Should the Atlanta Braves summon their closer to pitch today at AT&T Park, you’ll see a stocky right-hander whose average fastball of 96.1 mph ranks as the ninth-fastest in the majors this year. Should the Giants summon theirs, he’ll be a compact right-hander with a side-slinging motion who averages a fastball about 8 mph slower and throws his knee-buckling slider nearly 50 percent of the time.
The differences between Craig Kimbrel and Sergio Romo could be seen as a snapshot of the contrasting styles of their teams’ respective bullpens. Entering their series this week in San Francisco, the Braves’ bullpen had the highest average fastball velocity in baseball at 93.7 mph, according to the analytics website FanGraphs.
The Giants, meanwhile, ranked 26th in that category (91.4 mph) after finishing second-to-last in 2013. Yet the Giants’ bullpen boasted the lowest ERA (2.10) in the majors and had stranded runners at the second-highest rate (84.1 percent) – two reasons the Giants began the series tied for the best record in the National League.
The Braves have been no slouches when it comes to results, either, ranking sixth in ERA and owning the majors’ highest strikeout rate (10.91 per nine innings) to boot. But while power arms dot and sometimes dominate the relief landscape – of the top 10 bullpens in average fastball velocity last season, six made the playoffs – the Giants show that a team doesn’t necessarily need flamethrowers to burn through the late innings.
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“It’s very hard to do what the Braves have done, to acquire that kind of talent and get them ready at the same time to compete at a big-league level,” Giants assistant general manager Bobby Evans said. The composition of the Giants’ bullpen, meanwhile, is “not any one element. It’s a combined effort of thinking outside the box, thinking uniquely about effectiveness and how to be effective.”
Indeed, as manager Bruce Bochy pointed out, part of the strength of the Giants’ bullpen lies in its variety. Bochy can call upon some power, particularly from the right side with Santiago Casilla and Juan Gutierrez, whose average fastball of 94.7 mph is the Giants’ fastest. The rest of the unit, meanwhile, presents hitters with a different looks.
Sidewinder Javier Lopez described the Giants’ left-handed contingent this way: “Jeremy (Affeldt) is going to come at you with a split-finger that you don’t see often from a lefty. And (David) Huff would be your more traditional lefty with off-speed stuff and a great changeup. For me, I’m going with deception and arm angle.
“I think that also works with our right-handers, and I think that’s why we work so well. We’re able to play the situational game really well.”
Part of that is predicated on the Giants’ starting pitching – the deeper they go into games, the more freedom Bochy has to match up late with his relievers. There’s also the factor of the Giants playing half their games at relatively forgiving AT&T Park. Giants relievers have issued the fewest walks per nine innings in the majors – meaning fewer baserunners to potentially be driven in – and Lopez acknowledged that’s in part because, “You can challenge more over the middle of the plate and get away with it here.
“One of the big things we try to do is be strike-throwers and contact-conscious pitchers,” Lopez said. “And what ultimately makes us effective is that we’re not trying to maybe go out there and set a guy up and get a punch-out. Often we’re just trying to get a ball in play in the first three pitches.”
All this isn’t to say there’s no value in velocity, which Evans said “can be a silver bullet at times,” allowing a little more room for error in location or simply overpowering hitters. The Cardinals, Braves, Pirates and Reds all won 90 games last season with bullpens that ranked in the top 10 in average fastball velocity.
This season, Atlanta has three relievers – Kimbrel, David Carpenter (95.1) and currently injured Jordan Walden (96.7) – with a higher average fastball than Gutierrez, the Giants’ leader. In fact, Evans said: “We added JC Gutierrez because we value arm strength.”
“There is a nice advantage to having velocity,” Evans said. “Especially if you can mix in any type of offspeed stuff, it can be a really quick out.”
Still, despite seeing his own group of relievers every day, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was surprised to hear that they’re among the hardest-throwing in baseball – an indication that the ultimate value of a bullpen lies elsewhere.
“The need is to know when you call them in – whether they’re power arms or not power arms – you know they’re going to do their jobs,” Gonzalez said. “That’s the No. 1 criteria, is you know what you’re going to get, for the most part, day in and day out.”