The San Francisco Giants’ 6-1 record last week came about in large part because of two games started by John Brebbia and one by Scott Alexander. Those three bullpen game wins were in ballparks largely inhospitable to pitchers: Coors Field and Chase Field, too. I don’t think it’s wrong to say that most fans have a dim view of the opener / bullpen game strategy, and some who outright hate it. This post is for them — the strategy works! Reconsider your derision!
Zaidi and Harris have done 18 of these opener / bullpen games this season and the Giants have gone 9-9 when doing so. That’s better than their team winning percentage as of right now, and it’s not as though it’s a strategy they went into the season hoping to use. They thought they had a solid rotation, and in the likes of Jakob Junis and (before he was traded) Matthew Boyd, some depth that could help them if the need arose. Instead, the need arose at the end of April, after Anthony DeSclafani hit the IL for the first time. We were so young and innocent then. Sam Long looked like the opener and bulk dude savior.
Long opened five of the first nine before losing sort of a role at all in the Giants bullpen when he got lit up in a July start against the Diamondbacks following Brebbia as the planned-for bulk guy. All of this was going on while we were still trying to figure out what this 2022 Giants team was: good, bad, or mediocre. It was also unclear who could be reliable in the bullpen. The bullpen games helped sort this out, though perhaps it took more time than we wanted. Sam Long pitched himself out of a spot, and soon after, Jarlin Garcia revealed he couldn’t be more than a low leverage lefty specialist.
But wait, I’m trying to convince you that this a winning strategy, and maybe simply identifying it as a crucible is not the way... hmm, okay then. Maybe the crucible element is only half the battle. Consider this:
Top line: the stats for bullpen games. Bottom line: overall for the starting staff (Webb, Rodon, Wood, Cobb, Junis, and DeSclafani).
Obviously, that’s a significant rate advantage for the starting staff, which shows up in the batters faced column, as well. The actual rotation has faced five times as many hitters as the bullpen starters: 3,147 to 664. Also not included on this chart, either: innings pitched. That breaks down to 162 innings for the bullpen starts (I’m giving the bullpen all nine innings in those starts because they are complete games) and 764 for the rotation. Still, you can see from the earned runs vs. runs allowed that the defense hasn’t helped the pitching at all this season.
MLB’s league average for a starting pitcher this season is a 4.06 ERA, 21.5% strikeout rate, 7.5% walk rate, 1.26 WHIP, and a 1.16 HR/9. The Giants’ bullpen game starts are in line with that — even a bit better! And if you want an exact player comp for what the Giants’ bullpen games have done, it’s Jose Quintana:
3.03 ERA / 3.44 RA
Remember when Jose Quintana was on the Giants last season? I don’t, but it happened. Quintana’s fWAR this season? 3.7!
Anyway, if you hate the concept of the opener or scheduled bullpen games throughout the season, the Giants’ 2022 ought to serve as a persuasive argument for why you, long-time baseball fan, should at the very least reconsider your position.
Would it be easier if the Giants just had good starting pitchers, including good starting pitching depth to obviate the need for the strategy? Of course! But the Giants have a couple of things working against them when it comes to adding starters and building depth: 1) a self-imposed salary cap; 2) Zaidi’s statistically-affirmed policy to not give out long-term contracts to pitchers; 3) the Giants’ pitching guru, Brian Bannister, who helps minor leaguers become those much needed depth pieces has opted out of doing his job.
Maybe some of the people who hate the opener agree with these limitations and the rest don’t care about limitations, they just want to see baseball played the way they’ve always seen it. On its face, the notion of a bullpen game does come off as anti-competitive, but even an extra second more of thinking ought to call that judgment into question.
The game has changed and it’s not going back. Most teams will continue to exploit the competitive advantages that cost the least, and using dozens of relievers a year to get through the scheduled 1,458 innings is actually easier to do because even with the headaches that come with injuries, teaching, and the entire notion of reliever roulette (you never know how they’ll perform day to day, that’s why they’re relievers), it’s cheaper. And it’s cheaper that is easier. Whether we like it or not, this is how the Giants operate.
If you ever hear a front office person say that they’d prefer to have five starting pitchers who can give you 30+ starts a year (or a bat that can play every day), be very skeptical. The rest of that thought is they’d prefer it only if it didn’t cost them very much.
The simple fact is that it’s cheaper to setup a pitching staff with the opener / bullpen day strategy in mind than building one with the idea of 5-6 starters who can go five innings. Farhan Zaidi and the top baseball minds of this era did not rise to their positions by proposing that the pricier options were the best options. That’s quite literally not how economists jump fields and into managing the day to day operations of a pro sports team.
The goal is to be as competitive as possible within the most profitable financial model. Do you remember when Farhan Zaidi was hired? From this Tim Keown piece in 2019:
FARHAN ZAIDI’S FIRST face-to-face confrontation as the baseball boss of the San Francisco Giants came from a stranger. Zaidi stood in front of a group of season-ticket holders at a January event and listened to one of his customers ask if he was serious about occasionally using a one-inning opener instead of a conventional starting pitcher. The slightly accusatory tone exposed the questioner’s view on the matter, but Zaidi knew the topic was bound to arise after he had suggested to local reporters during the winter meetings that using an opener was a possibility.
And so he decided to answer the season-ticket holder’s question with a question of his own:
“If I told you using an opener would definitely improve your chances of winning on a certain day, how many of you would still not want to use it?”
The group was too big to canvass individually, so Zaidi said: “Let me hear you boo.”
And these men and women, the corporate networkers and the lifelong fans alike, cupped their hands around their mouths, aimed them at the smiling man at the front of the room, and booed.
THE BOOS CARRIED the sound of the central conflict that exists within the game: the fear that numbers are overtaking people.
The Giants will have their five-man rotation of reliable starters once they have a farm system that can produce them or catch a couple more Jakob Junises with their stat net. Until then, they will work at the margins and keep costs down to produce back-end starter numbers.
Okay, I’m just trying to have it both ways here by smearing the motivation of the strategy while trying to get you to agree that it works. Notice, I’m not asking you to accept that it’s good, because at the end of the day, I think I’d rather just have 5 good starters instead of 3-4 and some serviceable bullpen arms. The more innings a starter throws makes a bullpen better overall simply by lowering the game-to-game exposure; but, I am not smart enough to present those numbers, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
[cue CHORUS OF BOOS.]
The numbers show that bullpen games work, though, and given the injuries to DeSclafani and Wood and the lack of depth in Triple-A, that’s not insignificant. As Zaidi predicted in 2019, they definitely improved the Giants’ chances of winning 18 (and counting) times this season, and last season, too, though I wasn’t around to write about the Giants then.
Even though the Giants spent about $10 million on their bullpen this season, which is five times more than Jose Quintana’s salary ($2 million), these relievers also pitched more innings beyond those bullpen games and collectively cost a whole lot less than the combination of one year of Carlos Rodon and Kevin Gausman for five.