The fact that the San Francisco Giants finished the first half 12 games above .500 is no fluke.
Despite having the third-worst offense in the league based on runs scored and the second-worst offense based on OPS, the defending world champs went into the All-Star break in first place in the NL West, with a healthy three-game lead over the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks.
Three of the Giants’ five All-Stars came from the pitching rotation, which was well-deserved. Through Wednesday’s game, the rotation has a 3.19 ERA and has earned quality starts in 65 out of their 99 starts.
Still, with the Ryan Vogelsong far outperforming expectations and the uncertainty of Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito, the rotation is in a bit of flux.
Here is how I see the ideal starting rotation coming out of the All-Star break.
1. Tim Lincecum
August 2010 terrified Giants fans. Tim Lincecum, the reigning two-time Cy Young winner, went 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA in the month of August. At first, Giants fans blamed the blister on his finger, because their dear Timmy couldn’t suddenly crash and burn like this.
Lincecum tried everything he could to get out of his funk. He changed his delivery to a style he had used when he was younger, lifting both arms over his head. That didn’t help, so he changed it again.
Ultimately, time heals all wounds. As soon as August ended, Lincecum turned back into the elite pitcher he had been, going 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA in September and October, including five starts in the postseason with a 2.43 ERA. He out-dueled Derek Lowe, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee (twice).
Timmy was back.
And yet, August 2010 left that nagging worry in the minds of Giants fans that Lincecum was fallible, that he could fall off the proverbial deep end and be too short to climb back out.
Even though Lincecum has thrown 104 quality starts in his 143 career starts, those five pesky August 2010 starts are still there, reminding us he could be mortal.
Hopefully, Lincecum has already gone through his rough patch this year and has come out the other side smelling like roses, sporting a 2.90 ERA that far outshines his 8-8 record.
He is still one of the most dominant and intimidating pitchers in the league, and his reputation proceeds him wherever he and the Giants go.
While it’s hard to choose between Lincecum and Matt Cain for the role of “ace” of the Giants, I give the edge to Lincecum.
2. Matt Cain
Although Matt Cain hasn’t started either of the last two years in the second spot, that’s not for lack of skill.
Cain, the longest-tenured Giant and owner of a lifetime 3.40 ERA, would be the ace pitcher on most other teams.
Cain is also the workhorse of the rotation. Since Cain became a regular pitcher in 2006, he has pitched 1,181.2 innings, seventh among all pitchers during that time. And while Tim Lincecum has garnered most of the media attention and hype, Cain has quietly been the co-ace of the team.
While many managers like to set their rotations either righty-lefty or lefty-righty, Cain’s splits show that right-handed hitters and left-handed hitters fare almost exactly the same against him.
Righties are batting a total of .227/.294/.367, while lefties have batted .229/.305/.365.
With his track record and reliability, Cain clearly deserves the second rotation spot on the Giants.
3. Madison Bumgarner
After struggling early in the year, Madison Bumgarner has recovered to be a solid member of the rotation.
Bumgarner gave up 15 earned runs in his first 17.1 IP across four starts but followed that by pitching quality starts in 14 of his next 16 starts.
With Bumgarner back to the level of dominance he displayed in the World Series run in 2010, Bochy clearly has faith in his abilities going forward.
Batters in general are hitting .270/.314/.390 against him, but lefties are hitting just .234/.278/.333, making him a good pitcher to split up the rotation to go against opposing lefty sluggers.
4. Ryan Vogelsong
While the Legend of Ryan Vogelsong may be just beginning, it’s hard to know whether Vogelsong should be thought of as an ace in his own right.
After a lackluster career in and out of the major leagues and Japan, Vogelsong has come back in a big way with a 2.02 ERA, currently best in the National League.
On top of an invitation to the All-Star game, Vogelsong is holding hitters to just .229/.293/.327 and in his one start after the break, continued his string of dominance.
One could easily make the argument that Vogelsong has earned a spot at the top of the rotation, but given the strength of the pitching in San Francisco, Vogelsong seems a good fit to be the fourth man in the rotation.
5. Jonathan Sanchez
Jonathan Sanchez is something of an enigma, considering that he’s really two separate pitchers.
In his career, Sanchez has shown a level of overpowering dominance that makes even Tim Lincecum look like a minor leaguer, while alternately “leading” the league in walks and looking lost on the mound.
Sometimes those two things happen in the same week or in the same month or same season. Sometimes they happen in the same game.
For the best example, look at his 2009 season. In 16 games (13 starts) between April 11 and July 3, Sanchez was 2-8 with a 5.30 ERA—bad enough to lose his spot in the rotation and end up in the bullpen.
On July 10, Sanchez made a spot start for an injured Randy Johnson, and he threw a no-hitter.
Between July 10 and the end of the year, Sanchez stayed in the rotation, going 6-4 with a 3.46 ERA, holding hitters to a .189 batting average.
What changed? Where is the switch in Sanchez’s brain, and who controls it? Sanchez arguably has the best raw “stuff” on the team and could be an elite pitcher. If he gets his talent under control. If.
Given his potential, Sanchez deserves the last spot in the rotation.
Honorable Mention: Barry Zito
Barry Zito is even more of a mystery than Jonathan Sanchez.
Since coming to the Giants in a hugely expensive, disappointing contract, Zito has been a roughly league-average pitcher earning an ace’s salary.
Since going on the disabled list for the first time in his career earlier this season, Zito lost his rotation spot to Ryan Vogelsong and now finds himself fighting Sanchez for the fifth spot.
After an underwhelming start to the season (nine ER in 13 IP), Zito seemed to have new life after coming off the DL. He pitched beautifully in three starts between June 28 and July 7, earning three wins in three quality starts, giving up just three ER in 21 IP and posting an 11:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
However, in his most recent start, he looked like his regular old self, giving up eight earned runs in just 3.2 IP, including two home runs.
Without knowing which Zito we’ll be getting, I’m giving the edge to Jonathan Sanchez. Still, if any of the starters lose their jobs due to injury or poor performance, Zito seems to be the next in line.
This article was originally published here on Bleacher Report on July 21, 2011.