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Webb and Cobb and a bullpen mob: Is the Giants’ unconventional pitching plan helping or hurting in NL wild-card chase?

The San Francisco Giants have navigated the 2023 season by turning rotation slots into openers, bulk guys and tag-team efforts

In 1948, the Boston Braves were in a tight pennant race. Facing their chief rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, in a Labor Day doubleheader, the Braves turned to their top two starters — Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain — and swept. Then it rained.

The Braves didn’t play again for five days. When they returned to the field, manager Billy Southworth leaned on Spahn and Sain. In 10 games starting with that Labor Day twin bill, one of those two started eight times, and the Braves’ lead swelled to six games en route to the World Series. Amid the intervening deluge, a local newspaper editor penned a poem that turned into a rhyme that turned into legendary shorthand for short-handed starting rotations: Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.

The 2023 San Francisco Giants could easily be painted as rain-dancers. They have spent swaths of the season — including almost the entire second half — using only Logan Webb and Alex Cobb as traditional starting pitchers.

The evidence, even beyond the blank TBAs that adorn most of the team’s pitching probable slots, is ample. The Giants have already logged 53 games in which their "starter" worked four innings or fewer. Those starters have thrown 80-plus pitches in only 61 games, last in MLB by a healthy margin. The “bullpen” has thrown 24 2/3 more innings than any other team’s.

Frequently utilizing “bulk guys” who follow openers or tandem starters who split the early frames, the Giants have squeezed three or more innings out of arms on three or fewer days’ rest 23 times — a practice wildly out of step with modern MLB tendencies. Only two teams have done it more in the past 20 seasons, and the last to do so was the 2012 Colorado Rockies (who finished 64-98, if you were wondering).

But these Giants aren’t playing out the string or using a rebuilding year as a baseball experiment. They’re neck-and-neck with a half-dozen teams vying for NL wild-card berths, rounding the corner toward a crucial September.

It’s tempting to mint a lilt in this rotation’s honor. Webb and Cobb and whoever’ll lob. Webb and Cobb and share the job. Webb and Cobb and a bullpen mob. But before we go that route, consider their track record in the less easily categorized games. Those 1948 Braves weren’t quite as top-heavy as the rhyme would have you believe. And neither are these Giants.

A two-man starting rotation? Or two different rotations?

Prior to the debut of top prospect Kyle Harrison on Tuesday, it was accurate to say that yes, the Giants were running a two-man starting rotation. But they’re also running another sort of rotation.

San Francisco actually employs seven hurlers with at least 100 major-league starts under their belts, a fact that was cited as one of the club’s greatest strengths heading into the season. Two of them (Ross Stripling and Anthony DeSclafani) are currently on the injured list, but five others are healthy and on the roster: Webb, Cobb, Sean Manaea, Alex Wood and Jakob Junis. Another staff staple, Tristan Beck, is a rookie who progressed through the minors as a starter but whose major-league experience has taken place entirely in a role that doesn’t yet have a firm name — it’s either “bulk guy” or “featured guy.”

“The usage is what the usage is,” Beck said, “but you look at some of the guys, the names we have in these bulk roles — I mean, Alex Wood, Sean Manaea, Ross Stripling, these are very, very good big-leaguers who have been doing it for a long time.”

All of these one-time starters, including Beck, have thrown at least 66 innings — less than a starter but more than your typical reliever at this stage of the season. That bulk/feature role typically involves pitching three or four innings, facing 12 to 18 batters. It could mean coming in for the second inning, after an opener, and pitching three or four innings or, perhaps, combining with another pitcher for, in an ideal world, matching three- or four-inning outings.

That’s one part of their jobs, but it’s not the only part. All of them are there because they’re capable of providing length like a starter, but they must also be ready for the impromptu short outings usually associated with relievers. Several are taking on that responsibility consistently for the first time.

Junis, who spent the first five years of his career as a Kansas City Royals starter before joining the Giants last season, said the team told him prior to this season to be ready to work out of the bullpen. In his first appearance of 2023, he entered in the fourth inning, threw 2 1/3 innings against the New York Yankees and got the win. In June, he collected his first career save by pitching an inning on one day of rest.

“I think the mentality is you never really, totally know what's going on,” Junis said. “And it's kind of, just do your job when your name is called.”

That might sound stressful, and Beck — the rookie right-hander — admitted that his first month in the big leagues was a whirlwind as he learned to physically and mentally prepare for the possibility of pitching not every five days but at any given moment.

“Certain things were completely foreign to me — like being afraid to throw a bullpen before the game on a day that I might pitch or get a lift in on a day that I might pitch, being able to throw back-to-back days,” he said. “Those are all things that I've never done in my entire career that all of a sudden I'm up here in the big leagues, and it's just kind of expected.”

Consider how Beck has been used in August:

  • Aug. 3: Bulk guy — 4 innings, 48 pitches, 3 days’ rest

  • Aug. 7: Middle relief — 1/3 inning, 5 pitches, 3 days’ rest

  • Aug. 9: Tandem … bulk guy? — 3 innings, 45 pitches, 1 day’s rest

  • Aug. 14: Bulk guy — 3 innings, 60 pitches, 4 days’ rest

  • Aug. 18: Mop-up relief — 1 inning, 17 pitches, 3 days’ rest

  • Aug. 20: Bulk guy — 3 innings, 41 pitches, 1 day’s rest

“Obviously, it's a super-dynamic workplace, and running things that way definitely keeps things a little more up in the air than just running traditional starters,” said Beck, who currently carries a strong 3.39 ERA. “But I think they've done a great job at it.”

