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Scouting Pitchers: An Impressive Staff in San Fran

James Benkard

James Benkard writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

The San Francisco Giants have to be the most surprising team of 2010. Going into game #162, they lead the majors in ERA (3.38). While they rank ninth in the NL in runs (694), they have assembled a decent, deep lineup that plays good defense.

While two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum (16-10, 3.43 ERA) is throwing 91-94 mph instead of the 93-97 he did when he came up, his 231 strikeouts are tops in the NL. Lincecum has refined the command of his 82-84 mph changeup and 84-87 mph slider, both of which have excellent late movement. He also throws a high-70s curveball. I wrote about Lincecum in my second Scouting Pitchers column back in June 2007: "Some have likened Lincecum to Kevin Brown, but Lincecum is already experiencing more early success than Brown did. Likewise, it's hard to see Lincecum dominating into his mid-30's the way Brown did. What's more likely is that Lincecum will have several good seasons in his twenties before losing his mid-90s fastball by age 30."

Lincecum’s gymnast-type delivery helps him hide the ball from opposing hitters, so his stuff gets to the plate before batters often have a chance to determine what the pitch is. Left-handed hitters get busted inside with a fastball before having to identify a diving breaking ball or changeup. Lincecum uses his slider quite well on right-handers. Hitters are often caught in between as they swing at balls and take strikes. Lincecum mixes his pitches well enough to keep hitters guessing. They can't count on receiving a 2-0 fastball.

When Lincecum was swatted around in August (0-5, 7.82 ERA), there were questions raised about his conditioning habits. Philadelphia's Roy Oswalt suggested that Lincecum needed to work out more. Lincecum recently said that he wasn't changing his offseason routine, and that he had learned from his "roller coaster" season. While Lincecum's unorthodox delivery tells me he will not regain his mid-90s velocity, he has enough weapons to be a #2 or #3 for the next ten years.

I first covered Matt Cain (13-11, 3.14) in 2007, noting his 93-96 mph fastball and mid-80s slider and changeup. I then covered him again in 2008, as I simply forgot I had already covered him. Since 2008, Cain has solidified himself as a premier starter, winning 27 games and posting a 3.02 ERA. While Cain was hit hard on October 1 by the Padres in a game that would have clinched the division, he could still emerge on the national stage later this month.

With nearly 1,100 innings by the age of 26, Cain's fastball has declined to the 91-94 range. He throws mostly four-seamers with an occasional 88-89 mph two-seamer. Cain's fastball has good armside run, but it can drift up and away from a left-hander. He could find the inside corner against them more. Cain has retained the velocity on his slider and changeup. The slider has a backup action, with an unusually tight break. He pitches to contact and uses it to strike batters out. Cain does a good job of keeping his slider down, but he still hangs his 75-78 mph curveball too often.

Cain is unpredictable in his pitch selection. He will at times throw a breaking ball to start off a left-hander and also use his curve – his fourth-best pitch – in a 3-2 count. He has become more efficient in recent years, using 15.7 P/IP in 2010. Cain has always been a fly ball pitcher, which makes him vulnerable to the home run ball. Fortunately, 12 of the 22 bombs he surrendered this year were solo shots. Cain is also tough with runners on, limiting hitters to a .201 average.

As I wrote a few years ago, Cain's arm trails behind his body, and he is a little stiff. As with Lincecum, Cain's reduction in velocity has allowed hitters to lay off more of his high fastballs. Still, it's hard to forecast anything but success for a pitcher who has limited hitters to a .646 OPS - eleventh-best in the NL.

Jonathan Sanchez (12-9, 3.15, 200 strikeouts) is a rare left-hander who can pitch up in the strike zone. He is consistently at 91-93, touches 94, and hides the ball well with his across-the-body delivery. Sanchez has a nice 77-83 mph changeup, as well as a curve and slider. The curve and slider each sit at about 80-84 mph, which is also unusual. A slider is normally 4-10 mph harder than a curve. Sanchez throws his slider most: 15%, according to ESPN's Inside Edge. He tips his changeup, but throws it for strikes reliably. In fact, Sanchez commands his breaking stuff better than he does his fastball.

Sanchez has struggled in the early innings throughout his career. He has a 5.27 ERA over the first thirty pitches of his games, which amounts to roughly the first two innings. His walk rate – 107 in 201 innings over those first thirty pitches – is about at his career mark of one every two innings. Sanchez is a fly ball pitcher (0.72 G/F) who has improved his efficiency in 2010 (16.7 P/IP). In addition to his bouts with wildness, many hitters will foul off his high fastballs, which extends innings.

Watching Sanchez is like looking at a star – it dims when you look at it and brightens when you look away. While Sanchez has a slingy delivery and struggles early on with his fastball command, he throws more off-speed strikes than any left-handed starter. Left-handed batters have managed a .213 average off him in his career, and they hit just .176 in 2010. The Giants play well behind Sanchez, with none of the flat-footed defense you often see when a team is behind someone running up a high pitch count. Sanchez could have some very interesting matchups against Ryan Howard – who has hit .214 in his career off him – and Chase Utley (.273) later this month.

