Looking Ahead to 2018 – The San Francisco Giants Bullpen

While so much attention this offseason going towards improving the Giants offense, one area that I think will be significantly better next season without much change is the bullpen. Due to a combination of injury and underperformance, the Giants were unable to take advantage of Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy’s greatest managerial asset – his ability to manage bullpen matchups. With season-ending injuries to Will Smith and Mark Melancon, along with the departure of reliable veteran George Kontos, the Giants we’re left with a group of unproven and inconsistent options, something the Giants have not experienced in almost a decade.

From 2009 – 2015, the Giants bullpen was so good, in fact, that their 3.25 ERA over that 7-year period, was best in all of Major League baseball. Additionally, their 183 bullpen wins, 331 saves, .69 HR allowed/game, 3.33 walks per 9 innings, and 75.9% of runners left on base, all ranked in the top 3 in the National League during that time period. Over the last two seasons, however, it’s been a much different story as the Giants blew an MLB-leading 30 saves last season, and have allowed the 2nd highest on-base percentage (.344) to opposing hitters this season.

Having said that, it’s fair to ask why I have so much optimism heading into 2018?

Realistically, it comes down to three names for me – Mark Melancon, Will Smith, and Sam Dyson.

I’ll be the first to admit – Melancon’s first season with the Giants was a complete disaster, especially when considering that the Giants invested the largest contract ever given to a relief pitcher (at the time). However it was clear from the beginning that Melancon wasn’t right, and based on the post-operation picture he posted on Twitter, it’s pretty amazing that he was even willing to take the ball to pitch despite the team being 20+ games out of a playoff spot.

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If anything, this tells me a heck-of-a-lot more about Melancon’s commitment to his teammates and the organization, than it does about his ability to perform.

Another reason for optimism with Melancon (aside from his astounding track record) – his pitch metrics stayed relatively similar between 2016 and 2017, suggesting that his performance regression had nothing to do with a decline in “stuff.”

In 2016, while splitting time with the Nationals and Pirates, Melancon had 47 saves in 51 chances with a 1.64 ERA over 71 innings. Here is his breakdown of pitches for the season…

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In 2017, Melancon had 11 saves in 16 chances with a 4.50 ERA over 30 innings of work. Here is the breakdown of pitches from this season…

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As you can see, Melancon’s average fastball, curveball, and splitfinger velocity actually increased this season, while his “bread and butter” pitch, the cut-fastball, remained almost identical (91.77 vs. 91.43). This biggest difference between the two seasons had to do with the horizontal movement of his pitches. His curveball and cutter in particular, which he combined to throw almost 95% of the time this season, both saw a decrease in horizontal movement.

Generally-speaking, a pitcher’s ability to manipulate the ball horizonally has everything to do with forearm and elbow flexion and being able to snap the side of the ball to maximize spin. Melancon’s injury, referred to as pronator syndrome, refers to “the sheath that covers the muscle does not allow it to expand and results in compressed nerves. As a result, his elbow constantly feels tight whether he is pitching or not.” Knowing what we now know about Melancon’s injury and his pitched-ball numbers, I think it’s safe to conclude that the injury played a significant role in Melancon’s inability to pitch the way he’s capable of. And based on his mentality and track record, I have every reason to believe (assuming he gets back to 100% as he and the doctors have stated he will), that the Giants will have the lock-down closer they had hoped for when Melancon was signed last off-season.

Another significant piece to the bullpen puzzle will be the recovery of left-hander Will Smith. When Smith was forced to have Tommy John surgery just prior to the season beginning, I wrote an article on why this would be an injury the Giants would not be able to recover from. Smith’s dominance, combined with the organization’s lack of left-handed relievers, meant the Giants would be forced to face baseball’s best left-handed hitters with the likes of Josh Osich and Steven Okert. True to form, left-handed have batters crushed Giants relief pitching in 2017.

Opposing hitters are batting .258 against Giant relievers (4th highest in the NL) with a .366 on base percentage (highest in the NL). Perhaps most concerning – the Giants 5.2 walks (of left handed batters) per 9 innings is the most in all of Major League Baseball, while their 6.6 strikeouts per 9 innings against left-handed batters, are the fewest in Major League Baseball. Possessing reliable left-handed relievers is a necessity for a Bruce Bochy club, and having Will Smith healthy will be an incredible lift for a team who struggled so badly in the same areas Smith excels.

