The Second Half Slide
As with all of you I am a bit fatigued from all the talk surrounding the firing of Gabe Kapler and the lame-duck proclamations of Farhan Zaidi since the 2023 season ended. This post is about three days late but those extra three days gave me time to reflect on the 2023 Giants in a less passionate and more sober way. It helps having some distance go by after the Giants completely collapsed in the second half of the year. In fact, to begin my analysis of this year’s team I want to go back to that four-game series in Cincinnati. On July 19 the Giants beat the Reds 11-10 to push their winning streak to seven games. They had just started an eight-game road trip that we all believed could be the key to their season. On July 20 the team lost 3-2 and then the next game in Cincy to split the series. We were all thinking the same thing: a split on the road against a good Reds team, no problem. We will take it every time. But the Giants got swept by the Nationals and lost a make up game to a seemingly beatable Tigers team in Detroit. That meant six games down the drain in a row, the final four of which came against teams about to lose 95-plus games. After an 18-8 June the Giants regressed soon after the All Star Game.
What Went Wrong?
That’s where it all went down hill for the Giants. In fact the team would end up with a second half slide that would never really end. They started September 0-6! They would end up 9-20, effectively dooming any playoff hopes. I would argue that awful September is what cost Gabe Kapler his job. The 12-15 August and the 12-13 July were not disastrous but forebode the cold bats and shoddy defense that were the two main culprits in the second half slide. Veteran leaders like J. D. Davis, Michael Conforto and Mitch Haniger either disappeared with prolonged slumps or disappeared into the Injury List or both. They were the three main dud(e)s the Giants were counting on to deliver run production. Nope. Then you have all the platooning, defensive switches, and so forth to contribute to a disastrous team defense with players playing out of position or in positions they were simply not suited for. Here are some examples:
- J. D. Davis at first base fails to corral a routine low throw that would be scooped by a competent and experienced first baseman
- Blake Sabol being converted into a backup catcher and… pick your example
- No real everyday center fielder creating a ripple effect of both inconsistent defense and weak offensive production
- Joc Pederson playing left field far too much because of injury or, you know, matchups
- Patrick Bailey regressing badly and making a rash of throwing errors thanks to inexperience and perhaps fatigue
The “Pitching Rotation”
Remember that so-called starting pitching depth we were all excited about in the offseason after the acquisitions of Ross Stripling and Sean Manaea? With those two acquisitions it meant the Giants had Webb, Cobb, Manaea, Stripling, Descalfani, Wood, Beck, Junis and a few others as potential starters. I am not even counting Kyle Harrison, whose call up was delayed to repress his Major League service time, a very cynical move and another strike against Farhan Zaidi when the Giants desperately needed starting pitching. There was also Keaton Winn and a few others who could have been used when the injuries and ineffectiveness came. What did Gabe Kapler and Farhan Zaidi decide to do? They went with a two-man rotation and then used relievers as starters for only one or two innings the rest of the way. It was a total catastrophe in practice. It was also a wasted opportunity that could have given precious, invaluable experience to young arms as part of their development. When I hear Zaidi talk about drafting and development I cringe every time. The Baseball Gods taught the Giants a hard lesson. Of course, many of the decisions not to use a starting pitcher in the traditional sense were strategic in nature and not due to injury. Not only did the experiment of relievers as starters fail, it also unnecessarily set back the development and maturation of potential young arms. That’s inexcusable in a team that was never going to sniff the World Series anyway.
2023 By the Numbers on Offense
Now let’s look at the disappearing Giants hitting attack, perhaps the main culprit in their second half swoon. Here are some stats to help us contextualize the 2023 Giants:
- The Giants finished 24th in Runs scored with 674 in all of MLB
- The Giants finished 26th overall in team offense
- The Giants finished 19th in homers with 174
- The Giants were dead last in stolen bases with 57
- The Giants had one player, Wilmer Flores, hit 20 or more home runs. He hit 23
- The Giants did not have a single player drive in 70 runs or more (This is a huuuge one for me)
- The highest batting average on the Giants team was .284 by Wilmer
- The Giants had 54 games in which they had five hits or fewer, a third of their games
- The Giants struck out a TON!
