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*Fantasy Baseball 2015* – The Giants’ Starting Rotation: Madison Bumgarner and the Sons of League-Average

11 Feb
*Fantasy Baseball 2015* – The Giants’ Starting Rotation: Madison Bumgarner and the Sons of League-Average

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Yes, the San Francisco Giants were indeed the World Series Champions of 2014. It puts the possibility of a “dynasty ” mantra in perspective, and almost certainly cements the organization as the single greatest franchise of the current decade. But quite honestly, they needed a guardian angel and a whole lot of luck to win it all this time, and thanks to Madison Bumgarner’s historically breathtaking postseason performance, the championship parade took one more trip back to the Bay area. I’m sure those of you who watched the majority of San Francisco’s recent playoff run still remember the sheer, unnerving presence that Mad Bum so effortlessly demonstrated. If not, or if you didn’t even get the opportunity to experience the greatness of his seven postseason starts, here’s a simple statistical overview for your viewing pleasure:

52.2 innings pitched, 4-1, 1.03 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 45 Ks, 1.03 BB/9, 4.79 H/9 (.143 opp. BAA), 0.51 HR/9, 2 CGs (both shutouts)

All of which equates to one of the greatest individual playoff efforts by a starting pitcher in modern-day Major League Baseball history. The numbers indicate a man who knew no limits, tapped into the deepest extents of his God-given potential, and did whatever (and I mean whatever) it took to will his team to win. In 2014, Mad Bum carried his team on his back. He manned the ship that contested the most vigorous and tenacious of adversaries, and rode the cool waves of victory. He established himself as the leading commander, prepared his team for battle–scratch that, all out war, with the best teams in the league, and came out without so much as a mark. We could relive this past October, and the Pirates, Nationals, Cardinals and Royals could all play Bumgarner again with the hindsight of what’s coming, and they’d still lose. Suffice to say, no one stood a chance once the calendar flipped on September 30th. It’s that simple. I don’t need to look back at his complete game shutout at Pittsburgh in the Wild Card game, or his unbelievable five innings of relief at Kansas City in game 7, to be convinced of such. Curt Schilling may still be the king of the single-postseason performance, but this was something I had the honor, the privilege, and the gift of God’s blessing to experience from beginning to end. It was a manifestation of all the things that have drawn me into expanding my appreciation of baseball, and a constant reminder of why I fell in love with the sport in the first place. I say the following as a die-hard Yankees fan: Never before have I’ve witnessed something so magical, so special, so poetic on a baseball diamond. What Bumgarner accomplished here will pass the test of time, and I will ensure that my children and my children’s children will acknowledge and understand the astonishment I experienced by seeing it all on live television.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can finally talk about Mad Bum from a fantasy perspective. News flash: he’s still pretty damn good.

Bumgarner’s 2014 regular season was a marked improvement over his 2013 campaign, which is almost like saying that Giancarlo Stanton’s 2014 was a marked improvement over his other career year back in 2011. He didn’t have much to prove going in, but still found ways to turn heads and become an even better pitcher. Let’s look at some more numbers and bullet points, since there’s nothing I love more than numbers and bullet points:

-With an awesome 46.8% zone, and 66.7% first pitch strike percentage, Bumgarner almost cut down his BB rate by 3% in 2014. That’s a full walk-per-nine less than his previous rate back in 2013!

-Bumgarner also struck out more batters, and did so at a more immediate pace. 2014 was the first season in which Mad Bum finished with 200+ strikeouts and a 9+ K/9, resulting in his first ever qualified, sub-3 xFIP (2.99)

-Although an embarrassment of bad luck tainted his home performance in 2014 (4.03 ERA, .336 BABIP, 69% strand rate), Bumgarner almost struck out an even 10 batters-per-nine with a 20.2% K/BB rate at AT&T Park, suggesting that things by the Bay will probably be a bit more favorable for him this coming season.

-With 18 wins and a 2.98 ERA in 2014, Mad Bum now ranks 6th among all starting pitchers with 60 wins since the 2011 season. He also ranks 7th in ERA (3.08) among starting pitchers with at least 700 innings pitched in that span.

When it comes to baseball, both real life and fantasy, I’m a numbers guy. And this is some sexy shit we got going on here. If you weren’t convinced that Madison Bumgarner is as much of an ace as Felix Hernandez, or Chris Sale, or Max Scherzer, you sure as hell are now. He’s not only pitched up to par with some of the best of the game over the last four years, he’s consistently etched himself further up the fantasy totem pole with increasing success. At 25 years old, he even carries some of the most upside of any top-10 starting pitcher, and with over 200 innings pitched on average since 2011, is perhaps the safest arm in most leagues north of Clayton Kershaw.

…Now let’s talk about the other guys in this Giants rotation.

