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A quick look at the Giants’ pitching depth

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Are the fans right? Do the Giants already have everything they need on the pitching side of things?

San Francisco Giants v St Louis Cardinals
Ahhhh finally. A reason to use Steven Okert’s image in a non-ironic fashion.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Last night, I posted an article about the Royals and Phillies willingness to dump salaries and change up their major league rosters this offseason. In that post, I considered the possibility of the Giants moving someone like Andrew Suarez to net a solid return on offense and then using their free agent money to replace that spot on the pitching staff. Some comments here and elsewhere strongly suggest that Giants fans firmly believe that the team has assembled its next Lincecum-Cain-Sanchez-Bumgarner-Zito plus Core Four staff and are just an Aubrey Huff away from winning the World Series in 2019.

We know the Giants base all of their roster decisions on fan feedback, so this post is meant to change minds... your mind, specifically. Do the Giants have as much pitching depth as you think? Do they already have the best rotation in the game even without Johnny Cueto?

I’m not interested in disputing Ahmed here, either. It’s fair to say that Giants pitching has not been the problem this year and if they had even a league average offense, they would’ve found themselves well-positioned for a great September and October run.

The Giants have a good pitching staff right now. This is about the 2018 offseason and the 2019 season.

Are the Giants likely to get a repeat performance from a staff made up of an ace who physically can’t pitch like an ace anymore, two rookies, an afterthought free agent signee having his first good season in five years, and Chris Stratton? And what about the bullpen?

Context-wise, the Giants are aces. Their team FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, which means, “How good was a pitcher at the things he can control: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and home runs?”) of 3.95 is below the league average of 4.15. That’s above average. It’s also just 10th-best in MLB.

via FanGraphs

Still! Better than two-thirds of the league! Most of us will take that, especially if the Giants are running out a league average offense.

But if you look at this same listing, you can see that the Giants have a few marks against that solid number. xFIP is a predictive stat that attempts to describe how a pitcher’s numbers should look by removing the randomness of home runs to flyball rates. SIERA tries to be both predictive and explanatory and takes into consideration groundballs and values strike outs more than xFIP. Or, as FanGraphs describes it:

Balls in play are complicated. In general, groundballs go for hits more often than flyballs (although they don’t result in extra base hits as often). But the higher a pitcher’s groundball rate, the easier it is for their defense to turn those ground balls into outs. In other words, a pitcher with a 55% groundball rate will have a lower BABIP on grounders than a pitcher with a 45% groundball rate. And if a pitcher walks a large number of batters and also has a high groundball rate, their double-play rate will be higher as well.

By both of these predictive measures, the Giants should be a little bit worse than league average. xFIP drops them to 17th and SIERA to 20th. Advanced statistics also take the following into consideration:

FIP is not league or park adjusted meaning that pitchers in good pitcher’s parks will have consistently lower FIPs and pitchers who pitch during eras of lower run scoring will have consistently lower FIPs. To control for both of those factors, FanGraphs offers FIP-, which is a park and league adjusted version of the statistic.

Adjusting for park and league are relevant to our amateur evaluations, don’t you think? We know AT&T Park makes pitchers better and the + or - stat adjustments attempt to account for this. So, as annoying as FIP, xFIP, and SIERA sound, get ready for the adjusted stats of FIP- and xFIP-. There’s also ERA-.

ERA Minus, FIP Minus, and xFIP Minus are the pitching version of OPS+and wRC+ and are a simple way to tell how well a player performed in relation to league average. All of these statistics have a similar scale, where 100 is league average and each point above or below 100 represents a percent above or below league average. However, as lower is better for (almost) all pitching stats, a lower ERA- or FIP- is better.

Complicated and unnecessarily confusing? Maybe. On the other hand, we’re all looking for answers and trying to reduce uncertainty, both in life and in baseball. As you can see, those three measures (ERA-, FIP-, xFIP-) all put the Giants’ pitching staff right around league average. Even if you disagree with the math (and that’s fine — baseball is played by humans, not computers) there’s enough evidence to support my assertion that there’s still room for improvement.

We haven’t even covered the biometrics and batted ball data that gets factored into front office performances and I’m not going to plug through all the Statcast data for every pitcher on the Giants, but suffice it to say, the Giants’ pitching staff is encouraging, but it is by no means elite.

Don’t believe me? Let’s do a quick comparison between the 2018 Giants and the 2010-2011 Giants, a pair of teams I think we’d all agree represent the pinnacle of Giants pitching in the 21st century.

Advanced Pitching Stats, 2010-11, 2018

SEASON ERA FIP xFIP SIERA xFIP- (MLB rank) ERA- (MLB rank)
SEASON ERA FIP xFIP SIERA xFIP- (MLB rank) ERA- (MLB rank)
2010 3.36 3.74 3.94 3.79 99 (12th) 87 (1st)
2011 3.21 3.33 3.66 3.62 95 (7th) 89 (4th)
2018 3.86 3.95 4.18 4.22 103 (20th) 99 (15th)

So, as good as the Giants are this year, this isn’t the best we’ve seen of them in recent memory. And by the most advanced measures, they’re not even in the top 10. Now here’s a quick inventory heading into the offseason:

ROTATION

Madison Bumgarner
Dereck Rodriguez
Chris Stratton
Andrew Suarez
Jeff Samardzija

(Remember: Derek Holland is a free agent.)

BULLPEN

Ty Blach
Hunter Strickland*
Sam Dyson*
Reyes Moronta
Tony Watson
Will Smith*
Mark Melancon

*- arbitration eligible

I can’t deny that a lot of these pitchers have been good at times this season, maybe even every time you’ve watched them pitch, but the Giants can do better. Clear upgrades like Patrick Corbin, Nathan Eovaldi, Dallas Keuchel, and J.A. Happ are all available at the top of the market, and there are plenty of interesting arms out there who could fall into the Derek Holland mold of last-minute addition who has a successful season.

It’s not a guarantee that the rookies can repeat their performances and Madison Bumgarner’s decline could still get worse. Meanwhile, Jeff Samardzija is Jeff Samardzija. For a team that doesn’t know a hitter from a butt hole, we have to abandon all hope of them fielding a league average lineup ever again in our lifetimes (dramatic, but removing all expectations in this one area means you can never be disappointed). Therefore, tripling down on the pitching staff looks to be the quickest path to a successful reload.