The Giants owned the best record in the National League for 108 consecutive days this season, a run of excellence finally snapped Wednesday when a loss to the Brewers, combined with a win by the Dodgers, moved San Francisco a half-game back in the NL West.
The Giants won on Thursday and the Dodgers were idle, meaning those two long-time division rivals are tied for the best record in the majors (85-49) heading into what should be a wildly entertaining three-game showdown in San Francisco starting Friday. For the Giants, being at the top of the standings is nothing new.
At the end of April, only the Red Sox (17-10) had a better record than the Giants (16-10). At the end of May, only the Rays (35-20) were above the Giants (34-20), and again the difference was just a half-game. At the end of June, the Giants owned MLB’s best record (50-29). At the end of July, the Giants owned MLB’s best record (65-39). At the end of August, you guessed it, they owned MLB’s best record (well, tied with the Rays) at 84-48.
The consistent excellence is rather incredible. They’ve produced a winning percentage of .600 — that’s a 97-win pace, by the way — or better every single month this season. Their longest winning streak this season is “only” six games, but they’ve had six winning streaks of at least five games. The Giants have been under .500 for only one 10-game stretch this season; they were 4-6 from June 27 to July 7. Think about that: You can pick literally any 10-game stretch this year, and only once were they worse than 5-5.
But here’s a fun challenge (well, not so much fun if you’re a Giants’ fan): Try to find someone outside of San Francisco picking the Giants to win the World Series. Heck, try to find anyone picking them to even make the World Series. It ain’t easy.
Why does nobody believe in these Giants?
For starters, they’re not exactly a young lineup. A total of 14 position players have at least 175 plate appearances this year, and 10 of them are in their Age 30 season or beyond. Lamont Wade Jr. is the youngest of that group of 14, and he turns 28 on Jan. 1. Look at their five primary starting pitchers and the closer and setup man, and you’ll find only one guy under 30.
And many of the guys playing well either have track records of injuries or were picked up off the proverbial scrap heap by the Giants. There’s definitely either a “I remember when he played for Team X” or “Who is that guy?” vibe to much of the roster, and that’s most certainly part of the reason why the club’s success has been discounted as unlikely to continue. If the average fans doesn’t know the player is good, he can’t really be good, can he? Um, no. Tell that to the team’s W/L record.
They are basically the anti-Dodgers — a team full of high-profile stars who were acquired in high-profile trades and signings — but these Giants are good. It’s Sept. 3, and no team has been more consistently excellent than San Francisco. Actual wins and losses matter.
I wanted to know what people have been missing about this club, so I asked someone who’s covered the team since spring training. Susan Slusser is one of the best beat writers in baseball; she covered the A’s full time for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1999 to 2020 but switched to the Giants beat for 2021. So not only does this former BBWAA president have the knowledge of a veteran writer, but she has a fresh set of eyes on what this club really is.
Slusser was kind enough to share three thoughts as to the Giants’ keys for success. Let’s take a look.
1. Resurgence of Posey and Crawford
It only feels like Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford were teammates of those Willie Mays Giants teams that were perennial playoff contenders in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, it’s downright shocking they’re both only in their Age 34 seasons, considering how long they’ve been stars in the majors and the three World Series titles of which they’ve been part.
Posey, the unquestioned team leader who turned 34 during spring training, had what was, by far, his worst offensive season in 2019. In 114 games, he hit only seven home runs and posted an 83 OPS+, to go with a 0.8 bWAR. He opted to sit out the 2020 season during the worldwide pandemic; he and his wife adopted newborn twin girls, and he wisely spent his time during the pandemic at home with his family. When he came back in 2021, it was hard to know what to expect from Posey.
Posey wasted no time showing that he was back and as productive as ever. He homered in each of the first two games of the season and finished April with a .361 batting average and 1.123 OPS. Manager Gabe Kapler has been judicious with Posey’s playing time; he’s averaged about 19 starts per month, and that strategy has kept Posey healthy and productive. He has a .303 average, .898 OPS and 16 homers in 89 games.
Crawford has long been one of the NL’s best shortstops, with a bat that could reliably be counted on for a dozen or so home runs, and a slash line you could live with because of his work with the glove. It was fair to wonder how much he had left, though. From 2017 to 2019, he averaged just an 86 OPS+ and actually produced a negative bWAR (minus-0.5) in 147 games in 2019. Crawford’s 2020 season was a mini-rebound, and apparently a sign of what was to come.
At this point in early September, Crawford is eclipsing career highs in all three slash-line categories (.289/.359/.508) to go with a career-best 131 OPS+. With 19 homers and 74 RBIs, he could set new career highs in both categories (21 and 84). The three-time Gold Glove winner earned his third career All-Star nod this season, too.
2. Small moves maximized
The Giants haven’t had much payroll flexibility lately, with five 30-something players still operating under long-term contracts that would pay them at least $15 million in 2021. So Farhan Zaidi, the president of baseball operations, has operated on the margins. He’s looked for undervalued players and players who would benefit from a change of scenery, for whatever reason. He’s struck gold on a high percentage of those moves. We’re not going to look at every example, but instead we’ll focus on one.
Slusser pointed out first base, so we’ll look there. Starter Brandon Belt has a career-high 20 homers this season, but he’s spent a lot of time on the IL and has only played 77 games in 2021. There’s been zero drop-off when he’s been out.
