How the Giants took a familiar roster and unearthed the best team in baseball
On Aug. 12, the San Francisco Giants beat the Colorado Rockies, 7-0.
LaMonte Wade Jr., a 27-year-old who played fewer than 50 games across two seasons with the Minnesota Twins, hit a three-run blast — one of 17 he now has on the season. Thirty-four-year-old shortstop Brandon Crawford singled and scored a month after playing in the third All-Star Game of his 11-year career. Logan Webb, a prospect who reached the majors at 22 but struggled in his first two seasons, pitched six scoreless innings — part of a streak of 13 starts from May 11 through Saturday night in which he has allowed two runs or fewer. The bullpen struck out six and allowed just one baserunner over the final three frames — these days, they have the second-lowest ERA in the NL.
None of that is particularly remarkable, not this summer in San Francisco, except that it was their 74th win of the 2021 season — which is how many wins the PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus projected the Giants would win all year, despite some optimistic signs.
At the time, they still had 47 games left to play.
Expected to be also-rans in the most exciting division in league, trailing somewhere behind the behemoths several hours south along the coast, the Giants enter September as baseball’s best team. An NL West race that was supposed to pit the reigning champion Los Angeles Dodgers against the upstart San Diego Padres has instead been dominated by the Giants, who have held sole possession of first place since the last day of May.
“All of our success has been driven by players exceeding expectations and that's a tribute to their work, and the staff, and the infrastructure that we've built to support them.” That’s Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, who took over after the 2018 season and has built a deeper, more modern team while staying — at times confoundingly — invested in the same core that formed the backbone of a dynasty almost a decade ago. What’s interesting about that quote is that it came in a conversation with Yahoo Sports during spring training, months before anyone thought the Giants were a legitimate postseason threat.
“Do people think we are going to not try to build a competitive team because we feel like the top of the division is spoken for?” Zaidi asked rhetorically at the time. “We have an obligation to our fan base — and frankly, we have a competitive nature within our organization — to just try to be as good as we can be.”
The result in 2021 is a level of success that surprises even the longest-tenured member of the team.
“I'd be lying if I said we'd have 80 wins at this point,” said third-base coach Ron Wotus, now in his 24th season on the Giants’ major-league staff. “But now that I've been living it for the whole season, it's definitely for real.”
Trying to explain an inexplicable rise
Eighty wins, that’s how many the Giants took into New York last week for a series against the Mets, who had also led their division for nearly three months before free-falling out of relevance. The Mets entered the series with 61 wins, despite projections that they would win their division and expectations buoyed by an offseason overhaul from ownership on down. In other words, they have — at least of late — underperformed while the Giants have overperformed.
And as the latter swept the former to perpetuate that dichotomy, it was difficult not to wonder what unquantifiable alchemy causes actual results to diverge so drastically from an algorithm’s estimation.
“Yeah, I mean, I think if anybody had a certain answer to that question, it would be what everybody did,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler offered this week with unhelpful equanimity.
Presented with praise from Mets manager Luis Rojas, Kapler demurred again.
“It is encouraging, and we appreciate being acknowledged, as a club and as individual players, for the good work that we do,” he said.
“I don't think we're doing anything especially different than most of the clubs around baseball are doing. Pretty simple approach to hitting. That approach is looking for a pitch to drive and hit hard. And if those pitches present themselves, we're going to be aggressive on those pitches. And if those pitches are not in those locations that we're looking for, we're going to be patient and look to get to the next pitch.”
He offered this masterclass in baseball cliches with absolute self-awareness.
“And I’d just use this as a chance to reiterate that that's not unique at all. It's not special. But the players have done a really nice job of living that philosophy throughout the season.”
If you’re open to the softer side of analysis, there’s something to be gleaned from that last bit. That is: the importance and power of buy-in.
Certainly, the new regime ushered in by Zaidi and Kapler represents a decisive modernization of an organization that won three world championships under the savvy-but-old-school duo of Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy. If you pull the individual threads that constitute the tapestry of their success this season, many lead back to Zaidi’s ability to identify overlooked talent. Arming those players with the information to maximize their largely untapped potential has led to breakouts for Wade, Darin Ruf, Kevin Gausman and Webb, among others.
“I feel like sometimes guys are kind of taught the same thing. But really, every guy's different and they do a really good job of telling guys, ‘You're really good at this, do that,’” says Webb, who has leaned into his sinker to get more ground balls this season. “There’s so many different numbers now.”
Giants buy in behind veteran leaders
But among the more charming aspects of the Giants’ seemingly storybook summer has been the timely resurgence of aging stars like Crawford, Brandon Belt, Evan Longoria, Johnny Cueto and Buster Posey, who opted out of 2020 and is now enjoying his best offensive season since he won MVP in 2012.
Any innovation in approach is only as good as its application, especially among clubhouse leaders. In practice, that means players with multiple World Series rings embracing challenging, and at times humbling, transitions to higher-intensity and more competitive practices. Hitting off machines that simulate some of the toughest arms instead of feasting on fat batting practice fodder. Replacing perfect fungos with balls fired from machines, as well. Pitchers throwing bullpens in front of high-speed cameras that provide instant feedback and often force adjustments. Sixty-year-old coaches adjusting to video analysis instead of advance scouting and a culture that encourages players to take off days when they can to stay healthy and well-rested.
“That’s a big change,” Wotus said.
All of which brings us back to buy-in.
“Our coaching staff has different ways of approaching problems, I think, than the coaching staff that was here before,” Kapler said. “And obviously the coaching staff that was here before did a tremendous job developing those players. So with the success that they had had, using the techniques and practice styles that they had in place, I think it took a lot of maturity, a lot of growth, a lot of openness, just to be willing to listen to the other side. Our coaching staff would not be able to make any impact if that openness wasn't there.”
That coaching staff — which Zaidi called Kapler’s “brainchild” — is noteworthy, and has been repeatedly noted, for its size. Kapler espouses the benefits of a smaller student-to-teacher ratio for generating more touchpoints and opportunities for personalization. He insists, however, that their 15-person coaching staff is not actually reflective of having significantly more people than other teams — instead chalking that number up to calling some staffers “coaches” who might otherwise be termed “analysts.” That, too, is about encouraging conversations. Players are more likely to talk to someone telling them to change their approach based on the advice of advanced metrics if that person is in uniform, Kapler noted.
Kapler credits the team for buying into new philosophies even before their viability was borne out in wins. Consistency is key, to cite another baseball cliche. He says that too often players and teams that struggle are too quick to alter course, abandoning best practices in the middle of a rough patch.
“Just because you go out there and get your ass kicked one day doesn't mean that you change your approach,” he said. “So again, it's not rocket science, right?”
In fact, it’s a pretty straightforward blueprint that most teams are trying to build on these days. But along with buy-in and consistency and the right culture of respect, it takes one more element to really stick: results.
“When you're winning it cures a lot of ills and everybody gets on board because you're successful,” Wotus said. “No one ever wants to panic and I think that's the thing, when you're losing, panic sets in. Well, we haven't been on a losing streak here. So we haven't felt much of that this season.”