San Francisco’s Marvelous, Unexpected Bullpen

We probably don’t write enough about the Giants. That’s not to say that we don’t write about the Giants here — we do, quite frequently. Back in May, Kevin Goldstein looked into their complicated future. Jake Mailhot and Dan Szymborski wrote about the starters. Jay Jaffe and Luke Hooper talked veteran hitters.

So yes, we write about the Giants quite a bit here. But to my eyes, it’s still not enough. This team is the biggest surprise in baseball this year. We’re nearly to the All-Star break, and they’re leading the NL West, the toughest division in baseball. All those articles above focused on Giants exceeding expectations, but I’m more interested in another group: the bullpen, which has been one of the better units in baseball despite a pedigree that could best be described as mixed.

This isn’t a case of spending money and trading players to assemble a monster bullpen. It isn’t a case of prioritizing relievers in the draft and getting it done that way. It’s a motley crew of arms that have turned into far more than we expected — we pegged them 18th in our preseason positional power rankings, and they’ve DFA’ed the player we pegged for the most WAR. This group feels like it came from a script, so let’s treat this like a heist movie and assemble the squad.

The Old Hand

At 34, Jake McGee has been around the block a few times. He’s worked with the best bullpen crews in the business — he came up with the Rays and got a ring with the 2020 Dodgers. He’s worked with some less successful organizations — he was a big-ticket free agent in Colorado, a team that has been notably bad at turning free agent contracts into effective bullpens. He signed a two-year deal this offseason and ventured north on the 5 to help anchor the Giants’ pen.

McGee’s plan is simple. He throws a fastball, and batters miss it. I’m barely exaggerating: he’s gone to the pitch a whopping 89% of the time this year, with his slider offering occasional support. It’s not so much a location thing — he generally keeps it high in the zone, but he’s not painting the upper boundary or anything. It’s not so much a spin thing — he’s below average after adjusting for his velocity, though he does throw with nearly 100% transverse spin, which maximizes movement. But the combination of velocity and two-plane break — it’s a rising fastball that tails in on lefties and darts away from righties — flummoxes the opposition. He gets a ton of fly balls, fills the zone, and misses enough bats to run solid strikeout numbers.

No one saw McGee’s signing as a marquee addition. His two-year, $5 million deal carries a team option for a third year — this despite a sterling 2020 in Los Angeles. Every group needs a leader, though, and he’s been that for San Francisco, notching 17 saves as part of a closer tandem. He’s not the flashiest pitcher of the group, doesn’t have the best or weirdest stuff, but it’s hard to call this a surprise. When you sign a pitcher with a career 3.55 ERA, coming off his best statistical season, it’s hardly shocking to get competent relief work out of him.

The Oddball

Tyler Rogers throws weird. You knew that, but still: he’s really strange. His fastball averages 82 mph, and unsurprisingly batters almost never swing through it. His 5% swinging strike rate on the pitch is 360th in baseball, one spot ahead of Zack Greinke. Despite that, he throws it 62% of the time, and it’s been one of the more valuable fastballs in the game.

Oh yeah — no one can agree on what the pitch is. Pitch Info thinks he throws mostly sinkers with the occasional four-seamer thrown in. Statcast thinks he throws mostly four-seamers. The two literally classify every pitch in opposite directions, and it’s easy to understand why: Rogers is a submariner, which means that a pitch with more “sink” will actually drop less on its way to home plate.

Regardless of what you want to call it, his “normal” fastball — a Statcast four-seamer and Pitch Info sinker — confounds opposing batters. It just moves wrong, and they can’t square it up. I mean that literally — he hasn’t allowed a single barrel this year, and he’s only allowed one in his three-year career so far. The downright bizarre action gets a ton of grounders; the normal backspin on a fastball pushes his down rather than up.

