Consistency is what makes a baseball team special. Winning a World Series is the ultimate goal and the thing people remember, but I refer to the playoffs as the “Tournament of Variance.” Anything can happen in small sample sizes, even with the league’s best teams.
With the San Francisco Giants, they had the unfortunate outcome of winning 107 games and being forced to play a team that won 106 games in the wild-card round. The series went five games and ended on an extremely questionable check-swing call, which was a damn shame. The Giants deserved a better fate.
A franchise since 1883, first as the New York Gothams and then as the New York Giants until they moved to the Bay Area in 1957, last year’s team set the record with 107 wins. The playoffs lasted just five games. To be fair, it could have been worse. The 1993 Giants went 103-59 and didn’t even make the playoffs because the Braves went 104-58 and there were no wild-card teams.
Projection systems are signaling an enormous fall for the Giants, as PECOTA has San Francisco down for just 78 wins; FanGraphs’ projections say 84-78. The team’s season win total is 85.5. All of them can’t be wrong, right?
The Giants ranked fourth in wOBA last season at .329. They posted a 108 wRC + , which was fifth-best in the majors. Remember that wRC + is adjusted for park factor and AT&T Park has long been thought of as a pitcher’s park. The three most recent offensive seasons from the Giants have changed that narrative. This is a team that has mastered the art of hitting and the front office has a lot to do with it.
President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi has accomplished a lot in his career, and this Giants run is his magnum opus. Zaidi didn’t inherit a bare cupboard, but the team has become so much more advanced in the analytics department and have found a lot of edges at the margins. I don’t care how crazy it is that the Giants won more than 90 games for the first time since 2012, seemingly out of nowhere -- there is nothing fluky about outscoring teams by 210 runs. The Giants held opponents to just 594 runs and scored more than 800 for the first time since 2004. That team had Barry Bonds and his .609 on-base percentage.
The Giants apply a batting philosophy of selective aggression. They walked at the third-highest clip in baseball but also finished second to the Blue Jays in home runs. Zaidi took over at the start of 2019 and his changes really took hold in 2020 and 2021. In 2018, the Giants had a fly-ball percentage (FB%) of 33.3%. In 2019, that number jumped to 34.6%. In 2020, 37.5% of batted balls were hit in the air. Last season, the team’s FB% was 38.5%.
Along with hitting more fly balls, the Giants started to pull the ball more. They went from a 38.3% Pull% in 2018 to 39.2% in 2019, 42.9% in 2020 and 40.5% in 2021.
Using Statcast’s Hard Hit%, a measure of the percentage of batted balls hit at least 95 mph, the Giants went from 33.1% in 2018 to 35.2% in 2019 to 39.3% in 2020 and 38.7% last season. Basically, what the Giants did was instruct their hitters to elevate the ball and pull it with authority. Sounds obvious, right? Well, it wasn’t being done before. It was almost like the previous regime accepted how AT&T Park played and waved a white flag. Zaidi and the hitting coaches tailored individual hitting plans to each batter and focused on ways to get hitters out in front to pull the ball in the air.
This is not a fluke. This is not a random occurrence. This is an organizational shift in philosophy that has worked out according to plan. That’s why I don’t understand the negativity about the Giants in the betting markets. Manager Gabe Kapler is big into physical fitness and analytics, so I have to assume the weight-training plans have changed as well.
This isn’t a team dependent on stars. There were 10 different players that hit at least 12 home runs last year. Of the top 15 players in plate appearances, 12 of them graded as above-average hitters based on wRC + . Buster Posey retired and Evan Longoria will miss a chunk of the season following surgery. Other than that, a bunch of above-average hitters are back in the mix.
In fact, the three players that graded below average by wRC + were Alex Dickerson, Tommy La Stella and backup catcher Curt Casali. Dickerson is gone and La Stella was a trade-deadline addition. The Giants brought in Joc Pederson, as they’re using the platoon strategy in hopes of generating more power. Top prospect Joey Bart will replace Posey, and he’s hit well at every minor league level.
Platoons and pulled fly balls speak my language with a smart front office, and I believe this Giants offense will be strong once again. A top-five projection is optimistic, but a top-10 projection seems likely.
