You know it's getting closer to baseball season when the fantasy baseball mags start hitting the racks. Even this early, in cold January, a few roto magazines have started to leak out, starting a pile on my coffee table that only gets thoroughly pored over three months and one destroyed social life later. It's like a rite of the new year, the first sign that the long slog through the baseball-less months of winter is almost over.
This weekend, I was perusing one particular magazine when I came across something that, at first glance, seemed shocking. In the starting pitcher rankings, they had San Francisco's Matt Cain ranked sixth, ahead of his teammate, two-time Cy Young winner and all-around awesome dude Tim Lincecum, who was ranked tenth. This seemed so silly and counterintuitive that I was prepared to throw the magazine into the dustbin and be done with it.
However, it got me to thinking. With Lincecum, Cain, and Madison Bumgarner, the Giants will enter the 2012 season with three pitchers who legitimately project to be top ten fantasy pitchers. Lincecum is obviously the most famous, having been a strikeout machine essentially since his arrival in 2007. Is he really the best of the three though? Was this magazine's editor really in need of a straight jacket, after all? After the jump, I'll take a look at which of the three Giants stud starting pitchers figures to have the most value. The answer just might surprise you.
Tim Lincecum is all manner of awesome, from the nasty pitching repertoire to the laid-back, Pacific Northwestern demeanor. Giants fans, however, (myself included) don't like to mention the elephant in the room regarding Lincecum, because it's too scary to dwell on. That pesky pachyderm haunting our thoughts is the fact that Lincecum's strikeout and walk rates both headed in the wrong direction last season. It wasn't simply a one-year fluke, either.
What characterized Lincecum's sensational, Cy Young-winning 2009 season was that he coupled bundles of strikeouts (261, to be exact) with very good control. In the two seasons since, his walks have increased while his strikeouts have sunk closer to the 9.0 K/9 mark. That's not bad, per se, but it's certainly not encouraging. Maybe he's "pitching to contact" or some convoluted nonsense like that, but normally a drop in strikeout rate, and a concurrent rise in walk rate, is an indicator of declining stuff.
This is why it makes perfect sense to rank Matt Cain ahead of him. Cain has never garnered quite the headlines that Lincecum has, probably because he doesn't have long hair and he's never had the same insane strikeout totals (K's get the girls, don't you know), but he's been a heck of a workhorse for several years now, posting sub-3.00 ERAs in two of the last three seasons.Cain's win total has never been great, and the Giants' inability to score him runs over the course of his career has bordered on a sick joke, but he's been a rock-solid fantasy producer in ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, and if your league counts it, innings pitched.
In contrast to Lincecum, Cain's peripheral numbers are trending in the right direction. Cain has drastically slashed his walk rate, from a problematic 3.8 per nine innings in 2008 to a very good 2.6 last season. His K:BB rate has naturally shot up in that timespan, also. His ridiculous home run rate in 2011 (nine homers allowed all year) was likely a total fluke, but he's often been pretty stingy with the long ball in general and he pitches in one of the toughest home run parks in the league. Plus, he's entering a contract year, so if you're a believer in the magic juju that a player's walk year brings, then give Cain bonus points.
So that tears it. If you draft any Giants pitcher, draft Cain, because he's a horse and he's not showing signs of decline, right? Not so fast. Madison Bumgarner had a sneaky-great 2011 season and might be better than either one of them.
Bumgarner was awesome last year, but his fabulous year probably flew under the radar because of his mediocre won-loss record* and his more famous rotation mates. Bumgarner posted, by far, the best K:BB ratio of any of his fellow Giants starters and he actually ranked sixth in the league in the category. If you're a believer in Fangraphs' FIPtastic version of WAR, he was the best starter on San Francisco's staff, and he was fourth in the National League (!) in this category, as well. He struck out close to a batter an inning, he had outstanding control, and he didn't give up home runs. Oh, and he'll be just 22 this season. This guy is the real deal.
If you take out Bumgarner's horrific June 21st start, where he gave up eight runs in one-third of an inning to Minnesota, his ERA for the year would have been 2.86. He couples nasty stuff with a strange arm angle that is very tough for hitters to pick up, and he isn't close to his peak. He's a pitcher primed for a monster season, and if you jump on him on draft day, even before Lincecum or Cain, you won't be disappointed.
*Let's just get this out of the way. If you're looking for gaudy win totals, don't draft a Giants pitcher. Their offense last year couldn't scare a rotation of Quad-A veterans pitching on the moon, and they "upgraded" their offense by adding Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan. So yes, be ready to punt wins or won-loss percentage if you want to draft one of Lincecum, Cain, or Bumgarner.