Naturally enough, his slider does the opposite. At 71.4 mph on average, it has plenty of time to break, but get this; it actually drops 14 inches less than his fastball. Here’s the video evidence. First, the fastball that goes down:

Hittable, eminently hittable, but not in the air. Next, here’s the slider:

Even the slider is hittable, this example notwithstanding. Rogers is only striking out 14.1% of the batters he faces, one of the lowest marks in the game. He’s getting swinging strikes on only 6.1% of his pitches. But he’s also allowing essentially no hard contact — eighth- lowest among pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings, per our definition of hard-hit. He’s performing far better than his FIP would imply — and his FIP would already imply he’s pretty good. There’s no reason to think that that approximation should capture his skill, either; he’s absolutely nothing like a normal pitcher.

How did the Giants acquire such a unicorn? They drafted him in the 10th round of the 2013 draft out of Austin Peay State, gave him all of $7,500 to sign, and watched him tear up the minor leagues for years. He only posted an ERA of 3.00 or higher twice in his seven years on the farm, and one of those was the super-happy-fun-ball Triple-A season of 2019. That’s a sterling record, but he was just so weird that it took him that long to get a consistent big league shot. Now, he’s the co-closer.

The Comeback Kid

Dominic Leone absolutely shoved in Toronto. In 2017, he threw 70 innings of 2.56 ERA relief, and it looked real; he struck out 29% of his opponents, posted a swinging strike rate to match, and limited walks despite average command. Relievers appear out of nowhere all the time, but his fastball/cutter combo looked sustainable — so much so that the Cardinals traded for him that offseason to bolster their bullpen.

It wasn’t sustainable. He got hurt in 2018, got shelled in ’19, and found himself wandering the DFA desert after St. Louis non-tendered him. He pitched 9.2 uninspiring innings for Cleveland — 8.38 ERA, 5.47 FIP, 10.6% walk rate — before landing with the Giants this offseason.

Naturally, he’s been lights out so far this year. He started the season in Triple-A Sacramento, but the team called him up after nine excellent innings. Since joining the major league club, he’s been blowing the competition away; a 30.6% strikeout rate, 2.37 FIP (1.10 ERA, but it’s 16 innings so cool it with the Bob Gibson comparisons), and a career-low walk rate.

Last year, Leone started dabbling with a slider to complement his cutter. He’d used it before, but got away from it in Toronto and St. Louis, instead focusing on a two-pitch mix. His re-discovery of a second breaking pitch has paid immediate dividends; opponents are coming up empty on 54.8% of their swings against it, and when he throws it with two strikes he’s striking opponents out 35.3% of the time.

The pitch looks, to my eyes, like a near-carbon-copy of his cutter that he snaps off with his wrist slightly cocked. It has similar spin and similar spin efficiency, but comes out slower and with more of a downward angle; his cutter is almost purely horizontal, while the slider has some depth to it. As it turns out, it’s good to throw two breaking balls that move roughly the same left-to-right with the same spin if one of them drops 15 inches more than the other. Batters are caught playing a guessing game, and they haven’t been up to the challenge so far.

Will that pan out long-term? I have no idea! It has so far, though, and for the league minimum, the Giants have already gotten good value here. Leone has been good as often as he’s been bad, and if he can stay healthy, it’s easy to imagine many happy returns. The only thing that could be better is if he walked out to an Ennio Morricone score to really sell the spaghetti western gunslinger vibe his name brings to mind.

The Injury Survivor

José Alvarez suffered one of the most painful injuries imaginable last year. Don’t look it up — let’s just say that he cited the lesson he learned in a preseason interview: “I have to wear a cup now.” In Philadelphia, he’d been one of Gabe Kapler’s more reliable options — “more” being the operative word there — and a major league contract brought him to San Francisco to make his return to the field.

Like Leone, Alvarez came cheap. The Giants gave him a one-year contract for $1.15 million, and got a club option in the bargain. He’s been solidly average throughout his career — his 3.52 ERA is right in line with his 3.71 FIP over 350+ innings of relief work — but the market for 32-year-old relievers who sit 90-92 and are recovering from injury isn’t exactly robust.

