Tuesday, March 5, 2024
AnalysisMLBNational LeagueNL WestSan Francisco Giants

San Francisco Giants: 15 Free Agent Starting Pitchers With Untapped Potential

When analyzing the San Francisco Giants’ key objectives this offseason, one theme consistently emerges: the need to add as many starting pitchers as possible.

In 2020, the Giants weren’t expected to compete for a playoff spot, even with eight teams qualifying for it. Yet, their offense was a very pleasant surprise- they finished 7th in offensive runs above average, per Fangraphs. Unfortunately, their pitching staff didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. Overall, they finished 23rd in xFIP and fWAR, respectively, and thus, they ended up missing out on the expanded playoffs by one game.

On the bright side, San Francisco didn’t go into the 2020 season planning to contend, so the lack of pitching depth is to be expected. However, given that most of their main hitters are back in place, they are raising their expectations for next season; Zaidi is on record saying the team plans to contend for the postseason. In order to complement their surprisingly adequate offense, that will take a lot of pitchers. Here is their current projected rotation, per Fangraphs:

  1. Kevin Gausman
  2. Johnny Cueto
  3. Logan Webb
  4. Tyler Anderson
  5. Andrew Suarez

That is far from ideal. Anderson may not be tendered a contract, while Suarez is projected to post a 5.08 xFIP from Steamer. Meanwhile, Webb isn’t exactly eating innings, and Cueto hasn’t posted an xFIP under 4.45 since 2016.

In other words, the Giants are going to need to drastically overhaul their rotation. Not only can they not fill a five-man rotation now, but as we know, you need more than five starting pitchers to get through a season- you have to be prepared for adversity, such as pitchers struggling or getting injured. Also, it has been highly speculated that pitchers may not be able to handle a normal workload in 2021 as they recover from an abnormal season, making the need for pitching depth even greater.

Since the Giants will have to target quantity over quality, they aren’t going to be able to spend at the top of the market for a pitcher like Trevor Bauer. They can, however, follow a similar model to what they did last offseason. In Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly, they targeted two pitchers who could be maximized with a change in their pitch usage. Well, after signing those two for a combined $13 million, those two pitchers have already signed contracts for over double that amount this offseason. Thus, it is safe to say that they were able to find gems on the open market.

So, which pitchers could be their next diamonds in the rough? In this article, we will be looking through 15 pitchers who have untapped potential, should they alter their pitch usage. All offer various levels of intrigue, but then again, you cannot shop at the top of the market when you need such an extensive quantity of pitchers.

Anthony DeSclafani

Throughout his tenure with the Reds, Anthony DeSclafani has established himself as a reliable middle-of-the-rotation starter; he posted a sub-4.00 xFIP in each season between 2015 and 2018. However, that number bumped up to 4.30 in 2019, and in 2020, he was a below-replacement level pitcher. Thus, he may now have to settle for a one-year contract to rebuild his stock.

What went wrong for DeSclafani in 2020? Well, he struck out two batters less per nine innings, and walked two batters more per nine. That sums it up perfectly.

Simply based on his previous track record, DeSclafani would be a smart bounce-back target. However, could a pitch usage change make him even better. Throughout his career, his breaking balls have generally yielded a whiff rate more than twice the whiff rate of his fastballs. Yet, he has thrown his fastball 58.8% of the time. With two distinct breaking balls that are both effective, why not build his arsenal off of those two pitches? Considering his fastball spin rate ranks in just the 26th percentile, doing so should lead to better results.

Since he has had a baseline of production AND untapped potential, DeSclafani is an intriguing target for multiple reasons. If he is available on a one-year contract, he’d be a no-brainer addition to San Francisco’s rotation; his high home runs rate would figure to go down playing at Oracle Park.

Jon Lester

The Giants may have already beaten me to it, per Jon Morosi of MLB Network

https://twitter.com/jonmorosi/status/1331293905900408833

At first glance, signing the 36-year-old Lester is uninspiring. He is coming of off a season in which he posted a 5.11 xFIP, and he has lost 1 MPH off velocity on his fastball in each of the past two years.

