SCOTTSDALE, AZ - MARCH 18: Pitchers Tim Linececum (L) and Marc Kroon of the San Francisco Giants look on during the spring training baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Scottsdale Stadium on March 18, 2011 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
The San Francisco Giants won their first-ever World Series on the strength of their pitching, while their hitting was merely adequate. Naturally, they've kept their pitchers and added some hitters. But the heart of the franchise is still its five starters, who have been exceptionally good and durable. Can they do it again?
Just a few months ago, the San Francisco Giants won a World Series for the first time in their 53-year history.
The Giants finished ninth in the National League in scoring. Usually, that's not good enough.
This time it was, because the Giants also finished first in the National League in ERA, thanks to a brilliant rotation and a shut-'em-down relief corps.
Naturally, everyone's back for more in 2011. Same five starting pitchers, and seven of the eight relievers who pitched at least 25 innings (the only exception is Guillermo Mota, whose 4.33 ERA was the highest in the group).
Looking at those five Giants starters, the pitchers who carried the club to first place in the West and ultimately the championship, I discovered something that amazed me ... Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner combined for 164 starts last season. Last regular season, I mean.
How is that possible? Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez and Zito each started 33 games, and Bumgarner started 32.
Of course, Bumgarner didn't start 32 games for the San Francisco Giants. He started 18 for those Giants, and 14 more for the Pacific Coast League's Fresno Giants.
Which is how you get 164.
Which might seem like a bogus number, or a trick, or something. But it's really not. There is a point here.
What set the Giants apart last season wasn't that they had great starting pitching. They did, of course. But aside from Lincecum, are there any serious Hall of Fame candidates in that rotation? Probably not. Their effectiveness does set them apart from most rotations, but what really distinguished the 2010 quintet was its durability.
Leaving aside Bumgarner (for the moment), the Giants' top four guys made 132 starts.
As you might guess, that was tops in the majors, and of course tops among the teams that qualified for the championship tournament. Following the Giants were the Phillies and Rays (125), Yankees (122), Braves (121), Twins (120), Rangers (109) and Reds (106).
The Rangers and Reds obviously proved you don't need a great deal from your top four starters ... But where would the Giants have been without theirs? Their regular-season fate wasn't resolved until the last Sunday of the last week ... Would the Giants have earned a playoff spot if Lincecum or Cain or one of the others had spent a few weeks on the Disabled List?
Possibly. But quite possibly not.
With an improved offense this season -- thanks to a full season from Buster Posey, a less-than-full Pablo Sandoval, and the prospective contributions from phenom Brandon Belt -- maybe the Giants won't actually need such yeoman work from their starters ... but maybe they will.
So here, finally, is our Question of the Day ... Can they do it again? Can all five of the Giants be healthy enough and effective enough for six months to avoid the Disabled List or the bullpen bench?
Our Answer of the Day is pretty simple ... If any five can, it's these five. Over the last three seasons, Lincecum, Cain and Zito have all averaged 33 starts per season. This isn't Fantastic Voyage and we can't just hop into the Proteus and cruise around inside their elbows and shoulders searching for potential trouble spots.
But the best information we've got suggests that Lincecum, Cain and Zito are practically indestructible ... and Sanchez isn't far behind, averaging 30 starts over the last three seasons.
If you want to cast doubt, you'll have to aim for Bumgarner. He's still a baby, just turned 21. Before last season, he'd never started more than 24 games or thrown 142 innings in a season. It's not a pleasant chore, but I must mention, if only in passing, that a significant percentage of 21-year-old pitchers wind up needing some sort of invasive surgery on their pitching arm.
Maybe Bumgarner will be an exception, as Lincecum and Cain have been. Maybe the Giants have figured this thing out, and their young pitchers just aren't subject to the old saw, "Young pitchers will break your heart."
He's it, though. There's not another Bumgarner waiting in the wings. He and Buster Posey essentially keyed the Giants' run, but now that pipeline is dry. The Giants don't need 164 starts from their five starters. They don't even need 162. But 150 would sure be nice.