The Giants Have Quietly Rebuilt Their Rotation

The Giants continued to remake their starting rotation this week, signing former Dodgers swingman Alex Wood to a one-year, $3 million contract. Wood’s low salary reflects the fact that he’s struggled over the last two seasons, accumulating -0.2 WAR in 48 1/3 innings, courtesy of a bleak 6.02 FIP. The catch is that he was not truly healthy in either campaign, missing much of 2019 with back issues and a chunk of ’20 with shoulder inflammation. While he’s never been the picture of perfect health — he hasn’t qualified for an ERA title since 2015 — he was a key contributor to the Braves and the Dodgers, and before his disappointing 2019, his worst FIP over a season was 3.69 in ’15, a number many pitchers would be delighted to hit.

Similar to about 27 or 28 teams in baseball, San Francisco hasn’t made a splash this winter, but there’s been a real push to improve the starting pitching. Back when the Giants were winning a World Series every other season, a large part of the foundation was young, team-developed pitching. Few teams could match the accomplishment of producing Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner over a rather short period of time. But since the team’s collapse in 2017, a year in which the Giants just barely avoided their second 100-loss year in franchise history, the rotation has been one of the worst in the league, ranking 25th in WAR. Any sort of magic at creating young aces seems to have dissipated, with a long list of names — Kyle Crick, Keury Mella, Tyler Beede, Ty BlachClayton Blackburn — failing to make an impact.

One of my go-to sayings is “if you can’t be good, be interesting.” The Giants’ 2021 rotation is unlikely to scare any but the flimsiest of lineups — ZiPS ranks it 16th overall when you use the depth chart playing time — but there’s at least some source of upside in every starter. In Wood’s case, from 2014 to ’18, he managed to stay healthy enough to put up two-WAR seasons regularly.

Wood wasn’t the only injured pitcher signing a pillow contract to come to the Bay Area. Back in mid-December, former Red Anthony DeSclafani signed a one-year deal worth $6 million. Cincinnati’s 2019 season was a disappointment, but none of that fault lay with DeSclafani, who gave the Reds 31 solid starts and looked to be fully recovered from his 2017 Tommy John surgery. After starting the 2020 season slightly late with a muscle strain, his velocity was there, but his command wasn’t. Despite starting the season throwing 11 scoreless innings, he was relegated to rare mop-up duty by mid-September.

While teams were busy after the season not making qualifying offers to their talent and turning down reasonable options, the Giants extended a qualifying offer to Kevin Gausman, one of the team’s most pleasant surprises in 2020. His fastball velocity crept back up to 95 mph last year, something that’s arguably more important to him than most starters; he’s never had a consistently effective breaking pitch, leaving him effectively a two-pitch pitcher who is reliant on changing speeds. Gausman’s off-speed pitch of choice, and a very effective one when his fastball is popping, has generally been classified by algorithms as either a split-fingered fastball or a changeup. It’s not truly either pitch, and he’s described it as either a splitter-change or a fosh. Another Orioles pitcher and a childhood favorite of mine, Mike Boddicker, was famous for relying on this pitch, possibly named by the team’s pitching coach Ray Miller for being a cross between a forkball and a dead fish. Another fosh-thrower, Al Nipper, claimed a different etymology, saying it was a cross between a forkball and … uh … a certain different word.

As sad as it to say, there’s probably not a lot of upside remaining for Johnny Cueto, who is simply not the same pitcher he was before his Tommy John surgery. Cueto’s strength was never his velocity, but his heavy 93-mph fastball in his prime was an excellent complement to his slider and changeup. With his command never truly coming back and his fastball and sinker far more crushable than it was in Cincinnati, he’s largely had to try to reinvent himself as a pure junkballer without pinpoint control. Neither ZiPS nor I am optimistic about his chances, but Oracle Park is at least a comfortable home field to try to make a late-career revival possible.

Rounding out the rotation will likely be Logan Webb, the only starter who hasn’t pitched for the Reds. Webb’s 5.36 ERA in his young career is unimpressive, but it’s at least worth noting that his FIP has been nearly a run better at 4.15. He’s also largely an unknown as he’s missed huge chunks of development time to Tommy John surgery and a suspension for testing positive for chlorodehydromethyltestosterone, a drug that is in dire need of a catchier name. As a result, he’s pitched in the majors without much in the way of high-minors experience. Even when struggling, he’s hard to hit with much loft — only six degrees on average in 2020 — so he still managed to keep balls in the park even when he wasn’t sharp. Webb’s velocity is middling, but some of his pitches have real bite to them.

Outside of my usual fevered imagining of Gausman, none of these pitchers are likely to set the league on fire in 2021. But they’ll keep the Giants in most games, and if they don’t appear to be a wild card contender come July, all of them could realistically be sent to a better team for a prospect or two. Here are the ZiPS projections for the rotation, pro-rated to the depth chart playing time.

ZiPS Projection – San Francisco Rotation – Depth Chart Playing Time
Player W L ERA IP H ER HR BB SO FIP WAR
Johnny Cueto 9 9 4.66 174.0 177 90 28 54 147 4.63 1.4
Kevin Gausman 11 8 3.92 170.0 160 74 21 46 180 3.60 2.8
Anthony DeSclafani 10 8 4.36 163.0 162 79 25 50 151 4.31 1.9
Logan Webb 9 8 4.02 150.0 147 67 15 53 133 4.01 2.3
Alex Wood 7 6 3.98 113.0 107 50 16 33 107 4.07 1.8
Sean Hjelle 5 4 4.26 74.0 76 35 8 23 57 4.22 0.9
Shaun Anderson 2 2 4.74 38.0 40 20 6 14 32 4.60 0.2
Tyler Beede 2 3 4.75 36.0 36 19 5 17 36 4.60 0.2
Anthony Banda 1 1 4.26 19.0 18 9 2 8 18 4.28 0.2
Total 56 49 4.26 937.0 923 443 126 298 861 4.18 11.7

ZiPS is about two wins more optimistic than Steamer is, with the biggest differences being loftier numbers for Wood and Webb. ZiPS even projects a one-in-three chance of the team having a top-ten rotation!

The problem is the rest of the division. Even theoretically adding George Springer and Trevor Bauer to the roster — an improbable scenario — is only enough to bump the Giants’ projected playoff percentage from 1.1% to 11.2%. Unless expanded playoffs are agreed to before the start of the 2021 season, they face the prospect of needing to win more games than at least one of the Braves, Mets, Dodgers, and Padres. That’s not impossible, but it’s a tough path to climb, and San Francisco would not be the only team to benefit if one of the favorites collapses. The Giants will be competitive again, but it’s not looking like 2021 is the year, regardless of the rotation.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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The Giants have improved certainly; I am less optimistic that all of those starters will hit 130-175 IP (Johnny Cueto at 174 IP? Alex Wood exceeding 35 IP for the first time since 2018? I’ll take the under), and I think that brings down the overall shine. I see it more as trying to capture lightning in a bottle and selling it off to a Central/Contending team at the deadline, but why not both, right?