The San Francisco Giants have now finished a quarter of the 2020 regular season, but their relief pitchers still don’t have fixed roles.
First-year manager Gabe Kapler came under fire for how he managed his bullpen during two seasons leading the Philadelphia Phillies, but despite the Giants’ 6-9 start this summer, he’s in no rush to name a closer.
Kapler has no interest in publicly announcing his set-up men and has only hinted at which pitchers he’s comfortable using in long relief opportunities. Until he revealed probable starters for the Giants’ weekend series in Los Angeles on Thursday, he was reluctant to give away their identities more than a few hours until first pitch.
“This is an exercise in flexibility for both myself and our bullpen coach and the pitchers as well,” Kapler said Friday.
To some Giants fans, the team’s bullpen has been an exercise in futility.
In a 7-2 blowout loss on Friday in Los Angeles, it was starter Jeff Samardzija, not an overtaxed bullpen, who took the Giants out of the game early. Samardzija gave up three home runs to three different Dodgers sluggers and needed Sam Selman, Rico Garcia and Wandy Peralta to cover the final four innings in relief.
Garcia and Peralta were pitching on back-to-back days after appearing in the late innings of Thursday’s loss to the Rockies, but Kapler sees both pitchers among his most durable arms and thinks they bounce back well on a day-to-day basis.
Why use Garcia, a right-handed pitcher who had been pitching in more high-leverage situations, in the midst of a blowout loss on Friday? Kapler gave a detailed answer during a pregame video conference with reporters in which he explained how the Giants’ coaching staff considers its relief options on a day-to-day basis.
“We’re going to keep evaluating (our relievers) on paper and with our eyes and the further along we get in the season, the more we’re going to know on who are our long-term options for us in the pen and who we can rely on in the biggest moments,” Kapler said.
Kapler is not opposed to fixed roles, but he also hasn’t officially named Trevor Gott his closer yet despite using Gott in all three save situations the Giants have had this season.
Why wait to tell Gott he’s the favorite for the ninth inning?
“We want to match those guys up and not slot them into specific innings ahead of time without knowing all of that information,” Kapler said. “The minute you say Gott is our closer, now you don’t have the ability to do that. The minute you say (Tony Watson) is the eighth inning guy and we have a stretch of lefties, you don’t have the ability to put Watty in against a string of left-handed hitters in the seventh.”
In building out pitching plans on a daily basis, Kapler indicated the coaching staff looks at potential late-inning matchups and then creates separate lists of right and left-handed relievers ranked in order of how comfortable the Giants would feel using each in a high-leverage situation.
The right-handed list typically starts with Gott at the top, followed by rookie Tyler Rogers. If the Giants think they’ll face a pocket of more talented right-handed hitters in the eighth inning followed by the bottom of a team’s order in the ninth, Kapler said he wants the flexibility to use Gott in the eighth and another reliever after him.
“If we see the toughest part of the opposing lineup more likely to come up in the seventh than the eighth or the ninth, we still want the guy who is best equipped to take down that part of the lineup of those high-leverage relievers,” Kapler said.
The left-handed list is led by Tony Watson, but also includes Peralta and rookie Caleb Baragar. Conner Menez is likely pitching himself into a higher ranking on the Giants’ list, while Selman began Friday’s game at the very bottom.
When Samardzija exited in the bottom of the fifth on Friday, the Giants needed Selman to throw two innings in a lower-leverage situation. Given the Giants’ depth issues in the bullpen following a challenging four-game set at Coors Field, it’s possible Selman will be optioned to the team’s alternate site Saturday to create roster space for another reliever who would likely slot in at the bottom of the “leverage list.”
Kapler also indicated the way the Giants are managing the bullpen during the 2020 season isn’t necessarily the way he’ll manage it moving forward. The team has a plethora of inexperienced pitchers and outside of Gott, Peralta and Watson, no relievers on the roster have an extensive track record.
If the Giants wind up building a bullpen with more veteran arms in 2021, fans should expect more traditional reliever usage. Reyes Moronta, a potential closer, could return from a shoulder injury by the end of the 2020 season while other hard-throwing right-handers such as Shaun Anderson and Sam Coonrod could spend the rest of this year proving they’re capable of bigger roles next summer.
With the chance to add a few arms from the outside during the offseason, the Giants should have a more competent bullpen next season, particularly if four or five of the inexperienced relievers getting a shot this year become mainstays.
For a Giants team that now features several promising, yet struggling arms in its bullpen, it’s too soon to think about the 2021 roster.
“We’ve got a lot of young kids trying to make a name for themselves,” Kapler said.
For some of the pitchers, it’s too soon to know what type of situation they’ll be used in next.
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