Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Your 2019 Giants Big Picture: Drew Pomeranz signed for $1.5M

As reported by various media outlets, the Zaidi Giants signed LHP Drew Pomeranz to a $1.5M contract, with extensive roster and performance bonuses that, if all are earned, would push his salary to $5M.  He's now slated for the starting rotation - though it was noted by Zaidi  that he has experience relieving as well - giving the Giants three known and expected starters - Bumgarner, Holland, and Pomeranz - and many options for the other two positions:  Samardzija, Rodriquez, Suarez, and Stratton, plus potentially Blach and Anderson, and perhaps Adon, depending on how he's used.

ogc big picture thoughts

Signing Pomeranz, after picking up Holland (one year at $6.5M plus team option for second year at $6.5M, or $500K buy out, plus his 2020 salary is boosted if he makes certain games started levels in 2019), fills out the rotation nicely for a competitive rotation in 2019, which in my model has two co-aces, one good middle rotation guy, and two average starters.  Zaidi said explicitly that both Pomeranz and Holland will be starters, and won't have the Opener to start their games.

Bumgarner is the clear leader here, and one of the co-aces.  And he's had roughly a 3.30 ERA over the past two seasons.  In spite of the forecasting systems pegging him for around 4.0 ERA for 2019, their systems are equating his poorer 2017-18 seasons to a physical problem that does not exist: he injured himself dirt bike riding in 2017, a line drive broke his pinkie in 2018.  Both had him returning before he was fully ready, and thus he had some early hiccups.  For example, in 2017, after 6 starts, in his final 11 starts he had a 3.18 ERA, and in 2018, after 3 starts, in his final 18 starts he had a 3.04 ERA.  His ERA in the prior 3 seasons were roughly at 3.0 ERA.  So I think it's pretty safe to say that he'll be Bumgarner good in 2019, barring any disastrous health problems unrelated to him throwing.

For the second co-ace, right now it appears to be Pomeranz.  He had a horrible 2018, but that was related to injuries that affected him greatly, but prior to that, he had a mid-90's fastball paired with a deadly curveball.  He had a 3.39 ERA in the prior 3 seasons, which would put him in co-ace territory if he is healthy.  Per this ESPN article looking ahead to this off-season, he was rated 6th best free agent, behind Harper, Machado, Kershaw, Donaldson, Blackmon, and ahead of Andrus, Dozier, Price, Miller, Kimbrel.

And that's the rub, is he healthy?  Per Baggerly's reporting, he had a flexor strain in spring training, then bicep tendinitis, and finally a neck issue.   And, per my research on his contract situation above, it turns out that he's had injury issues even in the two good seasons that he's had as a starter.  That makes it a bit scary that there was not a lot of talk about him being healthy, based on the reporting I saw from Baggarly and his fellow scribes after the signing, the closest I could get to that type of statement is that he viewed his 2018 issues as related to him not preparing in the off-season, as he usually did (as advised by his team, the Red Sox), and that he's not repeating that mistake this off-season, which implies that he's throwing normally, so far, this off-season.  So I would not count on him being that co-ace, but see him as a good possibility.

However, another key thing I noticed is that whereas the Giants are saying that they are counting on Pomeranz to be a starter and not a reliever, they are also saying that they don't know what they are going to get from Samardzija, and is treating him returning as a bonus.  So the Giants appears to be more confident about him returning than they are about Samardzija.  Still, at only $1.5M base, and $5M max, there is not a lot of financial certainty involved there, so I would assume they likewise is not all that confident that he'll return to his prior norms either (and likewise, most other teams, as Pomeranz had great stats previously).

Co-Ace by Committee

The key thing here is that while he's no sure thing to be a co-ace, he's not the only possibility.  Holland had a 25 start stretch (with a few relief appearances in there too, for a total of 29 games) with a 3.26 ERA.  D-Rod had a 2.89 ERA as a starting pitcher (19 starts) and 2.81 ERA overall, including relief appearances.   Suarez had a 3.23 ERA over an 11 start stretch, and per advanced pitching metrics, QOPA, he was in th e 95th percentile in the majors last season, using all his stats.  Stratton had a 2.4-ish ERA over a 15 start stretch from 2017 to 2018, and again, in the five starts after Vogelsong taught him what his correct mechanics he should be repeating for success.  And then there is Samardzija, who has had stretches of dominance in his prior two seasons with the Giants.  We don't necessarily need him to be that co-ace, there are varying degrees that the other can uphold that role.

