Unbelievable

                                             Photo credit: San Francisco Chronicle

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by DrLefty

I was considering a more R-rated title related to the wacky ending of last night’s game, involving words such as “muff,” “Dick,” and “score,” but I decided that the Giants’ achievements of this past week, which include their longest winning streak since 2016 and their first glimpse of .500 this season (unless you want to count 0-0 before Opening Day), deserved something a tiny bit more dignified.

The seven-game winning streak (and now 14 wins in the last 16 games, dating back to June 30) isn’t the half of it. It’s how they’ve managed a seven-game winning streak:

  • winning four games in three days at Coors Field, a place they’d won two games in the past two years
  • winning despite playing a total of 63 innings between Monday morning and Friday night (including a doubleheader and three extra-inning games, one 16 innings long)
  • facing a sharp Noah Syndergaard and a dominant Jacob deGrom in the first two games against the Mets
  • winning blowouts (19-2), Coors Field slugfests (11-8 in the series finale), and pitchers’ duels (2-1, 3-2, 1-0)
  • winning despite the loss of their hottest hitter (Evan Longoria, who went on the DL before the Coors series) and some uncharacteristically shaky outings by closer Will Smith.

This is a team that believes in itself and is finding ways to win, and I can’t remember the last time I looked forward so much to watching the game each day. I guess it would be back in the Obama administration (the first half of 2016), before Kevin Durant became a Warrior and put a curse on the Giants.

Let’s break this down a bit more, talking first about last night’s game, second about what’s going on in this hot streak, and third about the elephant in the room–given the Giants’ surge, are they still sellers at the trade deadline, now just 11 days away?

 

The game

There are just two important things to mention about last night’s tight 1-0 ten-inning contest. We already knew that Jacob deGrom (2014 Rookie of the Year, World Series ace in 2015, three-time All-Star, Cy Young winner in 2018) was a stud, so it’s not surprising to see him throw seven scoreless, dominant innings (10 strikeouts and only three hits). But how about Tyler Beede? Every time out lately it seems like we’re saying “best start of his career,” but it’s hard to argue with eight shutout innings in under 90 pitches. In July he’s made three starts, pitched 21.2 innings, and has an ERA of 1.66, a WHIP of 0.69, a batting average against of .179, and a K/BB ratio of 16:1. This is the same guy who this time last year was such a colossal bust that he was pitching middle relief in AAA, and not very well at that. Beede’s emergence is one of the most encouraging and important developments of the 2019 season so far.

The other noteworthy aspect of last night’s game was…well, how it ended. I’m not sure if “Keystone Cops” or “Little League home run” is the right way to describe that mess of a play that allowed the Giants to “walk” the game off in the tenth inning, but…yiiiiiiikes.

 

So many things to watch here. The left fielder, Dominic Smith, seemed to be drifting lazily toward the ball but got distracted at the last second by the shortstop and clanked it off his glove. His wild throw past home plate sealed the deal; with a good throw, Alex Dickerson should have been out by five feet. And why is Wilson Ramos standing passively off to the left of the plate as his distraught pitcher makes a futile wave at Smith’s errant throw?  Great hustle by Dickerson and great send by third-base coach Ron Wotus, too.

Raise your hand if you believed the whole night that Dickerson was going to be involved in winning the game, even though he didn’t start it.

Anyway: Beede’s masterful eight innings and the way the game ended–those were the stories of the win that brought the Giants to .500 for the first time this season.

 

Anatomy of a hot streak

As already mentioned, dating back to June 30, the Giants are 14-2. When they began July, they were still 11 games under .500. Eighteen days later, they’ve leapfrogged five other NL teams (they were ahead of only the Marlins in the NL at that point), have evened their season record at 49-49 with 64 games to play, and are now just two games back of the second NL wild card spot.

NL Wild Card standings as of 7-20-19

 

So how did this happen? Are there any notable trends to help us believe this isn’t all just some kind of fluke? Let’s break it down.

