The Giants rotation was brilliant against the Pirates, but the innings clock is ticking

SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants couldn’t have asked more from their starting pitchers while taking a home weekend series from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Kyle Harrison pitched six strong innings on Friday. Jordan Hicks pitched six strong innings on Saturday. And Keaton Winn followed with six more in a 3-2 victory on a sun-splashed, Sunday afternoon. The three starters who were expected to comprise the Nos. 3-5 spots in the rotation combined to hold the Pirates to two runs over the weekend. They struck out 21 and issued just one walk. They have had games this season that were so tidy and featured so much grounder-churning efficiency that an art appraiser might attribute them to “the workshop of Logan Webb.”

Which makes the following conundrum all the more interesting. Because if the Giants are a 5-year-old in a psychology experiment, they are not only eating the marshmallow now. They’re stuffing their cheeks with three of them.

“We know,” Giants manager Bob Melvin said. “It’s something we’ll have to address.”

Winn hasn’t thrown more than 100 1/3 innings in a professional season. Harrison hasn’t thrown more than 113. Hicks, who signed a four-year, $44 million contract over the winter, is transitioning to the starting role he’s long coveted after spending five seasons as a high-leverage reliever with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Toronto Blue Jays. Hicks’ professional high for innings is 105, which he set in 2017 when he was a 21-year-old starter in A-ball.

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Hicks has been outstanding to begin his first season as an MLB starting pitcher. (Brandon Sloter / Getty Images)

The Giants haven’t overtaxed any of the trio in their starts thus far. None of them have thrown 100 pitches in a start. Harrison hasn’t pitched into the seventh inning. Winn has done it once, and faced a total of two batters. Hicks on Saturday successfully lobbied to pitch in the seventh — perhaps motivated to reach double-digit strikeouts for the first time — despite some tightness in his side. He was pulled after allowing a hit to the only batter he faced.

But the innings will become an issue even if Melvin changes the lyrics in the seventh inning to “Take Him Out of the Ballgame.” You don’t need a graphing calculator to know that 30 (starts) x 6 (innings) = 180.

And Giants president Farhan Zaidi acknowledged: while there’s no official innings cap for any of the three pitchers, the organization views 180 innings as red on the pressure gauge.

“We all talked at the beginning of spring training with all three pitchers, even before we signed (Blake) Snell,” Zaidi said. “We told them, ‘We’ll lean on you more heavily in the beginning of the year, and as guys come back and we have more options, we’ll figure out where we are.’”

Those options include former AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray. They include right-hander Alex Cobb, whose comeback from offseason hip surgery is suddenly uncertain now that his 36-year-old elbow and shoulder have begun to leak oil. The Giants are also hoping to have right-hander Tristan Beck in the second half after he had surgery to repair an aneurysm in his right arm in March. Zaidi also pointed out that the organization feels good about its depth options at Triple A, which includes Mason Black and Carson Whisenhunt, and even at Double A, where Hayden Birdsong is off to an impressive start.

For now, though, the Giants’ upper-level pitching depth hasn’t responded well when asked to fill early deficits. Nothing demonstrates that better than the Giants’ 0-5 record and minus-43 run differential (12 for, 55 against) in the five games started by Snell and Daulton Jefferies. The Giants haven’t been closer than five runs at the conclusion of any of those five games. It’s the main reason that the team hasn’t been able to maintain momentum, hasn’t put together a winning streak of more than two games, and finds itself at 14-15 as the season’s first full month comes to a close.

Now that Snell is on the 10-day injured list with a groin injury, the Giants will be tasked with covering his start Wednesday against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. They could call up Jefferies or make a 40-man roster move so that Black can make his major-league debut.

There’s one other option that they didn’t strongly consider: moving up Harrison, a 22-year-old rookie, to pitch that day on regular rest. When it comes to their most highly regarded pitching prospect since Madison Bumgarner, it doesn’t matter if it’s Easter Sunday and they’ve skipped breakfast. Some marshmallows don’t get wolfed down.

“I’ve been feeling great,” said Harrison, whose 3.7 percent walk rate is the ninth lowest among major-league starting pitchers. “I know they’re monitoring the days of rest they’re giving me. But I’ll keep going until they tell me something different or something else happens. We’ll keep pushing and see how many we can throw.”

