The Relief Corps
Having addressed the starting pitching staff and their successes in 2009, I think it’s time to give credit where’s it due to the rotation’s counterpart. Last season, the bullpen was nothing short of extraordinary. Filled to the brim with dependable arms, the relief corps of the Giants is on the cusp of some massive improvements off of a productive season. From Brian Wilson finishing games to Brandon Medders mopping up in the 6th inning, there’s really an arm for any occasion.
After learning the hard way, it seems like the front office has learned that the most successful, cost-effective bullpens are built from the inside out, not with Armando Benitez. The foundation of an effective group of relievers begins with homegrown products. Typically, it’s best to develop a closer from the farm system or dig through the scrap heap for the next David Aardsma (former Giant alert!). Free agent closers are a risky proposition, as we learned from the Benitez debacle of the mid 00’s. Finding a consistent finisher has been one of the biggest challenges this team has faced in the years since Robb Nen was forced into retirement by arm problems. Since Nen, we’ve handed over the role to guys like Brad Hennessey and Tim Worrell, guys who lack that fearsome, closer image that we all love so much.
Then along came Brian Wilson, in all his 100-mph-fastball-laden glory. He got knocked around in his first full season as closer mostly as a result of control problems. Last season he came into his own after cutting down on the walks, even with almost every save recorded coming with a complementary heart attack. Setting down the side in order in the 9th is not Wilson’s M.O., instead preferring the method where he gives up two hits and a walk, and then proceeds to strike out the side on 30 pitches.
The bridge to Wilson has the potential to shorten any close game. This bridge is paved by the likes of Jeremy Affeldt, Sergio Romo and Dan Runzler. A lot of Affeldt’s success in 2009 could be attributed to a .244 BABIP and a load of stranded baserunners. That said, he was also pitching with the most effective fastball he’s ever had, rating out at a 12.1 (thanks to Fangraphs), up from his -4.9 in 2008, and bettering his previous career high of 10.6 back in 2003. And of course there will always be a special place in my heart for his strikeout of Carlos Gonzalez after which he went absolutely crazy .
Next we have the righty anchor Sergio Romo, who had an insanely unlucky 2009 season. With a miniscule line drive percentage of 14.8% and a 10.85 K/9 rate, he was nigh untouchable. Expect a huge drop in ERA (which is really a deceptive stat for relievers), as his BABIP of .346 indicates that seeing-eye grounders and bloop singles were far too common. The way Romo misses bats and avoids hard contact is a good indicator that 2010 will be a breakout season as long as he stays healthy.
Finally we have the wild card of the bunch, hard-throwing lefty Dan Runzler. Runzler features a fastball that touches triple digits, as well as a biting slider. In the few innings he logged at the big league level last year, he impressed coaches and fans alike. Last year he was a frequent flyer, making stops at every minor league affiliate the Giants have to offer before he received the call to the Majors in September. He was immediately thrown into high-leverage situations by Bruce Bochy, and performed admirably in a small sample-size of innings. The biggest question mark that remains at this point is Runzler’s control, with a minor league walk rate of almost five free passes per 9 innings. At the age of 24, he has a lot of time to learn the strike zone, and if he does he can be a top tier reliever for years to come.
The rest of the bullpen at this point is up in the air, with guys like Guillermo Mota, Santiago Casilla, Brandon Medders, Waldis Joaquin, Henry Sosa, and Todd Wellemeyer all competing for 4-5 spots. From a personal standpoint it’s refreshing to see the way that the front office truly has built this bullpen from the ground up while learning from past mistakes. This of course translates to the mantra of “no more dealing the Joe Nathan’s of tomorrow.” And for that, I’m eternally grateful.
Photo used with express permission of Joseph Pun and AZGiants.com