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May 25, 2012

Prospectus Game of the Week

Bullpens, Banana Suits, and Ryan Braun

by Sam Miller

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The bottom of the eighth inning starts with a man in an orange tuxedo.

Normally, orange tuxedos don’t start appearing on camera until the game is in extra innings, the clock has struck midnight, the baseball is #weird. Other than the orange tuxedo, this game is totally normal in the eighth inning. The Giants lead 3-1. Madison Bumgarner is pitching well. He strikes out the first batter of the eighth inning for his ninth K of the game, and he strikes out the second batter for his 10th. He jumps ahead on Norichika Aoki, and Buster Posey sets up for a high fastball. Bumgarner throws a high fastball. Aoki grounds it to shortstop. Brandon Crawford backs up, rather than charge it, then fumbles it. It’s an error. Ryan Braun is coming up.

Sergio Romo is warm in the Giants' bullpen, but Bruce Bochy doesn’t even bother with a trip to the mound. “He’s gonna let Bumgarner go after Braun,” Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow says, “just by the way he has pitched him tonight.”

He gets ahead 1-2. Posey calls for a back-foot slider. Krukow: “It’s a good call.” But it doesn’t reach Braun’s back foot. See the guy in the yellow shirt, around the middle of the screen? Now see the other guy in the yellow shirt, 10 feet behind him? That’s where.

The first time I remember hearing about a team that could “shorten the game” with three outstanding relief pitchers was in 1990: the Reds, with Dibble, Charlton and Myers. That year, Dibble, Charlton and Myers combined for a 2.28 ERA and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings. That’s nothing compared to what relievers these days do. The Braves’ top three last year had a 1.66 ERA and 10.9 Ks per nine. The Yankees’ top three had a 1.66 and 9.9. The Angels’ top three had a 2.34 ERA, and the team was widely seen as needing to upgrade the bullpen in the offseason. The Rangers' entire bullpen has a 2.03 ERA this year, and their three lowest-leveraged relievers—Uehara, Lowe, Ross—have a cumulative 1.87 ERA.

Which is all to say: the world is absolutely drowning in good relievers right now. In 1990, there were seven relievers (minimum 30 innings) who had an ERA of 2.00 or lower, 27 at or below 2.50, and 49 no worse than 3.00. In 2011, there were 15, 40, and 78 below each mark. It is this flood of strikeout arms, as much as any change in managerial strategy or any perceived need to protect starters, that has enabled the change in bullpen usage over the past two decades. In 1990, teams used six or more pitchers in a game 118 times. Teams have already surpassed that total in 2012. If your bullpen is deep enough, why not? Why, in retrospect, should Madison Bumgarner ever face Ryan Braun, as the tying run, in the eighth inning, if Sergio Romo is warm?

This episode of Game of the Week didn’t start in the first inning, because, as they say, after the Ryan Braun home run we had a brand new ballgame. A ballgame that would see each team reach the six-pitcher mark and that would feature a Giants bullpen that, somewhat quietly, and perhaps only temporarily, but in this era darned-near predictably, has put up the following ERAs deep into May:

Sergio Romo comes in after the home run. Romo was drafted in the 28th round of the 2005 draft, and he is one of only two players taken in that year’s 28th round who have appeared in a big-league game. (The other, Louis Coleman, has a 2.82 ERA in two seasons for the Royals. Everywhere you go, there you’ll find good relievers.) Romo is the best reliever on the Giants, and he might actually be the best reliever in the league, but the Giants treat him delicately. In 82 games over the past two years, he has thrown just 62 innings and faced just 230 batters, ratios suited more to a LOOGY than an eighth-inning guy. There are multiple reasons for this: Romo’s elbow has had trouble staying healthy; Javier Lopez has been so dominant against lefties that playing matchups is tempting; and Bochy, in general, pushes his relief pitchers toward extreme platoon usage.

Romo walks the first batter he faces, Aramis Ramirez, just the seventh unintentional walk issued by Romo since the beginning of 2011. He strikes out Carlos Gomez—three sliders: up and in, called; down and away, swinging; down and away, called—to end the eighth.

He stays on for the ninth to face Rickie Weeks. I watched Barry Bonds from 2001 to 2004. I watched Pedro Martinez from 1998 to 2003. But Sergio Romo vs. Rickie Weeks might be the most one-sided performance I’ve ever seen on a baseball field:

  • Weeks is 0-for-6 against Romo in his career.
  • Weeks has struck out six times, all swinging, three times on three pitches.
  • Romo has thrown Weeks 22 pitches, and 19 of them have been sliders.
  • Of the 19, 16 have been strikes.
  • Of the 16, 10 have been swinging.
  • Weeks has not fouled a pitch off.

