Barry Zito and three relievers blanked the Reds last night, as the Giants pitched a shutout for the 16th time in 120 games. San Francisco has allowed the fewest runs in baseball with 441 in 120 games, which is 31 fewer runs than any other staff, and you wouldn’t know it from his 8-11 record but Zito has quietly bounced back nicely from a disastrous 2008 season that saw him go 10-17 with a career-worst 5.15 ERA.
This season his ERA is down to 4.26 in 25 starts, and 114 strikeouts versus 56 walks in 148 innings is Zito’s best K/BB ratio since way back in 2002. He’s certainly not the top-of-the-rotation stud he was in the early Oakland days, but Zito is far better than he was during his first two seasons in San Francisco and has a 2.36 ERA in seven starts since the All-Star break. Zito reemerging as a solid starter has the Giants looking like a very dangerous opponent should they get into the playoffs.
The entire pitching staff has been fantastic with a 3.47 ERA, but even that includes some poor performances from guys who wouldn’t touch the ball in October. Tim Lincecum is the best pitcher on the planet and Matt Cain is 12-4 with a 2.49 ERA. Toss in Zito and those are the three guys who could start nearly every playoff game. Beyond that the primary relievers have all been excellent, including closer Brian Wilson saving 30 games with a 2.75 ERA, 61/21 K/BB ratio, and .203 opponents’ batting average in 55.2 innings.
Setup men Jeremy Affeldt and Justin Miller both have ERAs under 2.00, Bob Howry and Brandon Medders are obviously no slouches with ERAs in the mid-3.00s, and rookies Sergio Romo and Merkin Valdez have also stepped up with a combined 2.21 ERA during the past month. Because of all the off days during the playoffs teams typically need three main starters, with the occasional fourth starter in the mix, plus three or four key relievers. Here’s what the Giants could trot out there under those circumstances:
SP1 Tim Lincecum 2.37 ERA, 207/46 K/BB in 178 innings SP2 Matt Cain 2.49 ERA, 126/56 K/BB in 162 innings SP3 Barry Zito 4.26 ERA, 114/56 K/BB in 148 innings CL Brian Wilson 2.75 ERA, 61/21 K/BB in 56 innings SET Jeremy Affeldt 1.80 ERA, 38/25 K/BB in 45 innings SET Justin Miller 1.83 ERA, 34/18 K/BB in 54 innings SET Bobby Howry 3.50 ERA, 33/12 K/BB in 46 innings
Not bad, huh? Those seven guys have combined for a 2.83 ERA and 613 strikeouts in 690 innings, and Medders, Romo, and Valdez are certainly capable of soaking up any loose work. Oh, and if the Giants need a fourth starter at some point Jonathan Sanchez has a 3.22 ERA and 52/18 K/BB ratio in seven starts since rejoining the rotation with a no-hitter in mid-July. Come playoff time the Lincecum-led pitching staff has a chance to shut down anyone.
Of course, scoring runs have been a problem for the Giants all season, which is why they’re 4.5 games back in the division and a game behind the Rockies for the Wild Card despite the league’s best pitching staff. San Francisco’s lineup ranks 14th in the league with 4.0 runs per game, but has improved since adding Freddy Sanchez and Ryan Garko last month and does have one big-time threat in 22-year-old hitting savant Pablo Sandoval. If they can get there, the Giants would be my playoff sleeper pick.