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April 19, 2013
What You Need to Know
Waking Sleeping Giants
The Thursday Takeaway
Following Thursday’s 7-2 loss to the Brewers, in which Matt Cain was charged with seven earned runs over six innings of work and saw his ERA rise to 7.15, the Giants’ rotation ERA stands at 5.07. Barry Zito, who did not allow an earned run in either of his first two starts, coughed up nine in 2 2/3 frames in the series opener, bringing his ERA for the season to 4.86. Ryan Vogelsong’s seven-inning, three-run effort in the middle match pared his ERA down to 5.89. Tim Lincecum, who did not pitch at Miller Park, sports a 5.63 mark. Put that all together, and, were it not for Madison Bumgarner’s 1.77 ERA, the quintet’s aggregate figure would shoot up to 5.99, and the team’s record might be well south of 9-7.
Cain’s clunker, which helped the Brewers to complete a sweep of the Giants and began with a first-inning, two-run homer by Ryan Braun, came 11 days after a home loss to the Cardinals, when a prolonged fourth-inning rally sent him to the showers only 11 outs into the game. That nine-run dud marked his first outing with seven-plus runs allowed since July 9, 2010. Nearly three years later, the Giants’ ace has been knocked around badly twice in three games.
The 29-year-old right-hander’s arsenal appears to be intact, with no visible difference in velocity on his Brooks Baseball player card, but Cain’s command has not been crisp in the early going. Proof?
Without delving into details of pitch type and result, the chart above, from his Pitcher Profile, shows that a hefty plurality of Cain’s offerings have found the heart of the zone—and a significant number has settled in the zone immediately above it. Breaking pitches in those spots have predictably been punished, accounting for two doubles and a home run, and bloating Cain’s ERA far above the level one might expect from a pitcher whose K:BB stands at a robust 20-to-5.
The Giants have, in recent years, been anchored not only by the quality of their rotation, but also by the health of its members. Only twice last year did Bochy turn to a starter outside of the primary five—Eric Hacker on April 27 and Yusmeiro Petit on September 23—and while the two 2012 substitutes, along with prospects Chris Heston and Mike Kickham, are available in the upper minors, San Francisco has little in the way of proven organizational depth.
That means that general manager Brian Sabean’s investment in his rotation is as critical as that of any team’s. Bochy said as much after Thursday’s loss: “Our strength is our starters. They had a tough time here.” With less than one-tenth of the season in the books, the time for concern is not yet nigh. But if the rough going continues, particularly for Cain and Lincecum, the defending champions could face a prolonged stay in third place.
Matchup of the Day
Gonzalez, whose 3-for-5 outing on Thursday raised his triple-slash line for the season to .400/.477/.745, has six more games to pad those numbers in the mile-high air before the Rockies travel to Phoenix next weekend. To stay hot on Friday, though, he’ll need to solve a pitcher that has absolutely dominated him in their recent encounters.
That pitcher is Ian Kennedy, and while Gonzalez’s 4-for-23 (.174/.208/.391) overall line against him is bad enough, Kennedy has turned things up a notch the last several times that they have met. Since May 5, 2011, Gonzalez is 1-for-13 with a single versus Kennedy, and since his fourth at-bat on May 25, 2011, he is 0-for-7 with six strikeouts. A head-to-head history that began with a home run has, from the 27-year-old left fielder’s perspective, taken a drastic turn for the worse.
Five of those six strikeouts were of the swinging variety, and each of them came on a pitch out of the zone. Gonzalez’s hat trick on July 23, 2012, was the result of a fastball well off the outer edge, a chest-high heater set up by a changeup and two four-seamers inside, and a curveball in the dirt. In his fourth at-bat that day, which came after Kennedy had departed, Gonzalez smacked a home run off of lefty Mike Zagurski. His struggles were chiefly the doing of the 28-year-old right-hander, whose fastball velocity rarely exceeds 91 mph, but who wields one of the league’s most effective changeups to prevent hitters from sitting dead red.
The particular element of Kennedy’s pitching style or delivery that has so thoroughly baffled Gonzalez is difficult to pinpoint, but the University of Southern California product has done an excellent job of exposing his lack of discipline. Kennedy has thrown his curveball four percentage points more often to Gonzalez than to left-handed hitters as a whole—a logical strategy given that the former Diamondbacks prospect has shown a tendency to chase below the zone. And he has climbed the ladder effectively with his fastball, thereby taking advantage of another hole in Gonzalez’s approach.
But the most significant piece of Kennedy’s success against Gonzalez may be his ability to get ahead in the count.
Only one (4.2 percent) of the 24 plate appearances between them has been resolved on one pitch, and only four (16.7 percent) of the remaining 23 showdowns have ended with the second. Those numbers paint a striking contrast with Gonzalez’s career rates (entering Thursday’s game), as shown by the table below:
The gap between the volume of Gonzalez’s career plate appearances resolved on two or fewer pitches and the volume of those against Kennedy that have ended that quickly is about eight percentage points—a difference that becomes critical when you consider Gonzalez’s outstanding early-count results. Whether the first pitch is a ball or a strike is irrelevant: In fact, Gonzalez has fared better on 0-1 offerings than on 1-0 pitches. But if a pitcher is able to slip a second strike past him, the tables turn in a hurry—and, crucially, 14 of his 24 plate appearances versus Kennedy have reached a two-strike count.
Thus, if Gonzalez is to reverse his downward trend against Kennedy, the key could be jumping on hittable, early-count strikes. He is 7-for-12 with two doubles and two home runs on first and second pitches this year.
What to Watch for This Weekend