So, what do the Giants see in him? Despite the decrease in velocity, Lester has relied on his cutter, sinker, 4-seam fastball. Yet, over the past two seasons, his curveball and changeup have been his most effective pitches. On 468 pitches in 2019, his curveball generated a whiff rate of 40.3%, so it safe to say that he should be throwing it more than 12.8% of the time.

San Francisco needs quality innings wherever they can get it. If Lester can combat his velocity decline with an increased usage of his off speed pitches, I believe he can provide a decent source of those coveted innings.

Matt Shoemaker

Considering that 2016 was the last time that Matt Shoemaker pitched 80+ innings in a season, it is safe to say that he will be available on a one-year contract. If so, the Giants should take a serious look at him.

For his career, the 34-year-old has posted a 3.97 xFIP, so he’s a fine pitcher even without tweaking his pitch usage. However, his sinker has yielded -10.3 runs above average for his career, so there is some untapped potential here if he stops throwing it around a quarter of his pitches. He already has an effective fastball in his 4-seamer (3.9 runs above average), while his split-finger fastball (33.7 runs above average) has been an extremely dominant offering. Ditching the sinker and building off of his splitter and four-seam fastball, a la Masahiro Tanaka, could lead to a major breakthrough for him.

Garrett Richards

Few pitchers are the epitome of “untapped potential” more than Garrett Richards. With 97th percentile spin on his fastball and 99th percentile spin on his curveball, he has the pure arsenal of an ace. However, for his career, he is striking out under a batter per inning, while injuries have limited him 80 innings in each of the past six seasons. Heck, even when he pitched 207 innings in 2015, his 7.84 K/9 was far from dominant.

Richards has a clear gift, and it his slider, which has been good for 31.9 runs above average for his career; it has also generated whiff rates around 40%. Yet, he still is throwing his fastball over 50% of the time, despite the fact it doesn’t lead to miss many bats.

Since Richards has an effective slider and curveball, I believe he should rely on those two pitches. Although his fastball has excellent spin, it doesn’t generate much active spin and has -33% less rise than average. His curveball, on the other hand, creates 98.1 active spin, so he should be throwing that more to complement his slider.

At the end of the day, endless possibilities remain for the 32-year-old Richards. He may never live up to his ace potential, nor will he eat a lot of innings. However, as a bulk pitcher for about 150 innings, he can be very effective with a few tweaks. It is hard to find a pitcher available with the “pure stuff” that he has, and the Giants would be a perfect landing spot from a development standpoint.

Jose Quintana

Jose Quintana is the opposite of Richards; he hasn’t been as flashy, but has been far more consistent. Between 2013 and 2019, he started over games in each season, and has never posted an xFIP over 4.20.

That alone would be a notable upgrade in San Francisco’s rotation. Yet, Quintana is simply another pitcher who could afford to lay-off the “hard stuff” a little. He throws a fastball or sinker around 60% of the time, yet his curveball and changeup have each yielded whiff rates over 25% in each season since 2016. Considering that his fastball generates below-average vertical movement and only 5th percentile spin, relying on his off speed pitches may be the key to getting back to when he was one of the top young pitchers in baseball; his best seasons came prior to 2016, in which he threw his fastball and sinker far less and utilized his softer pitches.

Since he has had success with my recommended usage in the past, Quintana would be a low-risk, medium-reward type of signing. His ability to eat innings would be very useful, and if San Francisco can tap into some of the potential he flashed when he first burst onto the scene, he could turn out to be an absolute steal.

Alex Wood

Farhan Zaidi has experience with Alex Wood, as he acquired him from the Braves in 2015 when he was the general manager of the Dodgers. When healthy, the 29-year-old has a career 3.57 xFIP, meaning that he clearly has been effective. However, he hasn’t exactly been the prime example of strong durability; he has pitched just 48.1 innings over the past two seasons.

Thus, the sinker-balling lefty should come at a very affordable price on a one-year deal, especially since his effectiveness has decreased over his limited recent sample size. However, even when he was producing, there always seemed to be a little bit of untapped potential with him, and it’s easy to see with his pitch usage.

In 2018 and 2019, Wood implemented a four-seam fastball, and it did not work well. Yet, the key for his breakout when acquired by Los Angeles was a heavy reliance on his breaking balls, and my hypothesis is that he should rely on his softer pitches even more. In 2017, his changeup and curveball each generated whiff rates of 29% or higher, while his curveball has had whiff rates over 33% in every season outside of 2019.

Wood has been a good pitcher throughout his career, and although he isn’t already completely reliant on his fastball and sinker, I’d still recommend that he utilizes his changeup, and especially his curveball more. The Giants have shown the ability to create creative roles for their pitches, so in a 4-5 inning bulk role, a la Drew Smyly, I believe he can thrive. There is a lot to like about his fit in San Francisco.

Michael Wacha

Giants fans ought to have fond memories of Wacha, but not in the usual sense: he allowed the pennant-winning home run to Travis Ishikawa in Game 5 of the 2014 NLDS.

Back then, the 29-year-old Wacha was seen in a similar light to Quintana. In 2019, however, he was a below-replacement level pitcher, per fWAR, while he posted a 6.62 ERA with the Mets in 2020.

So, why is Wacha so intriguing? Throughout his career, his changeup has been a dominant pitch, accumulating 21.9 runs above average. The Mets appeared to realize this when they signed him last offseason, as he bumped the usage of that pitch 6%, which led to an elevated strikeout rate (9.79 K/9). Yet, they also increased the amount of times he threw his cutter, which got hit around to a .361 expected-weighted-on-base-average (xwOBA).

I see a lot of similarities between Wacha and Kevin Gausman. What do I mean by this? Simply, Wacha would be better off becoming a two-pitch pitcher. He has a clear weapon in his changeup, and there is no reason to try to supplement it with inferior offerings. That line of thinking helped Gausman realize his potential as a former first-round pick, and I don’t see why the same cannot happen for Wacha.

Brett Anderson

The Brewers are a smart organization, so it was certainly noteworthy when they saw enough in lefty Brett Anderson to offer him a $5 million contract after he posted a 4.79 xFIP the year prior with just a 4.60 K/9.

Now 32-years-old, Anderson’s velocity has declined (90.2 MPH), so over the past two seasons, he began to rely more on his sinker and cutter. Unfortunately, his sinker (-6.8 runs above average) has gotten hit hard during that span, while his cutter induced just a 8.8% whiff rate in 2020. On the other hand, Anderson’s whiff rates on his slider and curveball totaled whiff rates of 38.8% and 34.4%, respectively, in 2020, while his changeup (21.6% whiff rate) has also been a useful pitch.

With a heavier reliance on his off speed pitches, Anderson can use his ineffective pitches less, which should theoretically increase his effectiveness. He’ll never strike many batters out, but since he doesn’t walk batters (1.91 BB/9 2020) and forces a lot of ground balls (57.7%), simply maintaining his 2020 strikeout rate (6.13 K/9) should allow him to remain a reliable back-end starter as he ages. On a one-year contract, he would be a nice veteran presence capable of accumulating innings for a rotation that needs just that.

Chase Anderson

In 2017, Chase Anderson was worth 3.2 fWAR. Unfortunately, he has also been worth just 7.4 fWAR for his career, meaning that season would appear to be an anomaly. That is before last season, where he may have unlocked something that could boost his stock.

After being acquired by the Blue Jays, the 32-year-old made a notable change to his pitch mix; he decreased his fastball usage by 10%. Considering that his cutter, changeup, and curveball all induced whiff rates over 29%, that was a smart decision. Thus, although his 2.94 HR/9 led to him having a -0.1 fWAR, he raised his strikeout rate (10.16 K/9) tremendously, and was able to post the lowest xFIP (4.09 of his career).

As a fly-ball pitcher who can eat innings and appears to be on the verge of being a new pitcher, Anderson would be a nice fit for the Giants at Oracle Park. He is another pitcher that may not be an exciting target, but certainly would give the team much-needed pitching depth.

Collin McHugh

During his time with the Astros, Collin McHugh established himself as a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. For his career, he has accumulated 12 fWAR, as well as a career 3.86 xFIP.