Darin Ruf has eight homers and a .990 OPS in 41 games at first base and LaMonte Wade Jr. has nine homers and a 1.000 OPS in 26 games at first. Ruf had been traded from the Phillies to the Dodgers after the 2016 season, then was released a few months later. He’d played three seasons in Korea when the Giants signed him before the 2020 season; he made a pro-rated amount of $800K in 2020 and $1.25 million this year. Wade struggled to find consistent playing time in 2019-20 for the Twins, and the Giants traded Shaun Anderson — who has been placed on waivers by the Twins, Rangers and Orioles this season and now is with the Padres — for him in February. Wade has those nine homers as a first baseman and eight as an outfielder (he’s started at all three spots), to give him 17 homers and a 123 OPS+ in 81 games this year.
Let’s put it this way: Only one club has more home runs from its first basemen than San Francisco’s 37. That’s Toronto, with 38. Who’s the primary first baseman for the Jays? It’s MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who has 33 as the first baseman. Zaidi and the Giants were able to turn what’s basically an accounting error’s worth of salary and a waiver-wire journeyman, along with a 33-year-old first baseman, into a three-headed MVP-worthy candidate at the position.
The same found-treasure scenario has repeated itself throughout the lineup. The Giants restocked instead of tearing down the roster, as Ann Killon, Slusser’s colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote in this column.
Wilmer Flores has 17 homers on the second year of a two-year, $6.25 million deal. Like Ruf, Donovan Solano hadn’t appeared in the bigs since 2016 when the Giants signed him before the 2019 season, and he has a .306 average in 225 games with the club. Mike Yastrzemski was a career minor-leaguer with a famous last name in the Baltimore organization before Zaidi traded for the then-28-year-old. He’s become a lineup mainstay, with 52 homers since the start of the 2019 season. Zaidi signed Jake McGee to a two-year, $5 million contract last offseason and he’s been outstanding as the club’s closer, with a 2.59 ERA and 29 saves in 33 opportunities.
And that’s not even mentioning the contributions of Curt Casili, Jose Alvarez, Jarlin Garcia or Dominic Leone, who joined the club on a minor league deal this offseason and has a 1.91 ERA in 41 relief appearances. You might not believe in this club’s chances of winning in October, but you have to respect how they were put together.
But as every Giants fan who remembers what waiver-wire wonder Cody Ross did during San Francisco’s run to the 2010 World Series title can tell you, it’s not how they became a Giant, it’s what they did while wearing the uniform, and this Giants roster is basically made up of a plethora of October heroes-in-waiting.
3. Team chemistry
From Slusser: “I know it’s not popular in analytics circles but team chemistry/vibe is off the charts, which might be surprising giving second year staff, manager who didn’t work out in Philly, (and a) huge young staff without much experience.”
Ah, the intangibles discussion. Like most things not easily quantified, it’s hard to place an appropriate value on team chemistry. But there absolutely is value in finding that sense of team chemistry, because here’s the thing: If the players believe it’s a real thing and they play better because of that belief, it’s a very real element to success.
“There’s always this chicken-and-egg question with winning and chemistry: What comes first?” Zaidi said in Slusser’s piece on the topic. “I don’t know that we have an answer, but it does feel like they sort of perpetuate or reinforce one another. When you’re playing well and there’s more selfless play, winning comes to the forefront. And more winning creates even more positive chemistry, and so on. It can go the other direction, too, whatever the catalyst.”
An element of the Giants’ chemistry: a hunger to win, absent of ego.
Every player in the sport wants to win, sure. But for the Giants’ older guard — Posey, Crawford, Belt and Johnny Cueto — this season might represent the best last chance to win one more World Series title. For veterans Evan Longoria, Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani, it’s another chance to get the first one. And for so many of the players we’ve mentioned, the guys who were given up on, traded away or never given a real shot elsewhere, every single day is a chance to prove they belong, to prove someone in their past wrong.
“I think this is probably the best clubhouse I’ve been a part of in terms of everybody getting along, everybody being unselfish — and I’ve been a part of some really good clubhouses before,” Belt said in Slusser’s piece. “This kind of chemistry we have is really hard to find, at this level, in this day and age.”
I don’t really know whether this fits under the chemistry heading, but it’s the best example of the “when everybody contributes, everybody wins” mentality the club has thrived on this season. The Giants don’t have a single individual player in the top 60 home run hitters this year, but they lead the majors in home runs, as a team, with 201. Sorry, but that’s crazy.
And it’s so out of character for what this team has been the past several years. The Giants hit 167 homers in 2019, 133 in 2018 and 128 in 2017 and that list goes on and on. Until the Giants passed the 200-homer mark on Thursday, the team hadn’t reached 200 homers since 2001, when Barry Bonds popped 73 by himself. And with a 26 games left in the season, this 2021 club club could absolutely pass the 235 homers that 2001 team hit, which is the club record.
Think about this: In 2014, Hunter Pence hit 22 homers and Posey hit 20. In 2015, Crawford hit 21. No Giant hit more than 18 homers in 2016, 2017 or 2018. They finally had three reach 20 in 2019: Mike Yastrzemski (21), Kevin Pillar (21) and Evan Longoria (20).
So that’s six players in six years who have reached the 20-homer plateau, which isn’t so much a plateau as it is a mini-mesa. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Giants could have six this season. Yastrzemski (21) and Belt (20) are already there, and Crawford (19), Wade (17), Flores (17) and Posey (16) are knocking on the door.
Heck, with a hot stretch, Ruf (14) and Alex Dickerson (13) could get there over the final 28 games, too.
It’s hard to think anything improbable is impossible for the 2021 Giants, though.