John Brebbia

How Brebbia's unique MLB path led to key Giants bullpen role

NBC Universal, Inc.

SAN FRANCISCO -- When the Giants held their annual photo day in late February at Scottsdale Stadium, John Brebbia walked into the room, saw a set of cameras and immediately realized he had made a mistake.

Brebbia had light stubble on his face, so he ran back to the clubhouse to quickly shave and keep a tradition going. Every spring, Brebbia shaves his face before the start of the year and then lets his red beard grow wild for the next six months.

The bushy look is a reminder to the right-handed reliever to have fun and enjoy how far he has come in this game, and it's been quite the journey.

When he was a senior in high school, Brebbia moved to Florida so that he could have a better shot at playing baseball in college. He ended up at Elon University, a small school in North Carolina, before being drafted in the 30th round in 2011.

After just 63 minor league relief appearances, Brebbia was released, which usually would mark the end of the road for a low-round draft pick. But Brebbia opted to join the Sioux Falls Canaries of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, which led to a second year with the Laredo Lemurs.

It was in that independent league that Brebbia rediscovered his love for the game and put himself on an unlikely track to the big leagues.

"Almost immediately after being drafted, things just went downhill, so I had a good couple of years to cope with never playing baseball again," he said on Thursday's Giants Talk. "So when I finally did get released, I was like, 'Okay, let's play independent ball, let's finish with having some fun.' It sounds strange, but I never went into it with this intense 'I'm going to make it to the Major Leagues' attitude. I just kind of did it because it was fun. And I never wanted to be bad -- I was constantly trying to be the best that I could -- but I was okay if I wasn't and I was okay if I failed.

"I think that was a huge help because I could just enjoy myself, and when I started enjoying myself, things changed drastically. It was fun and I was better, so it was kind of a win-win scenario there."

These days, Brebbia is hardly ever seen without a smile on his face. He even flashes a grin sometimes when Gabe Kapler comes to take him out of a game, asking his manager some variation of, "Are you sure you want to make this move?" But Brebbia says there was a time when he pitched "angry," which didn't at all work for him.

"That's kind of what I thought I saw out of big leaguers," he said. "You're not smiling, you give up a hit and you're all ticked off, you just kind of have this aggressive focus towards the sport. So I was like, 'Alright, cool, I can do that,' and I couldn't. I was terrible at it. It was nice to be able to break through those constraints of affiliated baseball."

Brebbia's success in Laredo in 2015 earned him a second shot at the minor leagues, and by 2017 he was part of the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen. He posted a 3.14 ERA in three seasons before his elbow gave out, but he tried to find the silver linings when he was told he needed Tommy John surgery.

Brebbia's UCL tore a few days before spring training was canceled in 2020. He reminded himself that a year of rehab was nothing compared to what was going on elsewhere in the world, and he found joy in the unexpected time with his family. When the Cardinals opted not to bring him back, he found a perfect fit in San Francisco.

The Giants signed Brebbia to a one-year contract while he was rehabbing, and in San Francisco, he jumped headfirst into the world of spreadsheets, which fit well with the new direction the coaching staff was taking. Brebbia tracked everything from his throws during bullpen sessions to his sleep scores. Two years later, coaches still joke about Brebbia's love for "spreadies."

"I could be the worst possible person at using Excel or Google spreadsheets," he said, smiling, "But I have so much fun doing it."

Brebbia jokes now that all of those spreadsheets didn't lead to much initially, since he struggled after coming off the IL in 2021. But the work helped him attack the rehab process, and the Giants were confident that Brebbia's initial numbers were the result of knocking the rust off after a quick recovery from Tommy John.

They brought him back, and in 105 appearances since the start of last season, Brebbia has a 3.17 ERA and 3.14 FIP. He picked San Francisco in part because of the coaching staff, and last season that group decided he was the perfect fit for a new strategy.

Brebbia has made 19 starts in the last two seasons, and while he warms up to a song that includes the lyrics "I'm just the opener, no one came to see me," the Giants certainly value what he has brought to that role. In 20 innings as the opener, Brebbia has allowed just two runs.

It didn't take long for Brebbia to become the preferred choice to start bullpen games, but the Giants will have to wait a while to get him back in that role. He suffered a Grade 2 lat strain last month, throwing him back into the rehab process.

But as he works his way back, there's a constant reminder that this latest injury is nothing compared to what it took just to get to this point.

RELATED: Giants reliever Brebbia names Bailey trait that impresses him most

The beard started in 2014 in independent ball, and every year, Brebbia brings it back.

"There's no redeeming qualities, I don't get anything out of it," he said. "The best I can give you is that it's a reminder to have fun, it's a reminder of, 'John, you've been released, you've been nowhere close to where you are now.' I get to go in the mirror and look at my face and go, 'That's right, this has been a pretty cool path.'"

Download and follow the Giants Talk Podcast

Contact Us