Examining the Giants’ Fifth Starter Situation

By: Ben Leonard

The Giants recently re-signed right-handed pitcher Ryan Vogelsong to a one-year, four million dollar deal, a move that added depth to the rotation but also muddled the fifth starter situation. Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Tim Hudson, and Jake Peavy are all slotted into their spots in the rotation. This leaves Ryan Vogelsong, two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, and possibly even long reliever Yusmeiro Petit to duke it out for the final spot.

Lincecum has been pitching more like his French Bulldog, Cy, than Cy Young in recent years, but that didn’t stop the Giants from handing him a prodigious two-year, $36 million dollar deal after 2013. Will Vogelsong’s fresh deal stop the Giants from giving Lincecum another chance?

Spring Edge

Tim Lincecum is historically terrible in Spring Training. Absolutely, horrifyingly terrible. There’s no getting around it. In 2009’s Cactus League, a season in which he later went on to win the Cy Young, he posted a 4.03 ERA. That was his best career Spring Training figure by a half a run.

Maybe Arizona’s heat has something to do with his struggles in the spring, or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe eating In-N-Out like a horse over the offseason didn’t help, even though he still can’t get any bigger than a high school freshman. Whatever the reason is, his 5.75 ERA in 144 career innings in the Cactus League won’t strike fear into the heart of Vogelsong, or opposing hitters for that matter.

Vogelsong is a great competitor, and that certainly showed in the playoffs, as the Giants have not lost a game in October with the righty on the hill. That should help him separate himself from Lincecum in spring training, when the Giants will presumably hold a competition for the last starting spot. Lincecum’s more laid-back, easy-going demeanor may endear him to his teammates and fans, but he does not quite have the same spirit that Vogelsong does: I wouldn’t want to be near Vogelsong on game day. Lincecum has been the best pitcher in baseball in the past despite being so lackadasical, but this relaxed demeanor could come back to bite him here. Vogelsong will certainly have the competitive edge—he has historically been far superior in Spring Training—during the heat of the competition for the starting job: he made the big league club in 2011 because of his breakout performance in Scottsdale.

Performance

Lincecum is like ordering food from that sketchy-looking Chinese restaurant down the street: you never know what you’re going to get. It could be the best food you’ve ever had, or you could end up hospitalized with food poisoning. Vogelsong is the antithesis of Lincecum, steady but never all that flashy, a consummate pro.

However, Lincecum wasn’t this tumultuous for the whole season. As of July 20, 2014, Lincecum had a 3.68 ERA, only allowing opposing hitters to hit .229 off of him; he even pitched an incredible no-hitter against the Padres. His 3.59 xFIP seemingly backed his performance up, but he faltered after this hot start. The dog days of summer took Lincecum back to Scottsdale, and he posted a 7.59 ERA the rest of the way, partially due to an inflated 4.01 BB/9. Also, Lincecum may have lost some gas as the year went on, seeing a slight dip in fastball velocity from 89.8 to 89.0 MPH. If Lincecum can get it together in Spring Training, he may get a chance to take a spot in the rotation.

Nevertheless, Vogelsong also held his own last season, and he did so consistently. He made 32 starts last season, posting an even 4.00 ERA. Vogelsong never was dropped out of the rotation, unlike Lincecum. He may have less potential for improvement next season, but he also has less potential for regression. He posted a 3.85 FIP last season, and he never really fell into the ruts that Lincecum is susceptible to.

Yusmeiro Petit could also be a dark-horse candidate for the job. He may be better suited for the bullpen than Vogelsong, but he held his own on the mound last season. He did have cringeworthy splits last season, posting a 5.03 ERA as a starter, but a miniscule 1.84 ERA as a reliever. However, as I previously argued, Petit’s struggles as a starter last year may simply have been poor luck.

From the linked article:

“Petit’s rapid decline was largely due to a decrease in luck, not skills as a starting pitcher. Opposing hitters actually hit line drives more frequently against Petit as a reliever (22.4% vs. 20.2%). However, Petit was a victim of an inflated 13.1% HR/FB rate, compared to an unsustainable 2.1% as a reliever. Even his infield hit percentage spiked as a starter, sitting at 7.6% compared to 4.8%.  Petit threw the ball seemingly just as well, if not better, as a starter, but got nothing to show for it, shown by his 3.01 xFIP. Balls simply were placed better with him as a starter, in part fueled by an inflated .309 BABIP (vs. .261).”

Petit may be a great long reliever, but Lincecum could also fit well into that role. Lincecum warms up very quickly, and he performed very well when it mattered during the Giants’ 2012 title run. The Giants did not commit very much to signing Vogelsong, and therefore they should not feel financially pressured to insert him into the rotation without merit. In addition, Vogelsong, the ultimate team player, would not whine about a demotion to the bullpen.

No pitcher stands out in this group of three, so it all comes down to who is pitching well at the time. Lincecum may not impress in the spring, but if his performance ticks up in the regular season, Bochy will have no qualms about re-inserting him into the rotation. Bochy can use all three of these hurlers in tandem, riding the hot hand. Bochy is much more likely to use Petit out of the ‘pen than Vogelsong, but that won’t stop him from starting Petit over the veteran pitcher. Preferably, Bochy would like to find one consistent starter before the season starts, so that they can work themselves into a rhythm.  However, with so much depth, one of these starters will likely pitch well enough to emerge as the superior pitcher. You can never have too much depth, especially with Tim Hudson’s age and injury history. The Giants will find a solid fifth starter: it’s just a matter of who and when.

Stats and info courtesy of ESPN, MLB.com, FanGraphs, and Baseball-Reference. 

Cover Image: By james_in_to on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational (Crop) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons