Sad at the beginning and end, happy in the middle: A movie review of the 2019 San Francisco Giants

Dereck Rodriguez looks confused. Photo credit: NBC Sports Bay Area

by DrLefty

I know we’re in the middle of Division Series playoffs, and I’m sure we’ll return to those threads, but before the Giants’ season moves too far into the rearview mirror, I thought I’d take us on an edited journey through it. It was an interesting year, which as I noted in the title, started and ended badly but had some intriguing twists and turns as it went along. What it all means for the future?–Well, we’ll just have to wait for the (next) sequel.

No writer is without bias, and I’ll admit that my emotions and memories are colored by having attended Opening Day (at Petco Park in San Diego), the home opener, and the final game at Oracle Park this year, all disheartening losses.

 

The beginning

To say the Giants’ season began badly is to understate how awful it was. It began very badly before a pitch was even thrown, with painful goodbyes (the deaths of Willie McCovey and Peter Magowan, among others), disturbing off-the-field news (owner Charles Johnson’s dubious political donations and CEO Larry Baer’s very public marital spat), and head-scratching roster moves (and/or lack thereof) leading up to the season opener by new president of baseball operations, Farhan Zaidi.

Let’s talk about the roster. In the offseason, Zaidi did, well, almost nothing. He signed only three major league free agents, who were minor moves at best (Pat Venditte, Drew Pomeranz, and Derek Holland), and all three of them were gone by the end of July. He spoke at press conferences during the winter about bringing in at least two new outfielders for a very thin crew that included on the 40-man roster only youngsters Steven Duggar, Austin Slater, Mac Williamson, and Chris Shaw. And yet the weeks and months slipped by, and…nothing. (Or so it seemed. We’ll get to Mike Yastrzemski in the happy part of the movie.) There was a late and failed pursuit of Bryce Harper that we all knew wouldn’t work out, and that turned out to be oddly connected to the Larry Baer incident, but…I digress.

The Giants brought a bunch of AAA and journeyman outfield types to spring training in Arizona to compete with the above homegrown guys for Opening Day jobs. With the exceptions of Duggar and Gerardo Parra, none of them, after their Cactus League auditions, were deemed worthy of being on the Giants’ Opening Day roster, and that’s when things got weird. Right before the Giants started their season at Petco on March 28, Zaidi obtained a Rule 5 infielder, Connor Joe–whom he’d known from the Dodgers organization–on waivers from the Reds on March 21. He also picked up Michael Reed from the Twins on a waiver claim on March 23. The really strange part was when those two last-minute grabs ended up in the Opening Day lineup in the corner outfield positions.

Connor Joe’s first major league AB

 

 

You will want to remember Connor Joe’s name because it is now part of our ongoing and possibly never-ending trivia item as Giants fans (“Name the Opening Day left fielders for the Giants since Barry Bonds”). We are now at 12 different names and counting because Connor Joe is not going to repeat his Opening Day start in left field for the 2020 Giants.

Anyway, here was the Opening Day roster for the Giants.

San Francisco Giants Opening Day roster, March 28, 2019. Credit: mlb.com

 

Take a careful look at that list. Of the pitchers, only Bumgarner, Rodriguez, Samardzija, and Smith finished the season on the active roster–and Rodriguez spent most of the year bouncing back and forth between the Giants and AAA Sacramento. The rest were traded, injured, or DFA’d. Among the position players, Panik, Solarte, Kratz, and all of the outfielders except for Duggar were DFA’d, all of those except for Panik (who was DFA’d in early August), before May was over. Michael Reed lasted exactly 11 days on the Giants’ 40-man roster. Connor Joe lasted just over two weeks.  Pablo Sandoval and Steven Duggar sustained serious injuries and finished the year on the 60-day IL (for the second season in a row in both cases).

So to recap: Four pitchers on the Opening Day roster finished the season with the Giants. Four position players (Belt, Crawford, Longoria, and Posey) were with the team on Sunday when the season ended. The other 17 were released, traded, or injured. This gives you a pretty good idea of how and why the season began so badly.

And begin badly it did, with two lifeless losses to the Padres in which they mustered one whole run, a ninth-inning homer in Game 2 by Evan Longoria. They went 2-5 on their season-opening road trip, lost their home opener and their first two home series before finally winning more than one game in a row and a series.

The Giants do ceremonies and special events better than anyone, but the home opener just ached with sadness. There were lengthy, emotional tributes to the late Magowan (Mike Krukow did his usual stellar job making a speech) and McCovey (whose widow broke down sobbing in Brandon Belt’s arms). There was a lengthy ovation for Bruce Bochy, who’d announced his retirement at the end of the season.

And then the game started, and Dereck Rodriguez gave up four runs in the top of the first and the faithful started bailing to club level lounges or out of the park entirely (to be fair, it was damp and cold that day). We did get a nice TWG picture at the Willie Mays statue after the game.

