us valid and good hope that he might actually be good this season with his Dad's help.

And while I don't think any of these worries individually are particularly worrisome, I think that the odds of one of the five happening, including adding in the fact that they are pitchers, make it very likely that one of them will have some sort of issue come up, whether one of the worries or something out of the blue (like Vogelsong getting HBP in 2013 and getting put on the DL).   And that's where having a pitcher like Petit, ready to step in without losing a step (or perhaps gaining a step) is so powerful and why it was good that the Giants decided to keep him in the long relief role and keep Peavy and Lincecum in their roles.  That's risk mitigation up the wazoo, for me, and part of me wonder if we might eventually sign Vogelsong in the future to take on that role, when he's ready for it.


  1. In *Faster, Higher, Stronger,* his excellent book on the training methods of contemporary athletes, Mark McCluskey quotes the head of Sportsvision (Pitch f/x) as saying that in 2012 his system picked up such a radical change in Lincecum's release point that "we wondered if our cameras got bumped out of alignment." I take this to substantiate your belief that L's troubles have to do principally with his mechanics, which may be fixable, rather than with the aging of his arm, hence decreased velocity, which isn't fixable. If so, C. Lincecum may be able to repair T. Lincecum, as you say.

    The problem with taking on Vogelsong for rotation insurance is, as you and I have remarked on Shankbone's blog, triple: he may be less effective in relief than a pitcher he would displace on the roster, although much of the time he would probably spend in the pen; he might cause the loss of Kontos, who has no options (I believe) and who has been often very effective in relief; and he himself, Vogelsong, might rank his desire to be a Giant below his desire to be in another team's actual rotation instead of being an understudy for struggling or disabled starters for us.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I did not know about that book, great comment, and it ties in totally with the timing of when his performance went downward.

      Here is my only concern: if it was as simple as that, why didn't Papa Lincecum mention that to Tim? "Hey son, I know you told me you want to wear big boy pants and all, but this one tip would help fix a lot of your problems," seem like an easy way to respect your son while not letting him go totally off the rails too. And moreover why didn't the Giants notice that? They have a lot of video facilities, they couldn't have noticed something like that? My confidence in their abilities took a bit of hit with this.

      About Vogelsong, sorry for not making this clear, but I meant that after 2015, presumably when Petit finally graduates to the rotation after Hudson retires (or Lincecum moves on), and presumably after Vogie pitches a one year deal somewhere else (at this point, who would give him multi-years?), maybe he could move into Petit's spot as long reliever, for as long as he can toe the rubber for us. Or at some other point in the future, when he's ready to be a reliever.

      I think that Vogelsong could be a good reliever eventually for someone. He might even be better than Kontos, and I like Kontos a lot. Vogie's been a gutsy guy, unfazed by high pressure situations, so I have to think he could have a long afterlife as a set-up reliever once he decides to hang up his starting pitcher role.

      But at this point, I have to think that he wants to be in a rotation somewhere, not a reliever for the Giants, and hence my comments have been taking this assumption into account.

      On top of that, as you noted, Kontos is out of options (which, I'm pretty sure of, Giants had to use one on him in 2012, 2013, and 2014, and he wasn't that young when first coming up, so I don't think there was that rare 4th year option available), and I like him enough to not want to give him up.

      I guess the Giants could pull off a move like the A's, trade Kontos for someone, then sign Vogelsong to take his place, but given that Kontos has pitched minimally in 2013 and 2014 in the majors, the return would be very small, not like when other teams trade relievers and get a nice starting position player. I would rather keep him and, if we are thinking of getting rid of him, build up more value.

      Also, the Giants talked about how they wanted to respect Vogie by not signing him in the last off-season unless they knew they were putting him in the rotation. That was after a horrible 2013, which placed legitimate concerns over his future viability as a starter. While he wasn't great, he was still OK in 2014, so I don't see why the Giants stance (or Vogelsong's stance, which I assume precipitated the Giants statement) would change now this season, especially since Vogelsong has come and said that he would love to return to the Giants, but did not say anything about wanting to come back as a reliever, if need be. And at this point, it need be, after Peavy signed and Lincecum penciled in for the rotation (have to think he was the odd man out if the Giants had signed another starting pitcher).

      Thanks again.

    2. McCluskey comments about the change in Lincecum's delivery point, "Differences that would be hard for even the most seasoned baseball coach to pick up stick out . . . In the [f/x] data." Why the Giants didn't have access to, or trust in, those data is a mystery to me, as it is to you. But I can imagine why Chris Lincecum mightn't trust visual data that he as an independent, idiosyncratic tutor of his son couldn't pick up with his own bare, unaided eyes--this as a matter of personality. And I can imagine that when his kid, for whose success he takes lots of credit, tells him, "I don't need you," the senior Lincecum might say, "Oh, you don't, huh? Well, the hell with you, and don't come whining to me when you fall on your face." Who knows what goes on in a father/son dynamic when both are proud overachievers?

      On Vogelsong, I'm sure you and I agree, except that his age may erode his skills faster than anyone would guess.

    3. Very true, don't know the father/son dynamic. But to my point, seems pretty spiteful not to mention it, as they apparently have still be talking regularly, just not about his baseball mechanics. And I understand letting him figure things out on his own, but I would think one bad season would be enough of an example. Again, seems spiteful to let it drag out like this until his son says "uncle". But maybe that is their relationship, to your point.

      Very true about Vogelsong's age. Though that's true, really, for anybody 30 and older, each is like a jack in the box, being winded up each season, until the jack pops up and they are no longer any good. But to your point, at his age, much more likely that his skills will erode sooner than later. Though one mitigating factor is that he has not pitched as much as other pitchers his age, having been a journeyman for much of his career.

  2. Does McCluskey address the fact that Lincecum starting throwing a slider in 2012? If not, I'd have to initially discount any "conclusions" based on poorly informed general observations. Lincecum has a clearly different release point for the slider vs. many (though not all) of his other pitches.

    1. McCluskey doesn't discuss Lincecum at all, but quotes the top guy at Sportsvision using L as an example for a claim of what Pitchf/x can register better than even expert unaided eyes. The 2012 stats are so odd, with the K rate steady but the HR/flyball ratio and strand rate numbers sharply worse, that I am inclined to believe that the Sportsvision guy knows what he's talking about. He surely knows, or could know, what kind of pitch his cameras caught L throwing. But I can't say how sound his evidence is.

    2. A notation by Pitchf/x that Lincecum's release point was "different" would require pre-classification such as to identify fastballs vs. curves vs. sliders vs. changeups. This is a notable problem Pitchf/x has - even the use of speed to distinguish the changeup vs. the fastball, for example, only works if the pitcher doesn't also throw other pitches from the same position.
      Comparing Lincecum's 2012 numbers vs. earler - the obvious addition of a slider - if not accounted for in the classification - could easily itself indicate a different release point.
      Another possible reason for a different release point is trying to overthrow in order to pump up velocity.
      Without more clarity on the background of said data, merely noting Lincecum has a different release point doesn't really convey any usable information.



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