Why Giants' maligned bullpen was better than you might have thought

Alex Pavlovic
·11 min read

Why Giants' bullpen was better than you might have thought originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

There's a funny thing about bullpen management, something you saw clearly during this year's World Series. 

The Tampa Bay Rays aren't being blamed for the late-game collapse in Game 6, and Nick Anderson has just about completely avoided the national discourse after allowing the runs that ultimately proved to be the decisive ones in the final game of the season. It was Kevin Cash who was trending on Twitter, and for good reason. That was an awful decision, but it was also one that his bosses would -- or did -- make, and Cash also wasn't the one who gave up a run for the seventh consecutive playoff game. 

On the flip side, Dave Roberts was finally the hero. There were more columns written about how he finally pushed the right buttons than there were about Julio Urias' dominant closing stretch, and good luck finding many people talking about Dylan Floro's big strikeout or the development of Victor Gonzalez. 

This is how it always has been and always will be. The manager is a genius when the bullpen is good, and a fool who should be fired when his relievers can't make their pitches. The Giants know this better than anyone. 

Bruce Bochy will go to the Hall-of-Fame with a reputation as the best bullpen manager of his generation, and Gabe Kapler came here with the reputation of mismanaging relievers. It's one he still is working to shake, even though it's unfair. A year after firing Kapler, the Phillies had one of the worst bullpens in MLB history. 

Kapler paid dearly for some late-game decisions, and some Giants fans may never view him as a savvy tactician late in games no matter how the coming years go. But overall, the 2020 Giants bullpen was a lot better than you probably thought, even though the pieces weren't really in place yet for the group to be a strength.

Recap

If I were to ask you in three years what you remember about the 2020 Giants, you would probably mention Trevor Gott's four-day nightmare and Sam Coonrod's blown save in Game 58. Those hurt immensely, especially in a short season, and we'll get there in a minute, but first it's worth looking at how those games were outliers. 

The bullpen had a 4.24 ERA overall, which ranked as the 12th-best in the Majors, better than the high-priced Yankees group and the Padres who were so effective in that final series. But that number doesn't do Giants relievers justice. 

The front office and coaching staff knew the early part of the season would be spent sorting out roles, including the closer, and they hit some early speed bumps. But starting on August 19, two days after Gott's blown save in Anaheim, the Giants found their footing. They changed it up in the late innings and put more trust in their strong left-handed core, and they had a 2.55 ERA the rest of the season that was the best in the Majors. Over the final 35 games, Giants relievers held opposing hitters to a .207 average. 

Much of that dominant late-season work was done by Tyler Rogers, who had a nightmare start to the year but lived up to the hype the rest of the way while leading the NL with 29 appearances. Rogers gave up 10 of his 16 runs in one week in July, but over the final two months he had a 1.88 ERA in 24 appearances, with 25 strikeouts to four walks. 

From the left side, the Giants were as good as anyone in the league. Tony Watson allowed one earned run in his first 19 appearances before having a brutal final weekend. Jarlin Garcia allowed one earned run all season. Sam Selman kept climbing the bullpen ladder and finished with a 3.72 ERA. Lefties were 3-for-30 off him with 14 strikeouts. Wandy Peralta was second on the team with 25 appearances and had a 3.29 ERA. 

Then there was Caleb Baragar, perhaps the best story of the season. A starter in the minors, Baragar was a late addition to camp as Watson dealt with a shoulder injury and Garcia was put on the IL. He threw so well in scrimmages that he made the team, and while he had a 4.03 ERA overall, he finished with 16 consecutive scoreless appearances. 

As good as the Giants were from the left side, the right side was a puzzle they never solved and led to Kapler's biggest headaches. Shaun Anderson had a 3.52 ERA but walked seven batters per nine innings, which made it hard for the staff to trust him in tight spots. Rico Garcia showed a good fastball but also allowed 17 baserunners in 10 innings. 

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Gott started the year as the unofficial closer and pitched well, allowing just one run in his first six appearances with four saves and a win. But on August 14 he entered with a five-run lead and gave it all back, and a day later he gave up four more runs. Two days later, he gave up a walk-off homer. Gott pitched just six more times -- all in the sixth or seventh inning -- and allowed just one more run before going on the IL with elbow inflammation. 

Coonrod had perhaps the weirdest season of any Giant, starting with a decision to not kneel during a moment of unity that made him a national story. He got off to a rough start and missed 22 games with a lat strain, but when he returned from Sacramento he was all of a sudden throwing 100 mph with a 93 mph slider. Coonrod saved two games and started the final homestand by striking out five of six in two incredible appearances, but then the wheels came off, with five runs allowed over his final two games, including a walk-off homer by Trent Grisham that cost the Giants a win that would have just about clinched a playoff spot with two games to go.

