Fearing the Beard
The Giants of 2010 were a cast of characters to say the least. Between Tim Lincecum’s long hair and alleged marijuana use and Cody Ross’ storied past as a rodeo clown, there were tall-tales galore. The most interesting of these stories though came in the form of a certain bearded closer and his merry men. Brian Wilson, former starter and present-day hero, came to define the mentality of the entire bullpen. As Wilson began to resemble a member of ZZ Top more than a ballplayer, he converted huge save after huge save. The rest of the bullpen began to follow suit, with Sergio Romo and Jeremy Affeldt growing beards of their own. Pretty soon, an entire city followed as well.
It’s safe to say that without the bullpen, the Giants’ World Series title would be nothing more than a figment of our imaginations. When Jonathan Sanchez failed to make it out of the third inning in Game 6 against the Phillies, the relief corps stepped in to throw seven shutout innings (with guest appearances from Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum). In that same series, manager Charlie Manuel actually built his batting order around making sure that lefty-slayer Javier Lopez wouldn’t be able to pitch to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley back-to-back in the late innings. From Santiago Casilla and his 100 mph fastball to Sergio Romo’s frisbee slider, the bullpen was stocked with quality arms.
If the 2011 Giants squad has any designs of a repeat performance of 2010, then the bullpen will need to be just as effective. When it comes to building a team, typically the foundation is laid with a solid rotation. After this, a general manager will typically focus on building a solid offense to complement its starting pitchers. When all of this is said and done, attention is finally turned to the bullpen. A GM is then presented with two options: sign pricey free agent relievers to multi-year deals worth considerably more than market value, or imitate the psychotic gibbon at the zoo by throwing feces against a wall and seeing what sticks (this analogy is in no way calling any player gibbon feces, lest I be misunderstood). The latter of these two methods is usually the most cost-effective as well as the most successful.
In terms of the best way to allocate payroll on the 25-man roster, the bullpen should be the cheapest investment (second only to the bench). Over the course of a season, the collection of 6-7 relievers on your club will probably throw somewhere close to 400-500 innings a season. Your five starters on the other hand will usually accumulate around 900-1000 innings, giving them a much higher stake probability-wise in affecting the outcome of a ballgame. Now in all fairness, a lot of the innings thrown by a reliever are in high-stress/high-risk situations, so that also needs to be taken into account. With all of this in mind, throwing 3 years and $35 million at a setup man (see Soriano, Rafael, Yankees) is overpaying to say the least. Luckily, the Giants front office learned their lesson thanks to the Armando Benitez debacle.
Since the dark days of Benitez, the Giants have slowly but surely accumulated relievers that no one else wanted to form what was quantifiably one of the best bullpens in baseball in 2010. First we have the homegrown products in Sergio Romo, Dan Runzler, and Brian Wilson. Next we have the cast-offs (Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez, Ramon Ramirez). Finally, we have the inexpensive free agent in Jeremy Affeldt, and voila, we have ourselves a bullpen. Factor in the relatively unknown Marc Kroon, who has the record for the fastest pitch in the history of Japanese baseball and suddenly 2011 looks bright for the relief corps.
Without having to overspend on free agents, the front office has made the bullpen easily the cheapest yet most effective investment on the payroll. To be an effective reliever, all you really need is a decent fastball with a slightly above-average secondary pitch, and odds are you’ll get people out. If you don’t have a fastball, don’t fret; all you have to do is throw sidearm and be left-handed and someone will give you a job getting Ryan Howard and Chase Utley out with the bases loaded in the 8th inning of a one-run ballgame. Say what you want about Brian Sabean being set in his ways as an old-school general manager, but when it comes to putting together a top-ranked bullpen on the cheap, he’s second only to Kevin Towers and Jed Hoyer who put together the assembly of slider-throwing demons down in San Diego.
In a division ripe with quality young arms, the Giants have kept pace. If the offense can continue to be decidedly average while the pitching staff does its thing, 2011 should be a good year. A lot of balls need to stay in the air for this to happen though, so having the bullpen be one less thing to worry about is certainly a luxury we can afford to have for the time being.