Forgive me if this winds up being a case of apophenia — the tendency to perceive a meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas) — but a motif by the front office of the San Francisco Giants these past few seasons has been letting the Giants’ “ace” walk away in free agency, for the simple reason that they have had the ability to replicate the performance for a lower price in the following season.
There’s a big risk profile in signing starting pitchers long-term. I get that. Starting pitchers are also the most valuable pitchers on any roster. They throw the most innings, for one thing. And the best ones are as reliable as a pitcher can be in a game that’s impossible to control. There’s a risk profile in having to roll a pair of sixes every offseason, too. Why is one risk preferable to another? Cost. It’s cheaper to roll the dice, even if it turns up snake eyes.
And for the Giants in the Zaidi era, it’s worked out well. In 2019, the Giants had to replace Madison Bumgarner’s 3.3 fWAR. They found Tyler Anderson, a player whose pitching profile — velocity, pitch repertoire, results — was virtually identical to Bumgarner’s (I wrote about that here). They weren’t able to coach or rehab him into the player they needed him to be, though that hardly seemed to matter in the COVID season of 2020. It all worked out for the Dodgers, though, who got 4 fWAR from him in 178.2 IP this past season.
And in that same COVID season they found Kevin Gausman, a starter turned reliever turned back to a starter whom they signed on a relatively risk free short-term deal in case it didn’t work out. It did. He pitched like an ace in 2020. The Giants gave him the qualifying offer, rolling the dice that they could find the next Kevin Gausman after his 4.8 fWAR in 2021. Enter Carlos Rodón. He was worth 4.9 fWAR in 2021. His injury history meant the Giants could get him on a relatively risk free short-term deal. He went wild: 6.2 fWAR. Which leads us to now. Have the Giants found a replacement for Carlos Rodón’s performance?
No. Thanks for reading. Happy New Year!
Oh, you’re still here. Well, in that case, let’s try to be as logical as the Giants and figure out why that’s not necessarily the case. I’m sure if you asked Farhan Zaidi or Pete Putila point blank if they thought they’d replaced last year’s ace, this would happen:
And then they’d say, “We like the group we’ve put together.”
Hmm. That’s not very logical.
Okay, let’s look at it from this perspective: Carlos Rodón was so damn good this past season that there wasn’t one guy out there who was going to be able to replace the performance at a lower cost. That means the only logical course of action for the Giants wasn’t to find one guy or even several guys to make up for the loss of a 6.2-win dude. It’s more efficient to improve things like the defense and the lineup and the bullpen to obviate the need for an overwhelming ace-type pitcher. And that makes it easier to do something else like try to replicate in the aggregate Carlos Rodón’s 2023 projection. Steamer has him at 4.5 fWAR. Ross Stripling and Sean Manea have a combined 3.3 fWAR projection.
So, no, the Giants did not replace Carlos Rodón’s performance in the aggregate, either.
Thanks for reading! Happy New Year!
Okay, but wait — if you think of it this way, then maybe it will make more sense: the Giants don’t have to replace one guy’s ace-level performance directly or in the aggregate. They don’t have to improve the team in other areas to support one guy’s projection directly or in the aggregate. They only need to replicate the results of last year’s starting rotation in the aggregate as a projection.
Projection is where it gets fun. Because these are rational mathematicians making decisions, this isn’t psychological projection like we unwashed masses experience. The Giants can take all the data they’ve gathered from their scouts, their laser tracking and performance coaching, the behavioral decision making research they’ve done that goes into batter sequencing profiles — basically take all they know and project a figure greater than the public numbers and that meets their satisfaction.
The Giants had the sixth-best pitching staff in 2022 (20.0 fWAR). Can you believe it? Their starting staff was third-best (17.2 fWAR) — in all of baseball! Easy to forget. Subtract Carlos Rodón from that bunch and it falls back into the middle of the pack, in the range of the Cardinals, White Sox, Guardians, Brewers. The Giants did this with the following group:
SP - Carlos Rodón (6.2 fWAR - 33.4% K%)
SP - Logan Webb (4.2 fWAR - 20.7% K%)
SP - Alex Cobb (3.7 fWAR - 23.9% K%)
SP - Alex Wood (1.7 fWAR - 23.6% K%)
SP - Jakob Junis (1.3 fWAR - 20.5%K%)
I put the strikeout rates there because Rodón gave the Giants a look they basically hadn’t had since Tim Lincecum: a pure strikeout pitcher. I’ll bring that back into play after making this point: even though it averaged 3.44 fWAR per slot, the 2022 rotation can be improved upon; and if you look to the Steamer projections, it looks like this:
SP - Logan Webb (3.0 fWAR)
SP - Alex Cobb (3.1 fWAR)
SP - Alex Wood (1.8 fWAR)
SP - Anthony DeSclafani (0.5 fWAR)
SP - Jakob Junis (0.5 fWAR)
Now, have the Giants actually improved upon it? Sean Manaea (1.9 fWAR) and Ross Stripling (1.4 fWAR) definitely project to be better than DeSclafani and Junis, and that’s before we get into what Kyle Harrison might bring. Let’s throw the rookie in a pile with DeSclafani and Junis, say that group equals 1.5 wins, which might cover any missed time factored into the Alex Wood projection. Those four combine for 3.3 fWAR.
Could the Giants coach up Stripling and Manaea to all but guarantee they’ll be 2.5-3 win players? Absolutely. And they’ll need that. Along with Logan Webb not crashing a full win after back to back 4-win seasons. This projection also precludes a Kyle Harrison breakout. That’s in large part because it’s unclear how his 37.8% strikeout rate in MiLB will translate.
But if you factor in coaching and game planning, and you’re generous with that factoring — so, Webb = 4, Cobb = 3.5, Manaea = 2.5, Stripling = 2.5, Wood/DeSclafani/Junis/Harrison = 3.5 — then you get to about 16 fWAR. Not too far from the 2022 group’s performance! And if you consider that the Steamer projection with Rodón in the mix would’ve equaled 13.9 wins, then they’ve equaled or exceeded it (depending on how you might view the Giants’ coaching and game planning).
The staff’s collective reliance on contact figures to be its weak spot, and with the rule changes could cause it to trend more disaster than success; but the Giants’ front office knows what they’re doing when it comes to getting the best out of their free agent pitcher acquisitions. Balls in play might not be as bad as players who can’t catch or handle balls in play, which the team had in great supply in 2022. Also, it’s not like this staff is a woody of Kirk Rueters or whatever. The NL average strikeout rate in 2022 was 22.6% (Manaea, Cobb, and Wood cleared that), but it’s a group that might need to rely a bit more on cunning and guile than the cold logic of a 99-mph fastball.
In conclusion, the San Francisco Giants did not replace Carlos Rodón. Happy New Year!