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After fighting to preserve career, zany John Brebbia has become MLB’s most leaned-on reliever

© Kelley L Cox | 2022 Aug 2

John Brebbia thought his career might already be over, and he hadn’t even had Tommy John surgery yet. 

It was 2014, he found himself in Sioux Falls, South Dakota after getting released by the Yankees. The next year would take him to Laredo, Texas.

But Brebbia fought against the demoralizing long bus rides of Independent ball, maintaining his love for the game all the way back to the bigs. Yet once he finally got his feet back under him, for three strong seasons in the Cardinals’ bullpen, he busted his elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery. 

“I’ve more or less thought that every day was going to be my last day playing for a long time,” Brebbia told KNBR. “I’ve been released before, I’ve gone through the period of ‘Okay, my baseball career is over.’ I’ve felt those emotions, and obviously it was terrible.” 

It’s hard for Brebbia not to think about the fragility of a baseball career. If he blew out his arm again tomorrow, what would he do?

But he still comes to Oracle Park every day ready to pitch and often asking for the ball. 

Now, in his first full season after his 2020 Tommy John surgery and a world away from Sioux Falls, Brebbia has been the most leaned on reliever in the sport. His 2.47 ERA paces the Giants’ bullpen. The ethnology-reading, fanny pack-wearing, luxury umbrella-toting, beard-ponytailing has been a bright spot in a season threatening to nosedive.

The dissonance between the serious stakes and his plucky personality isn’t a coincidence, it’s a feature. Brebbia’s perseverance wouldn’t have been possible without the eccentric personality and perspective that got him through both his tumultuous journey and 2020 recovery.

“I still feel like I haven’t shaken that, like ‘Yeah, maybe today’s my last day,’” Brebbia, 32, said. “But because I’ve experienced that heartbreak, when your dream is over, I feel like it’s easier to not take it for granted.”  

Taking the ball

In the Giants’ late-July victory that snapped a season-high seven-game losing streak, Brebbia worked a 1-2-3 eighth inning. He retired Yan Gomes, Rafael Ortega and leadoff man Christopher Morel — all with his slider. 

Then the next night, Brebbia worked another clean frame. He again pitched to contact, recording outs on three more sliders. 

Six up, six down. Both innings took about the same amount of time as his walk-up song, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!. 

Brebbia enjoyed a rare night off Saturday, then got the ball again Sunday. Though he let up a pair of base hits, the righty pitched another clean inning in his MLB-leading 49th appearance. 

He senses hitters are being slightly more aggressive at the plate. There have been more barrels recently, but Brebbia is trusting his stuff, throwing strikes with confidence that his defense will make plays behind him. 

“I love pitching, so I’m super happy to be out there as much as possible,” Brebbia said. “Obviously to a certain extent. If something hurts or whatever or if you’re tired — it’s like alright, I guess I’ll go give up six homers because I’m exhausted. But I think the organization does a really good job of monitoring that, especially through the medical staff and all that stuff.” 

Brebbia gets batters out with two pitches: fastball and slider. He throws each of them about half the time, with his heater registering a -8 run value, per Baseball Savant. 

It’s not overpowering stuff. But Brebbia uses it to his advantage, diligently studying scouting reports, pounding the strike zone and using veteran tricks. 

In his sport-high 50th appearance, Brebbia faced one batter: Mookie Betts. The former MVP fouled off everything Brebbia threw over the plate and watched everything off it. Eight pitches into the at-bat, in a full count, the battle was at a stalemate. 

So Brebbia held. And held. He waited on the rubber so long, Betts asked the ump for time. When it wasn’t immediately granted, Brebbia fired his ninth pitch in for a called third strike. 

“Brebbia’s a vet,” Joey Bart, who was catching that moment, said. “He knows what he’s doing.” 

Betts won the rematch with Brebbia in his 51st game, taking him deep for a three-run shot in the series finale. No other pitcher, as of Friday morning, has appeared in more than 48. 

How much should a pitcher pitch after Tommy John? Brebbia isn’t sure. You’d have to consult with doctors, he said. 

It’s something that’s weighed on San Francisco’s coaching staff. Manager Gabe Kapler said the Giants need to be responsive to all of their pitchers, but they do “bake” Brebbia’s Tommy John history into the equation with him specifically. 

At least for now, Brebbia will remain San Francisco’s go-to option, the guy they want facing other teams Mookie Bettses. 