Surprise, surprise: Alvarez has been solidly average while sitting 90-92 with his fastball and sprinkling in his normal dose of changeups and sliders. He’s not blowing anyone away — he’s striking out fewer batters than ever and surviving on home run suppression — but he’s thrown 30 innings of solid relief despite a middling spot in the bullpen hierarchy. All 30 teams would gladly pay a million dollars to guarantee that, and the Giants are awash in those kinds of arms this year.

The Bearded Wild Card

Every good crew needs a bearded member, and John Brebbia has returned from rehab to fill that essential role. Oh yeah — he’s been quite solid, to the tune of a career 3.17 ERA and 3.38 FIP. He’s only thrown 6.2 innings so far in his return from Tommy John surgery, but he’s another medium-leverage arm who can miss bats and give the team more options in close games, and as an added bonus, he came cheap; he’s earning $800,000 this year, and while he’ll be eligible for arbitration this offseason, he won’t reach free agency until after the 2023 season.

Brebbia is a poster boy for how good even unheralded relievers are now. If you’re not a Cardinals fan or an intense fantasy player, you might not have heard of him before this year. After a few years in the Yankees farm system, he spent two years in Indy ball, turning in excellent seasons for the Sioux Falls Canaries and the Laredo Lemurs before latching on in the St. Louis system in 2016. A year later, he reached the majors, and he hasn’t looked back since — he’s been effective year in and year out, and even made a push for the closer role in St. Louis before missing all of 2020 and the first half of this year after tearing his UCL.

Like seemingly every good middle reliever, Brebbia throws a four-seam fastball (92-95 mph, tremendously high transverse spin percentage) and a slider (80-85, mostly horizontal break) roughly 50% of the time each. He’s been down in velocity so far this season, but that’s sometimes seen in TJ recovery, and he’s already touched 95 more than once in his six major league appearances.

It is, of course, an absurdly small sample, but he’s been back to his old tricks. He’s striking out 37% of opponents (higher than his career 27.8% mark) while walking only 3.7% (career 7.3%). Good strikeout and walk numbers have always been his calling card, though it’s too soon to tell if that will stick; he’s missing fewer bats than he used to, which isn’t a great sign. But he’s in the majors and getting outs right on schedule, ready to provide pitching depth down the stretch in a competitive division.

Of all the players I highlighted above, only Rogers was on the team last year, and he hasn’t been a prized prospect at any point in his career. I didn’t even mention Zack Littell, another offseason acquisition, or Jarlin García, who joined the team in 2020. Among active Giants relievers, only Rogers was on the team before 2020 — unless you count Tyler Beede, who hasn’t appeared in a game yet this year.

Turning ragtag bunches of misfits into functioning bullpens is something of a Farhan Zaidi specialty. He accomplished the trick several times in Oakland, and the Dodgers attempted it more than once under his watch, though it didn’t turn out as well as this. In fact, the Giants bunched all these moves together this offseason, so much so that I wrote about it.

I didn’t expect it to turn out quite so well, though. The Giants didn’t assemble a crew to complement their bullpen; they assembled the whole bullpen this way. Whether it works out in the end or not, it’s been nothing short of impressive so far. You really shouldn’t be able to coax a 3.30 ERA out of some late-round draft picks and a handful of bargain free agents. Give some credit to Zaidi, Kapler, pitching coach Andrew Bailey, and director of pitching Brian Bannister. But save most of that credit for the pitchers themselves. They’ve accomplished quite the feat so far this year, and they’ve been a microcosm of the team as a whole — a group of underdogs banding together to accomplish something that seemed improbable at the start of the season.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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11 months ago

Giants pitching dev staff has quietly become one of the league’s best. Their former assistant pitching coach Katz is also having a lot of success with CHW.