Even now, with the benefit of a winter to reflect – or distance himself – pitching coach Dave Righetti has trouble pinpointing just what happened to the Giants’ vaunted starting rotation in 2013.
“I think early on, we never really got it going,” Righetti said during spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz. “It seemed like we were kind of grasping there to get a few games in a row, or a few starts in a row. And that didn’t happen, of course.
“After that, it was catch-up almost in a sense. Bum (Madison Bumgarner) was pretty steady the whole year, but I just felt like we were trying to catch up the whole year, and we were never really quite in charge.”
Given the recent standard set by a rotation that formed the backbone of two World Series championship teams, it was an unfamiliar situation. Every year from 2009 until 2012, Giants starters ranked no lower than sixth in the majors in ERA and third in opponents’ batting average. Last season, as the Giants went 76-86 and tied for third in the National League West, the rotation was 24th and 12th in those categories.
Ryan Vogelsong was dreadful before breaking one of his little fingers in May and missing 69 games, Barry Zito couldn’t replicate his success from 2012 and Tim Lincecum fought the inconsistency that has defined his past two seasons. Even durable Matt Cain had a 5.06 ERA in the first half before returning to form after the All-Star Break.
Only Bumgarner, who will start Opening Day against the Diamondbacks, was steady, going 13-9 with a 2.77 ERA. And it’s perhaps no coincidence that Bumgarner did so in his age 23 season while his rotation mates stumbled.
Lincecum eclipsed 1,400 career innings in 2013 while Cain topped 1,700 – not counting the postseason work each logged in 2010 and 2012. Zito, meanwhile, surpassed the 2,500-inning mark and Vogelsong, who turned 36 in July, faltered after an offseason shortened on both ends by the World Series and World Baseball Classic.
“Did it catch up to us?” Righetti said of that workload. “I guess it did. But you never admit to it while you’re trying to get better. You can’t put your thumb on that and say that’s exactly what happened. It’s just speculation and talk.”
Nevertheless, Righetti said the starters as a group arrived at camp this spring “in better shape. Not because of a different workout. I think they just got better rest, quite frankly.”
Early Cactus League returns seemed to bear that out. With veteran right-hander Tim Hudson replacing Zito in the rotation, Giants starters combined to allow one earned run in their first 23 spring innings, and they acknowledged the importance of starting strong.
“It’s been something that I think we all just kind of felt, even when we came to FanFest,” Cain said. “We knew that we didn’t do what we needed to last year, and you can tell the guys are just motivated about it. They don’t want it to happen again.”
Not that the struggles of last year were ever the subject of meetings or discussions among them, several starters said.
“I just think with the prowess our staff and our bullpen has had over the years, I think it’s one of those things we take as a responsibility to ourselves – to prepare better, get better and live up to that name,” Lincecum said. “We fought for that name. And it’s only right that we do the same thing every year after.”
A return to past form may start with the two longest-tenured rotation members.
Cain appeared to turn around at the end of 2013, posting a 2.36 ERA in 11 starts in the second half, with manager Bruce Bochy recently saying Cain “made an adjustment after the first half, and he’s carried that into this spring.”
In Righetti’s words, Cain battled “a number of issues” in the first half of 2013, including a lower arm slot at times that left Cain unable “to get on top of his pitches the way you’d like. Into the second half I think the focus was really on that more than anything else. It was more angles and fastball command.”
This spring, Righetti said, Cain looked more like his old self. “I like where he’s at in his slot, and I like how it’s producing,” Righetti said. “His angles are good.”
Lincecum re-signed with the Giants on a two-year deal to avoid free agency and arrived in camp “in really good shape” physically and mentally, Righetti said. The two-time Cy Young Award winner has gone 20-29 the past two seasons while adjusting to lower velocity on his pitches, and last year he began to embrace film study and game plans more as part of his routine.
“With him, everybody keeps talking about trying to go backward five years instead of just thinking, this is where we are and we’ve got to improve on what we’ve got,” Righetti said of Lincecum. “He’s doing that. He’s thinking about keeping the ball down and getting ground balls. Of course, when he gets ahead he’s looking to put somebody away. But I like where he’s been in the strike zone more, and again that comes down to command.”
Not all has gone smoothly this spring. Cain had a 7.47 ERA in four Cactus League starts, and Lincecum allowed seven runs in his final outing in Arizona and left with a 6.52 mark. Vogelsong told reporters he feels on the right track despite a 9.00 ERA through 19 spring innings in Arizona, and Bochy dismissed any idea that Vogelsong’s rotation spot is in jeopardy.
On a brighter note, Bumgarner finished Cactus League play with a line of 22 2/3 innings, 15 hits, three runs, two walks and 22 strikeouts. And Hudson, 38, whom the Giants signed to a two-year deal in November, showed few ill effects coming back from offseason ankle surgery.
Hudson, who has never had a losing record in his 15 major-league seasons, said his early impression of his new rotation mates is “guys that can go out there and just shut the door on folks.”
That has been the reputation cultivated in San Francisco in recent years – and what Righetti recognizes is key to the Giants moving on from 2013.
“We put a lot more premium on (pitching well) than some teams,” Righetti said. “When you do that, I think the expectation, the bar you put on your shoulders, the guys all understand that. They’ve been through it.
“So they know. They know what they’ve got to do.”