Weeks strikes out.

With that, Jeremy Affeldt comes in. Flies, gnats, some sort of airborne bug have also come in, and they fill the TV screen from the center-field camera and will for the rest of the game.

If Romo is the diamond that the Giants discovered in the third day of the First-Year Player draft, then Affeldt is the closest thing to a big-money signing in this bullpen. Once a promising starter who suffered through the worst of the 2000s Royals clubs, Affeldt might have strongly considered retiring in 2006, when he split time between a 100-loss Royals club and Coors Field, with a composite 6.20 ERA. Other than his promising 2003 season, he had never pitched well as a starter or reliever. In 2007, which he spent exclusively in relief, he had a classic flukey-good reliever season, then a legitimately good one with the Reds, and became the first free agent of the 2009 offseason to sign when he joined the Giants. He credited his improvement to the Rockies telling him to pound the strike zone, but he didn’t really do that until he went to Cincinnati. Others credited it to the velocity he added after moving to relief, but that didn’t happen until his third year of relief.

Regardless, the Giants have liked him enough to extend him twice, and if you strip away the standard small-sample shenanigans of relief statistics, he has been awfully consistent as a Giant: his strikeouts rates in four seasons have been 7.9, 7.9, 7.9 and, this year, 8.0.

He gets the final two outs, ending the ninth. “Extra innings,” Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper says, “and the Giants are thankful for that.”

It’s Affeldt again in the 10th, with Aoki batting. That means Ryan Braun is on deck. But Affeldt makes Aoki look so silly,

that Bochy leaves Affeldt in to face Braun. The camera cuts to the stands, to a pretty girl in a Packers t-shirt, a camera-phone held up to capture video of a possible walk-off home run. Behind her, another young lady starts to put her backpack on, in case she has to scurry out and beat traffic after Braun’s next swing. The Giants broadcast shows a replay of Braun’s eighth-inning home run, which fades into a medium shot of Braun walking to the plate. He stares calmly out in the distance, as though deciding which fan in yellow to hit a baseball to this time. He gives his belt a tug and points the bat with one hand toward the field

The first pitch is a sinking fastball, 92 mph and probably low, with Buster Posey catching it below his own right knee and letting the heavy sink pull his glove even lower. More than anything, it’s that pitch that has turned Affeldt’s career around. After getting grounders at a rate of about 50 percent through his career, he moved into the mid-50s after converting to relief in Colorado and has been well above 60 as a Giant. (Just four lefty relievers have a better groundball rate than he does since the start of 2011.)

Braun’s body stiffens as he turns away from the mound, tucking his bat under his arm and straying far from the batter’s box. The umpire says something to him, and Braun turns in response. They converse. It looks friendly. They both seethe.

Posey sets up in the same spot. This time, rather than fall into a two-strike hole, Braun goes after it and skips a one-hopper to the second baseman.

Kuiper: How does the 11th sound?
Krukow: Good. Real good.

When the Giants return to the field for the bottom of the 11th, Ryan Braun is out of the game (groin), and Affeldt has been replaced by Clay Hensley, most famous (still! even now!) in San Francisco for giving up Barry Bonds’ 755th home run, and for later being suspended for the most ironic performance-enhancing drug use ever. Poor Hensley had a breakout 2010 season, striking out a batter per inning (had never been better than six per nine) and posting a 2.16 ERA for the Marlins, before hurting his shoulder in 2011. An attempt at putting him in the rotation failed (6.21 ERA in nine starts) and his velocity went down, down, down while the flames went higher. The Giants got him on a non-guaranteed contract. He throws 85 mph.

“Hensley is a funky at-bat,” Krukow says. “As you watch the hitting speed, 90 to 93, you get used to it. Here is a guy throwing 85 to 88, more 85s than 88s, but with big-time movement that’s almost like a screwball. Then he’s got a big ol’ slow curveball that we’ve seen him throw 58 mph. That’s slo-pitch softball. And the guts of a burglar. Never underestimate the guts of a burglar.”

“In extra innings,” Kuiper adds, “on the road.”

Hensley walks the first batter he faces, but Ron Roenicke’s call for a sacrifice bunt produces only the bunt, rather than the sacrifice, as Hensley fields it quickly and throws to second for a fielder’s choice. He retires the next two batters to close the 11th. He doesn’t throw the 58-mph curveball, but the 68-mph curveball is slow enough to make his point.

Kuiper: And we will indeed head on, here in extra innings, to the 12th.
(Pause)
Krukow: That’s good news!

They run the sausage race again. We’re 90 minutes to midnight, but it’s starting to feel #weird. The Giants' broadcast begins isolating fans who yawn, so Krukow can mock them.