Several Giants praised the communication from manager Gabe Kapler and his staff, including pitching coach Andrew Bailey, about the pitching plans, even as they have evolved over the course of the season. There are certainly pitchers who would buck against being a cog in this machine. There are also legitimate concerns about how this sort of usage might affect a player’s chances of boosting his salary in arbitration; Ryan Yarbrough, the poster child for bulk guys when the Tampa Bay Rays popularized the opener, lost the case he took to trial.

Right now, though, the pitchers of the Giants’ shadow rotation are wrapped up in a postseason chase and finding camaraderie in the art of being ready.

“I think we've really just kind of banded together around it,” Beck said.

Is the Giants’ oddball pitching plan working?

All this maneuvering can lead to some disorienting box scores — and to general confusion over the inputs and outputs of the unconventional plan.

The Giants recently beat the Atlanta Braves thanks to a menagerie of six pitchers, none of whom threw more than three innings, and in April, they won a nine-inning game in which they used eight pitchers. They also lost back-to-back games earlier in August against the Los Angeles Angels when the opener gave up three runs one night and the second leg of a tandem-bulk combo collapsed the following night.

With the team 16-20 since the All-Star break and having lost its grip on a wild card this week, it’s high time for some big questions: Why are the Giants turning rotation slots into tag-team efforts in the first place? And is it actually working?

There’s evidence in favor: They are an MLB-best 17-6 in games in which they use six or more pitchers. There’s evidence against: They are 37-40 in games started by anyone other than Webb or Cobb. There’s also the intimation that maybe they’re preparing a nice nest for Shohei Ohtani, which seems like a tertiary consideration at most.

Really answering those questions requires some zooming out. While the Giants clearly intended to employ tandem starters and longer relief options from the beginning, they have improvised the more extreme recent modus operandi as a strategic response to injuries that sidelined DeSclafani and others, as well as dramatic early struggles that made full starts from Stripling (5.29 ERA) and Manaea (5.06 ERA) less appealing.

The Giants were confident in Webb. The young ace has been his normal level of terrific, with a 127 ERA+ in an MLB-leading 169 innings. Cobb, a first-time All-Star in 2023, won confidence and proved himself durable enough to shoulder a full load. Harrison, a hard-throwing lefty who ranked as the No. 29 overall prospect in MLB on Baseball Prospectus’ midseason list, will almost certainly be given the chance to make it a three-man starting rotation, but it’s too early to render judgment there.

Beyond that, the Giants fell back on bedrock principles of baseball analysis that have come to the fore over the past 20 years. A couple of key ones hold that pitchers generally perform worse the longer they stay in a game (and the more times hitters see them), and the first inning is tilted in favor of the offense (because the best hitters are up).

Armed with plenty of pitchers capable of working multiple innings — but perhaps not many proven enough or performing well enough to be trusted to battle a lineup three times — the Giants chose to allocate their resources as intelligently as possible, despite the friction with normal routines. The starting depth ballyhooed in the spring was still pivotal, just not necessarily utilized how people expected.

For all the ways it might seem like the Giants are now throwing the kitchen sink, they have actually maintained one of the steadiest talent baselines in the league. They have used 18 pitchers for at least five innings. Every other MLB team has used more — and most have used a lot more. That means the Giants have better avoided the pitfalls of trusting waiver-wire pickups or unprepared Quad-A cannon fodder. For however disappointing it might be that no one has emerged as a star across 120 innings, there’s real value in having seven arms managing ERA+ marks better than 125, as the Giants do.

“I think the reason it works,” Junis said of the plan, “is because there's multiple guys like myself that can do that. We have three or four guys that can go one inning, day off and then go two or three [innings] two days later, possibly even four innings.”

Compare the Giants to the Arizona Diamondbacks, close division and wild-card competitors who actually face a similar problem: two amazing starters (Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly) with less solid options behind them. Arizona is 28-21 in Gallen and Kelly starts, identical to the Giants’ record in Webb and Cobb starts entering Wednesday, and 38-40 in all other games, one notch ahead of the Giants’ 37-40 mark without its top two starters.

The difference is the D-backs’ “pray for rain” pitchers have combined for a cringe-worthy 5.04 ERA, compared to Gallen and Kelly’s 3.12. The Giants’ less-heralded arms? They have managed a 4.08 ERA to go with Webb and Cobb’s 3.52.

The impact shows up in overall staff stats — the Giants are an above-average group, ninth in MLB by park-adjusted ERA-, while the D-backs are 20th — and in the thrust of the season. Alas, the D-backs have a significantly better offense, which is how the teams wind up in a virtual tie in late August.

In reality, it’s not possible to measure how much the Giants’ strategy moved the needle over a more traditional tact, and it’s almost guaranteed that they will attempt to alleviate some of the pressures on their bullpen group heading into September. The unpredictability of workload and fatigue is enough to drive even the most innovative coaches mad in a pennant race, no matter how willing the participants are.

“Man, up here, it's all about runs,” Beck said of the exhilaration of pitching in the majors, role be damned. “It's about keeping zeros on the board and about winning games.”

With the stretch run looming, though, it’s clear that the bulk guys, the featured guys, the shadow rotation — whatever you want to call them — helped keep the Giants afloat when the high waters of a long baseball season threatened to pull them under.