Earlier this offseason, Dan Szymborski wrote about the Giants’ remade rotation and the strategy behind it. In short: Alex Wood and Anthony DeSclafani were interesting free agents, and without much chance of reaching the playoffs, the team opted to buy low and hope to catch lightning in a bottle. In the weeks since, San Francisco has repeated the same project, only this time for the bullpen, highlighted by Jake McGee’s two-year, $7 million dollar deal announced on Tuesday.
McGee joins a sampler platter of relievers who might be good on cheap deals. In early December, the Giants signed Matt Wisler to a one-year deal. Later that month, they signed John Brebbia, who will spend at least the first half of the year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery but could be a late-season bullpen piece. They’ve also extended minor league deals to Dominic Leone, James Sherfy, Silvino Bracho, and Zack Littell. Spaghetti, meet wall.
McGee is the most interesting member of this group, which explains why he got two years and real money while everyone else got only a single year. He combines three things that teams look out for in relievers: he strikes out more batters than average; he walks fewer batters than average; and he’s left-handed. Those three traits alone are enough to get a job, and indeed, the Dodgers signed McGee to a one-year deal before 2020 when he was coming off back-to-back -0.3 WAR seasons.
Did it help that those seasons happened in Colorado, where pitchers go to cry? It certainly didn’t hurt. As much as anything else, though, McGee was a lottery ticket — a bet that Los Angeles could unlock what had been a promising fastball. Newsflash: He did it! Armed with an altered grip, he added a few ticks of velocity and got back to the two-plane movement that led to three excellent seasons in Tampa Bay.
With that new old fastball in tow, McGee’s pitch mix was downright hilarious. He threw 332 pitches in 2020, and 322 of them were fastballs. This wasn’t some kind of Kenley Jansen all-cutters diet, either: McGee’s fastball is a true four-seamer, with 98% transverse spin. Batters simply couldn’t catch up to it:
Luis Rengifo is a righty, and that’s another intriguing part of McGee’s profile. He faced 55 righties and only 24 lefties in 2020, and over the course of his career, he has a reverse platoon split. Righties have hit for an 8% lower wOBA against him than lefties, largely driven by BABIP; overall, he looks to be the rare lefty that does roughly equally well against both sides:
That sounds like an attractive quality for a reliever, and it explains why the Giants had to give him a two-year contract to obtain his services. On the other hand, McGee was a top-20 reliever by WAR in 2020. Did he deserve more?
Eh, I’m not convinced. As I mentioned above, he threw 332 pitches last year. He really did add velocity, but we don’t know how his arm will hold up over a full season, particularly given that he’ll turn 35 next August. His 18.4% swinging strike rate was wildly impressive, but it’s literally 61 swings and misses. He also faced a poor slate of competition: The average batter McGee faced had a .306 wOBA in 2020, 14 points below league average.
That’s not to say that his year was unimpressive by any means; merely that a single short season isn’t enough to feel confident about much of anything. The Dodgers used McGee only four times in the playoffs, and never when the outcome was in question: He entered into games when they were 0%, 4%, 10%, and 10% likely to win. That’s not conclusive evidence, but we’re clearly not talking about peak Mariano Rivera here.
But if McGee stinks — and he might stink, given that he was really bad in both 2018 and 2019 — so what? The Giants can afford $7 million over two years, and we give them only an 8% chance of making the playoffs this year. A busted bet on a reliever won’t push them over the CBT limit or scuttle their World Series aspirations. If he turns out to be great, that will either help them in 2022, when their young talent will be a year better, or give them a useful trade chip.
To a lesser extent, the same thing is true for all of the Giants’ bullpen additions. Brebbia might not be ready in time to contribute, but if he is, he’s a Chad Green starter kit. His mid-90s four-seamer with plus ride and a wipeout slider are the weapons behind a career 27.4% strikeout rate and 7.5% walk rate. That’s driven impressive run prevention numbers; he has a career 3.14 ERA and 3.39 FIP.
Maybe Brebbia is just homer-lucky — his career 4.44 xFIP isn’t inspiring — but he might also have a skill for it. Just over 26% of the fly balls he allows are hit above 45 degrees; in other words, with too much loft to become a home run. The league average is right around 20%. Perhaps some of his low home run rate is merited. If even a little bit of it is real, that’s a useful relief arm.
While Brebbia’s largest unanswered question is health, the rest of the Giants’ crew has larger concerns. Leone hasn’t been good since getting hurt in 2018, though he showed flashes in 12 games with Cleveland last year, throwing a new harder cutter that seemed to give new life to his previously-ailing slider. He clearly wasn’t great — he had an 8.38 ERA and allowed three homers in 9.2 innings — but he sat 94–96 mph and racked up 16 strikeouts, so he’s hardly a lost cause.
Sherfy features a slider and not much else, but it’s a wondrous slider. He threw it more than half the time in 2019, and I expect him to do the same in 2021 if he makes the team. That pitch is the foundation for a workable reliever: Among pitchers who threw at least 150 sliders in 2019, Sherfy finished 10th in CSW%, the percentage of his pitches that drew a called or swinging strike. The guys above him? JT Chargois, slider maven Robert Stephenson, and seven excellent pitchers:
Littell and Bracho are the least interesting of the bunch, but even then, you can see how they’d be good. The former threw 37 innings of 2.68 ERA relief in 2019 before looking like a pumpkin in six innings in 2020. The latter has thrown only one inning since 2018 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March 2019, so he’s a mystery box, but one with a low ceiling. If he throws 40 innings of average relief, the Giants will likely be pleased.
The Giants haven’t signed any marquee free agents this offseason. They haven’t meaningfully altered their long-term trajectory with a brilliant trade. Not every team can do that, though, and I like what they did instead. If even one of these relievers pans out, they will have come out ahead on these contracts. If two or more deliver, they’re golden. It’s a smart use of resources for a team that probably won’t stand up to the class of the NL West this year.
Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.