In short this was a team without much power, no speed and that struck out far more than league average. In fact the Giants had the 7th highest number of strikeouts in all of MLB, with 1492. Over a full season that averaged to 9.2 strikeouts per game, against an average of 7.84 hits per game (1,271 overall). This is an indictment of their entire approach/philosophy to hitting and calls for a re-evaluation of their lineups and their teachings at the Major and Minor League levels.
One of the things I will give Farhan Zaidi credit for his his liberal and aggressive promotion of young players in the Giants farm system. 2023 saw the debut of Casey Schmitt, Luis Matos, Marco Luciano, Patrick Bailey, Keaton Winn and others. Kyle Harrison had flashes of excellence mixed in with some inconsistency, perhaps again, due to him not pitching this late in the year. Each of the rookies showed real promise. Each of those young players may have a ceiling as high as either “solid Major Leaguer” or even “All Star”. Each would struggle at some point. While it was uplifting to see the Giants give their young players a shot, it was also frustrating to see them give up on so many of them so quickly or see them being platooned and being used in the wrong spots in the line up and in the field.
Matos would be sent up and down. Ditto with Schmitt. There were the standard scrap heap pickups that took playing time away from the young guns, none of which would pan out.
Again this obsession with versatility with hitting matchups in all likelihood delayed or damaged the growth and maturation of young players like Luis Matos. Gabe Kapler, and I quote, once said that Luis Matos had to learn all three outfield positions in order to be an every-day player. That’s like telling a musician you need to master the violin, the piano and the trumpet before you can play in my symphony. It’s simply lunacy and it has hurt the Giants this year and has perhaps caused significant damage to the development of these young players.
The Bright Spots
When it comes to the bright spots in 2023 we have to begin With Logan Webb’s excellent season in which he went 11-13 with a 3.25 ERA. He pitched 216 innings, leading the Major Leagues, and had many other great numbers that with a good team would have put him in the running for a Cy Young Award.
Patrick Bailey made a strong debut, despite playing on fumes at the end of the year. Wilmer Flores had a strong year as well. He led the Giants in just about any important offensive category, without even playing regularly.
I could also say that Marco Luciano’s debut was auspicious, though he played in less than one month’s worth of games. Ditto for Tyler Fitzgerald. Both could be everyday players next year.
J. D. Davis had a great first half, both offensively and defensively. The second half? Don’t ask!
Alex Cobb was solid, very effective for pretty much the entire season. He was often victimized by bad defense. If he could find more efficiency, and throw more strikes he could become an even better pitcher. He is a gamer.
At press time the Giants were without a Manager and were in a bit of a crisis as a result of Farhan Zaidi’s very weak interviews with the press in recent days. The organization is at a critical point. Anyone who does not think so not paying attention. The GIants are getting attention across the baseball world for some very bad reasons. Firing Gabe Kapler with three games remaining is classless and strange. It was ill-advised and created more bad will. Listening the players speak about Kapler’s departure was a lesson in reading the body language and between the lines. This might be the most critical offseason the Giants will have since at least 2018 when the ownership decided to give the keys to the Kingdom to Farhan Zaidi and basically throw away the regime that brought them 3 World Series rings in five years. Make no mistake, the Zaidi hiring was a rash move and tacit acknowledgement that Brian Sabean, Bruce Bochy and Bobby Evans needed to go. Though Evans was the only one fired, the writing was on the wall and Bochy was smart enough to depart when his contract ended. Sabean would leave a couple years later after realizing his experience was not wanted and never utilized.
This means the Giants will have a new Manager next year and quite possibly, quite an influx of youth in the everyday line up. It is no an exaggeration to say that Schmitt, Luciano, Fitzgerald, Bailey and maybe Matos could be opening day starters. As for the pitching it is likely Keaton Winn will join the rotation. This leaves the open question regarding trades and free agent signings. It will be interesting to see how far Farhan Zaidi goes and how much of the future he leverages to save his job in this (2024), the final year of his contract. Another mediocre or under .500 season should cost him his job. A postseason berth might save it.
The bottom line is the 2023 Giants, after starting so promisingly, ended up being the team we and basically all the experts, thought the would be, a team hovering around or slightly better than .500. They fell a few games short of the mark but they were who we thought they were, to quote an old Football coach.