The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 13, No. 29
May 4, 2021
When you plan to write about a player or team or really anything in advance, there’s always that fear that the story will change before you get to it. I have a hard drive full of column fragments that will never see the light of day because I never wrote them up before the four-game losing streak or 0-for-19 stretch. So when you allude to the next day’s piece in a tagline, you sweat a bit...at least until the team in question has its game postponed.
There is no team in baseball further from its projected preseason performance than the San Francisco Giants. I pegged them at 70-92, a pace that would make them 12-16 today. Instead they’re 17-11 and just ahead of the Dodgers and Padres in the NL West. It’s real in any number of ways: the Giants have outscored their opponents by nearly a full run per game, and they have just a 6-4 record in one-run contests. They’re just 1-3 in extra innings. None of the usual “fluke” markers are in place a month into the season.
The single biggest reason for their success is defense. No team in baseball is turning balls in play into outs at a higher rate than the Giants are.
Giant Vacuums (Best Defensive Efficiency, 2021)
I will always circle back to DER because of its simplicity. When a ball is put in play, how often are you turning it into an out? That’s not entirely a credit to the defense -- the pitchers and the park play a role -- but it gets you most of the way there. It’s not trying to measure skill, but performance.
The Giants have strong run prevention (3.2 runs allowed per game, lowest in baseball) with an average strikeout rate because they have been catching everything, especially everything in the air.
Giant Butterfly Nets (Lowest BABIP allowed on fly balls, 2021)
White Sox .074
This one surprises me a bit because coming into the season, I would not have pegged this as a particularly strong defensive outfield. Mike Yastrzemski can go get it in right, but the Giants have “guys who can play center” more than they have a center fielder. Mauricio Dubon, 26, has speed and some good small-sample numbers in the outfield as a converted infielder, and everyone else is really more a corner guy.
This is where the interaction between the pitchers and the defense is coming into play. Giants pitchers are doing an excellent job of giving up low-quality contact. Giants hurlers are allowing the lowest rate of batted balls at good launch angles, and in fact, the lowest average launch angle (and highest groundball rate) in the majors. When they do allow fly balls, those fly balls have the third-lowest exit velocity and travel the shortest distance of any team’s. Giants outfielders have had, by and large, the easiest job in baseball this year. Overall, Giants opponents’ rate of barrels -- Statcast for “oh, wow!” -- are bottom five in the league.
How are they doing this? There’s no one path here. Alex Fast did a great deep dive into Kevin Gausman’s strong start and how he’s achieving it with more or less a two-pitch mix. Jake McGee has taken over the closer role with one pitch fewer than that, throwing a four-seamer 86% of the time. Three offseason signings -- Anthony DeSclafani, Aaron Sanchez, and Alex Wood -- have combined for a 2.62 ERA in 14 starts, with a 73/21 K/BB, while throwing fewer than 50% four-seam fastballs each. As great as the run prevention has been, the best story on the Giants carries a bat. Buster Posey opted out of the 2020 season over concerns about exposing himself to the coronavirus with twins at home. Posey had been in a steep decline prior to 2020, hitting just .257/.320/.368 in 2019 at 32, opening the door to the possibility that 8400 innings of crouching had ended his productive career. The year off, however, seems to have rejuvenated him. Posey is hitting .359/.423/.688, and it’s not like he’s getting lucky. Per Statcast, his expected batting average, expected slugging, and expected wOBA are all top 20 among qualified hitters. (For more on Posey, read Jay Jaffe’s excellent analysis.)
Posey’s return has been critical because the preseason concerns about whether the Giants’ jerry-rigged offense would continue being productive have been warranted. 2020 heroes Alex Dickerson, Wilmer Flores, Mauricio Dubon, and Austin Slater have gone pumpkin. Import Tommy La Stella has hit .235/.297/.353. Donovan Solano and Mike Yastrzemski have slipped from their lofty 2020 numbers and suffered injuries. The Giants traded for Mike Tauchman to patch these issues, a move I think might pay off very well. Tauchman got caught in a roster crunch with the Yankees, but I’d take him to be the Giants’ third-best hitter the rest of the season behind Posey and Yaz if they keep him in the lineup. Still, this is going to be an average offense at best.
The Giants deserve their 17-11 mark to date. I’m less convinced they can stay in this race for six months. Playing about as well as they can play for a month has given them just a half-game lead over a Dodger team riddled with injuries and a bunch of Calvinball losses, and a Padres team seriously looking at bringing back Joey Hamilton as a fifth starter. As good as the rotation has been so far, it’s hard to see the Giants getting even 850 innings from the six starters they’ve used. The bullpen is average, and the Giants don’t have a lot of internal depth at the plate or on the mound. They might actually keep this interesting for a little longer; over the next two weeks they play the Rockies, Rangers and Pirates. Their first game against the Dodgers isn’t until May 21, and they will be close enough to the Dodgers for that series to draw a lot of attention.
Two years ago, in Farhan Zaidi’s first season running the Giants, the team was expected to be an in-season seller. Zaidi was, theoretically, hired to put the Giants into a long-awaited rebuild. That summer, the team ripped off an 18-4 stretch wrapped around the All-Star break, pushing them into the wild-card chase in July. Zaidi made a few minor sell-offs at the deadline -- Sam Dyson, Mark Melancon, Derek Holland -- but retained his biggest-ticket items in Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith. The Giants quickly fell out of the wild-card race in August and finished 77-85.
There’s a real chance of a similar story developing here. The Giants simply aren’t going to beat out the Dodgers, so again their path to the playoffs is through the wild-card slots. If anything, this roster is even more ripe for a sell-off; four of the current five starting pitchers are free agents after 2021, as are Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt. Johnny Cueto has an option unlikely to be picked up. The Giants have an improving farm system and extremely low projected payrolls beginning in 2023. Are they better off chasing a playoff berth with this roster, which however well it’s playing doesn’t have much of a baseball future, or cashing in everything to bolster those future teams?
It’s become fashionable to insist that every team with any chance at all try to win in the current season. Surely we’d like to see more competitiveness around the league, but you can take that thinking to an extreme. Zaidi did that in 2019, keeping the best trade chips on a team that wasn’t very good, then landing in third place with a below-.500 team. Now in 2021, he may be faced with the same choice thanks to this early-season run, a choice made more complicated by what is likely the final season Posey, Belt, and Crawford will play together.
That core, though, hasn’t been good enough since 2016, and in the end will not be good enough in 2021. The Giants’ future is Marco Luciano and Heliot Ramos and Patrick Bailey, and the free-agent market of 2023-24, and some high draft picks in the next few years. Zaidi can’t let another opportunity to improve that future go by. Those three may not be tradable for various reasons -- each has or is about to have ten-and-five rights, to start -- but the short-term Giants, especially the pitchers, have more value to the 2024 team than the 2021 one.