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Five silver linings for Giants after tough finish to season originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
There's an old line teams use after a season like the one the Giants just had: "If we had told you on Opening Day that we would have a chance to clinch a playoff spot in the final game of the season, you probably would have taken that, right?"
Being in contention through the final at-bat of the year is a win, but it's hard not to feel like the Giants left a huge opportunity on the table. There's a chance we'll look back at 2020 as the best opportunity in a five- or six-year window to make the playoffs.
The Giants are coming off three losing seasons, and while their farm system is loaded, it takes time for young players to settle in. Look at the season that Joey Bart just had, or the growing pains that Mauricio Dubon experienced during his rookie year. The Giants could have Bart, Marco Luciano, Heliot Ramos and Hunter Bishop in the lineup in 2022 and be wildly entertaining, but also lacking polish.
Even in 2021, the path to the playoffs spot looks rocky. The rotation couldn't hold up over 60 games, and now the Giants go back to 162 with their two best starters -- Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly -- free agents and their best pitching prospects still a couple years away. The 2021 team will also have two behemoths -- the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres -- as heavy favorites to win the division and lock up one of two NL wild-card spots.
That all makes Sunday more disappointing, but this season still was full of positives. Aside from the simple fact that the rebuilding Giants nearly made the playoffs, here are five that stand out:
The System Works
Some eyebrows were raised when Gabe Kapler hired three hitting coaches who are young enough to still be players, but there's absolutely no doubt the Giants nailed those hires. Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind brought a different approach, asking hitters to be more selective about swing decisions and worry less about striking out. They focused on the process, not the results.
"It's essentially, they're looking for pitches that they can drive, they're being especially aggressive on those pitches, and especially passive on balls they can't do damage on," Kapler said recently. "And that coincides with what the opposing pitcher is going to do."
Veteran hitters raved about how prepared they were going into every game, and that showed in the numbers. The Giants finished eighth in runs after ranking 28th, 29th and 29th the previous three seasons. They averaged 4.98 runs per game, a huge increase from the last year for the previous staff (4.19) and the last year of the previous front office (3.72 in 2018).
The Giants struck gold with Alex Dickerson and Donovan Solano last year and doubled down with Wilmer Flores and Darin Ruf. With a new approach to acquiring and using talent, and so many top hitting prospects on the way, the Giants should have a top 10 offense for years to come.
A New Home
The changes to Oracle Park actually weren't drastic. They brought the center field wall in a few feet, improved the batter's eye and closed off the portwalk, changing some wind patterns in the outfield. But all of that ended up making a huge difference.
Over 33 games (they were the road team three times) you're still dealing with a small sample size, and perhaps there are factors that aren't as obvious. Every game at Oracle Park was played late in the summer, when it's much hotter in San Francisco and the ball flies. That makeup of the actual ball seems to change year to year. The hitters certainly were better, too.
But ... the Giants still ranked third in the majors in runs scored at home. That's new, and it's the complete opposite of what they've been at Oracle Park. They averaged 5.45 runs per game at home, a huge increase from their 3.34 in 2019.
Some of this will stabilize in 2021. There will be more cold night games in April and May, the portwalk might open back up, and there might simply be some kind of change to the hitting atmosphere from having fans back in the park. But there's little doubt that Oracle is more fair than it's ever been. The Giants still might not be a top choice for free-agent hitters, but at the very least, it'll be much easier to put a contender together knowing your best hitters won't be hanging their heads 81 times a year.
Tony Watson is a free agent. While he liked it in San Francisco, the 35-year-old probably would prefer to find a spot closer to his Florida home and join a team with a much easier path to contention next year. The Giants should still be in pretty good shape from the left side, though.
Caleb Baragar, a late addition to camp, blew hitters away with a mid-90s fastball and an aggressive approach. He didn't allow a run in his last 16 appearances and has the stuff to be the Giants' next good late-innings lefty. Sam Selman had a 3.72 ERA and 3.86 FIP and showed he's comfortable pitching with the game on the line. Jarlin Garcia, picked up for free in February, allowed one earned run all season and is under team control for three more years.
You can never have too many good lefties, especially in this division, but as the Giants head to the offseason they can feel really good about that side of their bullpen.
A New Leader
Mike Yastrzemski finished his second season with a .297 average, .400 on-base percentage and a .568 slugging percentage that ranked 11th in the NL, one spot behind Fernando Tatis Jr.
Yastrzemski turned 30 during the season, but his best baseball still could be ahead. He continues to show growth, and his plate appearances against lefties late in the year were particularly remarkable. There's no doubt that Yastrzemski enters 2021 as either Kapler's leadoff hitter or No. 3 hitter, and he looks like he'll be in that position when the Ramos, Bishop, Luciano group starts to arrive.
Yastrzemski, the Willie Mac Award winner, took on a leadership role, too, and he's the perfect player to set the tone for the current Giants at the plate and the next generation on and off the field.
A year ago at this time, it looked like an ugly finish was coming for the Brandon Crawford/Brandon Belt contracts. Both will be free agents after next season, but they're both back firmly in the 2021 plans of the new regime.
Belt had a 1.015 OPS, the highest of his career by 147 points. He just missed out on qualifying for MLB leaderboards because of an early foot injury, but he would have ranked fourth in baseball in OPS and fourth in OBP (.425). Crawford had the best offensive season of his career, with an OPS+ of 116 and three fewer homers than he had all of 2019. His defense once again ranked among the best in the NL, and he was on pace for his first 3-WAR season since 2016.
Now, that last sentence hits on a key here: "On pace."
Both Brandons have tailed off in the second halves of recent seasons as injuries or persistent aches and pains have slowed them down. Belt missed the first week of the shortened season, but otherwise both were able to go all out.
Crawford will be 34 next season and Belt will be 33, so the game plan will be different over 162 games. But both showed they still have plenty left in the tank.