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The biggest problem with the Giants’ bullpen might be their lineup

Giants relievers enter more close games than any in baseball. You’ll never believe how that’s working out.

Just forget about all of the relievers having unambiguously miserable seasons, and this post makes more sense.
Just forget about all of the relievers having unambiguously miserable seasons, and this post makes more sense.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Giants’ bullpen has not be an asset this year. They’ve blown leads they should have held, and they’ve done it over and over again. They can’t hold one-run leads; they can’t hold four-run leads. Do not think for a moment that my argument is "Well, actually, the Giants bullpen is good."

And yet ...

There’s something about the Giants’ bullpen that’s been bugging me for a while. I look at the stats, and in isolation, they have some relievers who are having very nice seasons. Derek Law, of course, but Hunter Strickland has been great. George Kontos has been limiting runs, just like always, even if we don’t know how in the heck he keeps doing it. Before Cory Gearrin’s injury and subsequent blowups, he was having a decent-enough season. And for all of Santiago Casilla’s struggles, it’s not like he has an ERA in the 5.00s. He’s been roughly equivalent to Francisco Rodriguez and Jeurys Familia this season when it comes to runs allowed, and he’s blown just one more save than Kenley Jansen.

Also, Casilla hasn’t helped. Take the opening paragraph and apply it to him specifically. Not here to argue that he’s secretly excellent. He’s been very, very unreliable at all the worst times.

Still, I’ve watched plenty of teams that have suffered through disastrous bullpens, and while this team feels like one of those all-time awful bullpens, it’s hard to look at the parts that go into that sum and reach the exact same conclusion. They’re in the middle of the pack in terms of runs allowed and ERA, and even after you adjust for park, they’re merely bad, not historically awful.

The Giants’ bullpen: merely bad, not historically awful. Has a ring to it. Print up the t-shirts.

So what’s the disconnect? Why does this feel like the least trustworthy bullpen in the history of bullpens? I have two theories.

The first theory is that the Giants are leading the league in appearances from relievers that last fewer than three outs. They’re lapping the rest of the league, actually. They also have the fewest average pitches thrown per reliever appearance, and that’s not close, either. This has to do with Bruce Bochy’s aggressive bullpen platooning, and his willingness to make three or four pitching changes in the same inning. I’d complain, except every non-Law reliever has serious platoon splits, so it’s probably necessary.

The more cooks in the kitchen, the more likely there is that one of them is ill and will sneeze on the paella. The more relievers the Giants use, the more likely it is that one of them is having an off day that will ruin the competent work of the other relievers around him.

This is a theory that’s somewhere between crackpot and common sense, and I don’t have hard evidence for you. Wouldn’t even know how to test it. Just a shoot-from-the-hip theory.

This next one, though, makes a lot of sense. Here’s where the Giants’ bullpen ranks among the 15 teams in the National League:

Save opportunities: 2nd
Save situations: 1st
Games entered with high leverage: 1st (50 more than the league average)
Games entered with low leverage: 15th
Average leverage index: 2nd

Giants relievers enter close games more than any other bullpen. So when the bullpen screws up, it stings a lot more than the average team.

The Giants relievers enter more close games because the lineup isn’t adding on to leads.

The Giants’ bullpen probably wouldn’t be as much of an issue if they had bigger leads to work with.

It’s not the rotation, at least not in a huge way. The Giants are still fourth in the league in quality starts, and they have more than twice as many complete games as the second-place team. Their average game score is third in the league, and so are the average innings thrown by their starters.

No, it’s that the Giants are bringing their relievers into more close games than any team in the league, and it’s not especially close. There’s no answer for that, other than "stop having so many close games." Where the Giants play makes it hard to blow teams out (or get blown out), so maybe this is partially a function of AT&T Park.

Still, the bullpen hasn’t been as bad as we all think it is. It’s just mostly that bad. And if you want a terrifying stat, here you go: The Giants lead the National League in the percentage of inherited runners that have been stranded. That’s terrifying because it probably isn’t sustainable. This bullpen could get worse.

For now, though, I think they’ve had a rough go because a) they’re not good, and b) they’re also being tossed into more close games than the average bullpen. If the Giants are using their bullpen, it’s likely that any screwup will jeopardize their chances of winning.

Which means we sure notice the screwups.

Go away, screwups. And everyone: Pitch better and hit better. Print it out and tape it to your lockers. Once you nail that, we’ll do just fine.