Harrison figured that “anywhere around 150 to 180 (innings) is realistic” this season. But he and Zaidi made similar points in separate interviews: not all innings are alike. Harrison’s low walk rate and pitch efficiency have soared past expectations after so many of his starts at Triple-A Sacramento last season were cut short because of stressful innings and high pitch counts.

“The emphasis is on being in the strike zone,” Harrison said. “I’ve been trying to get the team in the dugout as fast as we can. That’s how I’m going to end up throwing more innings.”

Said Zaidi: “Our belief is that workload is not only a function of innings or pitches but the really high-stress innings, the 35-pitch innings. We’re particularly cognizant of things like that. We have no hard limits but they’re not going to be in the 180-200 inning range. Whether it’s 140 or 160 will depend on how they’re feeling, what our options are, and also how important their starts are going to be for us.

“When we get to the end of the season, we want our best five guys making starts for us.”

Zaidi said he subscribes to industry beliefs that extreme year-over-year innings jumps should be avoided for young pitchers. But …

“In all three organizations I’ve been a part of, I have not seen smoking-gun data along those lines,” Zaidi said. “What is well understood is that when a guy is coming off an injury, or you’re someone like Jordan who’s been throwing 60 innings as a reliever, you don’t jump from that to 32 starts and 180 innings. But beyond that, my hope is that we get to September, we can look at that group, and if they’re the guys who should be taking the ball from a competitive standpoint, then handing them the ball won’t make us nervous.”

That’ll have to mean that their innings get throttled somewhere along the way. It also means that the Giants cannot merely view rehabbing pitchers like Ray, Cobb, and even Ethan Small as nice bonuses. It’ll be essential that they receive meaningful contributions from them, especially in the second half, in order to space out the workload for Hicks, Harrison and Winn. (And getting Snell in healthy Cy Young Award form will be vital for a host of obvious reasons.)

Hicks said his goal is to exceed 130 innings, then figure out the remainder as it comes.

“We’ve had some discussions but there’s no finite game plan right now,” Hicks said. “I know there might be games when I’m rolling at 60 pitches through five and they might pull me early. I told them, ‘Hey, I’m a competitor. I understand, but just don’t tell me that day. I don’t want to know ahead of time.’

“Just my opinion, but 130 (innings), that’s my minimum and after that, just manage them by how I feel. I don’t want to miss three straight starts, you know? Maybe miss one. We haven’t gotten that deep into it. Right now we just finished the first month and I feel like we’re in a good spot with how we’re pitching. So I’m not thinking about it. We’ll figure it out.

“The other guys, they’ll handle them a little different than me, I think. They’re younger.”

The question should be asked: did the Giants do themselves a disservice by being so conservative with Winn and Harrison in the minor leagues last season? Winn never exceeded four innings in his 14 starts for Sacramento. Harrison reached five innings just once in his 20 starts for the River Cats. They would be building from a broader base this season if they’d thrown more last year, right?

Zaidi acknowledges the point. He said part of the conservative usage stemmed from an organizational belief, which is backed by data, that a gradual ramping-up process in the first half of the minor-league season minimizes pitching injuries. He also said that the Giants took the opposite tack with Harrison and Winn last year, hoping to go easy on them in the first half so that they could be major-league contributors in the second half. Then Harrison missed a month with a strained hamstring while on the cusp of his first promotion in July. And Winn missed time with elbow inflammation.

“Then you’re scrambling to have a good base to work from,” Zaidi said. “That was a thought we had last year. We expected both of them to pitch for us in the big leagues. So the thought was to build them up so we had more bullets for later in the year.”

Lesson learned, perhaps. If the Giants don’t seem too concerned about the workload pace for Hicks, Harrison and Winn with nearly 20 percent of the season gone by, that’s because some problems have a way of solving themselves.

“We want to create a foundation for 2025 and ’26 for these guys as well,” Zaidi said. “Wherever they are this year, we want it to be a good stepping stone. At the same time, we also don’t want to leave bullets on the table, either. I’m more and more a believer in letting these guys tell us how they feel physically, when they need an extra day, etc. We’ve told all three of them that we’ll be relying on them to do that.”

Melvin has managed long enough to know that the season is like crossing an ocean. And only a fool would expect the winds to remain constant.

“If we’re fully healthy, maybe one of them’s in the bullpen, which wouldn’t hurt,” Melvin said. “But we’ve got a long way to go until then. Right now, we’re not counting innings. And they all look sharp. That’s the most important thing.”

The Pirates, losers of two out of three, would agree.

(Top photo of Winn from Sunday: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)

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