The Giants, as people say when they’re trying to make it seem like having a putrid offense is a plan, are built around pitching and defense. The defense has been as advertised — Fangraphs has the Giants as the second best defensive team in the majors, while Baseball Reference has them tied for fifth — but the pitching hasn’t held up.
Now, we all know that the bullpen isn’t the problem, and even with hiccups from Travis Bergen and the cavalcade of AAA call-ups, we’re all right. That leaves the starters. By fWAR they’ve been worth -0.4 wins, and by rWAR it’s around -1.5 wins; by either measurement, they’re the worst in the league.
But you don’t have to look at the numbers to understand the problem. If you do, in fact, watch the games, nerd, then it’s plain to see. Giants starters are getting lit up night after night. On their last road trip, only Madison Bumgarner’s start in Colorado was not an unequivocal disaster, and even that start was really just fine, and not otherworldly.
Now, some of this is going to be recency bias. When your starters have a road trip at the beginning of May where they give up 36 earned runs in 22.2 innings, that’ll skew the numbers a little bit. On the other hand, that’s an awful lot of awful pitching, and it’s part of their true talent levels.
For now, let’s ignore Jeff Samardzija, who, despite coming out after five innings in just about every start, has been his own best case scenario this year. We can also be fairly safe in ignoring Bumgarner, who started out slowly this year but has seemed to come on strong lately.
It’s the other three who have been disasters for the Giants on the mound. First we’ll talk about Dereck Rodriguez, who was a revelation last year. No one expected him to maintain a sub-3 ERA, but his peripherals indicated that he could be a solid major league pitcher. Instead, he’s been awful, with his ERA, FIP, and xFIP all above 5. What’s gone wrong?
First off, Rodriguez is giving up a ton of homers. Like, an absolute slumpshoulder of home runs. Last year, he got a little lucky, giving up dingers on about 7% of fly balls; this year, he’s over 20%. But that doesn’t come close to explaining his season. xFIP normalizes the HR/FB rate and it is still extremely unimpressed.
No, the culprit here seems to be that he’s lost deception. Here, take a look at his plate discipline numbers:
Here’s what I see: hitters are swinging at pitches in the zone more and swinging at pitches out of the zone way, way less. So of course he’s striking out more guys and walking fewer. Of course he’s giving up more hard contact and less soft contact, more fly balls (which lead to homers) and less line drives (which don’t).
Most importantly, Rodriguez’s bread and butter pitch is his four-seam fastball. He threw it 37% of the time last year, this year it’s up to 39%, and it’s just not as good. He’s lost almost a full mile per hour off it, dropping from 91.6 to 90.7, and guys are swinging through it less and striking out on it way, way less. It’s lost a lot of effectiveness this year, and the same is true for his sinker, and the same is true for his changeup. Rodriguez’s weapons have abandoned him this year, and he simply has nowhere to hide.
Derek Holland was also a revelation last year, and the Giants re-signed him for 2019 hoping that he could continue his revelatory ways. Instead, that’s...not happening. This year, the contact against Holland has been loud and it’s been constant. He’s given up barreled balls more often than all but six pitchers in the majors. Other than his slider, every pitch Holland throws has been getting crushed this year. He’s giving up lots of fly balls, and they’re hit hard, and he’s walking more guys than he ever has, and so runs are the natural result.
The interesting thing about Holland is that he’s still getting swing throughs. Every pitch he throws has been getting more whiffs than it did a year ago. But guys are just not swinging at his pitches — well, they’re swinging at 41.5% of them, but who’s counting — and he’s not throwing them for strikes — he’s in the zone less than 46% of them time — and so hitters are finding themselves in good hitters’ counts, ready to hit. And then they hit.
Drew Pomeranz was the opposite of a revelation in 2018. He walked tons of guys and gave up lots of hard contact, which is not generally a winning combination. The Giants signed him hoping for a bounceback year, and instead, so far he’s given them a nothanksicanjustkeepbouncingthisway year.
Pomeranz’s main problem is that his four-seamer, like Rodriguez’s the pitch he uses the most, is getting shellacked. Hitters are slugging .711 against that fastball this year, which makes Pomeranz feel like he just ate a hot dog that’s been sitting out for four days. Unlike Holland, Pomeranz is throwing more strikes than he did in recent years; like Holland, guys aren’t swinging at those strikes. Unlike Holland, Pomeranz isn’t giving up a lot of fly balls; like Holland, he’s giving up lots of hard contact.
Pomeranz did have one of the best starts of the year for the Giants; in Toronto, against the Blue Jays, he threw six scoreless innings, striking out five and walking just two. But it’s been a struggle for him, with only his curveball to rely on for most of the year. Like Rodriguez (and Holland), his home run rate is astronomical, but also like Holland, he’s giving up so many barreled balls that it makes perfect sense. When fly balls get hit hard, fly balls tend to go far, even if that’s against the natural order of things because the pitcher is a Good And Pure San Francisco Giant.
Before the season, the Giants rotation was filled with guys who could boom or bust. They haven’t really gotten a boom — Bumgarner and Samardzija have been major league quality pitchers, but not world beaters — but the busts have been hard to watch. Ideally, they’ll start getting more contributions from up and down the rotation. Let’s hope that starts soon, because this has been hard to watch.