The giants’ bullpen struggles challenge organizational philosophy
I spent Sunday afternoon working on a doomed home improvement project and watching a Giants game at Coors Field. If you ever get the chance to combine these two treats, I recommend it. As I hit my thumb with a sledgehammer and the drywall crumbled all around me, Giants relievers were giving up home runs, walks and bloop hits, and they couldn’t hold lead after lead. . Coors Field and disastrous DIY projects are like a cursed peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and you have to experience this level of frustration at least once in your life.
Despite all the bullpen efforts, the Giants won 9-8. Zack Littell was the bullpen hero, but that doesn’t comfort you. You know how enclosures work. Bullfighters take turns being heroes and villains, and when a bullpen goes bad, they end up tweaking their handlebar mustaches and tying your happiness to the train tracks more often than not.
This is not an article on how to fix the giants’ enclosure this year. It will not examine individual pitchers and diagnose why they are less efficient. Focusing on specific breakdowns or meltdowns is not helpful. They have happened and will likely continue to happen, at least for this season.
This is an article that politely points out that there is something wrong with the Giants bullpen, and it explains how it will (or should) affect roster construction going forward. The bullpen is ironically gassed and out of gas at the same time, largely due to the heavy workload. For all the Giants’ problems this season, this specific issue is likely to keep them out of the playoffs.
First, start with data supporting the idea that the Giants rely on their relievers more than most teams. John Brebbia leads baseball in appearances Monday morning, with 58. Two other Giants relievers are in the top 20 — Tyler Rogers and Camilo Doval — and if you limit the search to the National League, that gives San Francisco three relievers in the top 10 and four in the top 20. Among NL teams, only the Nationals have had more relief appearances this season.
So, yes, the Giants rely on their relievers more than most teams.
Consider the case of nationals, however. They’ve needed so many relief appearances because their rotation has been a disaster and they’re a rebuilding team going through their relief options. Only the Tigers have as many pitchers who have appeared in 45 or more games this season as the Giants (five), but the Nationals and Tigers rely on their relievers because they have no choice, whether because of injury, inefficiency or both. The Giants’ rotation has been an overwhelming team strength. The Giants are doing it because that’s the plan. That’s always been the plan.
The plan is not working this season.
Modern teams are supposed to be more effective at preventing runs when their relievers are in the game, not less. This season, 21 pitching teams have a bullpen that has allowed OPS below its rotation. It was the guiding principle of how the Giants assembled their pitching team.
But the gap between the Giants’ rotation and the bullpen is one of the biggest since the team moved to San Francisco. It’s not just the biggest efficiency gap between starters and relievers in baseball right now; it is one of the most important of the last 22 years.
Two things may be true:
1. The Giants are exceptionally good at finding effective starting pitchers.
2. The Giants haven’t proven they’re particularly good at finding (or developing) effective relievers.
However, there is a wrinkle. The first truth might have a lot to do with the second. The Giants have been great at finding starting pitchers who prevent runs because most of them aren’t allowed to see hitters a third time in a game. Alex Wood is an extreme example of this, but that also applies to Alex Cobb and Carlos Rodón. Other teams worried about Rodón’s durability and his chances of being a rotational workhorse, but the Giants weren’t necessarily interested in a rotational workhorse. The plan was always to use more relievers, which kept the starters fresh and efficient. This prevented the hitters from having too many eyes on the starters. In that sense, the plan worked. The starters were remarkably efficient.
The plan has a second part, though, and it’s crucial: relievers must be effective. It is an open question as to Why the relievers have been ineffective this season. Is it the workload, is it bad luck, is it the inferior defense behind them, is it the lack of gear and/or talent or is it something else? Is it a combination of all of the above? But, again, we’re not here to figure out that part. We are just here to point out that something is wrong. It was also askew in 2020. It worked in 2019, but with many acquisitions from the previous regime. That’s two strong and two weak paddocks in four seasons.
And I don’t know how to allocate credit and blame for all of this. Is Dominic Leone an example of the Giants’ ability to find quality relievers overlooked due to his stellar 2021, or does his mercurial 2022 make him an example of a front office that may struggle to find seven effective relievers ? You can ask José Álvarez, Littell and Rogers the same question. Even Jarlin García — still the owner of one of the lowest ERAs in franchise history — alternated between silent dominance and raucous inefficiency.
You can give the Giants credit for buying or developing them all. You can give them demerits for their inefficiency lately. Either way, the only thing we know is that Giants bullpens are less bankable than Rays or Dodgers.
If this is the case, the whole organizational philosophy is called into question. Without a surplus of effective relievers, a plan to give relievers more innings is rotten by definition. And it’s not like the plan should be to spend money on expensive relievers that have recently been effective. Trevor Rosenthal wasn’t just a recent acquisition; he’s also a great cautionary tale about what happens when a team spends money on relievers. Perhaps you remember Mark Melancon’s time with the Giants – even if you try your best not to.
No, the plan should probably be to stop relying on the bullpen so much. It’s not as easy as finding more Logan Webbs, because it’s an anachronism of a pitcher who faced batters a third time more than anyone but Sandy Alcantara. You can’t just walk into Logan Depot and load up a pallet. But pitchers who are good and generally ineffective a third time in command, like Wood, might not be the best for this list. Pitchers who are great but often struggle with pitch count, like Rodón, might not be the best long-term solutions without a rotation of inning eaters around them. Pitchers such as Cobb, who has reliably pitched the sixth and seventh innings in recent weeks but has always struggled to stay off the injured list, should always be considered, but there should be increased skepticism.
Pitchers such as Max Scherzer and Kevin Gausman should be considered when available in an offseason, money and contract length be damned. Before I get too critical, I guess Anthony DeSclafani was meant to be exactly that kind of sleeve-eater, albeit more approachable and less efficient. So none of this is an exact science.
But until the Giants prove they can pull effective relievers off their backs or create them as often as the Rays, or until they establish they can keep their effective relievers from the year in years, they should probably think twice about how they allocate innings. The plan was always to dump more innings on the bullpen, but whether it was because of workload or general inefficiency, it went wrong.
Now is not the time to go back to 1973, but maybe it’s time to go back to 2018.
(Photo: Robert Edwards/USA Today)