Build Back Better™

Rookies Joey Bart and Logan Webb led the way on Friday night. Photo credit: NBC Sports-Bay Area

 

by DrLefty

The Democratic National Convention this week used the slogan “Build Back Better” to talk about the vision that Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and the Democratic Party have for the future: not just restore what has been lost in the Trump years and particularly in 2020 but make things better than they were. In his acceptance speech, Biden began and ended with a darkness-into-light metaphor, reflecting somberly on the current crises (pandemic, unemployment, racial tensions).

It’s easy to see how the “darkness into light” analogy works for a Giants team that’s been wandering in the wilderness for the better part of four years, excluding the first half of 2016 and a couple of months in 2019. But “Build Back Better” than an era which produced three World Series championships? A young starting battery of Logan Webb and Joey Bart compared with the 2010 version–Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey? Build Back Better with Gabe Kapler instead of Bruce Bochy?

It may be hard to believe in something “better” than what we saw in 2010-14, but…we’ll explore the idea a bit in a minute. First, let’s recap the low lows and the high highs we’ve experienced as Giants fans this past week.

 

Build Better Bullpen

The Giants lost five straight games over the past nine days, including three excruciating ninth-inning blown saves in four days by Trevor Gott and an infuriating series sweep at home at the hands of the hated Oakland A’s. Tack on the game they blew at Dodger Stadium the previous weekend to lose a chance at a series victory against the despised Dodgers, and wow, has the Giants’ bullpen (and manager Kapler’s deployment of his resources, such as they are) been a source of great pain. Per Fangraphs, the Giants have the worst bullpen in the majors, and they’re not even close to the team at #29 (which, good news, is the Mariners, and the Giants have four games coming up with them in September).

It’s so bad, in fact, that Alex Pavlovic wrote an apologist article earlier this week basically arguing that this terrible bullpen is actually part of the plan:

Anyone who is being realistic about the 2020 Giants would know that this bullpen was not really designed to be good. It was designed to help develop the next good Giants bullpen. Instead of spending in free agency, Zaidi and general manager Scott Harris have built their ‘pen nearly entirely around homegrown arms, minor league free agents and under-the-radar trade additions.

 

Anyone who is being realistic would also know that that’s what the Giants should be doing. Giving multi-year deals to veterans would be about the dumbest way for a rebuilding club to spend money. (emphasis added)

 

That’s some pretzel-twisted logic here. While I understand the concept he is describing, it’s at odds with the “we’re competing–really, we are!” narrative that the Giants’ front office has consistently pushed. And as I reflect on my own frustration with this regime and this season, that’s really the biggest beef I have with them–that they falsely claim to be “competing.” I could live with “we’re rebuilding” or “we’re focusing on developing young players” as a storyline. But you can’t really be serious about competing and at the same time plan to have a bullpen that “was not really designed to be good.”

The irony is that building a good (or even average) bullpen is the most cost-effective part of a team’s budget. Starting pitchers cost a lot of money. So do good hitters. Even great defenders can parlay those skills into a big contract. (Jason Heyward comes to mind.) But you can sign quality relievers with major league experience for short-term contracts at a reasonable price. Take the A’s, who are tied with the Blue Jays for the best bullpen WAR in the majors. They’ve spent money on their closer, Liam Hendriks and on battle-tested veterans like Joakim Soria and Yusmeiro Petit, and have interspersed them with cheaper names like Burch Smith (whom Zaidi let go for nothing to the A’s). But their whole bullpen is still less than $20 mil of their payroll and no one is signed for more than a year or two.

Now, Alex’s argument is that the Giants shouldn’t be spending money on relievers because they won’t be part of the next good Giants team–relievers just don’t typically have that much of a shelf life. Fine, OK. Then don’t say you’re “competing,” because you can’t have it both ways.

For a fanbase, watching your team lose games is always painful. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a mediocre rotation pitch the Giants out of games early and we’ve seen a woeful offense not wake up until the fifth inning or so. Those were no fun to watch. But there is something uniquely agonizing about watching your team win for three hours only to have your gut punched at the bitter end by a bad bullpen. If the Giants chose that on purpose, well…I’m mad at them.

 

Build Better Battery

The Giants have not (surprisingly) had the worst catching crew in the majors. They’re all the way up at #24! And they finally–finally!!!–called up Joey Bart on Thursday for his major league debut. Last night’s game in particular, with Logan Webb achieving career highs in innings, pitches, and strikeouts, gave a glimpse of a future with this young battery (Webb and Bart are both 23; Webb is a few weeks older) leading the way.

I love everything about Bart’s debut so far, beyond the obvious (the Giants have won both games). He’s done a good job behind the plate, including a block that saved a run on Thursday. He’s scorched two doubles, the second one off the right field wall. Maybe most impressively, after the Diamondbacks walked Alex Dickerson(!!!) to load the bases and get to Bart last night, he calmly worked a 10-pitch at-bat and drew an RBI walk. From Pavlovic’s gamer:

As Bart was fouling off pitches and taking close ones, Kapler turned to bench coach Kai Correa and said “no matter what happens here, this is a story.”

 

“I thought Joey’s at-bat after the intentional walk to Dickerson was really an important moment,” Kapler said. “It was so professional and he never got out of control. It wasn’t like, oh, there’s this intentional walk issued in front of me, so now I have to do more. It was actually just as calm as everything else as he’s been doing. That was really promising.”

 

It was the kind of plate appearance that makes you feel good about predicting a young slugger will have a long career.

