2005 Giants Pre-Preview: The Rotation 

Perhaps between now and April 5, Brian Sabean will convince Chuck LaMar that Kirk Rueter is the perfect fit for Tropicana Field and will be a wise mentor to the young lefty Scott Kazmir -- all for the low, low price of Rocco Baldelli. But it's far more likely the Giants will start 2005 with a starting rotation of Jason Schmidt, Brett Tomko, Jerome Williams, Rueter and Noah Lowry. Let's discuss each one:

Jason Schmidt

Age: 32 (turns 33 on Jan 29, 2006)
Relevant stats, 2004
225 IP
251 K / 77 BB
112.8 pitches per game
18 HR allowed/.593 OPS against
2005 salary: $8.75 M

I've seen reviews of last year that blame the near-miss of the playoffs on Sabean's trade of Felix Rodriguez; on Cody Ransom's glove; on the mere existence of Neifi Perez on this swiftly tilting planet. All viable theories. Let me propose another scapegoat: Jason Schmidt's crotch.

It was August 17. The Montreal Expos were in town. The Giants led the wild card chase, and Schmidt was the N.L. Cy Young favorite. He was motoring along until a poutine-eating, French-speaking Canadian (or at least someone who lived amongst them for several months a year) slapped a fateful ground ball to the right side of the infield. Trying to get to first base, Schmidt strained his groin -- not unusual if you're 13 years old and slow-dancing to "Stairway to Heaven," but a real bummer if you're a big-league pitcher.

Before the 2004 season, conventional wisdom held that the Giants could not compete without a healthy Bonds and Schmidt. Did Schmidt's subpar performance PCI (post-crotch incident) kill the Giants' playoff chances?

Not including the final game of the season, which was rendered meaningless by the previous day's Finley-fest, Schmidt made seven starts. His totals for those seven starts:

44.3 IP / 45 H / 31 ER / 5 HR / 15 BB / 49 K / 6.30 ERA

That line includes two excellent starts and five more that ranged from mediocre (4 runs in 6 IP vs San Diego) to atrocious (6 runs in 3 2/3 IP vs Atlanta).

Would the Giants have won the pennant if Schmidt were completely healthy? Of his five bad post-injury starts, the Giants lost four. In one of those losses, they only scored one run. Chalk that one up as inconclusive.

In the other losses, however, the Giants scored 3, 5 and 7 runs -- enough to win if Schmidt were truly on his game. Plus, in one game he pitched well, Sept 23 vs Houston, Schmidt came out in the 8th after throwing 103 pitches, and the bullpen melted down. Let's add that one to the "games possibly won with a completely healthy Schmidt" list, for a total of three, perhaps four wins extra. 94 or 95 wins instead of 91. The Dodgers finished with 93 wins, the Astros with 92.

Brett Tomko
Age: 31 (turns 32 on April 7)
Relevant stats, 2004
194 IP
108 K / 64 BB
101.6 pitches per game
19 HR allowed/.729 OPS against
2005 salary: $2.5 M

No matter how you slice it, using normal or brain-bending geekapalooza stats, Tomko's 2004 season was his best since his rookie year of 1997...unless you look at strikeout/walk ratios.

Barring his injury years (2000-2001), Tomko has always struck out at least twice as many batters as he has walked. In 2004, that ratio fell below 2:1 for the first time. This may be nothing. This may be something. The good news: 2004 was also the first time Tomko gave up as few as 1 home run per 10 innings. (His previous best ratio: 22 HRs in 210.6 IP in 1998).

In other words, not striking out as many guys can be OK if you're not letting them hit your pitches as hard and far. "Thanks be to the bayside ballyard, o! excellent pitcher's park that it is," you say.

No way, Jose, I say.

First of all, PBP was not a pitcher's park in 2004 -- especially not when Tomko was the pitcher. He gave up 12 HRs and 33 BBs in 79 IP at Pac Bell, as opposed to 7 HR and 33 BBs in 114 IP on the road. This odd split was apparent before the end of the season, and I puzzled over it here, noting that Tomko said he liked to pitch in hot weather.

