The Future of the Giants Rotation and Kyle Lohse

GiantsI’ve watched Tim Lincecum‘s last two Cactus League starts. After the first one, I walked away feeling optimistic. His fastball was up to 94 miles per hour (MPH) in the first inning, and while he didn’t hold that velocity beyond the first, he was sitting at 90-92 MPH over the next few innings and consistently driving the fastball down in the zone.

His second start left me feeling very pessimistic. He didn’t have the same velocity, command or life on his fastball.

He sat mostly between 88-90 MPH. He was consistently missing at the belt or above with his fastball. His changeup and curve looked really good, but he hardly threw any sliders and his fastball was terrible.

He looked exactly like he did last year: a pitcher on the wrong side of six-foot, with an ERA on the wrong side of 5.00 and a fastball all-to-often on the wrong side of 90 without great control or command. He was suddenly the wrong pitcher missing in the wrong places at the wrong times.

He is still going to miss bats because of the changeup and his deception. Yet despite averaging over a strikeout per inning last year, his 5.18 ERA was dead last among the 46 qualified starters in the NL.

So, I walked away from Lincecum’s last start thinking, ‘where’s Kyle Lohse at these days, anyway?’

Lohse remains an unsigned free agent in large part because the St. Louis Cardinals extended him a qualifying offer, which he rejected. Thus, if a team outside of the bottom ten in the draft order was to sign him, they would forfeit their first round draft pick in the upcoming June draft.

Lohse is also represented by super-agent Scott Boras; therefore, it’s easy to assume that he would have been signed by now had his demands initially been more reasonable. It’s also entirely realistic to believe that his contract desires haven’t dropped all that much despite the lack of demand for his services.

Over the last two seasons, Lohse has gone 30-11 with a 3.11 ERA over 63 starts. His 2.86 ERA last year was good for fifth best in the NL.

Over the past two seasons Lohse has posted a 3.58 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and a miniscule 4.9 percent walk rate that ranks sixth best amongst qualified starters in all of baseball while also ranking 21st in home run rate.

He’s also shown a negligible platoon split. Last year lefties managed only a .664 OPS against him compared to .623 for righties. In 2011, lefties put up a .696 OPS against him compared to .667 for righties.

His slider—which is a pitch best used against righties—has been worth nearly 17 runs over the last two years. His change-up—which is a good weapon to attack lefties with—has been worth nearly 14 runs in that same time period.

Lohse has established himself as a pitcher that can throw strikes at an elite level, keep the ball in the park, get opposite-handed hitters out and prevent runs from scoring against him. Yet despite those numbers, there are reasons to doubt him.

He’s 34 years old, so he could suddenly collapse.

A huge reason for his success over the last two years is the .265 batting average that he’s allowed on balls in play. That could be sustainable, but more likely, it isn’t. If his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) shoots up to .290 or .300, he won’t be the same successful pitcher he’s been recently.

Three years ago he allowed a .364 BABIP and his ERA was 6.55. Four years ago he allowed a .289 BABIP and his ERA was 4.74.

For his career, he’s allowed a .297 BABIP and his career-ERA is 4.45. He’s had three good seasons in his 11-year career. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that Lohse’s recent success is just the result of some luck on balls in play, and he’ll revert back to being a below-average pitcher again next season.

That’s a reasonable hypothesis. However, if you expect Lohse to suddenly collapse, you would have to expect Ryan Vogelsong to collapse as well. Lohse only had one good season on his resume prior to 2011, but Vogelsong didn’t even have that. He did have a 5.86 career-ERA, multiple arm surgeries, a failed stint in Japan, a five-year absence from the big leagues and a couple of pink slips from Triple-A teams on his resume, though.

Lohse and Vogelsong are actually very similar pitchers. They’re only 15 months apart in age. They both rely heavily on their two-seam fastballs and change-ups. Vogelsong doesn’t throw a slider like Lohse does—preferring the cutter instead. However, Vogelsong throws harder and his fastball and curve are better than Lohse’s.

Here is how the two pitchers compare statistically during their two-year rebounds courtesy of FanGraphs:

ERA   FIP   xFIP    K/9    BB/9    HR/9    RA-9Wins    W-L

Lohse                3.11   3.58   4.00   5.72    1.8         0.79          8.5            30-11

Vogelsong        3.05   3.68  4.00    7.24   3.0        0.78          7.9            27-16

Vogelsong throws harder and gets more strikeouts, but Lohse has walked fewer hitters. Other than that, their results have been just about identical.

The Giants are an interesting situation with their rotation heading into next season. They hold an option on Vogelsong that they will undoubtedly pick up if he pitches well again this season. Barry Zito has an $18 million option that will vest if he reaches 200 innings, which probably isn’t going to happen. In that case, the Giants will have to pay him a $7 million buyout. If he has another season with an ERA around 4.00 as he has in three of the last four years, my guess is that rather than paying him $7 million to go away, the Giants will pay him $12 million to provide another 190 innings of league-average ball at the back of the rotation.

However, even if Vogelsong and Zito stick around in 2014, the Giants may have to replace the impending free agent Lincecum. They don’t have any obvious candidates in the minor leagues after dealing top prospect Zack Wheeler at the 2011 trading deadline. Their top three starting pitching prospects, Clayton Blackburn, Kyle Crick and Chris Stratton, are all likely to start the season at High-A San Jose. That makes 2015 a better estimated time for arrival than 2014 for all three.

The most likely scenario is that the Giants will wait until after this season to worry about the future of the rotation. However, what if Lincecum is finished? What if last year was the beginning of a downward spiral from which he’ll never recover? Can the Giants win the NL West again if he has another terrible season?

It’s certainly interesting that Kyle Lohse remains a free agent. If Lincecum struggles badly in the early going, or if one of the starters goes down to injury, it could interest the Giants that one of the best starters over the last two seasons is a free agent. If Lohse was willing to work cheaply in 2013 in exchange for more money in 2014, this made-up Cold War could suddenly get very hot.

If I were in Brian Sabean’s seat, I’d be keeping tabs on Lohse. Surrendering a draft pick to sign him would be a tough pill to swallow, but watching Lincecum throw meatballs for another year is even less tenable.

There’s no evidence that the Giants are thinking of Lohse right now. But maybe they should be. I already am.

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