Unfortunately for McHugh, his 2019 season (0.5 fWAR) didn’t go as planned, and after undergoing Tommy John surgery, received little interest last offseason. Making matters more complicated, he opted out of the 2020 season after signing with the Red Sox, making it extremely likely he settles for an extremely affordable one-year contract.

If so, Zaidi and the Giants should definitely jump at the opportunity to add him. The 33-year-old’s slider has generated 31.5 runs above average for his career, while his four-seam fastball has consistently gotten hit around hard (-31.9 runs above average). Houston appeared to realize this, as he nearly doubled his slider usage (43.4%) in 2019. This would explain why he was able to post a 9.22 K/9 as a starting pitcher, which was higher than it had been previously in that role.

With his lethal slider, McHugh is one of the more underrated pitchers on the open market. Plus, he has demonstrated the ability to work in the bullpen in the past- he had a 3.26 xFIP as a reliever in 2018. I’d love to see San Francisco bring him in and utilize him as a bulk pitcher in 3-4 inning stints, although I’m sure he’ll have multiple offers.

Tommy Milone

With a combined -0.1 fWAR between 2016 and 2019, Tommy Milone certainly isn’t the most inspiring option on the open market.

From his time with the Astros, Orioles general manager Mike Elias knows a lot about unlocking more from pitchers by altering their pitch usage. That appears to happen to Milone, whom they signed for just $1 million last offseason. Expected to just eat innings for them, the veteran lefty surprisingly pitched much better than anticipating, posting a 4.33 xFIP and 0.5 fWAR in 9 games started. Heck, Baltimore was able to trade him to the Braves for multiple prospects!

So, what changed with Milone? Honestly, nothing at all, meaning that his season could be considered somewhat of a fluke.

At the same time, the 33-year-old’s changeup (14.4 runs above average in 2019, 37.3% whiff rate 2020) is an amazing pitch, while his 87 MPH has not been. Meanwhile, his slider (28.4% whiff rate 2019) has also had some effectiveness in the past, so he has two off speed pitches that he could rely on more. Right now, he is throwing his fastball about 45% of the time. That is too much for a pitch that allowed a .388 xWOBA in 2019. Given how pinpoint his command (1.38 BB/9), I have no doubts that he can locate his breaking balls well with an increased usage, and if that happens, he may be able to sustain his 2020 production.

Jake Arrieta

No, Jake Arrieta is no longer the pitcher who won the 2015 Cy Young award with a 1.77 ERA and a 7 fWAR. However, I do believe he can be better than the 5.08 ERA he posted in 2020.

In his prime, Arrieta was able to rely on a sharp sinker that missed bats and induced a lot of weak ground balls. However, as he has aged, the pitch has lost its effectiveness, as it was worth -5 runs above average in 2020. With that in mind, it is time for the 34-year-old to adapt.

To do so, Arrieta should lean on his off speed pitches. His changeup, for example, allowed a .253 xWOBA with a 30.6% whiff rate in 2020, while it had similar success in 2019. The same goes for his slider and curveball, which each have been far more productive than his sinker.

With THREE different effective off speed pitches, there is absolutely no reason for Arrieta to throw his sinker more than half the time. If he were to severely decrease his sinker usage, perhaps he could turn back the clock!

Jimmy Nelson

With just 22 innings pitched over the past three seasons, Jimmy Nelson is a complete unknown.

Some may seem this as a risk, but I simply see him as an opportunity to add an impact pitcher at a heavy discount. In his last healthy season in 2017, the 31-year-old had a 3.15 xFIP in 175.1 innings, which was good for a 4.8 fWAR.

In 2017, Nelson made multiple breakthroughs that can be related to his pitching usage. He decreased the usage of his sinker 11%, and instead, relied more on his two breaking balls. Considering both pitches each posted whiff rates over 35%, that was a very smart decision.

Last offseason, the Dodgers signed Nelson to a one-year deal, though he never pitched for them. Thus, it is safe to concur that Zaidi may also have interest. Some may see Nelson as too much of an injury risk with a small sample of performance. However, if you buy into the idea that his 2017 spike was due to him using his breaking balls more, then why shouldn’t San Francisco take a flyer on him and use him in a bulk grade.