TWG crew outside Oracle Park on April 5, 2019. Front: Crawnik and Vail Sunshine. Back row from left: HaakAway’s nephew and baby son, MrLefty, DrLefty, Surf Maui, Mr. Sarcastic, Mrs. Sarcastic, and HaakAway. Photo credit: Mrs. Crawnik

 

The season didn’t improve much throughout April and May. Despite a few quirky moments (an 18-inning win over the Rockies finally decided by a 30-foot dribbler by backup catcher Erik Kratz, a wild eight-run comeback win against the Reds in Cincinnati), the Giants were just flat-out bad. They ended May with a 22-34 record that included humiliating butt-kicking sweeps at home at the hands of the Yankees (April) and Diamondbacks (May) and even a series loss to the NL-worst Miami Marlins on the road. We were beginning to speculate how quickly the Giants’ pending free agents (Bumgarner, Smith, and others) would be traded–would it be all the way at the trade deadline, or much sooner?–and where in the bottom ten the Giants would finish for next year’s draft pick.

Joe, Reed, Kratz, Solarte, and Parra were long gone by the end of May, Mike Gerber and Mac Williamson had quickly come and gone, and 2018 bright spot Dereck Rodriguez was in the minors. About the only interesting thing that happened toward the end of May was the major league debut (May 25) and first major league homer (May 31) of Hall-of-Famer Carl Yastrzemski’s grandson. (/cue happier, more optimistic music)

 

The middle: A better June, a stellar July, and a surprise ending

June began better, with two straight wins in Baltimore over the woeful Orioles–you know, the ones who thought they had no use for Mike Yastrzemski after six years in the minors (but we probably shouldn’t sneer until we’ve covered Tyler Rogers). June 1 featured Shaun Anderson’s first major league win. Anderson, obtained in 2017 in a midseason trade of Eduardo Nunez to the Red Sox, had made his debut on May 15.

The Giants played better in June, finishing the month with a winning 14-13 record. The most notable moment was the Giants debut of Alex Dickerson on June 21. Dickerson had been picked up off waivers from the Padres in early June, and his Giants debut was something, featuring a grand slam, a triple, and six RBIs–a new dugout rallying cry.

Dickerson’s sudden emergence also inspired approximately 10 million junior high boys’ locker room jokes on Twitter and here on TWG, but I digress again.

Sparked by Dickerson, by Yastrzemski, and by a red-hot Evan Longoria, with honorable mention to Pablo Sandoval (who was the best hitter on the team for most of the first half) and Stephen Vogt (who arrived from the minors in May and became a valuable left-handed complement to a struggling Posey), the Giants won their last game of June and carried a 17-3 stretch into the All-Star break. They kept it going through the end of July despite injuries to Longoria and Dickerson, ending July with a 19-6 record and a remarkable two games over .500 and in the thick of the NL wild card scrum. No one who watched this team in March through May would have thought that was remotely possible.

The Giants’ July hot streak caused problems for Zaidi and consternation around the league, as other teams had planned to go shopping in the Bumgarner/Smith aisle of the Giants store. Could Zaidi offload Bumgarner–not only adored by the fans but by retiring manager Bochy–and Smith, an All-Star and one of the league’s best closers, while the Giants were fighting so hard to be relevant?

Zaidi could not and did not. Rather, in what I think was his finest day as a Giant to date, he walked the middle of the road, trading Pomeranz, Melancon, and Dyson but keeping Bumgarner, Smith, and Watson. In so doing, he added prospects, including likely Opening Day 2B Mauricio Dubon (obtained from the Brewers for Pomeranz and Ray Black) and offloaded salary, most notably the $24 million or so still owed to Melancon.

Now that we know what we know–the Giants fizzled in August and September (11-16 in both months)–was it a mistake to hold Bumgarner and Smith? Some fans say yes. Zaidi says no–that he owed it to Bochy to give him a functional team to manage, and they owed it to the fans to stay competitive as long as possible. Indeed, the Giants were not mathematically eliminated from the postseason until September 20 (in 2017, it was May 30 or thereabout–I forget exactly), and Bochy attained the rare milestone of 2000 wins as a manager on September 18 at Fenway Park. They were at .500 and just four games out of the second wild card spot as late as August 26. None of those things likely happen if Zaidi had gone “total seller” at the deadline. Indeed, rather surprisingly, Zaidi wonders just as much if he should have done more as a buyer at the deadline.

 

The sad ending

As already noted, the Giants did not sustain their hot streak from July, going 22-32 over the last two months of the season and finishing the year with a 77-85 record, in third place in the NL West. The season ended with an ugly sweep at home at the hands of the Dodgers, and Bruce Bochy’s final game as Giants manager went pretty much like his first home game of 2019–with Dereck Rodriguez putting the game out of reach before the Giants even had an at-bat and a 9-0 loss.