It’s no secret that Bumgarner’s otherworldly playoff performance transcended this Giants ballclub into becoming world champions, even when you compare it to the clutch hitting provided from all the Buster Poseys and Pablo Sandovals of the world. However, it’s also no secret that his aging mound-mates nearly helped give that World Series trophy away. Here’s how awful the rest of the Giants’ starters were this past October:

Ryan Vogelsong: 12.1 innings pitched, 6.59 ERA, 1.79 WHIP, 5.8 K/9,  11.7 hits allowed/9

Jake Peavy: 16 innings pitched, 6.19 ERA, 1.68 WHIP, 3.9 K/9, 0.89 K/BB ratio

Tim Hudson: 21 innings pitched, 4.29 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 6.85 K/9, 9.0 hits allowed/9

Allow me to put this into perspective. Where Mad Bum amassed well over 50 postseason innings on his lonesome, these three gentlemen barely scraped past 49 frames of work combined. Bumgarner’s 45 strikeouts are over a full third more than all three of them put together. Lastly, it would have taken Bumgarner over twice as many innings pitched during the postseason to compile the same exact amount of aggregate hits and walks allowed from his fellow teammates had he continued to perform at his playoff pace (in other words, starting from Bumgarner’s 52nd inning pitched relative to the combined 49th inning pitched from the rest of the rotation, he would need to throw for over 50 more innings to allow the same amount of baserunners.) Suffice to say: Peavy, Hudson and Vogelsong won–not earned–their World Series rings, and Bumgarner put them in their fingers.

But how exactly do the playoffs factor into how one should see these three starting pitchers in the upcoming regular season? I certainly know one way…

Ryan Vogelsong’s 2014 Postseason record: 0-0

Jake Peavy’s 2014 Postseason record: 0-2

Tim Hudson’s 2014 Postseason record: 0-1

Notice that one little thing these guys all have in common here? A combined zero wins, covering a span of innings shorter than their lone ace, with four less victories in comparison. The reasoning behind this lack of triumph was undoubtedly their glaring inability to pitch deep into ballgames, which is perhaps the most vital necessity for pitch-to-contact starters to even catch a sniff of fantasy relevance.

MLB: Washington Nationals at San Francisco Giants

Remember that as I take a few steps back and briefly evaluate each individual’s regular season. Starting with Vogelsong, primarily because he wound up pitching a bit better than his standard stats would suggest (4.00 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 3.96 xFIP). Unfortunately, his advanced stats hardly do much of anything to support that notion; his SIERA stood at 3.98 and  ERA- was a mildly league-average 117. And because Vogelsong didn’t even pitch over 6 innings a start (5.75, to be more accurate), his 7.36 K/9 will help no one on a weekly, single-start basis. Even if you try your hardest to be optimistic and picture him as a rent-a-two-starter, he simply does not pitch deep enough into games to provide any meaningful impact to your fantasy team – especially when you factor in the pedestrian earned-run peripherals. For whatever reason, the Giants signed him to a one-year contract extension, which is the exact type of commitment you may want to avoid with him before, during, and after your fantasy baseball draft (which also includes NL-only leagues, too).

Tim Hudson is in many ways (besides K rate) the polar opposite of Ryan Vogelsong, in that he induces most of his BIP (ball in play) outs on the ground, and limits walks to a bare minimum. Those two factors did all they possibly could to keep Hudson’s peripherals right at his end-of-season ERA total, which was a solid 3.57. But not everything was all sunshine and rainbows for him last season, and his terrible second-half (4.73 ERA) brought him crashing down to earth. Still, he pitched rather well overall in 2014, but his fantasy value at this point is so latent on picking up wins that simply preventing slightly fewer runs than the league average provides more of a cosmetic advantage to one’s pitching staff than an competitive one. In 31 starts this past year, Hudson only won 9 games. This is after averaging 12.5 wins with the Braves in his 9-season stint in Atlanta (keep in mind, that stat also includes his injury-riddled 2009 campaign, where he only started 7 games). While the move to the Bay will undoubtedly help him maintain slightly above-average peripherals, this now Panda-less offense might not do him any favors in regards to run support; a huge blow for those aiming to bid on Hudson late in their fantasy drafts. Single-digit victories just won’t compensate for his obscure contribution to strikeouts, and since he only averaged 6 innings per start in 2014, Hudson will most likely be at his most valuable in deep 12-14 team mixers or NL-only leagues. A 3.60-3.75 ERA and 1.15-1.20 WHIP isn’t completely out of reach for him this season, but even if the 39-year old could pull it off with his health intact, that’s not much better than what you could get from most viable weekly streaming options.

