CHICAGO — Juggernauts such as the Dodgers, Yankees and Astros are hogging the mirror these days, but the National League Wild Card contenders aren’t exactly yearning to use one.
The Nationals, Cubs and Brewers are all deeply flawed and mirrors would only highlight their imperfections.
The Giants spent the first two months of the season avoiding their reflection, but they couldn’t get enough of themselves during the month of July. Their lineup and bullpen were the envy of their peers, but Bruce Bochy’s club has recently experienced a struggle other teams with playoff aspirations know all too well.
The Giants still have one of the league’s better bullpens, but like every NL team in the playoff hunt, finding ways to record the final outs of games has become a concern.
During the first half of the season, closer Will Smith, left-handed set-up man Tony Watson and right-handed set-up man Sam Dyson combined to allow 32 runs in 114 innings (2.53 ERA) as they formed an elite back-end trio for the Giants. Since the All-Star break, the Giants traded Dyson to the Twins and have watched as Watson and Smith have combined to surrender 20 runs in 30 1/3 innings.
A significant decline in production from the team’s best relievers has only had a marginal effect on the club’s results, but an inconsistent bullpen could threaten any hope the Giants have of sneaking into the Wild Card race.
With an unsettled starting rotation and a lineup that can’t score at home, the Giants have a smaller margin for error than some teams in front of them like the Nationals and Cubs, which boast stronger starting rotation and deeper lineups.
The Giants’ 3.88 bullpen ERA during the second half still ranks sixth among all major league teams and it’s almost identical to the 3.89 ERA the team’s relief corps has posted through 124 games this season. Those numbers suggest there’s no cause for concern, especially when considering the late-game circuses teams such as the Mets and Brewers are charging admission to watch.
The Giants, however, typically play a different style of baseball than most teams. Their 29-11 record in one-run games this season is a testament to how well their relievers have performed while also proving the value of Bochy, a veteran manager who so frequently pulls all the right strings at the end of games.
A club that’s 18 games over .500 in one-run games and just one game over .500 on the regular season still must be concerned about even the slightest sign of regression from top relievers charged with pitching in high-leverage situations on a near-daily basis. That’s why the recent performances of Watson and Smith are a warning sign.
Bochy and the Giants have navigated the recent hiccups well, as it’s unlikely Watson will return to his set-up role without first proving he’s regained his ability to execute with his fastball. Even Smith, who needed 37 pitches to record a stressful save against the A’s on Tuesday, was removed from a save situation with one out left in Friday’s game because he reached a pitch limit.
After president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi traded Dyson, Mark Melancon and Drew Pomeranz at the July 31 deadline, several middle relievers have stepped up and taken on more responsibility in the late innings.
Trevor Gott, Sam Coonrod and Reyes Moronta are all striking out nearly a batter per inning and none has an ERA above 2.51 since the All-Star break. Jandel Gustave, a hard-throwing reliever who became an unlikely addition to the 40-man roster in July, has thrived since a promotion from Triple-A and owns a 1.50 ERA in 12 innings with the Giants.
With Watson and Smith potentially feeling the effects of heavy early-season workloads, the Giants could use another solid left-handed arm in the bullpen down the stretch. Rule 5 draft choice Travis Bergen didn’t work out, but perhaps journeyman veteran Fernando Abad or lanky southpaw Williams Jerez can provide depth against lefties in the middle innings.
The Giants’ Wild Card aspirations could take a massive hit in their three-game series against the Cubs this week, but the team can also make up ground by winning a series or securing a sweep. With right-handers Tyler Beede and Dereck Rodríguez slated to start the first two games, there’s a strong chance the Giants’ bullpen plays a significant role in determining the outcomes on Tuesday and Wednesday.
If the Giants take the series, don’t be surprised to see them peeking in the mirror again.