  1. The starting pitchers have been great.  Since June 30, the starters are third in MLB, behind just the Nationals and the Indians, who have amazing rotations. The Giants have…Bumgarner, Samardzija (who’s having a surprisingly good season, but still), Pomeranz (2-9, but deserved better in his last start), and two rookies, one of whom probably needs a breather in AAA (Anderson). The starters have averaged nearly six innings a start, and that’s with a couple of Pomeranz/Anderson stinkers thrown in and Bum having to leave one game early after being hit in his pitching arm by a line drive.
  2. The hitting has been…whoa, look at that. Since June 30, the Giants are second in the majors in offensive WAR and third in wRC+. They lead the majors in runs scored during that period, and it’s not close (119 to 94 for the second-place Astros).  Most astonishing of all, they’re tied for the major league lead in HOME RUNS, and yes, I know they played in Milwaukee and Coors, but some of those games were at Oracle Park and Petco, too.  The main contributors have been the now-injured Longoria and Alex Dickerson, but ten position players have wRC+ scores of over 100 (league average) in this time period.  So it’s not just one or two guys getting hot–it’s up and down the lineup, which allows them to keep winning during a brutal schedule stretch because guys can get days off.  The only two guys not hitting are Panik (a brutal 32 wRC+) and Sandoval, but we’ll give him a pass because he “won” last night’s game and was mostly carrying the team offensively the first two months.

The Giants have had some good stretches from their rotation before (in March/April, in particular), and the bullpen’s been good all year. So the main key to this hot streak appears to be the whole team suddenly being able to hit.

 

Buy, sell, or hold?

In August last year, I wrote a post subtitled “Know when to fold ’em” and argued that even though the Giants were around .500 and were still kinda, sorta in the NL West race, the eye test said they were going nowhere, and it was time for the front office to prepare to “fold,” which included not only trading any tradeable assets (McCutchen) but also putting some guys on waivers and allowing some younger guys to get more playing time.  Looking back on that post, I notice some differences between then (August 18, 2018) and now. The Giants hadn’t won more than four games in a row all season (they’re currently at seven in a row), had one 8-2 stretch in June (they’re currently 14 out of 16), and were terrible on the road (they’re 28-24 on the road this season).  Posey needed surgery, Cueto, Samardzija, and Sandoval were already out for the season, and Belt and Crawford were struggling to play through injuries. The current Giants are healthy except for Longoria and Cueto (who’s on his way back to the mound within days) and a couple of bullpen guys they’re not missing (Bergen and Vincent, both on the 60-day DL).

There is a lot of dissent within Giants Nation (including commenters here, Twitter, and comments on The Athletic) about whether or not the Giants should proceed with their plans to sell that appeared so inevitable just a month ago. There are some folks who seem truly distraught at the Giants’ poorly timed (in their view) hot streak, considering it a mirage that will last just long enough to keep Farhan Zaidi from doing “the right thing” (i.e., selling everything valuable at the July 31 trade deadline). I’m not going to rehash all the arguments here, but I’ll make several observations as to how one might think through the issues.

