Giants Starting Pitching Rotation Breakdown

San Francisco Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto works against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning of a baseball game Sunday, July 22, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

The Giants head into 2020 amidst what one may coin an entertaining rebuild. The Giants should be entertaining to watch, even if they aren’t expected to be particularly good. However, there is some hope to be had in this 2020 Giants starting rotation. So let’s break them down and look for the upside.

See related article: The 2020 Giants can be the 2010 Giants

SP#1 Johnny Cueto

According to Fangraphs Johnny Cueto is expected to be the number one starting pitcher for the Giants. Cueto hardly pitched in 2019 as he was recovering from Tommy John. He did make four starts pitching to a 5.06 ERA but that is such a small sample size. We can also remove 2018 for similar issues. This puts Cueto’s last full season in 2017 where he pitched to a 4.52 ERA/4.49 FIP/4.45 xFIP. Cueto also had a K% of 21% and 8.2%, both are around the league average. To explain Cueto’s numbers in 2017 we need to look at the batted ball stats. The first being BABIP which was .322, 22 points above average indicating Cueto was unlucky. Furthermore, Cueto’s GB/FB rate went from 1.73 in 2016 to 1.10 in 2018.

Why does this matter for 2020? It is reasonable to assume that Cueto will be able to rebound to a similar GB/FB rate which should lead to success. Most of the Fangraphs projections systems agree, projecting Cueto to be between 4.19 – 4.23 ERA, except for the BAT which projects Cueto for a 4.81 ERA. If Cueto can return to a low 4 ERA pitcher then he should add plenty of value to the Giants starting rotation.

SP #2 Jeff Samardzija

Jeff “The Shark” Samardzija was a borderline elite pitcher in 2019. He finished with a 3.52 ERA in 181.1 innings and 32 starts. However, there are some concerns for 2020. Samardzija is now 35 years old with a K% of 18.9% suggesting that he has trouble missing bats. Furthermore, The Shark’s GB% sat at 36.4% in 2019 which is well below average with an FB% of 41.3% which is well above average. Unfortunately, Samardzija’s hard contact percentage doesn’t give him much hope as he gave up a hard contact rate of 40.2% in 2019 approx. 2% above league average.

The good news is that Samardzija’s 2019 hard contact % of 40.2 is by far the worst of his career. You only have to look back to 2018 where Samardzija’s hard contact percentage was 31.5%. The two major ways that Samardzija can continue to have success in 2020: increase groundball rate, and return to his usual hard contact numbers. Both are realistically possible outcomes.

SP #3 Kevin Gausman

This is the part of the article that should be most exciting because we are talking about the new guys!!! Especially since Kevin Gausman may be the Giants best starting pitcher in 2020. The 29-year-old signed a one year nine million dollar deal with the Giants this offseason to be a starter. Gausman received offers to be a relief pitcher, but chose to start with the Giants instead. However, the reason Gausman ended up in the bullpen is that he struggled as a starter. Gausman’s ERA as a starter was 6.37 in 82 innings while his ERA as a reliever was 3.10 in 20.1 innings.

But have no fear! As a starter, Gausman had a K% of 23.6 and sustained a BB% of 7.3% which is above average in both cases. The big stat that outlines why Gausman may have struggled in the ERA department is the massively high .344 BABIP. A BABIP that his 44 points higher than league average outlines how unlucky he was in 2019. Especially when you factor in his league average hard contact% (38.6) and his league average soft contact % (15.1). Gausman’s 4.29 FIP and 4.46 xFIP suggest along with all the other stated numbers suggest a major bounce back in 2020 for Kevin Gausman.

SP #4 Drew Smyly

Another new guy! Many Giants fans have been upset that the Giants “aren’t spending money”. That is a misconception as the Giants spent approx. $20 million on new players in 2020, not to mention the $12+ million they spent on Zack Cozart to get Will Wilson. One of the new guys the Giants spent money on is Drew Smyly.

Smyly returned from several arm injuries, including Tommy John, in 2019. He pitched to a 6.24 ERA/6.26 FIP/5.21 xFIP which is well below average. It is far from shocking to see a player pitching for the first time since 2016 to struggle at the big league level. Yet, as with Gausman, there is upside in the game of Drew Smyly.

The last time Smyly was healthy was in 2016 when he pitched to a 4.88 ERA/4.49 FIP/4.51 xFIP which suggested that his ERA was inflated. He finished with a 1.8 WAR as well. If the Giants get that kind of return they would be more than happy but let’s dig even deeper. In 2015, Smyly pitched to a 3.10 ERA/3.91 FIP/3.47 xFIP. That would be the best-case scenario for the Giants. There is hope he can return to that form. During September/October of the 2019 season, Smyly had overcome what he called a “mental hump” with Philadelphia. In 24.2 innings Smyly has a 29.4% K%, 8.8% BB%, 3.98 FIP, and a 3.97 xFIP which was good for a 3.65 ERA. Smyly’s performance over those final months of 2019 is why he is getting a shot in 2019. If he can maintain his momentum into 2020 then Smyly could shock some people in 2020.

SP #5 Andrew Suarez

Fangraphs currently projects Andrew Suarez to get the job to open the season so that’s what we are going to use. Suarez pitched in 21 games in 2019, making five starts along the way. He pitched to the tune of a 5.79 ERA/5.85 FIP/4.95 xFIP. Those numbers are far from inspiring but just like everyone else in the Giants starting rotation there is upside in Suarez.

One of the underlying stats that could lead to improvement for Suarez is his massive 49.1% GB% and his great FB% of 28.7%. Furthermore, Suarez had a BABIP sitting at .317 which shows a slight unlucky streak. Another stat that outlines luck is HR/FB rate which how often a flyball turns into a home run. The league average HR/FB rate in 2019 was 15.5%. Suarez had his sitting at 22.6% which is a massive outlier. The fact that Suarez pitches in a pitcher-friendly park should drop that drastically in 2020. It’s fair to expect Suarez to sit in the mid fours in ERA for 2020. The Fangraphs projection systems agree to put his ERA between 4.46 and 4.86. Except for the BAT which puts Suarez at a 5.23 ERA. Expect Suarez to be a serviceable 5th starter and his age gives him upside for more.

While it’s unfair to expect all of these guys to have great seasons in 2020 it is fair to expect quality performances. If guys like Samardzija, Gausman, and Smyly can perform well enough to either be traded at the deadline or to put the Giants in the wild-card race then 2020 suddenly gets very interesting for the Giants.

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