Hensley gets another pop up to third base and strikes out Taylor Green, who waves wildly at a changeup. An 82-mph changeup, playing off an 85-mph fastball.

“Funkiness is good up here,” Krukow says. “You have something that’s abnormal, you’re gonna be a hit.”

But Hensley walks Corey Hart, and Bruce Bochy comes out to remove him. He replaces Buster Posey with Hector Sanchez in the double-switch, so now each team’s best hitter is out of the game.

An hour short of midnight.

The fat man in the banana suit takes Krukow and Kuiper completely out of the moment. Kuiper forgets the inning. Krukow is speechless, then asks for a minute, and the feed (at least on MLB.tv) abruptly cuts to commercial. “We were doing pretty good until just moments ago,” Kuiper says upon returning.

Javier Lopez is the reliever. Brian Sabean added him in the World Series run of 2010, trading a couple minor-league veterans for him. At the time, it seemed like an overpay, but Lopez hasn’t allowed a home run as a Giant yet, and the World Series ring he wears hasn’t thrown off his balance or anything. I went over Lopez during the offseason, focusing on the extremely low arm angle he has used increasingly, and with increasingly successful results.

Thirty-five times this year, Lopez’ release point was at least 3.95 feet away from center and within 3.5 feet of the ground. He threw 57 such pitches in 2010. (He dropped down before that, too, but not as far, according to PITCHf/x.) Obviously, 92 pitches isn’t anywhere close to enough to be drawing conclusions. It’s the equivalent of about 25 batters, or one start. Javier Lopez’ drop-down delivery has made one start. So take this in the spirit of amusement, not analysis, a disclaimer that you should add to every sentence of the rest of this piece. Here is how Javier Lopez’ drop-down-delivery start went:
  • In the equivalent of one start, Lopez allowed 20 balls to be put in play: 18 outs (11 groundouts, six flyouts, onelineout) and two singles (both grounders).
  • In the equivalent of one start, Lopez got 47 strikes, whether called (16), fouled (22) or whiffed (nine). And he threw 25 balls, including one hit batsman.

Like Romo, Affeldt, and Hensley before him, Lopez walks the first batter he faces. Like the others, he settles down quickly. Nyjer Morgan, in for Braun, tries to keep his hands back, but his hips fly open at Lopez’s delivery, and he grounds weakly to shortstop. The inning ends, and Lopez is done for the night. When it’s time for a change, think SpeeDee Oil Change and Tune Up, your oil change, tune-up, and smog experts.

Finally, it’s Santiago Casilla. Back in 2004, Casilla—then Jairo Garcia—struck out 49, walked six, and allowed one earned run in 30 innings. Of course, he was in the Midwest League and way older than he said. The Giants signed Casilla after the A’s released him. Since then, he has the third-best ERA in baseball, behind Mike Adams and Romo.

Casilla's first pitch to Aramis Ramirez is down the middle, 94, and Ramirez isn’t close to turning on it. He flies the next pitch, a curveball low, high in the air, and if your feed went out at this moment you’d swear Ramirez ended the game:

Fans rose out of their seats, the nearly empty stadium got loud with cheers, but the flyball was actually nowhere close even to the warning track, and Casilla gets his first out. He gets ahead of Gomez 0-2.

Casilla then hits his target with a high fastball, but Gomez lays off. He doesn’t lay off the brutal curve that the fastball set up, which lands at Sanchez’ right foot.

The Giants’ broadcast shows a replay of the next hitter, Travis Ishikawa, beating Casilla with a game-winning double earlier in the year. There seems to be video of every Brewer beating the Giants, but tonight Ishikawa is overwhelmed by Casilla’s 95-mph fastballs.

Kuiper: Hey, we’re going to the 14th, and I gotta tell you
Krukow: Yeah?
Kuiper: There’s no other place I’d rather be
Krukow: Wooohoo!
Kuip: Except in my bed.

Casilla is back out for the 14th with a lead. He gets George Kottaras looking at a curveball, and Cesar Izturis flies the first pitch he sees to center field. Taylor Green, the seventh batter to occupy the ninth spot of the Brewers’ order, takes a 1-0 curve for a strike and falls behind on a checked swing at a high fastball. Casilla throws a curve, and Green gets a bad-hop single into right field. But Corey Hart, the most powerful Brewers hitter left, flies out to deep center field to end the game, about 20 minutes shy of midnight. The Giants’ bullpen allowed one hit in 6 ⅓ innings, and no runs in 13 ⅓ innings in the series. It is a bullpen that cost a 28th-round pick, two non-guaranteed contracts, John Bowker and Joe Martinez, and about $5 million per year to Affeldt.

“You never know when your bullpen is going to come of age,” Krukow says. “This was the night. They were fantastic.”

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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