James Paxton

Easily the most productive pitcher on this list, James Paxton is a player that may cost more, but has to be at the top of the Giants’ shopping list.

With the Mariners, the “big maple” was extremely productive, posting an xFIP under 3.35 in each season between 2016 and 2018. That inspired the Yankees to trade for him, but instead of continuing his dominance, he regressed to a 4.03 xFIP in 2019, and then a 4.47 xFIP in 2020. Meanwhile, he also struggled with injuries.

After looking through his pitch usage, I believe the move to New York hurt Paxton. With the Yankees, he became more of “north south” pitcher rather than pitching on the corners, and since his fastball doesn’t generate much spin and possesses below-average vertical movement, that isn’t what he is suited to be; his over-the-top release also decreases his effectiveness up in the zone.

Rather, Paxton should go back to what he was doing with the Mariners, where he took advantage of his fastball’s elite horizontal movement by working east and west. From there, he has a cutter that generated whiffs at a 43.3% rate in 2019, as well as big-bending curveball which also has exceptional bat-missing capabilities (37.4% whiff rate), so he has more than enough productive pitches to be a frontline starter.

Durability may always be a concern for Paxton, but his main issue was the was pigeonholed into being a vertical pitcher, when that isn’t where he’s effective. If he goes back to working horizontally and also isn’t scared to show off his cutter and curveball, the team that signs him could be getting one of the steals of the offseason. For their sake, let us hope it’s the Giants.

Dan Straily

If you forgot about Dan Straily, you’d be forgiven, as he pitched this past season in Korea. However, he was pretty darn good in Korea! In 194.2 innings for the Lotte Giants, he posted a 2.97 FIP, and is now receiving interest from MLB teams.

One of those teams, ironically, is the Giants, per MLB Network’s Craig Mish:

https://twitter.com/CraigMish/status/1332407075801100291

When we last saw Straily pitch in the big leagues, he had been worth a combined -1.1 fWAR in 2018 and 2019. So, why should any team buy into his success in Korea? Perhaps he finally optimized his pitch mix.

Straily had throw his fastball around half of the time, but that doesn’t make sense; it was worth -20 runs above average in that two-year span. Meanwhile, his slider (32.2% whiff rate) and changeup (41.5%) were able to miss bats consistently in 2018, and that has been the case throughout his career.

Obviously, fastballs get hit harder than off speed pitches, while you have to throw them once in a while. Yet, there isn’t reason why Straily cannot decrease his usage of the pitch to 40%. Simply doing that could allow him to strike more batters out, and he may be intrigued by the idea, as a fly-ball pitcher, of proving himself with the large dimensions at Oracle Park. At the very least, it is very easy to see why the Giants have shown interest in him.

BONUS: Trevor Cahill

Trevor Cahill was a member of the Giants last year, so bringing him back wouldn’t necessarily be unlocking some untapped potential. However, that is simply because San Francisco helped him do so last season.

In 25 innings pitched, the 32-year-old Cahill struck out 11.16 batters per nine innings. This is significantly higher than his previous strikeout rates, and I’m not sure he cannot somewhat sustain it.

With the Giants, Cahill’s average fastball velocity (90.9 MPH) decreased, but it did not matter. That is because he made slight tweaks to the usage of his off speed pitches, utilizing his slider less, and his bugs-bunny changeup more.

Cahill’s curveball, which ranks in the 96th percentile in spin rate, and his changeup, which has produced 19.1 runs above average, are his two best pitches. Thus, by throwing his best pitches more, he was able to miss more bats with San Francisco. Sometimes, it is as simple as that! After being used well in a bulk role last year, expect him to be a target for Zaidi.

As demonstrated by the overall quantity of this list, there are plenty of intriguing pitchers for the Giants to target this offseason. In the end, it’ll come down to cost, as they need to prioritize quantity in order to build ample pitching depth. Ideally, coming away with Paxton, as well as 3-4 other pitches (remember, most of these pitches would be cheap) can be in order, but regardless, Farhan Zaidi should be able to have plenty of success once again finding uncut gems on the open market!

All Stats via Fangraphs and Baseball Savant