Giants Talk

Giants' bullpen thriving with increased work after rocky start

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SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants came into the 2023 MLB season with six experienced starting pitchers, multiple length options in the bullpen and a top prospect headed for Triple-A. They were about the last team in baseball that expected to be running back-to-back bullpen games in early June, but that's what they ended up doing against the Chicago Cubs.

On Sunday morning, as he explained why the staff didn't add a starter for the stretch -- Kyle Harrison and Keaton Winn were both lined up perfectly if needed -- manager Gabe Kapler seemed to have an understanding of the grumbling outside of his own clubhouse.

Bullpen games are not popular with fans. But they've been just as effective as normal ones for the Giants, and they rely on the same truism. It doesn't matter how you get through your nine innings on defense if you're not doing anything at the plate.
On Saturday, the Giants had one hit and lost the bullpen game 4-0. On Sunday, they won 13-3, getting such a big league that Brandon Crawford closed it out. When asked about the state of his bullpen before Sunday's game, Kapler thought back to Saturday.

"You realize that it's really about how many runs you scored and not necessarily that you ran a game with (a lot of) pitchers," Kapler said. "We've had a lot of sustained success over a long period of time running these types of games. It's not perfect, but when you have a couple of pitchers that are down (in Ross Stripling and Alex Wood) and you have three healthy and productive starters that you count on each time through the rotation, you've got to do stuff like this. It's not perfect but we'll get through it."

With the win, the Giants improved to 4-3 in games started by John Brebbia, who has thrived as an opener. They were 7-4 last year in Brebbia's "starts" and went 2-2 when left-hander Scott Alexander got the nod. It's a very small sample, but those games were certainly effective for a team that finished .500 overall.

For this staff, using an opener is often a feature, not a bug, and it's easy to see why, especially lately. The bullpen has been dominant since a rocky start to April, and with two starters down -- and Sean Manaea struggling when in the rotation -- Kapler has leaned into the strength. More bullpen games means more of the bullpen, and right now that's a positive for the Giants.

"I think confidence is the number one factor," Kapler said when asked about the surge on Monday's Giants Talk. "I think you could say that is true for Taylor Rogers right now. I think he was still trying to find himself as he came out of the end of spring training and as the season has matured he has just gotten a little bit of a wave behind him because he feels like he's going to deliver the ball in the strike zone more frequently and he's going to get his swing-and-miss on that slider and he can drop that in the zone. There's been a little bit of a domino effect from Taylor's performance.

"Sean Manaea has saved the bullpen innings at various times, he's more confident than he has been. And there are a lot of our relievers who we expect to be very good and just kind of got off to not-great starts. You can't always explain those things, it just kind of happens sometimes. It just kind of happened at the beginning of the season. With the addition of Luke Jackson -- a guy that was pitching in the World Series not that long ago -- we've got the makings of a pretty deep and effective mix-and-match bullpen. We're happy where we are."

Since the start of May, the bullpen ranks second in the Majors in ERA (2.52) and FIP (3.27), third in home runs per nine innings, and eighth in strikeouts per nine. They're also fourth in innings thrown over that span, but the increase in workload hasn't hurt, especially in the actual bullpen games. The Giants have used an opener eight times and have a 2.66 ERA in those games.

Manaea has been a big part of that, and after allowing 19 earned runs in 22 2/3 innings as a starter, he has given up just five in 19 2/3 relief innings over the past month. The lefty threw 4 1/3 hitless relief innings on Saturday, a performance that once again had fans and reporters asking when Manaea would move back to the rotation and give the group a more traditional look.

Kapler said that will happen at some point, but there's no rush. The Giants expect Wood back next weekend, but they might still roll with bullpen games in that final spot. Manaea is acting as a solid starter right now. He's just coming out of the bullpen at some point, not jogging over from the dugout in the first inning.

"We see him thriving in this role so we don't necessarily want to take him out of the role," Kapler said. "The role is essentially pitching big chunks of the game -- every fifth day or so."

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