With the Giants falling below .500 in the tightly bunched National League West, Brian Sabean is tasked with finding a way to stay in contention. Like most teams that lose just as much (if not more often) than they win, there’s room for improvement. Yesterday I took a look at how the Giants fair on offense, and today I switch my gaze to the Giants’ starting rotation.

The Giants have performed relatively well on offense, their recent slump and injuries included. They could use more depth, but so could just about every team. The big problem for the Giants — and the one that seems most foreign — is that the pitching has been disappointing this season.

To put into perspective just how strange it feels for Giants fans to see this unit struggle, here’s how the Giants’ starters ranked as a group in both ERA and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) compared to their peers in the National League.

        Year          ERA           FIP
2007 4 3
2008 8 3
2009 3 4
2010 2 7
2011 2 2
2012 5 6
2013 13 11

 

This is the first season going back to 2006 that the Giants are not in the top third of NL teams in either starting pitcher ERA or FIP. That sustained run of excellence is impressive and perhaps we have grown spoiled expecting top flight starting pitching year after year. This year, things have fallen off a cliff.

Matt Cain is in the middle of the worst season of his career, Tim Lincecum has been better than last season but is still allowing earned runs at a rate 25% higher than league average, Barry Zito has been his normal self (with some horrible home/road splits), Ryan Vogelsong was a disaster in all but his last start before getting hurt, and Chad Gaudin filled in admirably before getting hurt himself and hitting the disabled list.

The only bright spot this season has been Madison Bumgarner. There is some hope that Cain will bounce back from his ugly start; his stuff has been good this year but he has been prone to the long ball and the big inning. Vogelsong looked like his old self before needing surgery on his pitching hand and could be back in the rotation in late July or early August.

Lets take a closer look at each of the Giants starters who have struggled.

Matt Cain Giants 350Cain’s peripherial numbers are as good or better in 2013 as they were last season:

Career 2013
K% 20.4% 23.2%
BB% 8.2% 7.0%
BABIP 0.263 0.253
AVG 0.222 0.220
WHIP 1.17 1.12

 

The biggest difference: two bad innings against the Cardinals and a home run rate that is double his career norm.

This explanation may be oversimplified, but for the most part Cain has been as good as he’s always been. The best bet going forward is he will regress toward his career norms. Even if he doesn’t, with his big contract he isn’t going anywhere any time soon. I am not too worried about him, at least compared to the concern that Lincecum generates.

Lincecum has done better this season than last , and in June he has actually produced an ERA under 3.00! Underneath all that, bad news still looms. The bad trends from last season have not corrected themselves – his strikeout rate is still falling, his walks rate is still over 10% and the home run rate is still a major concern. Perhaps these would improve if he was moved to the bullpen, which is something he said he’d be open to.

The big problem is that the Giants are short on quality starting pitching and an in house Lincecum replacement would most likely be a pretty steep step down, even from his current diminished self. There is the possibility of trading Lincecum for more pitching depth; if there are any takers I am sure the Giants will explore those options.

Next up is Zito, and what else can be said besides Zito is just being Zito? For the entirety of his Giants career he has for the most part been between somewhere between league average and below average, and this year is no different. The really puzzling thing is that this season he has major differentials in his home and road splits. He currently has a 1.98 ERA at home and a 11.28 ERA on the road, the big driver of that is .511 BABIP on the road compared to a .266 BABIP at home. When you look at his FIP the gap essentially goes away, so basically we shouldn’t expect him to continue to be this good at home and he should get much better on the road. In the end, Zito will probably be the same old Zito he always has been.

The Giants’ fifth starter spot is currently occupied by Michael Kickham, who’s filling in for Gaudin who was filling in for Vogelsong. This obviously was not the Giants’ plan. Gaudin did a decent job as a starter, but Kickham should really be in Fresno and not in a Major League rotation. The Giants will continue to need a fifth starter fill-in until Vogelsong is ready, and that’s still   optimistically a month away and probably more with the rehab starts that will be required.

The Giants lack of pitching depth has been exposed this season through injury and ineffectiveness. If there is one glaring need for the Giants in 2013 this is it, and it looks like the Giants are looking at options to address this weakness. Tomorrow I will take a look at the Giants’ relief pitchers, but in the meantime let’s play armchair GM and talk trade targets and what kind of prospect package it will take to make some deals.