Barely 21 years old, Madison Bumgarner has had an excellent rookie year. Drafted in 2007, he shot through the minors before his fastball mysteriously dropped from 93-97 to 88-90 mph in 2009. Bumgarner has regained much of his velocity in 2010 while going 14-7 with a 3.06 ERA in 194 innings between Triple-A and the NL. He now throws 90-93 mph, and has touched 94-95, with a sweeping low-three-quarters motion. Bumgarner is very tough on left-handers with an 85-88 mph slider, and he mixes in a high-70s curveball. I'm not sure, but he might throw a cut fastball as well.

Bumgarner works quickly and moves the ball in and out effectively. Since he throws a lot of strikes, hitters get in the habit of swinging at a lot of his pitches, often making weak contact. The crucial pitch could be his 83-86 mph changeup. Bumgarner's change doesn't yet have enough separation from his fastball and slider because it arrives on the same plane. Ideally, he will learn to turn his changeup over to dip away from a right-hander. This would give hitters a radically different look from his other stuff.

Bumgarner's low arm angle is typically seen in a reliever rather than in a starter. He'll need to be careful with right-handed hitters (.283), who get a better look at such a delivery. Bumgarner's efficiency (15.5 P/IP) is already outstanding, and his G/F ratio (0.86) is better than you might expect of someone with his profile. For someone so young, he does an excellent job of keeping the ball under hitters' hands, though he does tip his breaking stuff a little. I would expect measured growth from Bumgarner, who will be a #2 if he can keep his velocity.

Barry Zito (9-14, 4.15) threw nearly 200 decent innings this year, which has to be a success. He was brilliant in April (1.53 ERA) and went 7-4 with a 3.76 ERA in the first half, but lost ten of his last fifteen starts. Zito throws a lot of 71-77 mph curves, sliders and changeups. He turns the change over very well, and his curve still has some bite. Of the three, he commands his curve the best. Zito uses his 86-89 mph fastball half of the time, and tries not to get beaten with it. I would guess the Giants will bump Zito from their playoff rotation and go with Lincecum, Cain, and Sanchez.

San Francisco has also built a very solid bullpen around All-Star closer Brian Wilson – their 3.01 combined ERA is second in the NL. Wilson seems to look meaner each time I see him. Lately he has been sporting a beard and a Mohawk, and he crosses himself after each save as a tribute to his father. Wilson throws a consistent 94-97 with an 88-93 mph slider, if you can believe that. I think only Felix Hernandez and Jonathan Broxton also throw sliders that hard.

San Francisco has several good arms to setup Wilson. Sergio Romo throws just 88-90, but he has a good 77-83 mph slurve and a sweeping delivery. Romo is very efficient (14.8 P/IP), has limited right-handers to a .190 average, and is a bit of a prankster. Santiago Casilla, a former top prospect who was released by Oakland after last year, has emerged after being a non-roster invite this spring. He was throwing 93-95 mph this summer but was clocked at 95-99 with a high-80s slider on October 2. A high-energy player, the challenge for Casilla has always been command. For now, Dave Righetti has him throwing enough strikes. Ramon Ramirez, acquired from Boston at the July deadline, has allowed just three runs in 24 appearances. He seems to have regained the confidence in his 93-95 mph fastball.

Right-hander Chris Ray was acquired in June from Texas for catcher Bengie Molina. Ray was the Orioles' closer in 2006, but he had Tommy John surgery in 2007 and only recently regained his effectiveness. He throws 92-95 with a mid-80s slider and a delivery similar to Romo's. Jeremy Affeldt has been OK as the primary left-handed specialist, but his control problems (24 walks in 50 innings) have to concern manager Bruce Bochy a bit. Affeldt has a 76-78 mph curveball and a high-80s slider to go with his 92-94 mph fastball. Guillermo Mota, signed as a free agent in the off-season, still throws 92-93 with an 82-86 mph slider. He struggled in August, missed most of September with a hip problem, and returned a couple of weeks ago to get in shape for the stretch run.

While the Phillies and Yankees are the favorites to meet again in the World Series, the Giants have a better chance than many people think. There is a natural tendency for fantasy writers to be contrary, and I am guilty as charged. Nevertheless, I'm not convinced that many people are aware of this team's strengths. San Francisco's first three starters match up well against any team's other than Philadelphia's, and their bullpen is just about the best in the league.

San Francisco's offense has question marks beyond Aubrey Huff and Buster Posey, but the club has a lot of depth from which they can mix and match. Juan Uribe has hit 24 homers while playing all over the infield, and center fielder Andres Torres has turned in a career season. Though his numbers have dipped, Pablo Sandoval has shown flashes of his 2009 form recently. In-season acquisitions Cody Ross and Pat Burrell have been productive. The Giants also play exceptional defense – they are tied with the Reds and Padres for the fewest errors (72) of any NL team. I see a lot of positive energy in AT&T Park, as the fans are hungry for a winner. I think San Francisco and Philadelphia will go to six or seven games in the NLCS.