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How the Giants have built a fascinating bullpen

@mike_petriello
March 4, 2019

The Giants lost 89 games last year, and 98 the year before. They're projected to lose in the neighborhood of 86 games (FanGraphs) or 89 games (Baseball Prospectus) this year. Calling this season a "transitional year" is probably appropriate, because 2019 will stand as the only season where new president

The Giants lost 89 games last year, and 98 the year before. They're projected to lose in the neighborhood of 86 games (FanGraphs) or 89 games (Baseball Prospectus) this year. Calling this season a "transitional year" is probably appropriate, because 2019 will stand as the only season where new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and outgoing long-time manager Bruce Bochy will overlap.

Needless to say, much of the focus in the Bay Area is on the future, on who will follow Bochy in 2020, on how veterans like Buster Posey and Evan Longoria rebound and on how Zaidi reshapes the organization, up to and including a potential Madison Bumgarner trade.

But despite that focus on years to come, there's something fascinating happening right now. The collection of relievers they've put together could be really, really good. At the very least, they're interesting, and they collectively paint a good story about the way pitching works in 2019. Some of these guys were good in '18, even if you didn't notice. Others are trying to improve in the most modern ways possible. There are so many stories here. Let's show you why.

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The Giants in 2018 had a bullpen that was ... fine. It was fine. They were 11th in ERA, had the 14th-best strikeout rate, and the 13th-lowest hard-hit rate. They're projected to be 12th-best in '19. It might, again, be "fine," and if it's better than that, it might just lead to its own decimation via trades, either before Opening Day or at the non-waiver Trade Deadline -- which would be a good thing.

The entire point, of course, is that it's not that difficult to envision the bullpen doing a lot more. The roster churn began before Zaidi even arrived, but ultimately, the owners of 133 games worth of 4.95 ERA work -- Hunter Strickland, Josh Osich, Cody Gearrin, and Pierce Johnson -- have all departed, and there's more than a few new faces. There's a bit of "throw it all against the wall and see what sticks" here, but for a team in the spot the Giants are, that makes sense.

This won't all work. You'll never hear some of these names again. But if the Giants get lucky, maybe they'll unearth the next Ryan Pressly or Jose Leclerc or Taylor Rogers, the kind of guys who weren't on anyone's radar a year or two ago and have now blossomed into dominating relievers. Maybe they'll turn one of those guys into a position-player prospect. You can sort these guys into a few groups ...

The guys who were good last year

LHP Will Smith, LHP Tony Watson, RHP Reyes Moronta, RHP Sam Dyson

Did you realize how good Smith was last year? The traditional metrics of "2-3, 2.55 ERA" don't really tell the story. In 2018, there were 358 pitchers who faced at least 200 batters, and looking at Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), Smith was the sixth-best pitcher in the game, on a list where Blake Treinen, LeClerc, Edwin Diaz, and Josh Hader were the top four. It's incredibly impressive.

Did you realize how good Moronta's rookie season was? On that exact same list, his .232 mark puts him ninth-best, just behind Adam Ottavino. Despite some command issues, it's not hard to see why, thanks to a 96.8-mph fastball (95th percentile), a 30 percent strikeout rate, and a 98th percentile ranking in hard-hit rate.

Watson's performance wasn't exactly out of nowhere, because he was a 2014 All-Star, and he's been a solid reliever for nearly a decade, though it's interesting to note he increased his strikeout rate to a career-high 28 percent last year. Dyson rebounded from a rocky showing in '17 with the Rangers to put up a typical Dyson year, posting a 2.59 ERA with strong ground-ball rates.

The guys who have been good in the past

RHP Mark Melancon, RHP Nick Vincent

The first two seasons of Melancon's four-year, $62 million deal haven't exactly gone as planned, as a variety of injuries have limited him to just 69 total innings. Still, he was competent enough last year, with a 3.23 ERA, and he claims that his arm is feeling strong again this spring.

Vincent was somewhat surprisingly let go by Seattle after three quality seasons in the Mariners' bullpen. It was barely two years ago that he was the subject of a FanGraphs post titled "The Other Most Unhittable Fastball," where the "other fastball" referenced was that of Aroldis Chapman. Over the last two seasons, he's basically been as effective as Ross Stripling, Archie Bradley, or Alex Colome, and the Giants have him on a non-guaranteed deal. There's still a good reliever in here.