Here's another way to look at this:  by each pitcher's percentage of starts with ERA under 4.  Bumgarner had 24 of 38 in the past two seasons. D-Rod had 14 of 19 in 2018. Holland had 16 of 30.  Suarez had 14 of 29.  Stratton actually had 19 of 35, but he was just that bad in the games where he was beat upon.  If these five starters continued at that rate of success in well pitched games, the Giants would average 3 of 5 good starts every turn of the rotation, which is pretty good, roughly equal to a 60% DOM.

And our physical question mark starters were pretty good in 2016-17.  Shark in 2016-17 had 33 out of 64, which is as good as Holland, Stratton, Suarez, basically.  Pomeranz in 2016-17 had 44 out of 62, which is the second best of this bunch, behind D-Rod.  If either are healthy, they would strengthen our rotation, Pomeranz in particular.  And that's basically how Zaidi managed the Dodger's starting pitching staff, he had a lot of question marks, each with varying degrees of expected availability, but whom could be expected to produce well, assuming they were available.

And all that highlights another key thing: that we don't need the same guy being the co-ace each turn of the rotation with Bumgarner, we just need one of them to be that co-ace, plus another being middle rotation good, and then two average starters.  Given the extensive periods of dominance by the guys above, I don't see how we don't get a competitive rotation out of the seven guys we got right now.  And I would lay good odds that multiple guys will do well, in particular, D-Rod and Suarez, as there are quality pitching indicators that suggest that both are good pitchers in the league.

6-man Rotation

I still like the idea of having a 6-man rotation.  Just have Bumgarner be the only guy who isn't skipped, and when a day off happens, the pitcher expected to start that day will be skipped, giving him a rest of 12 days between starts. Of course, if the days off ends up taking up too many of a starter who is doing well, they could just move him into the next day, giving everyone an extra day of rest between starts.

Running through the 2019 schedule, assuming the rotation is Bumgarner, Pomeranz, Holland, Samardzija, Rodriguez, and Suarez, Bum gets 30 starts, Pom 27, Holland 26, Shark 27, D-Rod 27, and Suarez 25.  This gives all the starters extra rest all season, and limits them to get 25-27 starts each, except for Bumgarner, who gets 30 as he starts off both halves of the season, plus his turn is never skipped, resulting in a number of times the rotation gets an additional day of rest beyond the 6 days that this schedule affords.

The major problem with this strategy is that this takes away one spot from the roster that would either go to the bullpen or to the bench.  Does Zaidi then value the bench more or the bullpen more?   Unsure where he goes with that.  But given that he expects his starters to be willing to be used in relief, it seems natural to take the spot away from the bullpen, especially since they already got rid of Strickland, while adding guys like Venditte, who can be shifted from the 25-man roster to the minors as needed.  Venditte, Moronta, Okert all can be optioned down as necessary.

Zaidi Rotation by Committee

I was thinking about how Zaidi could apply flexibility to the rotation.  Many assumed he would implement the Opener Strategy, because other sabers utilized it for their teams.  I don't see the value in it, it is very anti-saber because it utilizes the strategy that sabers abore: utilizing one of your best relievers in non-leveraged situations.  And what is less leveraged than the first inning, probably tied score at 0-0.  This would help explain why he said that he would consider it, but then, even with Holland and Pomeranz, noted that they are expected to start every game (of course, with performance levels that need to be reached to gain bonuses, both of their agents would not be happy if the Giants were to openly limit their starts by using an opener in their starts).

However, Zaidi could maximize platoon advantages by scheduling with flexibility:  mix and match who starts based on the next series involving certain starters.  For example, here is one scenario:  Bum and Pom get their starts (this assume Pomeranz is pitching like he can), but Bochy will schedule Holland, Samardzija, D-Rod, Suarez, and Stratton according to which team they are facing next, and what type of hitters, as well as who they think would success best in whatever park is coming up.

