The 2020 Giants had eight different pitchers start over 60 games, which is about what we all expected as they dropped strategy hints during a three-week summer camp. What was unexpected was how they got to that number.
The Giants seemed poised to use multiple openers and piggyback starters and embrace unique methods, but ultimately they played it pretty straight-up, using extra starters mostly because of injuries and ineffectiveness.
The first series in Los Angeles was strange by design, with the staff spending weeks trying to figure out the best way to get through 36 innings against the league's best lineup. Some pitchers grumbled, and some moves blew up in Gabe Kapler's face, but by the time the Giants got back to Oracle Park, they were much closer to tradition.
There were changes, of course. It was rare to know the rotation more than a couple of days in advance, and on many occasions, the Giants named their starter the morning of a game. But overall they tried to stick to an actual rotation, with mixed results. Here's a look back at what transpired in 2020 and what's ahead for the rotation:
The rotation was middle of the pack overall, which makes sense because the Giants had extremes on their staff. As a group, they ranked 18th in innings pitched, 20th in ERA, ninth in FIP, 15th in strikeouts, 16th in opponents' on-base percentage and 12th in opponents' slugging percentage.
On the positive end, newcomers Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly were standouts. Gausman had a 3.62 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 1.11 WHIP and averaged 11.9 strikeouts-per-nine. Smyly made just seven appearances but had a 3.42 ERA, 2.01 FIP, 1.10 WHIP and 14.4 K/9.
On the other side, Johnny Cueto ranked last among qualified starters in ERA (5.40), Logan Webb had a 5.73 ERA in his 11 starts and averaged fewer than five innings per outing, and Jeff Samardzija gave up 18 earned runs in 16 2/3 innings.
Caleb Baragar made one appearance as an opener, and the remainder of the leftover starts went to Tyler Anderson and Trevor Cahill. Anderson had a 4.67 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in 11 starts, although he did have two of the better ones of the season for the entire staff, throwing a shutout against the Arizona Diamondbacks and six shutout innings against the Seattle Mariners. Cahill bounced between roles and dealt with a nail injury, but he had a 4.05 ERA in six starts. He lasted just 20 innings in those starts, and while he allowed just 14 hits and struck out 23, he also walked 11.
Smyly had a 6.42 ERA in 2019 and allowed 32 homers in 114 innings, but the Giants gave him $4 million plus incentives because they felt he was due for a bounce-back season and liked the way he threw for Kapler's Philadelphia Phillies late in the year. Smyly missed about half the shortened season with a finger strain, but at the beginning of the season and the end, he was as good as anyone the Giants had.
Smyly simplified his repertoire, throwing primarily a fastball and curveball and mixing in a cutter. The fastball was up 2.6 mph from 2019 and was hitting 96 when he returned from the injury. Opposing hitters batted just .184 against his curve and had even less success with his cutter, which was devastating at times:
Health always has been Smyly's issue, and he was able to give the Giants just five starts. But he was absolutely dominant when he was right, piling up strikeouts at a higher rate than any starter in baseball. Smyly didn't qualify for leaderboards, but his 14.4 K/9 would have edged AL Cy Young favorite Shane Bieber (14.2) and NL leader Jacob deGrom (13.76).
You could easily go with Cueto, who never regained his pre-Tommy John form, but given where this organization is right now, something else stands out.
The Giants are rebuilding, but they didn't come out of 2020 with much more insight on how they'll build a playoff-caliber rotation in future years. A lot of this was unavoidable, as Tyler Beede missed the entire season with Tommy John surgery and the pandemic wiped out the minor league season. The Giants feel like Sean Hjelle and Seth Corry got good work in, but they'll still be somewhat set back by missing a full season of facing hitters.
Webb was supposed to be the one to take a leap forward this year, but he was inconsistent with his command, worked deep counts, and ended his season in a bulk innings role out of the bullpen. Webb is still just 23, but he would tell you he hoped for more out of his rookie season.
Dereck Rodriguez? DFA'd. Andrew Suarez and Shaun Anderson? Moved to the bullpen. The Giants are heading into the offseason in desperate need of starting pitching, in large part because they have been unable to lock younger pitchers into their rotation. They have prioritized hitters in the draft, and that'll help turn this all around, but it's hard not to look down the coast at Walker Buehler, Dustin May, Julio Urias and Tony Gonsolin and not think that the Giants have a lot of catching up to do.
When you think of the way Kapler handled his starters, you probably think of a short leash, right? There were some memorable decisions, including pulling Cueto earlier than he wanted on Opening Day and pulling Gausman after just 80 pitches in an August game at Dodger Stadium that ended up being a bullpen implosion.
It's surprising, then, that the Giants ranked fifth in the league in starts that lasted more than 100 pitches. They had 14 of them in all, six by Cueto, four by Gausman, three by Anderson and one by Webb.
Kapler and his pitching coaches were extremely careful early on, hoping to keep their staff healthy after a quick run-up to Opening Day. But after the first couple of weeks the gloves came off a bit. Webb threw a career-high 102 pitches to complete seven innings on Aug. 21 in his best start of the year. Cueto went at least 97 pitches in his final five starts. Gausman went exactly 100 in two of his final three starts.
Let's hope that kind of trust is still there if they ever have a Cy Young winner cruising through a World Series start with just two hits allowed and SERIOUSLY WHAT WERE YOU DOING, KEVIN CASH?!?
The 2021 Plan
There isn't a group on this roster with more uncertainty than the rotation. Cueto's trade value has evaporated -- he's due $21 million next year with a $5 million buyout of his 2022 option -- so the Giants will plug him in there and hope for the best. Webb will be locked in, too, with the staff hoping he can trust his stuff and take the leap.
After that, the Giants have a lot of work to do. Samardzija's five-year, $90 million deal has come to an end, and while he said he'll 100 percent be pitching in 2020, it won't be in San Francisco. Gausman, Smyly and Cahill are also free agents and Anderson is arbitration-eligible.
Anderson is due somewhere in the $4 million range, and the Giants might prefer to pay less for someone who is a sixth starter in their ideal world, but they also don't have many alternatives. They would like Gausman and Smyly back, and Gausman in particular looks like a must-sign given the lack of anything currently resembling an ace in the organization. But both are due raises, and both will have a lot more offers this winter than a year ago, when Zaidi scooped the pair up for a combined $13 million.
Beede is doing extremely well in his Tommy John rehab, but the timeline likely won't have him ready for Opening Day, and while Hjelle is polished, he has just five starts above A-ball. Corry has the most upside of anyone in the organization, but is at least a year away.
The Giants need at least two starters, and realistically need three good options with a fourth addition -- a Cahill type -- to provide depth. This market offers Trevor Bauer at the top, Marcus Stroman, Masahiro Tanaka, Gausman and some others below that, and then a whole lot of flyers like Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker, Mike Minor and James Paxton. The front office got creative in bolstering the rotation last offseason. The work this time around is even more daunting.