A Giant Bullpen Problem

If you’re a San Francisco Giants follower or fan, it is obvious the bullpen has struggled this season. In the offseason the leaders in the organization decided to focus on starting pitching depth and didn’t bother with the bullpen. Their flashy signings, Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto, are working out better than expected so far, but it’s starting to look like the bullpen deserved improvement. It didn’t help that Sergio Romo went down early in the season with right elbow issues, George Kontos recently returned from a flexor strain, and Chris Heston was demoted from the long relief role early on due to his struggles.

The Giants’ bullpen currently ranks 14th in FIP, 21st in ERA, 25th in left on-base percentage, and have the 16th highest BABIP. It looks like they’re getting somewhat unlucky with run prevention considering their Fielding Independent Pitching, league average BABIP, but weirdly 25th in left on-base percentage, but it’s more of a usage problem.

Manager Bruce Bochy is taking platoon advantages to a new level. He is going to the platoon split whenever possible even if it means using Javier Lopez as a hitter in a one-run game. That same game Albert Suarez was taken out after five innings with Kontos who went 1 1/3 innings. Bochy then decided to go with Lopez to face Nick Markakis and Kelly Johnson in the seventh and retired both. After baiting the Atlanta Braves’ manager to pinch-hit Tyler Flowers for A.J. Pierzynski against Lopez, Bochy called for Hunter Strickland, who faced just two batters. Note that Strickland has the best FIP and second highest soft contact rate in the bullpen. Those rank 12th and 15th respectably among 129 qualified MLB relievers. Bochy pulled him after striking out Flowers and giving up a single to Chase d’Arnaud just so Josh Osich could face the lefty Mallex Smith. Brian Snitker, Atlanta’s manager, pinch-hit Jeff Francoeur who promptly singled to right. Osich got Ender Inciarte to ground into a fielder’s choice then was relieved of his duties for right-hander Cory Gearrin. The Braves, by the way, have the worst wRC+ of any major league team and Daniel Castro has been one of the worst hitters in baseball. Gearrin struck Castro out, but used four relievers to get three outs. In the ninth, Santiago Casilla was wild, throwing two wild pitches after two singles, and the game went to extras. Derek Law came into relief for his second inning of work, with only Chris Stratton left in the bullpen, and gave up a lead-off home run to Freddie Freeman. That was the game.

This type of managing has happened all season, including Sunday night in St. Louis. After giving up two doubles to the top of the lineup, their third time through, Bochy let Jake Peavy stay in the game for another batter. He was pitching well, but has struggled this year overall and hitters tend to hit him hard third and fourth times through the order. Not until after the second double did the bullpen start getting warm. The Giants still had a one-run lead, but there was a runner on second with no outs and Matt Holliday up (no.3 hitter). Peavy walked him and Strickland was brought in to face one batter (in the sixth inning). Arguably their best reliever was going to face one batter and he did. The first pitch ran inside too far and hit Piscotty in his right elbow. Lopez was brought in for Matt Adams, then Gearrin finished the inning. With some defensive miscues and lack of strikeouts, the Giants trailed 5-3 after the long half inning.

With a mediocre bullpen that Bochy has it seems to be the smart move to use your best relievers for 15-20 pitches in tie games or leads. Strickland, Gearrin, and Casilla should be the final three relievers right now unless runners get on and there’s a tough lefty up. Platoon matchups are important, but not important enough to waste resources and lose your best reliever for the game, because you decided to use him as a right-handed specialist in the sixth inning. Unfortunately, we’re stuck in an era when it is normal practice to go hard for the platoon advantage innings five through eight, but not in the ninth inning, because that’s when it takes a “gritty closer.”

Managers only make up for a couple wins or losses with strategic decisions, but this is more about managers at all levels. Platoon advantages are important, but not when you consistently relieve your best relievers to get the platoon advantage.

The Giants’ starters are throwing the second most innings in baseball, which is a combination of quality pitching and Bochy not trusting his bullpen, but it won’t last all season. It’s clear there needs to either be a tweak in bullpen management or a trade for a reliever to improve the pen. They already carry 8 relievers and essentially have a four man bench every game, because Bochy (along with other managers) are scared to use their backup catcher. It’s clear they’re wasting resources by going platoon and bullpen heavy, but it won’t change unless a mindset is changed. They could use an extra bench player like Gorkys Hernandez or Andrew Susac so it’s easier to compete in the later innings.

The Giants are rumored to be interested in Yankees’ reliever Andrew Miller (along with every other team), but are unsure if they’re willing to give up at least their top prospect, Tyler Beede. It would be cost more than Beede and it’s hard to see the Giants going that route. Miller is under control for another two and a half seasons. They will likely go after more realistic relievers like Jeremy Jeffress, David Hernandez, Fernando Abad, Drew Storen and Brett Cecil.

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