(Bochy’s first game as Giants manager was a 7-0 loss at AT & T Park to Jake Peavy and the Padres on April 3, 2007. That was also Barry Zito’s Giants debut. I was also at that game–my first Opening Day ever–and at Zito’s last game as a Giant, September 29, 2013. Hmmmm. Maybe I’m the problem. In an interesting twist, both Peavy–now a #ForeverGiant–and Zito were also in the house on Sunday to honor Bochy at his retirement ceremony.)

Bochy’s final game also featured what might have been Madison Bumgarner’s last appearance as a Giant–as a pinch-hitter, facing old frenemy Clayton Kershaw. That moment, though it was dramatic and emotional, just ached with sadness again.  Even the stirring postgame ceremony, which featured over 50 current and former Giants players arriving to honor Bochy and an amazing speech by the man of the hour, felt sad–truly the end of an era (Bochy’s tenure) and of this historic decade of Giants baseball (2010-19). We did, however, get another TWG picture at the statue, bookending the season.

TWG group at Willie Mays statue, September 29, 2019. Clockwise: Crawnik, Matthew, Mrs. Matthew, 12xu, Vail Sunshine, Surf Maui, DrLefty, MrLefty. Photo credit: Mrs. Crawnik

 

The credits: Final facts, figures, and thoughts

This 2019 movie was an odd one. As Grant Brisbee put it in one of his pieces this week, “You think you know. But you don’t.” We’d seen the 2017 and 2018 movies, and it sure looked like 2019 was going to be more of the same. But it wasn’t. Let’s take a quick look.

  • The Giants’ 77-85 record was six games better than their Pythagorean won-loss record (which is based on run differential).
  • The main (sole?) reason for the Giants’ record being better than the run differential was their remarkable success in one-run games (38-16, which by far led the majors).
  • They had one of the best bullpens in the majors, and even after the original crew was depleted via July trades and decimated via September injuries, the replacements were still pretty good. (The Giants’ best bullpen ERA by month in 2019 was in…September.) Assuming Smith and/or Watson leave in free agency, Zaidi will have to almost entirely rebuild the bullpen for 2020. However, the long look given to the no-name September crew unearthed some possible cornerstones for next year, including Tyler Rogers, Jandel Gustave, and maybe even starter-turned-reliever Shaun Anderson.
  • Their team offense was terrible from start to finish despite the bright-spot performances by Dickerson, Yastrzemski, late-season addition Dubon, and Willie Mac winner Kevin Pillar. I could cite all kinds of ugly stats but I’ll leave you with just two, one old school and one new school: 27th in team batting average and 28th in wRC+ (ahead of only the really, really bad Marlins and Tigers).
  • Despite solid seasons from Bumgarner and (somewhat surprisingly) Samardzija, the rotation was shaky all year. However, some possible hope for the future was seen in starts by younger prospects Tyler Beede and Logan Webb, both of whom have major league stuff if they can learn to harness it consistently. We also saw the September return of Johnny Cueto after mid-2018 Tommy John surgery. His minor league and first two Giants starts were great. His last two starts were not.
  • One area of great improvement was the outfield defense, which has been terrible for years. Going by just one advanced stat, Defensive Runs Saved, the Giants were ninth in the majors at +18. In 2018, they were 18th at -4. In 2017, they were dead last at -45. In 2016, they were 24th at -17, and…well, you get the idea. Just ask Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija what they think about the difference this year.
  • The biggest area of concern was the enormous regression by what the beat writers are calling the “legacy players”–Posey, Crawford, and Belt (with Panik already gone). Again just going by two stats–fWAR and wRC+, all three had their worst seasons of their careers. Among qualifed shortstops, Crawford was 24th out of 25 in MLB in fWAR. Even his usually reliable defense dropped down to 12th in the majors. Posey was still among the top catchers defensively, but his value was literally all glove. Belt hit the best of the three with a 99 wRC+, but his defense regressed as well. He was 18th of 20 in fWAR for first basemen, ahead of only Eric Hosmer and the decrepit Albert Pujols. The future of all three players will be a huge question going forward for the new manager and for Zaidi.
  • The Giants were decent on the road (42-39) and awful at home (35-46), tying their worst home record in the San Francisco era. This will lead to ballpark changes, the nature of which remain to be seen.
  • Bochy is gone, and the future of the coaches is very much up in the air. We’ve been told that both Ron Wotus and Hensley Meulens will interview for the manager’s job, but that all coaches have been informed that no decisions will be made about their status until the new manager is hired and can have a say–and that they are free to pursue other opportunities in the meantime. That…doesn’t sound good.

The 2020 Giants will look very different from the team that started 2019, but they will also look very different from the team that ended 2019. On the other hand, the TWGers will just get better with age like fine wine. We will await teasers and trailers from the next sequel, but with Zaidi at the helm, there are sure to be surprises. That’s OK. Sometimes change can be good. Lefty out.