Smart organizations always get the benefit of the doubt from me. There has to be something they see in every player that they acquire. The Giants have a really big hole to fill with Kevin Gausman now in Toronto, and it looks like they’re going to go with a volume-based approach. In a perfect world, Carlos Rodon would stay healthy and be good enough to replace Gausman’s production, but I think it’s a big ask.
Rodon was excellent with a 2.37 ERA and a 2.65 FIP in 132.2 innings, but if you want to talk about things coming from out of nowhere, nothing stands out more than Rodon’s season. He had thrown 42.2 innings over the previous two seasons with some pretty gnarly results. Maybe he’s fixed and maybe he’ll be similarly useful for the Giants with however many innings he’s able to throw, but I’m not counting on it and I’d rather be pessimistic in my handicap.
This is a deep pitching staff with or without Rodon. Logan Webb is being viewed as a Cy Young candidate coming off of a terrific season with a 3.03 ERA and a 2.72 FIP in 148.1 innings. I’m not sure Webb is durable enough to make the leap into that discussion, but I love a pitcher with more than a strikeout per inning and a 61% GB%.
Anthony DeSclafani is also coming off of a great year with a 3.17 ERA and a 3.62 FIP. So is Alex Wood, who continues to be one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball. He had a 3.83 ERA and a 3.48 FIP. The Giants will replace oft-injured Johnny Cueto with another oft-injured pitcher in Alex Cobb, but the 34-year-old was strong in 18 starts with the Angels, posting a 3.76 ERA and a 2.92 FIP.
The Giants also signed southpaw Matthew Boyd, formerly of the Tigers, who is coming off of a surgical procedure and won’t pitch until June or July at the earliest, but he’s another proven starter that could do better with a change of scenery. Between Rodon and Boyd, maybe the Giants can get 30 or so starts of quality production.
I look at the Giants and feel like they’re about to push the pitching envelope. DeSclafani and Webb could be workhorses. I think the other guys will get the Blake Snell treatment and be five-and-fly types that go through the lineup twice before the bullpen takes over. The Giants look likely to roster former starters Tyler Beede, Jakob Junis and Zack Littell in the bullpen. Those three are all capable of throwing multiple innings.
The Rays have had a lot of success with this sort of methodology. Zaidi has been with the A’s, Dodgers and now the Giants. He has a science degree from MIT and a PhD in economics from Cal. My guess is we’re going to see some sort of piggybacking/timeshare strategy for the pitching, and it will not only be to the Giants’ benefit, but the league as a whole. I’ve been begging for this for a long time.
I could be wrong and maybe the Giants will just hope their staff stays healthy, but I think we could see some of that early in the season and maybe throughout.
This was one of the league’s best bullpens last season and the best by ERA at 2.99. Bullpens are inherently volatile for a variety of reasons, including injury and the previous year’s wear and tear. I don’t see any reason to be overly concerned about this group and it should be a strength for the team again.
Player to Watch
SP Logan Webb: Arsenal changes are something I watch for. I want to see how teams tried to increase strikeouts and decrease hard contact. With Webb, the Giants went with more sinkers and more sliders. In 2020, opposing batters hit .329 with a .507 SLG against his four-seam fastball, which he threw over a third of the time. In 2021, the Giants increased his sinker usage to be his primary pitch at 37.7%. Batters hit .276 but only had a .392 SLG. Webb threw his slider about 12% more last season, and opposing batters hit .156 with a .231 SLG on that pitch. They also worked on its shape and movement. That pitch induced a 47.1% Whiff%, which is the percentage of swings and misses relative to total swings. His Chase Rate (rate of pitches swung at that are outside the strike zone) was in the top 9%, a massive difference from when he was in the bottom 10% in 2020. Webb was already a ground-ball machine that put up good numbers because of his command, but now he generates a lot more strikeouts.
The Giants are still the second-best team in this division. The Padres have bigger names and a lot of people are pessimistic about San Francisco, but I’m not one of them. This is a deep team that maximizes the potential of every player on the roster. They have a great shot at making the playoffs again, and I believe in most of the statistical leaps we saw from last season. Their season win total is low at 85.5, and I think the projection systems are wrong on this team. The stats that a lot of players produced in the past are not necessarily indicative of the future, and that’s especially true with one of the league’s best front offices.
Win Total Pick: Over 85.5