Family matters

In June of 2020, when Brebbia needed Tommy John surgery, the COVID-19 pandemic had shut down much of the world. 

Brebbia wasn’t sure if he would be able to get the procedure, or the follow-up stem cell treatment, or the necessary physical therapy. There were rules regarding elective procedures. 

There they were again, the thoughts that tend to creep in when your career hangs in the balance. 

COVID restrictions didn’t end up restricting Brebbia’s procedures, and that year away from the bigs turned into a blessing. Splitting time between his Atlanta-area base and the Cardinals’ facility in Jupiter, Florida, Brebbia finally got to watch his son, Henry, grow up. 

Brebbia, his wife Amanda, and Henry, who turned one that June, rode out the pandemic. They’d frequent the beach, where they discovered Henry loves to dig in the sand. 

“The three amigos, hanging out, trying not to come into contact with anyone else,” Brebbia said.

That offseason, like every offseason, Brebbia becomes hard to get in touch with. He’s the green text guy in the group chat, and that’s on purpose — he likes being able to get off the grid. Unplugging, even just a bit, allows him to make up time with his wife and kids. 

Some of his teammates consider Brebbia one of the smartest players in the clubhouse. He’s currently reading Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” and Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens.” Leone said he’s had conversations with Brebbia about the stock market, real estate and his umbrella obsession. 

“Anything under the sun,” Leone said. 

But if Brebbia couldn’t play baseball anymore, he doesn’t think he’d be qualified for much. As a minor-leaguer, he taught pitching lessons and worked at an LA Fitness and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

“In an ideal world: stay at home dad,” Brebbia said. “Sounds amazing. Oh my gosh. I’m bad at it. But I’ll cook. I love whipping up lunches, packing lunches. Playing with our kids, like that just sounds like so much fun.” 

Tummy ache survivor

The Cardinals were in Colorado right when Brebbia got called up for the first time in 2017. For some reason, he thought as a rookie, he had to walk from the team’s hotel — a Ritz Carlton — to Coors Field instead of taking the bus. He assumed it was just some light rookie hazing. 

Except that day, it was raining in Denver. Instead of just taking the umbrella from his room, he went down to the lobby and asked the concierge if he could buy one. 

“I walked down and I was like, ‘I want to buy an umbrella.’ They’re like, okay…I think it was like $50. It was almost like they made up the price…I just got suckered into buying the thing.” 

The Ritz Carlton umbrella was his first purchase as a big leaguer and the start of his collection. “I’d rather not say,” Brebbia jokes when asked how many he owns, before estimating he has about five or six — including his first one. 

“I don’t understand why people willingly get wet. It doesn’t make sense. They make a device, you hold it like this, and it stops rain from getting on you. So I feel like everyone else is the crazy one for not owning at least a couple.” 

One spring training, Brebbia executed a bit in which he dressed up as Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak. He mimicked the executive’s preppy, yacht club style. Mo Mondays, Brebbia called it. 

“He had a very unique style,” Brebbia said. “And I own very similar clothes, but like a poor person’s version of his clothes.” 

Brebbia hasn’t yet given Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi that treatment, but already knows what he’d call it if he resurrects the joke. “Farhan Fridays,” the reliever said. Of course. 

In San Francisco’s bullpen, Brebbia fits in with the cast of personalities in the bullpen. Craig Albernaz, the bullpen/catching coach who recently moved to the dugout, lightens the mood with his Boston accent. Dominic Leone and Brebbia, teammates since St. Louis, can make their corner of the clubhouse look like Statler and Waldorf. Tyler Rogers, the Bud Light aficionado, has a wry sense of humor. 

But Brebbia stands out. One of his favorite t-shirts says “Tummy Ache Survivor.” He packs bullpen snacks in his fanny pack and once put his long ginger beard in two bushy ties.

 “That’s the nice thing about John, is what you see is what you get,” Leone said. “He’s uber prepared, he’s uber focused. He doesn’t take the game too seriously.” 

These aren’t just quirks. They’re traits that guided him through the uncertain lows, the pandemic rehab, the random bus rides. 

“He was able to find the silver lining,” Leone said. “‘Yeah, I’m down for a year and some change, but I can spend time with family, come back stronger, do all these things, come back another year fresher.’ I think he handled it well. Just about as good as you can handle a situation like that.”

 

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