Thankfully, PECOTA projections adjusted for global warning show that in 2005, Tomko's ERA-sLv (ERA above sea level) will drop proportionally to the square root of the ratio of Antarctic glacial retreat (total sq km) to Amazon basin deforestation (in hectares). Buy a Hummer, send the Giants to the World Series!

Jerome Williams
Age: 23 (turns 24 on December 4)
Relevant stats, 2004
129.1 IP
80 K / 44 BB
91.5 pitches per game
14 HR allowed/.742 OPS against
2005 salary: minimum, more or less

Big winter news: Jerome decided that staying in the big leagues was more important than eating as much poi as his family could shovel down his gullet. Jerome, you're a big ferocious professional ballplayer, not a helpless nestling chirping in the treetops. Never forget that.

He reported to camp last year at a Livanesque 260 pounds. He's down to 238 this year and says he needs to shed a few more. Let's see how weight correlates to performance.

Kirk Rueter
Age: 34 (turns 35 on December 1)
Relevant stats, 2004
190.1 IP
56 K / 66 BB
99.6 pitches per game
21 HR allowed/.811 OPS against
2005 salary: $7 M

Let's extrapolate the main Lunatic Fringe complaint about Rueter, i.e., that Sabean signed him to the big extension instead of paying Russ Ortiz two years of escalating arbitration costs.

The last two years, Woody has eked out 30 VORP points; Ortiz 66. The last two years, Woody has raked in $12 million; Ortiz $10.86 million.

In other words, the Braves got three times as much value: They paid Ortiz $145,000 for each VORP point he earned. The Giants paid Rueter $400,000. With one more year on his contract, can Rueter even the scales?

For the sake of this exercise let's use BP's PECOTA projection, which sets up Ortiz for a big fall in '05: 12 measly VORP points. (Brutal!) Tack on his $7 million pay ($6.5 M plus roughly 1/4 of his $3.5 M signing bonus), and Ortiz's three-year cost-ratio since he left the Giants jumps to $229,000 per VORP point. To bring his ratio down to that level, Woody would have to produce 53 VORP points this year. His career high? 41.5 in 2002.

Ah, but we're forgetting the M-Factor. Merkin Valdez was also part of that trade, remember? There's a slim chance young Merk, or as ESPN.com calls him, "No Photo Available," will make the bigs again this year -- hopefully with better results than last year's bitter cup of coffee.

Could Merk make up the difference? Not likely as a reliever. He'd have to pitch all year long and at a high level; the top relievers of '04 (Gordon, Lidge, Rivera) VORPed in the high 30s. Eric Gagne only reached the high 20s. And if he made the team as a starter, he'd likely be Woody's replacement.

Speaking of which, is this the year Woody becomes the league's most expensive long man? Will the Rueters of Kirk displace the Franklins of Wayne? (Side note: a Google image search for "sweaty Rueter" comes up with zero results.) If he really struggles, will his Giants career end as abruptly and awkwardly as this portion of my post?

Noah Lowry
Age: 24 (turns 25 on October 10)
Relevant stats, 2004
92 IP
72 K / 28 BB
95.1 pitches per game
10 HR allowed / .728 OPS against
2005 salary: minimum

According to Baseball Prospectus, Lowry is most similar to Johan Santana in 2002. Does that mean Lowry will win the Cy Young in two years? Before getting too giddy (hoo hoo, whoa, hee hee! too late!), let's note that also according to Baseball Prospectus, Lowry is second most similar to Scott Aldred in 1992. For the few of you who aren't big Scott Aldred fans, he pitched in the majors through the year 2000 and posted a career ERA of 6.02. So what's it gonna be? In Lowry's favor: Scott Aldred didn't get to spend his first major-league off-season working out at a 24-Hour Fitness with Brett Tomko. In Lowry's disfavor: His chosen mentor is a 31-year-old guy who draws charcoal ponies and needs a visualization expert. This is California, baby. Love it or leave it.


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