Biggest Surprise

Dominant relievers seem to come out of thin air, and Baragar was a good example. The Giants didn't even protect him in the Rule 5 draft, but the 26-year-old stayed ready when minor league camp ended and got the call to join camp late. He threw so well there that it became an easy decision to put him on the roster. 

"He was showing better velocity (in recent months) and some pretty interesting fastball characteristics, which we got to see up close once he got into camp," Farhan Zaidi said on opening day. 

Baragar said coordinator of pitching sciences Matt Daniels, hired away from Driveline, told him he needed to change his approach and throw his fastball up in the zone because of a high spin rate. With that mindset, plus his ability to attack hitters the second he entered a game, Baragar became one of Kapler's favorite weapons. 

His fastball averaged about 94 mph and was in the 92nd percentile in spin rate. Baragar threw it 75 percent of the time and opposing hitters batted just .214 against the pitch.

Biggest Disappointment 

Look back at that season recap and go through that list of pitchers. It was a bullpen seriously lacking in experience, so to have the best ERA in the majors over the final six weeks shows you that Kapler and his pitching coaches did a really nice job with bullpen management. 

But ... given that the Giants missed the playoffs by just one win, it's impossible to ignore those blown saves. 

It was odd when Gott came into a five-run game, although you wouldn't expect him to give up the entire lead. It felt like a bad idea when he was used again a few hours later in a save situation, and it was downright baffling two days after that when he was brought in to protect a one-run lead. That's a four-day stretch the Giants will always regret. 

The Coonrod blown save was a much different situation. At the end of a doubleheader, on the final weekend of the season, the bullpen was gassed, and Kapler didn't have many choices. But still, it was clear right away that Coonrod had no command, and as the inning wore on he looked like a man who literally did not want to be on the mound. The Giants did not want to use Peralta in a high-leverage situation he wasn't used to, but they should have once Coonrod started spinning. 

Kapler did a good job overall with bullpen management, but those are losses that some Giants fans will have a hard time getting past. 

AP Stats 

If you were one of the people who gave up on Rogers after the first couple of weeks, you should quietly pretend it never happened, wait for 2021 to start, and jump back on the bandwagon. Rogers was dominant the final two months and remains a key piece of this bullpen moving forward, in part because of what you just saw from the Rays. Their bullpen had pitchers come at you from just about every different arm slot, and Rogers gives a look you won't see anywhere else. 

His submarine-style leads to a ton of ground balls and soft liners, so he'll always be dependent on luck more than others. He was hurt by his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) rising from .240 to .345. A lot of soft contact found holes early on, but overall, Rogers did exactly what the Giants hoped. 

He allowed just one barrel on 86 batted balls, the fourth-lowest rate in the Majors. He was in the 99th percentile there and in the 89th percentile in exit velocity allowed. The Giants love Rogers because he gets weak contact and groundballs, and while the slow start wrecked his overall numbers, he had a strong first full season. 

Prospect to Watch

Camilo Doval is No. 25 on the organization's prospect list, per MLB Pipeline, but he might have the best shot of any Giants prospect to make the team out of camp next season. The 23-year-old spent his summer at the alternate site and was a standout, earning a promotion to the taxi squad the final week. Doval hits triple digits and has a hard slider, and he apparently was throwing a 97 mph cutter in Sacramento. 

Doval spent the 2019 season in San Jose, but if he can throw strikes next spring, he could be a player who jumps from A-ball to the Majors. Relievers, especially ones with Doval's stuff, move faster than anyone. 

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"He might fall into that category we discussed earlier of a guy who we accelerate because there's a need and you're sort of looking to make up for lost time with some of these guys," Zaidi said after the season.

The 2021 Plan 

The 2020 bullpen was designed to find some long-term pieces, and there were hits there. Rogers built off a strong debut and Baragar and Selman are a promising cost-controlled duo from the left side. Next season, those two will be joined by Garcia and possibly Peralta to give the Giants plenty of depth even if Watson signs elsewhere. 

But the Giants have a couple of clear holes to fill. They need at least two more reliable right-handed relievers, and while they're not opposed to closer-by-committee, they really would benefit from adding someone who can consistently take down the ninth. 

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Reyes Moronta missed the whole season while rehabbing from shoulder surgery and should be a big part of the solution. Between Coonrod, Gott, Doval, Anderson and others, the Giants have plenty of right-handed pitchers who have the tools to be dominant if they can command the ball. 

They will search the market, though, with Zaidi saying his goal is to add a veteran to the group, not just to fill some of those holes mentioned above, but to provide some leadership to a young bullpen that might lose mentors Will Smith and Watson in back-to-back offseasons.