In John Brebbia, Cardinals’ loss is SF Giants’ gain

ST. LOUIS — John Brebbia wiped his brow and remarked on the humidity. The beads of sweat on his forehead said all that was necessary.

“Haven’t felt humidity like this since…”

Brebbia trailed off, thinking back to the last time he was here, where his professional baseball career was revived the first time. It doesn’t get like this in San Francisco, the site of his second coming as a major-league pitcher.

Nearing the two-year anniversary of his Tommy John surgery that ended his tenure in St. Louis, Brebbia has become an integral piece of the Giants’ bullpen. Entering Friday night, he owned a 1.29 ERA and had held opponents scoreless in 11 of his 13 appearances, coming in increasingly high-leverage situations.

“He’s been very dependable,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “Toward the end of last season, we had Dom Leone and Zack Littell — both guys who could be used in pretty big situations — sixth or seventh inning if we needed a right-handed option, these guys could slot in there. Brebbia was probably a step below those guys.

“Now, I think you think about John Brebbia the same way you think about Zack and Dom. Really dependable.”

It takes some faith to sign a pitcher in the midst of recovering from Tommy John surgery, like the Giants did two winters ago when they added Brebbia to their bullpen. Arguably, it takes even more to sign a former 30th-round pick out of the independent leagues after the organization that drafted him cut ties after two seasons.

That is how Brebbia became a St. Louis Cardinal, and why he relishes these yearly trips back to St. Louis.

Brebbia laughed at the question.

“I don’t know,” he said. “The Tommy John pitcher sure looked like the worse option for a while.”

As Kapler alluded to, Brebbia last year was hardly the reliable reliever he has been to start 2022. He ended the season with a 5.89 ERA and was left off the Giants’ playoff roster.

Brebbia attributed his struggles to a lack of quality strikes. But in reality, it should be considered only the first phase of Brebbia’s revival on the mound. His journey might remind you of any number of arms the Giants have brought in under Kapler and Farhan Zaidi, the most recent example being Jakob Junis, who is set to make his second start on Saturday.

In St. Louis, Brebbia was a four-pitch pitcher. Fastball, slider, sinker, changeup. He even tried incorporating a splitter.

The biggest difference upon arriving in San Francisco, he said, was the singular message from every coach he interacted with: focus on what you do well, forget what you don’t.

“Kind of like Occams’s razor,” Brebbia said, referring to the philosophy that prioritizes simplicity.

For Brebbia, that meant prioritizing his unique rising fastball and, especially, his sharp-breaking slider. Last year, he threw the slider more frequently than ever, and this year it has usurped the fastball as his most-used pitch.

Brebbia sought opinions from all over the organization, and he couldn’t find one person suggesting otherwise.

“Whether (bullpen coach Craig Albarnaz) or (pitching coach Andrew Bailey) had conflicting opinions, it was always the same message that made it to me,” Brebbia said. “Focus on what you’re good at.”

Brebbia has a good argument that he is one of the most prototypically Giants of all the players on San Francisco’s roster.

Zaidi found him post-surgery and invested in his recovery, like he has done for other players such as outfielder Luis Gonzalez (shoulder surgery) and fellow pitcher Sam Delaplane, who is currently rehabbing from Tommy John.

He’s also been put through the ringer of the Giants’ pitching lab, finding his most effective pitches (fastball, slider) and eliminating the others, like Junis has recently exemplified with his own reliance on the slider.

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But it was clear upon his return to St. Louis that he had hardly left this city behind.

On his way to the ballpark, the coffee aficionado stopped in at the third-wave shop he frequented before almost every home game. Walking through the tunnels of Busch Stadium on his way to the visitor’s clubhouse, Brebbia ran into almost a dozen different staff members who serve various behind-the-scenes roles that make the gameday experience possible.

“Eleven!” he exclaimed. “That’s my favorite part of coming back, seeing all the stadium workers and game-day staff. Some of the players I got to see last week in San Francisco. But that’s what makes it special.”

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