Monday, October 29, 2012

A Giant Proposition

First of all, count me as one of those who were surprised that the Giants were able to stave off six elimination games and ride all the way to a World Series title.  Short series are, of course, notoriously unpredictable, which is one of the things that makes baseball's postseason so entertaining after the longest regular season in sports has established who the best teams are.  But the postseason can still be wonderfully instructive, and I would like to share a theory that I discussed briefly with my good friend Keith Hankins a few days ago as we were chatting about the Giants' moves in the playoffs.

Keith brought up the opinion, which I agree with, that bullpen management is perhaps the one major area in baseball currently open to a lot of innovation.  Sure, people have theorized before about how inane the save statistic is, and how teams would be best served using their best relievers in high-leverage situations, rather than waiting for the ninth inning with a three-run lead or less.  This trend, of course, has made very rich men out of a subset of relief pitchers who "have what it takes to close," or however you want to put it.  And every team has, or at least tries to have, a "traditional" closer whose job is to come in and wrap the bow on a win by pitching the ninth inning, frequently with the bases empty.  Although the save statistic has only been around since 1969, it has already become entrenched in the minds of people throughout baseball as valuable and important.

In truth, however, it is not.  All teams win 95 percent of the games that they lead after eight innings, whether their closer is an eminently replaceable reliever like Chad Qualls, or Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time.  There are, to be sure, psychological elements at play when batters have to face Rivera that are not on the radar against Qualls, but regardless, the team with the lead is going to win almost every time.  Francisco Rodriguez set the single-season record for saves back in 2008 with 62, and it was an incredibly important milestone for him.  But the achievement was a little hollow, as 2008 was no better than his sixth-or-seventh-best season.  His best season, as a matter of fact, was indisputably in 2004 when he was NOT a closer; that year he pitched 84 innings, striking out 123 against 33 walks for a 1.000 WHIP and a 1.82 ERA.  As a closer, he only once came within 9 innings or 32 strikeouts of those totals (both in 2006, another sublime season) while becoming gradually less reliable with men on base.  K-Rod the setup man was more valuable (and a better pitcher) than K-Rod the closer.

So where am I going with all this?  Well, the Giants will have a series of interesting decisions to make going into spring training, most of them revolving around their pitching staff.  And the most interesting of those decisions will be what to do with Tim Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young Award winner who at 28 looks almost finished as a reliable starting pitcher, but who showed in the playoffs that he can be unhittable out of the bullpen.  And the rest of that bullpen is strong as well.  Sergio Romo gave up one run in the playoffs, and only once in his five-year career has he posted an ERA north of 2.18.  Santiago Casilla has struggled a little bit with giving up home runs, but on the whole has been excellent for the Giants over the past three years.  Jeremy Affeldt is a southpaw who is effective against both lefties (.621 OPS) and righties (.656 OPS).  And of course there is The Beard, Brian Wilson, who only pitched in two games this season but should be back at full strength in 2013.

If, in fact, Lincecum is better suited to work out of the pen, how best to maximize his value?  He is on the hook for $22 million in 2013, and the team surely won't want to commit that much money to a situational reliever who might pitch only 65-75 innings, not when they're also STILL paying Barry Zito $20 million to be a mediocre (or worse) starter, NLCS and World Series starts notwithstanding, not to mention the gigantic raise that likely National League MVP Buster Posey will be getting in his first year of arbitration (among other factors).  Making Lincecum the closer doesn't make sense unless they intend to shop either Wilson or Romo (or both) and then bring on filler material (Guillermo Mota, anyone?) to replace one or both of those guys as middle relievers.

How about, then, making Lincecum and Affeldt (a free agent whom they would need to re-sign - Affeldt was paid $5 million for his services in 2012) dual long relievers, capable of pitching two innings or thereabouts every other day?  Like Affeldt, Lincecum is equally effective against hitters of both stripes (.647 OPS vs. RHB and .656 OPS vs. LHB).  Coming out of the pen for no more than two innings at a crack, he would be able to air out all the velocity that his 5'11", 165-pound frame can generate (and he could probably stand to try and get his weight back up to 175-180 pounds).  As relievers who are available for multiple innings, Lincecum and Affeldt would be able to step in whenever one of the starters is ineffective, which for the Giants is not exactly every day; Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong each averaged at least six innings per start this season, and the much-maligned Zito was close at 5.75.  Thus, there's really no fear that either would have to pitch on back-to-back days, or certainly not a day after throwing two innings (as opposed to just one).

This approach could potentially have several benefits.  It could re-energize the career of Lincecum, who gave the Giants five good-to-excellent seasons as a starter and may have been the best pitcher in baseball in 2008 and 2009.  Assuming an average of 1.5 innings every other day, Lincecum could give them max effort for 120 innings (or, potentially, more), making him baseball's most dangerous relief pitcher and allowing the Giants to get good value for their $22 million.  Bruce Bochy would then be free to play matchup ball with Romo, Casilla, and another lefty (this year it was Javier Lopez) in front of traditional closer Wilson, giving the pitching-rich Giants the best and most versatile bullpen in the majors.

There is, of course, the question of replacing Lincecum in the rotation.  There are no obvious candidates on the forty-man roster, as the quintet of Cain, Lincecum, Bumgarner, Vogelsong, and Zito combined to make an incredible 160 of 162 starts between them (for what it's worth, Eric Hacker and Yusmeiro Petit made the other two).  It is unclear where replacement help would come from.  Neither Hacker nor Petit (nor indeed, any other starting pitcher) set the world on fire in AAA Fresno, and at 29 and 27, respectively, neither pitcher can be considered a prospect.  In fact, to find the Giants' best starting pitching prospects, you have to dip all the way to single-A Augusta, where 19-year-olds Kyle Crick and Clayton Blackburn played this year.  Still, the Giants have a forgiving home park for any pitcher (AT&T Park ranked second only to Seattle's Safeco Field in terms of favoring pitchers this year) and play in what it mostly a pitchers' division (Petco Park and Dodger Stadium ranked 5th and 6th for pitchers, although Chase Field and Coors Field were 25th and 30th), factors which alleviate some of the concern of breaking in a new starter.  And, the team has proven to be adept at developing pitchers; Cain, Lincecum, Bumgarner, Wilson, and Romo are all homegrown products.

All of this may be a moot point.  Perhaps Lincecum only needs to eat a few more steaks and beef back up in order to become, if not the supernova pitcher of 2007-2009, the capable star of 2010-2011.  And perhaps the Giants will throw him out there anyway, even if he is no longer that guy.  But the depth of their pitching at the major league level at least gives them some different options to consider, including breaking away from the popular prescribed roles that relief pitchers have with most teams at present.  And it is entirely possible that breaking away from the herd could make an already young and talented title contender (there's a strong argument to be made that the Giants win the NL West in 2011 if Posey doesn't break his ankle) a truly elite team and a potential dynasty.