The Giants have gone up by keeping the ball down.
A rotation that was built mostly by spare parts has been the best in baseball through its first 28 games. Johnny Cueto was an aging pitcher on the last year of his contract left over from the old regime, and Logan Webb a prospect without sustained major league success. Otherwise, Kevin Gausman accepted a qualifying offer; Anthony DeSclafani was picked up after posting a 7.22 ERA with the Reds; Alex Wood picked up after injuries restricted him to 18 regular-season innings with the Dodgers last year; Aaron Sanchez picked up after 2019 shoulder surgery that meant he didn’t throw a major league pitch last year.
The total guaranteed outlay of four-fifths of a rotation: $31.9 million, the bulk going to Gausman. The early returns indicate they form the best rotation in Major League Baseball, a combined 2.34 ERA unmatched and carrying the Giants to a 17-11, first-place start. There is little chance of that ERA lasting, especially with the amount of injury risks within that group and the fact the Dodgers loom 19 more times on the schedule.
Among starters with at least 10 innings pitched, only one Giant ranks in the top 60 in baseball in strikeouts per nine — and that’s Wood, who’s 42nd. They have not been blowing hitters away. And yet, what may reflect sustainability is the Giants have compiled a rotation that induces a whole lot of ground balls.
At 51.1 percent, the rotation’s groundball rate is ranked the same as its ERA: No. 1. Keeping the ball on the ground does a lot of things for a pitcher, but most importantly it limits home runs and the type of big innings that Gabe Kapler’s offense craves. The Giants’ rotation has allowed 12 home runs, the third least in baseball; its 0.65 homers-per-nine-innings rate is tops.
Without home runs, teams have to string together hits against the Giants, which has not worked often. With the consistent ground balls against a Kai Correa-led shifting defense, the Giants’ staff has collected a .252 batting average on balls in play, the fourth best in baseball. When teams 1) struggle to go deep against you and 2) hit the ball on the ground against you often and 3) find gloves repeatedly when putting the ball in play, the Giants rotation’s majors-best ERA makes sense.
It is easy to hail the pitching infrastructure that tapped into Gausman’s upside and that found another level for Drew Smyly last year. What is especially impressive through the early going of 2021 is there is not a universal way for the Giants’ pitching gurus to help pitchers; it is not, say, introducing a four-seamer or splitter to each arm, but rather studying the mechanics and skillset and extracting the best formula.
“I think the weak-contact ground balls is a byproduct of just being in the right counts and continuing to throw strikes and really challenge hitters,” pitching coach Andrew Bailey said over the phone Monday.
Sanchez is doing it with less. DeSclafani is doing it with more. They’re all doing it — apart from the injured Cueto — by keeping the ball on the ground.
Before Sanchez and Wood were set to tag-team a doubleheader in Colorado, where balls hit into the air can grow wings, let’s take a look at a rotation that has punched balls to the ground:
Aaron Sanchez, second in MLB (among starters with a minimum of 15 innings pitched) at 60.3 percent ground balls
The 28-year-old has not returned from shoulder surgery with the same velocity, a fact that must frustrate him and a fact that he has shrugged off publicly — which is much easier to do with his kind of results.
His fastballs are fortunate to crack 90 mph, but hitters would be fortunate to hit them that hard, too. His curveball is his “stock-market pitch” — the more he invests in it, the bigger the gains — and batters are hitting just .129 off an offering that is slower and has more drop than ever before.
He is relying upon his two-seamer, though, heavily and consistently inducing weak contact off the pitch. It doesn’t have the force it once had, but it’s helped lead an arsenal that has resulted in opponents averaging a -0.7 launch angle. (For reference, anything below 10 degrees is expected to be a ground ball.)
“The trust in that sinker has been great. Obviously it’s out there that he’s got a really good one and he continues to use it and generate that weak-contact ground ball,” Bailey said.
Alex Wood, sixth at 57.5 percent
When the lefty was an All-Star in 2017, he registered a 54.2 percent groundball rate. Through the small sample of three starts, he is not allowing the ball to be elevated — a 9.8 percent flyball rate — with a slider that moves so much vertically he has called it a “mini-curveball.”
Hitters occasionally have gotten to his fastball this year, but they’re hitting .118 off his slider and .077 against his changeup. The former is moving more vertically, the latter horizontally, and Wood is the type of literate pitcher who can explain that. He and the Giants are a good match.
“He definitely knows what he’s doing out there, what he’s looking for,” Bailey said of the ninth-year major leaguer, whom he called a “treat” to work with. “It’s been awesome.”
Logan Webb, 10th at 56.3 percent
Much has been made about Webb’s increased use of a changeup that Curt Casali, who would know, has compared to Luis Castillo’s. But Webb threw his sinker just 14.9 percent of the time last year, and this year that number has skyrocketed to 31.4 percent. There are far fewer up-in-the-zone four-seamers and far more diving two-seamers.
What has followed is a .3 average launch angle a year after hitters’ average against him was 6. Hitters are batting .219 against his two-seamer and can’t get it in the air.
MLB has seen a huge uptick in four-seamers that bowl their way in at the top of the zone, high spin rates from guys like Gausman, Jake McGee and Caleb Baragar that are difficult to hit. But the Giants see Webb’s strengths lie elsewhere.
“[Webb has] a unique profile, the way he likes to attack hitters. Everyone’s different,” Bailey said. “[The fastball mixing is] a byproduct of the pitchers that we have and what their strengths are.”
Anthony DeSclafani, 16th at 54.6 percent
The longtime Red had trouble with long balls at Great American Ball Park, which is a redundant clause. In last year’s shortened season, he gave up seven homers in 33 2/3 innings; this year he already has pitched more (36 innings) and given up just three dingers.
Last year opponents had an average launch angle of 11 against him. That has been cut in half, to 5.6.
He is throwing significantly fewer four-seamers and upping the usage on virtually everything else: his two-seamer, his curveball and his changeup, while his slider (batters hitting .179 off of it) has been especially important.
“The strike-zone capability, the way he attacks hitters — really just the simplicity of a very vast arsenal,” Bailey said about what has stood out in the 31-year-old’s game. “He’s a unique guy, can do a lot of things with the baseball. He’s been in great counts and has been able to induce weak contact and trust the D behind him.”
Kevin Gausman, 75th at 42.3 percent
The exception! Gausman’s groundball rate is about where it was last year, but his four-seamers up in the zone and disappearing splitters have made him the unquestioned ace anyway.
His splitter is “one of the best pitches in baseball,” Bailey said, accurately: No splitter has as much south-bound movement, and hitters are batting .115 against it while whiffing 46.7 percent of the time. “He’s able to go to it whenever, wherever. He’s got an explosive fastball, little slider to go with it and also a changeup.”
The five (or six when Cueto returns) is a credit to the pitchers, the catchers, the front office and to the club’s pitching minds.
“I think our front office did a great job of acquiring pitchers and our guys have gone out there and pitched to their strengths,” Bailey said.