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The bullpen needs more strikeouts

The Giants have plenty of contact pitchers in the organization, but late in the game, they need to prevent balls in play.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Marlins strung together a lot of good at bats against Giants pitching in this week’s 4-game hell match, including Lewis Brinson’s stellar 9-pitch at bat against Hunter Strickland in the 9th inning yesterday that ended in a game-tying sacrifice fly.

On Wednesday, Strickland came in with runners on base and struck out the first batter he faced, so, this isn’t a post indicting Strickland. This is about how the Giants rely on sequencing and defense to pitch through a lineup and how that won’t always work. A pitcher can’t just dial up a strikeout whenever he needs one, but Giants relievers will need to figure out how to do exactly that if they’re going to be successful the rest of the way.

Now, I sound awfully stupid for saying that because the bullpen has been a bright spot for most of the season and with the return of Mark Melancon, now goes 5 quality arms deep. But this Marlins series should have gone better. The Giants’ road record needs to be better. A more strikeout-y bullpen would’ve solved the Marlins problem and setup the team to tackle the latter in the coming weeks.

Major league hitters in both leagues have combined to strikeout 22.4% of the time so far this season. In the National League, it’s 22.7%. The Marlins do it in 22.8% of their plate apperances. Against the Giants, they struck out 28 times in 167 plate appearances (16.8%). It should’ve been much easier to K a Marlin, and it just didn’t happen.

Now, you might say, Bryan, you ignorant slut, the bullpen was tired and they still amassed the majority of the strikeouts the Giants pitched over 4 games, and I might say, you’re absolutely right that I’m an ignorant slut, and you’re only half right about the rest. As tired as Tony Watson was, he still struck out 4 across two appearances; and 3 of the strikeouts belonged to Ty Blach, who, despite coming in as a reliever still pitched the equivalent of a quality start, so, does that count for these purposes? I’m going to say... maybe.

Strikeout pitchers have to deal with two variables: the hitter and the umpire. Contact pitchers have to deal with four: the batter, the umpire, the defense behind him, and the weather. How might we define a strikeout pitcher? Well, let’s figure it’s someone who pitches a strikeout against roughly a third or more of the batters he faces. So, say, 30-33%?

Using that criterion, only Tony Watson (30.2%) and Reyes Moronta (27.8%) qualify for the top 30 relievers (minimum 20 innings pitched) in the NL. Watson is 36th in all of MLB. Will Smith, who just misses that 20 inning minimum, has a 31.8% strikeout rate, which would rank him 24th in MLB and 13th in the NL. Strikeouts matter.

Here’s how the Giants relievers have done, strikeout rate-wise, since the organization’s most recent window of contention opened back in 2009. You’ll notice that with the exception of 2012, when they’ve done well, overall, the relievers have done their part in this area:

K% Chart 2009-2018

Season Record NL Batting K% Giants RP K% MLB Rank NL Rank
Season Record NL Batting K% Giants RP K% MLB Rank NL Rank
2009 88-74 18.4 20.6 10th 6th
2010 92-70 19.3 22.5 5th 4th
2011 86-76 19.1 22.7 3rd 2nd
2012 94-68 20.2 19.6 28th 14th
2013 76-86 19.9 20.6 23rd 9th
2014 88-74 20.9 20.4 25th 14th
2015 84-78 20.9 20.6 25th 13th
2016 87-75 21.5 21.1 23rd 11th
2017 64-98 21.9 21.2 23rd 13th
2018 34-35 22.7 22.1 21st 12th

You might hear on a broadcast very soon (if it hasn’t been said already) that the Giants have a bullpen of closers, given how Melancon, Dyson, Watson, and Strickland all have experience and Smith and Moronta have closer stuff. When you do hear this, remember that the Giants are paying Mark Melancon $20 million this year to be a closer — they subscribe to the classic definition of the position. I’m not projecting my beliefs onto the team. A closer should be able to strike guys out. If they believe they have closers in the ‘pen, then that ‘pen should be able to get more strikeouts.

Here are the current strikeout rates of the Giants bullpen:

Hunter Strickland | 22.1%
Tony Watson | 30.2%
Sam Dyson | 20.8%
Will Smith | 31.8%
Reyes Moronta 27.8%
Mark Melancon 23.8%
Cory Gearrin (lol) 21.1%

Remember that pitch chart from up above? The Brinson-Strickland battle from yesterday? Hunter Strickland has always had a low strikeout rate, which is surprising when you consider he’s averaged 97 mph on his fastball for his career. Brooks Baseball’s PITCHf/x data indicates he doesn’t get nearly as much horizontal movement (that is, run or tail that drifts in to right-handed hitters) on his four-seamer as a lot of power relievers do (for reference, Craig Kimbrel gets over twice as much horizontal movement on his fastball). He can’t blow it by batters very often simply because the pitch doesn’t move very much.

And that’s just one example. Mark Melancon has never had a lot of movement on his fastball, either, but his curveball has a really sharp drop that’s been effective and he the walk rate for his career is 5.6%. He’s had few appearances with the Giants, but it’s clear he’s more of a contact pitcher. Still, a 1-run lead doesn’t have to be a blown save just because of an error. Pitchers have been known to pitch through trouble. This bullpen could be gassed after the long stretches without a quality start and a mangy east coast road trip, or maybe the talent just needs to be deployed a bit better.

Does this mean I think Tony Watson should be the closer until Melancon is declared ready and that Moronta should feature more prominently? It’s more like this:

Letter grade-wise, the Giants have a B/B- offense, C+/B- defense, C/C- starting pitching, and a B/B+ bullpen. Injuries have kneecapped those first three categories to some degree, but even those ceilings aren’t A/A+’s. The bullpen’s ceiling might fall somewhere in the A-range, and if the group can somehow improve to that level, the Giants will make the playoffs.