 

Bart’s debut is clearly the most exciting thing that’s happened to the Giants all season. So it’s fair to ask: Why did we have to wait so long for it? It’s also fair to wonder: Where would the Giants be if, say, they’d called Bart up after the first week (the point at which they could have avoided burning a whole year of service time)? Andrew Baggarly did not mince any words in writing about Bart’s delayed call-up.

…don’t believe any claims from management that Bart proved his readiness with the one or two right-on-right at-bats he got per day at the alternate site. Don’t believe them when they told you a few weeks ago that he needed to get reps at first base before he’s promoted, especially when they tell you on Thursday that they don’t anticipate that versatility being relevant until 2021 when Posey and Bart inhabit the same roster.

 

The Giants made a business decision to keep Bart down, plain and simple. They just can’t come out and say it. If Bart proves to be an impact performer as a rookie and if the Giants miss the playoffs by a game or two, then by all means sharpen your pitchforks and light your torches.

 

Build Back Better

Considering the amazing run the previous regime gave us, how can anything in the future be considered “better”? Well, I can think of something. Building back better would include not putting the fanbase through what we’ve suffered since 2017 and counting. A few months back I wrote a column about the Sabean/Evans regime and whether it should be considered a brilliant success, a failure (given the current state of affairs), or something in between. While we’ll always be grateful for those championships, is it too much to ask that the team be consistently respectable? Most notably, in its greatest decade, trophy-wise, the Giants actually finished with a cumulative record below .500, as did their Hall of Fame manager.

I don’t think it’s too much to ask. The Yankees haven’t finished below .500 in this century. The Dodgers spent money (a LOT of money) to put a good product on the field while simultaneously developing a pipeline of homegrown stars and a deep well of talent that got them Mookie Betts (and earlier rentals like Manny Machado and Yu Darvish). The Cardinals have had a few disappointing years here and there, but for the most part, they’re always interesting, never to be written off.

The Giants, on the other hand, have been more like the other “team of the 21st century”–the Boston Red Sox. The Fenway crew has won four championships since 2004, but they’ve also been the ultimate feast-or-famine team, going from last place in 2012 to a World Series title in 2013, and back to last place in 2014. This year, not even two years removed from their latest title, they’re worse than the Giants. Like the Giants, they’re a big-market team with a proud history and a passionate, loyal fanbase.

So would you rather be the Red Sox or the Giants (flags fly forever) or the Dodgers or the A’s (no flags since the 80s)? Turns out we shouldn’t have to choose. We could be the Cardinals (World Series winners in 2006 and 2011; NL pennant winners in 2013) or even the Yankees (consistent winners, even though 2009 was their last title).

If the Zaidi regime is successful, they will build a team that is compelling every year. That’s what “Build Back Better” would look like for the Giants.

 

Build Better Batters

So far I’ve been on a mostly negative train of thought, and I want to end on a positive note befitting the Giants’ four-game winning streak and Bart’s debut. For all the obvious flaws we can discuss (bullpen, defense, pitching in general), the Giants have actually morphed into a team whose main strength is that can bludgeon opponents with their bats, and when was the last time we could say that about a Giants team? 2000? 2002?

It’s a little early to declare the new hitting coaches a smashing success, but let’s point out a couple of extremely encouraging trends.

  1. The Giants are scoring a s**t-ton of runs at home. So this has never been a thing for the Giants at this park, or at least not since the Bonds/Kent/PEDs days. They’re averaging 6.4 runs per game at Oracle Park, and their run differential there is +1, which doesn’t seem impressive until you consider that their overall run differential is -24. Take away those couple of train wreck innings against the A’s last weekend (Build Better Bullpen!), and it looks even better. More than half of their home runs this year have been at Oracle–and they’ve played only 12 of their 28 games at home so far. Last year they averaged fewer than 3.4 runs per game at home and had the second-worst home batting average in the majors. The turnaround could to be from a combination of factors–changes in the ballpark dimensions, warmer weather, the scrim covering the viewing gates in right field–but it’s certainly nice to see and has to make the front office feel happier about selling tickets in the future.
  2. The Giants are getting on base early and scoring early. Consider these stats quoted by Baggarly during last night’s game.

 

Remember how last year the Giants would often not get a baserunner until maybe the fourth or fifth inning? How they’d come back from commercial and the Giants would have two outs in 30 seconds or so? Well, that script has flipped dramatically, and it’s a very positive sign about both the hitters themselves and how they’re approaching plate appearances.

Oh, and congratulations to Brandon Crawford for hitting his 100th career homer on Thursday and Evan Longoria for hitting his 300th on Friday.

 

Coming up

The Giants finish their series against the Diamondbacks (6:15 p.m. tonight; 1:10 p.m. tomorrow), have a day off Monday, and then here come the Dodgers for three. Also coming up is the August 31 trade deadline. The first big trade was made last night between the Phillies and the Red Sox, as the (really bad) Red Sox sent a couple of bullpen pieces to help the (not as bad) Phillies shore up their (really bad) bullpen. Part of that trade was #ForeverGiant Heath Hembree, who has a 2018 World Series ring with Boston and should have a 2014 one from the Giants (he was traded for Jake Peavy in July 2014).

Rumors circulated this week that Johnny Cueto has asked to be traded, but he denied (or at least hedged) that. As mentioned here before, other possible trade bait includes Kevin Gausman, Donovan Solano, maybe even Wilmer Flores, but because of the unique limits on trades this year (teams can only trade off of and onto their 60-man list), we may not see that much action at the deadline. Should be interesting to watch.

Keep the bats hot and the game away from the bullpen, and keep the streak going! Lefty out.