Despite the shockwaves being felt after the Los Angeles Dodgers hurled a kitchen sink at the NL West last week, the San Francisco Giants remain in first place heading into the final month of the regular season. Facing familiar opponents in September, there is reason to expect the team to reach the playoffs.
Even with Melky Cabrera exiled to the Island of Steroid Chumps and a bullpen that has shown a flare for the erratic, the Giants have persevered. The one area where things are likely to become more tumultuous in the postseason is the starting rotation.
Most teams employ a four-man rotation in the postseason.
They will often take their least effective pitcher and relegate him to the bullpen, although in rare instances a regular-season starter can be left off the playoff roster entirely (see Barry Zito in 2010).
So why would a team like the Giants, known for their surplus of talented pitchers, opt to remove not one, but two pitchers from their postseason rotation?
3. Tim Lincecum Can’t Get It Done
If the rotation stands through September, Tim Lincecum will start six more games. Unless those performances are compromised of shutouts, no-hitters and perfect games, 2012 will serve as Lincecum’s worst season as a major league pitcher.
Perhaps more frustrating than the lack of control is the explanation behind it.
Lincecum, in tandem with manager Bruce Bochy and head trainer Dave Groeschner, has emphatically denied he has any kind of injuries bogging him down. This means Lincecum’s problems are mental, or some balance of mental and mechanical.
Essentially, compared to a pitcher with an inflamed right elbow, Lincecum’s prognosis is intangible. There’s no recovery timetable for lost self-confidence and diminished velocity.
This isn’t to say Lincecum won’t overcome the issues that have plagued him this season (in fact, I’m quite confident he will), but more that counting on Timmy to right himself because “it’s the playoffs” is borderline insane.
Unfortunately, the Giants will need to find a way to succeed in the postseason without the man who dominated in the 2010 playoffs. They don’t have that pitcher at present.
Letting Lincecum start in the playoffs is akin to arriving at a NASCAR race in a totaled car. With the proper repairs, the car could be a legitimate contender, but in its current state, it stands no chance of reaching the finish line.
I, for one, would love to see what Lincecum could do in the late innings of a game. Not necessarily as a closer, but perhaps as a seventh- or eighth-inning guy. If he can harness what he does have in the tank for an inning or two instead of trying to stretch it across a full start, we may have something.
2. Barry Zito is Unreliable
Hearing that Barry Zito is an unreliable pitcher should be about as shocking as learning that toast is made from bread. We know Zito is never going to be a model for consistency, even if for a while early in his contract he did seem to be consistently awful.
In 2012, however, Zito has peppered a relatively decent season with a few incredible performances (complete-game shutout at Coors Field, anyone?) and some rather forgettable stinkers. I’ve seen him look like an ace and a batting-practice machine. In short, when Zito steps on the mound, all bets are off.
With this in mind, there is no way the Giants can afford to risk a fourth of their starts by giving Zito the ball.
I think he’s pitching better this year, but when Zito’s off, the results can be catastrophic. A well-rested bullpen is a key component to any World Series bid, and if the relief arms are needed to mop-up after Zito, they’ll be burned when Matt Cain or Madison Bumgarner need them for a three-inning stretch the next day.
Unquestionably, Zito wants a chance at October. He was graceful in accepting his playoff demotion two seasons ago, but one can assume he suffered some internal agony over being left off the roster.
Simply put, who plays a sport at the professional level and doesn’t want a chance at glory and immortality?
The sad reality is that baseball is not meant to coddle the sullen. Barry Zito is paid tens of millions of dollars a year to play a sport that he no longer excels at, and for that, he must sacrifice a chance to pitch in the postseason.
1. More Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner
Perhaps the reasoning behind using a three-man rotation in the playoffs is most succinctly summarized by asking, “Which Giants pitcher do you want to see starting?” This season, the answer from most fans would be either Matt Cain or Madison Bumgarner.
Ryan Vogelsong is certainly no consolation prize either. These three pitchers have done their job this season, and then some. If I turn on a postseason game this fall, I want to see one of these guys stoically nodding at Buster Posey.
We could talk about Cain’s perfecto or Bumgarner’s complete games, but these achievements aren’t the reason I want them in the playoffs. I want them in the playoffs because they’ve pitched better than Lincecum and Zito.
Let’s say you used the memory-erasing pen from Men in Black on me and removed all my knowledge of the 2012 season. Then you showed me the statistics for all five of the Giants pitchers, minus their names. Based on record and ERA alone, I’d assume the Lincecum line was Zito. I might further think the Vogelsong line was Lincecum.
My point is that we all project a bias when it comes to matters of baseball. If Tim Lincecum wasn’t Tim Lincecum, we’d have all agreed long ago that this guy has no business on our playoff roster. It’s only because we have such deep respect for what Lincecum used to mean that we tiptoe around the issue.
Looking at baseball as a numbers game is impersonal, but it is practical for my purposes.
I would rather have two-thirds of all our postseason games pitched by Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner versus two-fifths of those games being pitched by Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito.
Whether Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy agree with this line of thought remains to be seen, but the choice of who to select as a postseason starting pitcher could be the biggest storyline to happen in a season of front-page news.