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Bullpen fails to succeed in the aggregate, Giants lose, 7-5

Hey! The lineup scored five runs.

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MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at San Francisco Giants Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

This season has started to remind me a little bit of the 2010 season. Recall in that year that the San Francisco Giants had a forgettable (though, not as bad as we remember) lineup but paired with an incredible pitching staff presented a formidable opponent.

Somehow, the Giants were 15-5 in bullpen games heading into tonight’s game. The team made a choice to stick with what had been working and not seek outside help at the trade deadline; and so they now find themselves in this position three out of every five days where they’re left to trust in an algorithm that tells them pitching 4-5 guys in a 9 inning game will help more than hurt.

The Giants did not win tonight. They lost 7-5 thanks to Scott Alexander botching his opening assignment by failing to get an out in the first inning, Jakob Junis making it worse by allowing all inherited runners to score, Alex Wood providing mostly empty calories as the bulk guy, and Luke Jackson being ineffective in a late inning relief role again. It was a game the Giants probably would’ve won as recently as last week if any one of those guys had performed closer to what the team has seen from them for most of the season.

Back in June, I wrote about just how dominant the bullpen had been. It’s the team’s main strength and was a better group than most of others in the league.

The Giants’ bullpen has been as good as the 5th-best rotation in Baseball over the past month.


And we’ve seen how this group has helped the team. As recently as yesterday. Anthony DeSclafani struggled and the bullpen came into the game and stabilized the situation long enough for the Giants’ lineup to mount a comeback and, eventually, reclaim the lead; but also, last week in Colorado, and throughout the past month and a half with the bullpen games.

They’re relievers, so they’re going to break our hearts at some point; but for now, this is as good as it gets, so let’s enjoy it as the Giants use their deep and effective and intriguing bullpen to ride their way back into the Wild Card conversation.

On the season, they’re the second-best bullpen in Baseball by fWAR; but since May 1st — when the entire team seemed to turn a new leaf — they’ve been the best bullpen in Baseball and by a good amount: 5.9 fWAR vs. #2 Baltimore’s 4.2.

So, that’s why I say this season reminds me of the 2010 Giants. The bullpen really can’t afford to take a night off. Those 2010 Giants knew it. These 2023 Giants ought to know it, too. Do you remember when Brian Sabean called the starters into Bruce Bochy’s office to scream at them for sucking?

“[The Padres] were having a great year,” Bochy said. “The mantra to get across is, ‘We’ve got to keep going. They’ve got to stumble. They’ve got to trip at some time.’ And they did in August. But we didn’t take advantage because we didn’t pitch well.”

Tim Lincecum was 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA in August. The rest of the rotation wasn’t much better. The Padres played just three games over .500 in the month but added to their lead, which was as large as 6 1/2 games on Aug. 25.

Then Sabean called four of his five starting pitchers into Bochy’s office — all except Matt Cain, who was starting that day — and gave them an earful of what might be gently described as tough love. From that point, Lincecum (5-1, 1.94 ERA) was next to untouchable. Jonathan Sánchez (4-1, 1.01 ERA) was even better. And the bullpen was nearly perfect.

The Angels get a win at home to snap a 7-game losing streak, their first win since a 10-3 run heading into the trade deadline that pushed them to go for it. They’re also 3rd in the AL in runs scored. Taken together, it’s not a huge bummer or total surprise that the Giants lost.

Shohei Ohtani scorched a touch pitch from Scott Alexander to get the Angels on the board. Alexander was really only in there because Shohei Ohtani has been slightly less than incredible against left-handed pitching this season:

vs. RHP | 367 PA | .329/.425/.716 (1.141 OPS)
vs. LHP | 134 PA | .248/.366/.551 (.917 OPS)

The gambit did not payoff. Not only did Ohtani beat Alexander’s pitch, Luis Rengifo, he of a .900+ OPS got things started with a leadoff double. It unraveled pretty quickly. And the bullpen plan and pitch sequencing had no effect on Brandon Drury (3-for-5, HR, 2B). The Angels had 21 total bases. Thairo Estrada committed two errors for the Giants.

Offensively, the five runs on the Giants’ side looks great, especially after scoring 8 runs last night. They matched up against the Angels’ big deadline deal, Lucas Giolito. In the series preview I wrote:

[...] has wonky peripherals (4.86 FIP, 1.73 HR/9, 35% groundball rate). He features a 93 mph 4-seamer and a low spin slider, which on paper means this should be a great matchup for the Giants, and maybe it will be... but probably not, because the Giants’ lineup is the worst lineup in baseball.

The Giants had him at 90 pitches through 5 innings, but rather than go fastball-slider, he went fastball-changeup, which had been his third-most used pitch in his arsenal prior to the trade. His fastball averaged 94 on the night making that changeup even more effective. His slider spin rate was up, too, and even though this wasn’t the ballgame, he seemed to be getting a bit wider strikeout than regulation.

All that said, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if the Giants had simply rolled over against a pretty sharp opponent and the night after an 8-run outburst. We’ve certainly become accustomed to that situation. Instead, they hung in there, put together good at bats, and had a chance to make a comeback for the second night in a row.

It really does help that Wilmer Flores is having the best run of hitting in his career.

Earlier today, MLB Network’s Twitter account posted this graphic from one of their on air segments:

That’s cool and fair (since it’s basically a list of “Qualified Hitters”), but here’s a way to make it cooler: lower that minimum plate appearance barrier to just 100 plate appearances.

That’s really damn cool. Homering off of former Giant Dominic Leone is probably not too much of a surprise, but remember that Giolito had lost his grip on a pitch earlier in the game and drilled Flores in the ribs. Sometimes that’s enough to disrupt a hitter’s swing or linger enough to disrupt their vision and thought process. That didn’t happen tonight.

Wilmer Flores is simply incredible.

And it’s taken me ~22 months, but I’ve finally moved off my position that the Giants were never going to win that NLDS against the Dodgers to the deeply held belief probably a great many of you have harbored since that check swing call: Wilmer Flores would’ve wrecked Max Scherzer on the next pitch.