I’m often asked about Smith because he’s still relatively unknown for Giants fans. When Smith was acquired in August of 2016 for Giants #1 prospect Phil Bickford, many felt it was a king’s ransom to give up for a Jeremy Affeldt or Javy Lopez-type situational lefty. Moreover, Smith did nothing to prove the nay-sayers wrong by posting a 5.59 ERA in his first month with the Giants, allowing 15 baserunners in 9+ innings. But thanks to a strong September in which he was basically unhittable, Smith ended up with a respectable 2.95 ERA as a Giant, and a 3.35 ERA overall in 2016.

But these numbers don’t paint the whole picture for Smith. Prior to a bizarre knee injury in 2016 when he was with the Brewers, Smith was among the top 3 left-handed relievers in all of baseball along with Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. In 2015, Smith’s last healthy season, he went 7-2 with a 2.70 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 63 innings. He struck out 43 of the 101 left-handed batters he faced, and held righties to a .193 batting average. In fact, from the 2013 – 2016 seasons, Smith’s 12.2 strikeouts/9 innings are bested by only Miller and Chapman. Even in 2016 while pitching for the first time in a knee-brace, his 10.71 strikeouts per 9 innings was still the 6th best overall in the NL.

Last week, Smith resumed throwing in hopes of being 100% by the start of the 2018 regular season, still over 6 months away. To provide a quick reminder of how nasty Smith is, here are two videos of Smith from his brief stint with the Giants in 2016. Notice the breaking ball command, movement, and versatility. Early in counts, Smith features a “get-me-over” breaking ball to establish an elevated sight-line to hitters, which he utilizes to bury hitters (down and away to lefties, down and in to righties) with 2 strikes.

 

Having Melancon and Smith both healthy will do wonders for the Giants bullpen, but the emergence of Sam Dyson will provide yet another proven, late-inning option to the mix.

Dyson has been nothing short of spectacular in his tenure with the Giants. In 35 games with the Giants since being designated for assignment by the Rangers, Dyson has saved 13 games in 14 chances with a 3.03 ERA, which drops to 2.05 if you take away his only real blip on the radar – a 5 earned run appearance in a third of an inning against the Cardinals on the 1st of the month.

In addition to what Dyson, Smith, and Melancon bring in terms of their own performance, perhaps their biggest impact will be on the roles of their bullpen mates. With the high-pressure innings now accounted for, Cory Gearrin and Hunter Strickland can slide into match-up roles, an area both could excel, especially given the fact that they finished in the Top 30 of all NL relievers in ERA (2.08 and 2.81 respectively). Additionally, the continued development of Kyle Crick will be something to keep an eye on as he’s been extremely impressive over the first 27 games of his career. Assuming the Giants carry an 8-man bullpen next season, that leaves 2 open spots next season, one for a long-man (like Ty Blach or Chris Stratton), and one for a left-handed specialist. With nothing more than good-health, the Giants will transform from a team with limited back-end bullpen options, to one of the deepest and experienced in all of baseball.

Without diving too much into depth, I think putting Stratton in the rotation (with Bumgarner, Cueto, Samardzija, and Moore) and Blach as the long-man would be ideal, as that (plus a free agent left-handed reliever) would provide the bullpen with 3 left-handed options. Among the names the Giants may kick the tires of this offseason – the Rockies’ Jake McGee, Dodgers’ Tony Watson, and Red Sox’s Fernando Abad. Internally, Andrew Suarez seems like the only candidate somewhat ready for the Big Leagues.

If the Giants are to be competitive in 2018, having an effective bullpen for Bruce Bochy to utilize is a great starting point. The fact that the Giants already have the pieces in place is pivotal, now it’s just a matter of getting healthy. Assuming Melancon, Dyson, and Smith perform at the level the Giants need them to, it will allow the front office to focus their limited resources on more pressing needs, such as the outfield and 3rd base, which I’ll dive into in the upcoming days.

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