For example, the Reds, Marlins, and Padres were susceptible to RHP, resulting in 12 to 24 games under .500 records, while Nats, Padres and Marlins were susceptible to LHP, resulting in 10 to 18 games under .500 records.  In all, 6 teams were under .500 vs RHP, 10 teams vs. LHP.   And even if the team is over .500, they are more susceptible to a certain hand over the other.  Out of the 9 teams with records above .500 vs. RHP, 3 of the teams were better against LHP, and so you would want to throw a RHP at them anyway; and of the 6 teams with records above .500 vs. LHP, 2 of them were better vs. RHP.  On top of that, their scouts and analysis could determine for each pitcher which road parks they should avoid, for whatever reasons.  Obviously, Colorado hurts some pitchers more than others.  Similarly for other hitter's parks.  And some pitchers parks sometimes hurt some pitchers. 

As well, if the Giants is heading into a stretch of teams that light up RHP, Stratton and even perhaps D-Rod are sent down for 10 days, to rest and not get much usage, and likewise, if facing teams that light up LHP, Suarez could be sent down for a break, while Holland would move to the bullpen or long relief.  And, Bochy will have a good idea who's not doing well, and perhaps need a break or breather to work on something, even if a good opposing team comes up.  That's pretty handy when you have a rotation full of guys who are either young (and may need a break to work on something) or recovering from an injury filled season (and maybe need some time off) previously.

The main thing is getting the pitchers into buying into this Rotation by Committee method.  It's essentially an all hands on deck type of strategy, which Bochy executed well in the playoffs, where whoever isn't starting will be pitching in relief, perhaps long relief, and maybe gets to rest during this turn of the rotation.

It is not like an opposing team can change their lineup's tendency all that greatly, as their bench is generally worse offensively than their starters, so the Giants could plan out the rotation for the coming 2-3 weeks, so that the starting pitchers will know who gets to start and who will be pitching in relief.   And since the team can't carry so many starting pitchers, Stratton will probably be riding the Sac-SF round-trip journey many times, as well as Suarez, depending on how healthy Samardzija and Pomeranz are, respectively.

Zaidi has stressed the importance of the process, of making one 51/49 type of decision after another, and not letting bad results poison one's adherence to that process.  It is similar to the psychology that is preferred for investment traders, for following whatever investing methodology that works over time, and sticking to that methodology even when you go through a string of losses, knowing that the strategy works eventually, over time.  This is likely something that is taught in behavioral economics, which is what he got his PhD in, of understanding human nature in the face of uncertainty, and how innate human reactions is oftentimes not what you want to do in that situation.

All Together Now

What I think is achievable with a variety of the above strategies is the building of a rotation that is capable of keeping the runs allowed low enough that the offense could support a lot of winning.   A good rotation with a good bullpen can enable a team to win with a poor to average offense, which is what the Giants got even if they sign Marwin Gonzalez, or better, and even if Posey and Belt returns to prior goodness.  The offense could really use a reliable leadoff guy, and hopefully Duggar can be that guy for Bochy.

Is it likely?  I really like the addition of Pomeranz, although I was hoping more for Gray (ironically, another former A's player) in a trade.  Between all these choices available among guys who has some MLB experience, plus Anderson sitting in the minors, and probably another flier or two (like D-Rod was a flier last season), I think that the odds favor the starting rotation performing well together over the 2019 season.  Zaidi made it happen with the Dodgers in recent seasons, I thought they for sure would have issues with their rotation, but they had enough depth, so maybe it can work for the Giants too. 

My look above at the likelihood of good starts, just from our 2018 rotation, gives me a good feeling that the Giants can do it in 2019.  If anything, our younger players should have learned something and be able to perform better in 2019, which would improve their chances of pitching a good game.  Add in question marks of Pomeranz and Samardzija, while wild cards, I expect the Giants to be less willing to force starters to make MLB starts, like they did in 2018 with Samardzija both times and Cueto mid-season.  So either they are doing well, or they're back in minors working on their issues.  Doubtful either would get claimed by another team if they are being sent down with issues. 

And that's a competitive formula, having a good starting and relieving staff, plus good fielding defense overall, especially if Duggar plays extensively in CF.  Whether that's enough to get us to the playoffs still needs some good things to happen, like Belt playing full season the way he was before surgery, Posey returning to prior offensive goodness after surgery, Duggar holding leadoff position with good OBP, Pomeranz returning to 2016-17 goodness, etc.  I think the Giant will be closer to .500 than to their record the last two and a half seasons, and I feel pretty good that they'll be around .500, though after the past two injury filled seasons, that's the caveat I would add that could kill their chances.

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