San Francisco Giants: The 5 Biggest Concerns in the Bullpen
Back in the offseason, Giants general manager Brian Sabean had 99 problems to fix, but the bullpen wasn't one of them as Sabean even had enough extra depth to trade away one of last year's standouts, Ramon Ramirez. The Giants were relying to the return of veterans Brian Wilson and Jeremy Affeldt, both of whom looked to get back to healthy pitching. Well, after a little over a month into the season, that comfortable relief staff of ring-certified champions is starting to look a little closer to the terrifying nightmare that preceded it.
Right now the Giants bullpen sits in a very precarious position as half of the staff is the same old reliable staff that makes it look easy while the other half simply is not. Untested minor league arms are always scary when the lead is a run or two and with the Giants' offense, there won't be any room for breakdowns. If there was one phrase to describe the state of the Giants bullpen right now it would "thin ice, very thin ice" which promptly leads us to the five biggest reasons for this sudden concern.
The Missing Members
Bullpen arms are a fickle bunch it seems, as most teams have a few spots on the DL constantly occupied by a rotating cast of relievers. Still when four guys are missing by May, things start to take that extra step from business as usual to freakishly familiar to last year's injury minefield. First Runzler was injured to begin the season, then Brian Wilson went down for the rest of year, soon Affeldt followed (although thankfully he should be back in a couple of weeks), and now Mota has gone and gotten himself suspended for PED's.
It's hard not to overstate Wilson, Affeldt, and Mota's importance to the Giants bullpen as those three represented half of the arms and the majority of innings thrown by the pen. Since 2010, Mota's first year with the team, those three arms have thrown nearly 40 percent of all innings thrown by the relief staff and represent the team's three leading relievers in innings pitched. While Mota did his job admirably in long relief, Affeldt and especially Wilson represent two of the team's most consistently dominant late-inning stars. Both Affeldt and Wilson are two of the of longest-tenured bullpen members and have always excelled in that time, maintaining sub-3.00 ERAs and even getting some MVP votes.
Suddenly the comfort of that lights-out bullpen we all know and love has vanished and in its place float paranoid images of Tyler Walker, Armando Benitez, Jack Taschner, and Brad Hennesey doing everything in their power to ensure that no lead is safe. It might be hard to admit it, but we're spoiled as Giants fans. These last few years we've been treated to some truly exquisite bullpens whose extreme success seemingly came out of nowhere and now that half of that World Champion winning staff is gone, it's time to face the chance that the bullpen's success might soon follow.
Replacing Wilson, Affeldt, and Mota on the roster are relative newcomers Clay Hensley, Travis Blackley, and Steve Edlefsen. Of the three, Hensley is the only one who can really say that he's a major leaguer as Blackley and Edlefsen have combined to throw 54.1 career innings with an ERA well over 8.00. After seeing them pitch in the first 30 games, this seems somewhat apparent as Hensley has distinguished himself so far as a pretty strong late-inning option. His sub-3.00 ERA and FIP are sure impressive, but for a ground-ball pitcher to post a K/9 over 9.00 is just dominant. If he can keep up these numbers and post a season similar to his fantastic 2010 as opposed to his dreadful 2011, Hensley could prove to be a huge pickup.
After Hensley, the new blood starts getting a little more concerning. Blackley is the next most experienced pitcher as the 29-year-old has played everywhere from Mexico, to Korea, Philadelphia, Seattle, and of course his native Australia. While all that experience is certainly a good thing to have, it's not a good endorsement in Blackley's ability to pitch well as he has never played well enough to stick with a team. The Giants are hoping that somewhere between Korea, where he spent 2011, and his great start in Fresno this year Blackley somehow figured out the secret to success. He's looked decent in the four innings he's pitched so far, but his absolutely terrible career numbers give less room for optimism: 5.35 K/9, 6.75 BB/9, and 2.56 HR/9 albeit in only 38.2 innings.
And last and probably least we have Steve Edlefsen who at 26 years old is still with the same team who drafted him, the San Francisco Giants. Still unlike most of the Giants homegrown pitchers, Edlefsen just doesn't have the ability to consistently put away big league hitters. The sinker-baller has only ever seen the show as a member of the 40 man roster last September and he was anything but effective as his ERA was over 9.00 and his K/BB was well below one. His history in the minors isn't very encouraging either as his K/BB sit well below two in six seasons in the minors, which is not good, even for a sinker-baller.
Bochy will have to utilize his firemen wisely as he'll have to get by with only four solid arms and two that you'll let burn up some innings, but don't want to rely on to keep you in the game. Considering how low scoring of a team the Giants are, this extra strain on the relief corps could be the needle that breaks the camel's back as almost every inning and every outing is a critical one that can make or break the team's fragile leads.
