PHOENIX – Outlined against the blue-gray of Chase Field’s retractable roof, the Four Horsemen ride again. Their real names are Bumgarner, Cueto, Moore and Samardzija.
That is what Grantland Rice might have written, if he were still alive and stationed on the Giants beat in 2017, and could find replacement ribbons for his trusty Underwood.
Overwrought prose aside, his keys would have struck close to the mark.
The Giants begin the 2017 season Sunday against the Arizona Diamondbacks by sending left-hander Madison Bumgarner to the mound. Nobody in baseball threw more pitches last season. They follow up Tuesday with right-hander Johnny Cueto. Nobody in the NL recorded more complete games. The left-right march continues with Matt Moore and Jeff Samardzija, who combined to throw 401 2/3 innings last season.
The Giants have flaws. Some will threaten to cleave them this season. Others loom as issues to address this coming winter, and beyond. They suddenly have the third oldest lineup in the National League, for instance, while the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers, winners of four consecutive NL West titles, keep getting younger and more talented. Cueto can opt out of his contract this winter, too.
And if the Giants stumble in April, the gnawing doubts will come too easily: they don’t want to believe they are the team that skidded to a 30-42 record after the All-Star break last season, and narrowly made the playoffs in spite of themselves.
But they begin with the confidence that those four starting pitchers, and the stability they provide, can see them through to another playoff series under a blue-gray October sky.
“I think you need that to win,” said Bumgarner, who will oppose Zack Greinke while making his fourth career opening-day start. “I’m definitely more of an old school guy. I think that’s the way I like to play the game. A lot of teams are buying into the new school stuff. I’m glad the Giants haven’t bought into that and are running the team the way it should be run.”
There is plenty of evidence to support the opposite conclusion, that building a team from the back end is the way to go. Across the board, statistics show that relievers are better at run prevention. They allow for advantageous platoon matchups.
And it is undeniable that a hitter gains more of an advantage with each plate appearance against a starting pitcher. Major league batters hit .254 against starting pitchers in their first plate appearance, then .260 and .271. Contrast that last figure against the fact that batters hit .245 in their first plate appearance against a reliever.
No wonder, then, that the hook comes quicker from the dugout these days. Where major league rosters once had 11 pitchers, now 12 is the norm. Some will start the season with 13.
An analysis by FiveThirtyEight showed that relievers pitched an all-time high of 37 percent of available innings last season. Relievers also accounted for a record high 24 percent of pitching wins above replacement, meaning that they contributed more than ever to where a team settled in the final standings.
The Giants do not ignore these trends, but their personnel suggests that they don’t fully embrace them.
After blowing a franchise record 32 save opportunities last season, including the Game 4 loss to the Chicago Cubs that knocked them from the NL Division Series, they gave themselves a ninth-inning rhinoplasty by signing closer Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62 million contract.
Many believed they should have done more to bolster a bullpen in transition. And now valuable left-handed setup man Will Smith is out for the season while recovering from Tommy John surgery to reconstruct an elbow ligament.
But Giants manager Bruce Bochy isn’t afraid to let his starting pitcher function as his own setup man.
“No, we take pride in it,” Bochy said. “The fact that they stay healthy and we have the type of pitchers who can handle that workload, it is more old school. I know (pitching coach) Dave Righetti takes a lot of pride that these guys make every start, how consistent they are, and that’s allowed us to get a lot of innings, and quality innings, to go with that. It’s the way it used to be.”
The Giants last season had three of the top five innings eaters in the National League. Bumgarner and Cueto were 1-2, while Samardzija was fifth. Moore, who arrived in an Aug. 1 trade from Tampa Bay, finished with 198 1/3 innings split between both leagues and his total would have ranked eighth in the NL.
“Just missed it,” said Moore, with lip-biting regret. “I think back to that one start against the Dodgers, when I didn’t have it. Just five more outs that day…”
The Giants are poised to become just the second team in the last 10 years to have four different pitchers amass 200 innings. The 2012 Reds, which included Cueto along with Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mat Latos, were the only other team to accomplish it.
Just 14 teams in the last 10 seasons feature even three 200-inning starting pitchers, and those teams correlate strongly with success. Twelve finished with winning records and nine made the postseason. Seven finished in first place. The 14 teams averaged 88.8 victories.
Samardzija was a member of one of the only two losing teams on that list, when he struggled for the 2015 White Sox. It gave him no less appreciation for a rotation that goes to the post.
“It’s a little different to have four guys like we have, because we’re not valued as highly as we used to be,” Samardzija said. “But you’ve seen when teams have starters who make their starts and throw a lot of innings. Sure, you can point to a time or two when it doesn’t work. But in the long run, those are stronger teams.
“I think it’s the way the game is meant to be played. It’s always been played that way: your starter is going to go out and determine the game. You look at 80 percent of the time, the game is determined by how your starter does. And I think that’s cool. It speeds the game up. There’s no mound visits because the starter knows what he’s doing against those guys. You’re not slowing down the game to get bullpen guys ready to pitch.
“You look at how teams can get trouble when they’ve got to start making moves based on needing innings. Then you’re looking at who has (minor league) options and who doesn’t, and maybe you designate a player you don’t want to, because you need an arm.
“The good thing about having what we have, if we have to use five or six relievers in a game, odds are the next starting pitcher will save the bullpen. Even a loss isn’t the worst thing ever if your guy pitches seven or eight innings. At least you’ve got a full boat going into the next day.
“That’s what we as starters want to do: put the coaches in situations where they can make decisions when they have full bullpen to work with.”
The league-wide trend might be to pull the starting pitcher after two turns through the lineup, but Bochy plans to give his Four Horsemen some slack on the reins.
“You know what? They’re pretty good at being honest,” Bochy said. “Now, that said, every game is different and we watch for any sign that they’re starting to fatigue. You’ve got to do the right thing. But if they’re going along, you have to let them be who they are.”
As Bumgarner ascends the mound to begin another summer’s labor, that is all the assurance he needs.
“You just hear a lot of stories throughout the league, teams that do it different,” Bumgarner said. “Boch and Rags are not afraid to read us and let us go a little deeper. It’s just nice. I enjoy it.”