  • There are reasons (see above) to believe that the Giants’ current play is not just a brief fluke. For one thing, they’re 27-15 since June 1, which is more than 25% of the season. That’s not a particularly small sample size.
  • If the Giants are “in it” as to a postseason spot, it’s a wild card spot, a 50-50 crapshoot. Considering that, under no circumstances should they trade any serious prospects for rental players to improve the current roster. I’m talking nobody in their top-30 prospects, period. Deals like Franklin van Gurp for Alex Dickerson? Sure. Derek Law, Alen Hansen and Juan dePaula for Kevin Pillar, or Chris Stratton for Williams Jerez? Fine. But unless we’re talking about a major-league-ready player who’s controllable for at least two years beyond this one, no top prospects.
  • The Giants’ September schedule should give the front office pause as they sort through the current options. Beginning Sept. 17, the Giants play Boston and then Atlanta on the road and a final home stand against the Rockies and the Dodgers. Three out of the last four opponents are the two best teams in the NL and the defending World Series champion Red Sox. In other words, the Giants could “hold,” keep winning, and still drop out of the playoff picture at the very end of the race.
  • The Giants’ farm system is no longer a wasteland, and that could impact the urgency level of this year’s trade deadline. It’s been long-standing wisdom that the Giants “have no farm system” and thus that the “only hope” for the future was to trade major league assets to replenish the organization. But a funny thing happened while everyone was writing off the farm system: The Giants had several good drafts and several good international signing periods, and all of a sudden, things are looking much brighter. Just to give a few data points:
  1. The Giants have more prospects showing up on “top” lists–three in the top 50 just released by Baseball Prospectus and four in the Baseball America top 100. Going into this season, they had one, Joey Bart.
  2. The Giants AAA Sacramento team is playing better than they have in many years. They’re 52-47 and have a two-game lead in their division. At the lower levels, Augusta is tied for first in the second-half standings, Salem-Keizer is in first place with a 23-12 record, and the powerhouse Giants Orange team is 21-5 in the Arizona Rookie League. Now, the won-loss record of farm teams usually doesn’t matter that much, but in recent years, we’ve seen every single Giants affiliate in the cellar of their respective leagues. I’ve always believed that winning leads to more winning when players get to the major leagues, so I see the improved performance of the minor league teams as a very positive marker.
  3. Besides the big names (Bart, Ramos, Luciano, and Bishop), many other players are having excellent 2019 seasons. Just to list a few (current levels indicated): Zach Green, Chris Shaw, Sam Selman, Conner Menez (AAA); Logan Webb, Melvin Adon, Tyler Cyr, Raffi Vizcaino (AA); Sean Hjelle (A+); Seth Corry (A); Alex Canario, Franklin Labour and Ricardo Genoves (Salem-Keizer); Luis Toribio, Connor Cannon, and Jairo Pomares (AZL). There is some depth there, though it’s worth noting that only a few of those names are pitchers. That seems to be an area of weakness at the moment.

How does this improved farm system influence the front office’s thinking about the trade deadline? Maybe there’s less desperation–“we have to get something, anything by trading our major league assets because any schmoe from someone else’s organization will be better than anything we have”–and a determination to only trade someone like Bumgarner or Smith if the return is too good to pass up (not just “get something”).

My own take on all this is that I have never, ever wanted the Giants to trade Bumgarner. I want them to sign him to a new free agent deal (or extension) and keep him as the ace of the rotation for the coming years. If they have no intention of trying to do that, they should probably trade him, both to get some return better than a compensation pick in next year’s draft and to do him a solid (he’ll have an easier time on the free agent market without a qualifying offer.

I would be OK with the Giants trading from their bullpen assets. There are good reasons to do that. It’s a sellers’ market, with a lot of teams in competition having weak bullpens, even the mighty Dodgers. The Giants have a lot of salary tied up in Smith, Watson, and Dyson. They also have some good arms in AAA/AA to rebuild a good (and cheaper/younger) bullpen for the future. Smith is a free agent after this season, and you don’t usually give closers a qualifying offer, so unless they plan to offer him an extension right now, it makes sense to sell high on him.

There may be other less obvious moves, such as shopping Holland or Pomeranz to teams needing rotation depth. There might even be takers for Mark Melan–nah, even I can’t be that optimistic. But I guess I’ve landed on a combination of “hold” and “sell” for the Giants right now. No buying, unless it’s the aforementioned van Gurp-for-Dickerson kind of deal. (On the other hand, if the Mariners are shopping Dee Gordon…)

 

Today’s game

Mets at Giants, 1:05 p.m. at Oracle Park
Walker Lockett (0-1, 11.74 ERA) vs. Jeff Samardzija (7-7, 3.93 ERA)

We will see if the Giants can make it eight in a row, and it should be a relief to face not-Thor and not-deGrom today. Samardzija has been absolutely terrific in his last three starts (21.2 IP, 1.66 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, 17/3 K/BB ratio), and his resurgent year has been an underrated storyline in this 2019 season.

I was already looking forward to attending tomorrow’s game and to meet Totalfan62 and Mrs. TF62 for the first time and see other blog regulars. Now I’m excited because the Giants are actually playing great!

 

Last call for TWG outing at the River Cats game!

We have 16 of us confirmed for the Friday, July 26 game at Raley Field in West Sacramento. I still have a few tickets left. Please let me know ASAP if you want in (leftydana@sbcglobal.net). I’ll probably start shopping my extra tickets locally around Tuesday or Wednesday.  Hope some more of you can join us!  Lefty out.