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Finding two stats to represent each Giants starting pitcher

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Three stats in one case, but I think you’ll agree they tell a story

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Francisco Giants
Boy, you said it, Cainer
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I tried to describe the problems with the Giants offense by finding one stat to represent the year each hitter was having. This, then, is the follow up, where I use two or three stats to discuss each current member of the rotation (sorry Madison! Feel better!). Will they turn out to SECRETLY be the best rotation in the league? Let’s find out!

Johnny Cueto: 40.1 GB%, 15.1% HR/FB

A big and underrated part of Johnny Cueto’s success last year was that half the balls that were hit off him were ground balls. Ground balls are better than fly balls because they’re much less likely to go for extra bases, and better than line drives because they’re much less likely to be hits in general. This year, those fly ball and line drive rates have jumped upward, and consequently, Cueto’s stats have been a lot worse.

In addition to giving up more fly balls in general, though, Cueto’s also giving up more home runs on the fly balls he gets. For his career, Cueto’s HR/FB has been around 10%, and if you think that maybe he’s now doing something differently to give up way more homers, well, even Jeff Samardzija’s never had a full season giving up homers on that high of a percentage of fly balls, so probably Johnny Cueto’s gonna look better in the future.

Matt Moore: 3.52 BB/9, 42.0% Hard%

It’s not easy to dig into Matt Moore’s stats and find reason for optimism. If you’ve watched all his starts, then you know sometimes he looks very good, sometimes he looks very bad, and he always has excellent eyebrows, but the advanced stats are not happy with him. And so while his strikeout rate is down from last year’s stint with the Giants (and down overall, though a little up from his time in Tampa), this version of Matt Moore is actually walking fewer guys than the Matt Moore from the last two months last year. His control, while still not great, is at least not as apocalyptically bad as it got at times in 2016.

Meanwhile, if we have to distill Moore’s problems so far this year down to one thing, which we don’t, but we also don’t have time for all the things so we have to settle, then let’s go with hard hit balls. Matt Moore is sixth in the league in giving up hard contact, and that’s not a good thing. Now, there are some good pitches in front of him on that list; Corey Kluber’s given up a little more hard contact, last year’s AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello has too, and Robbie Ray, who’s third in the majors in K/9, is leading the league. But that’s been a problem that we’ve all seen this year with Moore: when balls get hit off him, they tend to be loud.

Jeff Samardzija: 5.26 ERA, 2.64 DRA

You could make this same basic comparison with FIP and xFIP, but since (SPOILER) I’m going to do that with Matt Cain next, well, might as well use DRA. DRA, Baseball Prospectus’s attempt to evaluate everything a pitcher has done to prevent runs, absolutely loves Samardzija. He has been — I swear this is true — the 13th best pitcher in baseball, according to their stats, which is interesting, because he plays in a pitcher’s park and has a 5.26 ERA.

There are certainly factors out of Samardzija’s control that you can point to here. He’s allowing batters a .343 BABIP, which is absurdly high. He’s stranding a little under 60% of his baserunners without allowing them to score, which is absurdly low. He’s giving up homers on 16% of fly balls, which is crazy high, even for him. The bad news for Samardzija is that he’s given up a lot of runs so far. The good news is that a whole lot of those runs have scored in ways that are very unlikely to continue throughout the season.

Matt Cain: 4.04 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 4.97 xFIP

Lower all of these values by a run and you’ve got the classic Matt Cain experience: the ERA and the FIP basically agreeing that he’s a very good pitcher, and then the xFIP angrily lurking in the corner, getting drunker with each passing moment, and telling everyone who’ll listen and most people who won’t that Matt Cain actually sucks and also the CIA murdered Vladimir Lenin because of his opposition to the Korean War. This year, in large part because of Cain’s awful start in Cincinnati, his numbers are not great in general, but they’re following the same format they did when he was Perennial All-Star Matt Cain.

This is all a longwinded way of saying that while yes, xFIP, an advanced stat, suggests that Matt Cain will not have an especially successful year. it also said that for literally the entire part of his career where he repeatedly had successful years. Or to put it another way: MATT CAIN IS BACK, BABY.

Ty Blach: 2.28 K/9, 2.6 BB/9

So the Kirk Rueter comparisons beat on, boats against the current, borne back strikeoutlessly into the past. Now, to be fair to Rueter, he had a better K/9 than this in every year where the Giants didn’t release him midseason. Blach’s results have been mixed this year: generally solid out of the bullpen except for one godawful appearance, and generally solid in the rotation except for one godawful start.

Blach hasn’t had great results overall this year, but he’s had okay results, and in some ways has been the opposite of Samardzija. He’s done it without a gaudy (or good, or decent, or acceptable) strikeout rate and without avoiding walks quite as well as you might expect. A low BABIP has helped, but an exceptionally low strand rate hasn’t. But that strikeout rate has to come up, because no one can succeed in the majors with sub-Rueterian strikeout numbers.