The Lack of Domination
Again as Giants fans we're pretty spoiled as our pitching staffs have been outright abusive since 2009. From 2009-2011, our relief staff was the only one in the majors to post a K/9 above eight and it was largely because of this dominating, strikeout-inducing stuff that our staff's were able to thrive despite the high walk totals. This year the walks are still there, but unfortunately the whiffs have suddenly disappeared and with them goes the bullpen's biggest weapon.
So far for the first 30-some games of the season, the bullpen has posted a K/9 of 7.19, an ERA of 3.89, and a xFIP of 3.79 which doesn't look too bad until you compare it to last year's K/9 of 8.52, an ERA of 3.04, and a xFIP of 3.52. Looking past the general numbers, it appears that one of the biggest differences between this and last years staffs is their ability to strand runners: the relief staff's left on base percentage in 2012 is 63.9 percent which is a far cry away from the 75.7 percent that the staff maintained from 2009-2011, a figure that was the second highest in the majors. Obviously this is subject to quite a bit of luck and small sample size, but if the dampened strikeout total continues, their ability to deliver in the clutch might stay a problem.
The silver lining in the decline of dominating stuff is an appreciated emphasis on ground balls as the staff currently leads the majors in ground ball percentage at an impressive 55.8. The change in pitching style's can be largely contributed to the sinker whose appearance has become common with the additions of Edlefsen and Hensley. Combine it with longtime ground-out machine Javier Lopez and Casilla who has been adding more sink to his fastball every year since Oakland, and the increased ground ball rates actually seem somewhat sustainable. Even the pen's best arm, Sergio Romo actually added a sinker to his repertoire in spring training.
The Lack of Depth
When Mota got suspended a very odd thing happened: nobody came up to replace him. Sure Huff replaced him on the 25-man roster, but nobody replaced him in the bullpen and that's simply because there was no one to replace him. At this point Dan Otero, who got sent down to the minors after a brief stint, represents our only decent option for relief depth, but given his performance so far this year, management has gone with a understaffed bullpen.
While a six-man relief staff isn't too uncommon, the Giants don't feature any real reliable work horses. Romo and Lopez are usually reserved for an inning at the most and Casilla, who has never pitched more than 60 innings in a season, usually won't go more than one either. Edlefsen is another guy who probably won't go more than an inning as he threw around 55 innings over three levels last year, but isn't a guy you really want on the mound for extended periods of time. Hensley is probably our best bet for a reliable innings eater as the former starter logged in over 140 innings over the last two seasons in relief for the Marlins. Blackley, who is also a former starter, could probably also log in plenty of innings in long relief, but like Edlefsen the real question is do you want him to log in plenty of innings.
Luckily this problem should get somewhat better soon as Affeldt and Runzler should return to action within a few weeks. Affeldt can immediately provide stability put Edlefsen back in the minors and at this point, Runzler should be a welcome addition to the long relief role as Travis Blackley's control makes Runzler look like Cliff Lee. These two arms should help a lot, but don't be surprised if another reliever goes down and further exposes the lack of pitching depth.
Still the bigger potential problem in terms of pitching depth lies in the starting rotation where an injury could spell disaster as Surkamp and Runzler, who were Zito's biggest competition heading into the season, both began the season on the disabled list, making the idea of an emergency fifth starter a truly frightening thought. The Giants pitchers will need to keep extra cautious and safe as another injury could really expose a disturbing lack of depth.
The Questionable Closer
After All-Star and World Series hero Brian Wilson went down with a season-ending injury, Bruce Bochy went with the somewhat controversial decision to use Santiago Casilla as the closer instead of last year's marvel, Sergio Romo. To his credit, Romo has long since been dominating hitters with his Frisbee slider, but last year he took it to another level, becoming the only pitcher in the history of the game to pitch at least 40 innings with a K/9 over ten and a BB/9 below one. Casilla has for the most part, thrived in this new role, but after relying on The Beard for the last four years, Giants fans are still a little nervous.
Casilla has truly been a Cinderella story for the Giants. When Sabean picked him up before 2010, Casilla had a career ERA over five and a K/BB below two, but Casilla still managed to dominate to the tune of a breakout season with an ERA under two and a K/9 over nine. Two years later and the fairy tale has still continued as he now has a sparkling ERA of 1.82 over his career with the Giants which is actually the lowest ERA of any Giant with over 100 innings pitched. Now while his peripherals might not be quite as good, Casilla has still done an admirable job at everything Bochy has asked him to do and so far closing is no exception.
Still true Giants fans know how fragile a lead is and how every minute mistake is magnified in that ninth inning. Can we really trust in the relatively unsteady control of Casilla to make that final out when the time comes? With a career BB/9 well over four, Casilla has always had some control issues that the Giants have been lucky enough to work around, but with his new role as closer, these problems can be magnified and can turn into confidence shattering losses really fast. Giants fans are going to have to pray that Casilla has at least another season of magic left before that ivory carriage turns back into the pumpkin it is.