The guys who are trying to get better through interesting methods

RHP Ray Black, RHP Tyler Beede, LHP Ty Blach

Here's where this gets fun, because these three have been trying and failing to stick in the bigs with the Giants for years. (Black was drafted in 2011; Blach in '12; Beede in '14. Between them, they have provided San Francisco with 330 1/3 innings of 4.58 ERA ball, mostly from Blach.)

Black turns 29 in June and has long been known for his blazing fastball, but didn't make his Major League debut until 2018 due to a long line of injuries. When he did, he missed a ton of bats (33 in 23 1/3 innings) while allowing a few too many walks and homers. Most importantly, he's got 99th percentile velocity and spin (on his curve as well as his fastball) ...

... and he's spent a lot of time both last year and this spring talking about how he's trying to use the latest baseball technology, like Edgertronic and Rapsodo, to try to harness all of that raw talent into success.

Beede was the 14th overall pick in 2014, between Trea Turner and Sean Newcomb, but his Major League career to date consists of two unimpressive starts in '18. Then he moved into the bullpen in Triple-A, saw his velocity increase, and so far this spring, well, you know how this story goes in '19. Beede changed his curve grip, upped his spin rate, and eliminated three lesser pitches to focus on his three best ones.

“More information has done a world of good for me,” Beede told the Athletic (subscription required).

Finally, there's Blach, who has been a competent-if-unimpressive back-end starter in parts of three seasons for the Giants, getting shifted into relief last year. Guess what he's been doing?

“This offseason I was working on making my slider a little better," Blach told MLB.com. "It’s always kind of blended with the curveball, so I worked with our analytics guy, Michael Schwartze, a lot. He’s really helped me to understand the spin, the rotation."

The Rule 5 Draft pick

LHP Travis Bergen

In parts of four seasons in the low Minors for Toronto, Bergen put up eye-popping numbers: a 1.27 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 85 1/3 innings. As a Rule 5 pick, Bergen has somewhat of an uphill climb to make the roster, but he's still got a shot to be the third lefty behind Smith and Watson.

“He really knows his game,” Zaidi said. “He knows that his fastball up in the zone plays. He’s a very confident, self-assured guy. He’s been really impressive so far in camp.”

"Bergen isn't overpowering but left-handers and right-handers alike have trouble barreling his pitches," wrote MLB Pipeline. "His low-90s fastball plays well above its velocity because his crossfire delivery provides run, sink and deception."

The ambidextrous pitcher

LHP/RHP Pat Venditte

Look, we said this group was going to be interesting and what's more interesting than the only ambidextrous pitcher to regularly appear in the Majors in more than a century? Venditte doesn't have a long track record of success -- 4.45 ERA in 56 games -- but he does have a Major League contract, and a 2018 Dodgers connection with Zaidi.

The young flamethrower

RHP Melvin Adon

Adon, a Minor League starter, is now working in relief. He struck out 21 over 12 1/3 Arizona Fall League innings, and he's been turning heads already this spring with the velocity he's showing. On March 3 against the Rockies, Adon threw nine fastballs at 99 mph or higher -- topping out at an eye-popping 102.1 mph.

The other guys

RHP Chris Stratton, RHP Derek Law, LHP Fernando Abad, LHP Steven Okert, RHP Trevor Gott, RHP Kieran Lovegrove

Even this group, as varied as they may be, is fascinating. Stratton hasn't been successful as a Giant, but he possesses truly elite curveball spin rate, third in 2017-18 behind only Pressly and Seth Lugo, in a world where harnessing spin has become easier to do. Law had a 2.13 ERA in 61 games as a rookie in 2016, which is a lot more appealing if you ignore the 5.68 mark he's had in 48 games since then.

Abad has 363 games of experience as a lefty inducing soft contact; Lovegrove, signed to a Minor League deal this past offseason after seven years in the Cleveland organization, has only one game above Double-A, but he's talking about his spin rate too.

These pitchers won't all be in the bigs, and they won't all be productive. Almost certainly, some of this depth is going to be traded for younger prospects. But in what's likely to be a somewhat trying season by the Bay, this is going to be a fascinating group.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.