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The brightest spot in the Giants rotation not named Madison Bumgarner last season was definitely Jake Peavy. Coming off a mediocre stretch in Beantown, The 33-year old pitched exceptionally well with San Francisco, posting a 2.17 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 3.41 K/BB ratio. For two whole months, the dude was dealing, and owners seeking a playoff push jumped on the bandwagon in a heartbeat. But that’s the thing about Peavy’s impressive run: in the grand scheme of it all, it was really just a hot streak. So, is 2015 time to hop off the bandwagon? Peavy’s advanced stats say so, but not to the extent in which he’ll be totally invaluable this year. First off, you can thank his atrocious postseason for demonstrating that his good luck was eventually poised to run out, since his regular season xFIP with the Giants was nearly twice as high as his actual ERA. His homerun problems were predictably lessened with the move to AT&T Park, but his flyball rates actually shot up at the same time, so the rate at which it dropped is inconceivable. It’s almost impossible to neglect Peavy’s inability to induce grounders, and his spectacularly low 0.34 HR/9 rate will quickly become a thing of the past if he doesn’t learn how to normalize his flyball tendencies. Where Peavy’s season outlook gets interesting is with his glaring decrease in walks. A 3.3 BB/9 rate in 20 GS with the Red Sox transformed into an awesome 1.9 BB/9 clip in 12 GS with San Fran last year. It’s a serious positive that’ll help him hold down a decent ERA and WHIP, if he could indeed limit the walks for an entire season. Still, Peavy’s fantasy production has taken a considerable hit over the years because his strikeout rate continues to fall, and although he proved he can still be durable enough to throw for over 200 innings, he’s heading another year closer to his age 35-40 campaigns, with his general health becoming a major concern (only 3 seasons of 25+ starts since 2008). Like Hudson, you could do much better in standard mixed or NL-only leagues to round out your starting rotation, but again, these two are so consistently average they could be reliable streaming options whenever they’re pitching at home.

Rounding out the 2015 Giants’ rotation are Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Yusmiero Petit. If two of the three were to max out their production over the season, chances are they’d finish with the same exact numbers as their fellow teammates. That, again, comes out to decidedly league-average output. Glancing over the basic statistics for Matt Cain’s glory years (2009-2012), I’m left with the impression that he’ll be overrated around the time fantasy drafts truly begin, with his relatively suck-y 2013 and injury-plagued 2014 seen as outliers. All you need to know about him is that his 7-year peripherals recently match that of Peavy’s, just with a little bit more Ks and a little bit less walks. His ERA over the last couple of seasons has finally caught up to his xFIP after falling a full run behind over the last 5 or 6 seasons, and it’ll cling to him like a leech from here on out. Avoid and let someone else take him, in my opinion.

Ditto for Lincecum, though you probably know better than to take the risk at this point. His skill set has simply deteriorated since his last fantasy relevant performance in 2011, and in 2014 nearly all of his standard and advance stats indicated career-highs and career-lows of the worst kind. Despite the solid groundball rate (47.3%),  Lincecum did little else to perform well last year, with his BB rate still hovering around 9% (correlating to about 3.6 BB/9), and his strikeout rate dipping below 20%. There’s not a doubt in my mind that he’s been incredibly unlucky in recent years (4.77 ERA, 3.89 SIERRA since 2012), so maybe, just maybe, he’ll have better results in 2015. I’m not counting on it, though, because his 135 ERA- over the last three seasons entails that he’s been pretty bad regardless.

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Yusmiero Petit is a curious case, because above all stats and numbers, he’s proven to be a really, really solid fantasy starting pitcher/reliever, The problem is that, thanks to Bruce Bochy’s “big picture” style of managerial decisions, we have yet to see him put his brief stints of success together for a season with any more than 110 innings pitched. That absolutely has to change this year, though I suspect Bruce Bochy to once again insert him in the ballclub’s rotation plans as the swingman. Even if he hardly reaches the century mark in frames, you owe it to yourself to stash him everywhere in the event that this relatively fragile starting five collapses due to injuries. Behold more statistics, as his numbers from both last season and the season before are breathtaking:

2013: 8.81 K/9, 2.06 BB/9, 3.56 ERA (2.86 FIP), 1.20 WHIP

2014: 10.23 K/9, 1.69 BB/9, 3.69 ERA (2.78 FIP), 1.02 WHIP

On a basis of per-start production, he’s the only guy in this rotation who comes even remotely close to the production of staff ace Bumgarner. At times, he’s proven to be even better, like that time he threw retired a Major-League record 46 consecutive batters (albeit with some of his work coming out of the bullpen). If Bochy played fantasy baseball, he’d definitely gamble on letting Petit get a crack at 30 starts; who the hell wouldn’t?? But like I said before, Petit getting regular starts remains a possibility throughout the course of the new season, so eyes must be peeled – this is top-15 starter upside waiting to get put to work.

Final Thoughts:

What we have here in San Francisco is a starting rotation spearheaded by one of the most underrated fantasy aces in the game right now, followed by a collection of aging, league-average right-handers lacking the skills necessary to remain fantasy relevant. That doesn’t mean there’s no purpose at all in investing in Hudson, or Peavy, or Cain, or Lincecum; you just can’t rely on them to help your team on a regular basis. Each of these four gentlemen are matchup options at these points of their careers, and with Yusmiero Petit’s ridiculous strikeout ability waiting in the reigns, one can only hope that the Giants move some of these arms so that he could get a chance to start some ballgames. I can’t stress enough how tempting it must be for some to wanna take a chance on these guys, with the spacious AT&T Park as their home, but then you’d never be able to see the forest for the trees. For a team that just won the World Series with this pitching staff, there will no doubt be people out there who will sniff the kool-aid on draft day. Unless Madison Bumgarner can start 162 games, it’s probably in your best interests to cherry pick another team’s starting five.

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