by DrLefty

Last week I talked about JuniorHighLefty being bewildered and put off by some weird dude singing about putting “de lime in de coconut.” Around the same time, I became absolutely obsessed with the song “American Pie,” which was a #1 hit at the time. I had the 45 and later saved my pennies to buy the album with the same title.

I still love the song “American Pie” to this day (and can still sing every single word and the harmonies). But an obscure piano-driven song at the very end of the album also caught my attention. Its moody lyrics spoke to my angsty young teenage soul: “Can you remember who I was? Can you still feel it? Can you find my pain? Can you heal it?”

I thought of the title “Crossroads” as a description this week of Giants baseball. It was a significant one that allowed us to simultaneously reflect upon the recent past, the immediate present, and the short- and long-term future.

First, of course, it was the All-Star break, which is usually considered a halfway point even though it technically isn’t (the Giants, for example, had played 90 games by the All-Star break). There’s downtime, so writers and fans take stock of how the first “half” has gone. The All-Star Game itself, if you pay attention to it and its surrounding festivities, allows you to think about the best players in baseball right now and how the players on your team measure up.

Also, starting in 2021, the First-Year Player Draft is now held during the All-Star break, so fans pay a lot of attention to how their team does–or, maybe more accurately, how experts/pundits think their team has done. Finally, there’s time to make predictions both about how the rest of the season might go and specifically about the impending trade deadline, which this year is August 1, the same day Nate’sFanMom and I celebrate our respective trips around the sun (and as always, happy birthday in advance to Madison Bumgarner, who will celebrating a lot fewer trips than I will).


The Season Thus Far

Grant Brisbee published an excellent article in The Athletic yesterday that provided a cogent, statistically-driven description of how the Giants ended up where they were at the All-Star break. Where they were (and are, with another win last night) is better than we feared: They are currently 50-41, in third place behind 2.5 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West, and in possession of the third wild card spot as of this moment, a half-game ahead of the Reds/Brewers. They have a +33 run differential, which is fourth best in the NL. Considering the low/modest expectations before the season (after a disastrous offseason in which the Giants regularly made the news for all the wrong reasons) and their poor start in April (6-13 as of April 22), we fans should be ecstatic about where they are right now.

To summarize Grant’s points without being excessively derivative, the Giants have had good-to-excellent pitching, way better defense than last year, and average-to-mediocre offense. They have a winning record primarily because of good run prevention. When they were rolling (from mid-May to late June), they were also scoring a lot of runs, but then that stopped.  Their current record and run differential is not quite as good as it was on June 24, when they were 11 games over .500 and had a run differential of  +48.

As I see it, the 2023 Giants break into three groups of players: (1) highly paid veterans; (2) modestly paid veterans; and (3) rookies or near rookies. I’ll define the groups and then make a few comments about each one.


Highly paid veterans

Using Fangraphs’ Roster Resource tool, I’m defining “highly paid veterans” as those with guaranteed contracts with an average annual value of $10 mil or higher. The Giants have ten of those, listed from highest to lowest: Joc Pederson ($19.65 mil), Michael Conforto, Brandon Crawford, Mitch Haniger, Alex Wood, Sean Manaea, Ross Stripling, Anthony DeSclafani, Taylor Rogers, and Alex Cobb ($10 mil). (Logan Webb doesn’t make this list because his contract extension doesn’t begin until 2024; his current salary is his arbitration-level $4.5 mil.)

Using Fangraphs WAR, the most valuable player from the well-heeled veterans list so far is Conforto (0.8), which is eighth-best among position players on the Giants. Pederson is ninth at 0.7. On the pitching side, All-Star Cobb has a 2.1 WAR, DeSclafani is at a somewhat surprising 1.1 (he had a good April), Manaea is actually a net positive at 0.5, and Stripling has been the least valuable pitcher on the entire staff (-0.3), trailing Crawford, David Villar, Matt Beaty, and Brett Wisely (!). All told, the 10 highest-paid players on the Giants have a total WAR of 3.5 on the pitching side (nearly all Cobb and DeSclafani) and 2.0 on the hitting side (all Conforto, Pederson, and Crawford)–5.5 in all.

This is not very good, especially when it comes to the hitters. An 0.8 WAR for Conforto has to be considered a disappointment. His weak defense factors into that a bit, but his current wRC+ is 107. On the Apple TV+ broadcast last night, one of the announcers said brightly: “Conforto’s having a good year for the Giants! His OPS+ is 105, which is 5% above league average!” To which I thought: When he was arguably the biggest free agent acquisition and is the second-highest paid player on the team this year, 5% above league average is…better than below league average, I guess, but I wouldn’t call it “good.” To put this into further perspective, Conforto’s career wRC+ is 123, so he’s having a below average year by his own standards. I know he’s had some hot games and some big hits, including last night, and he seems like a good guy and a good teammate. But for the money, it’s not looking very good right now.

As for the pitchers, the signing of Cobb before the 2022 season is looking great, but the rest of them are not at this point, with the likely exception of Taylor Rogers. There are a lot of question marks: Can Wood pitch more than one good game in a row? Can DeSclafani bounce back from his “fatigue” and become a reliable starter again? Can Stripling turn into something useful, like he was for the Blue Jays last year? I think the biggest question is what the Giants should/will do with Manaea, who seems like something of a lost soul. He flamed out as a starter earlier in the year, had some limited success as a middle reliever, and now is not especially good at that, either. Maybe they should see if some team desperate for a veteran arm will take him. It might be a blessing to everyone, especially Manaea.


Modestly paid veterans

For this category, I’m counting everyone on a guaranteed contract below $10 mil as well as the arbitration-level players–so in essence, everyone else who’s above league minimum. There are 12 players in this group, again listed from highest to lowest salary: Mike Yastrzemski ($6.1 mil), Luke Jackson, Wilmer Flores, Logan Webb, J.D. Davis, Austin Slater, Jakob Junis, John Brebbia, Thairo Estrada, Tyler Rogers, LaMonte Wade Jr., and Scott Alexander ($1.150 mil). 

Even without looking up their stats, just by eyeballing the names on this list we can tell that this is the most valuable group of players on this year’s team. The position players total 9.5 WAR, led by Estrada at 2.6; the lowest is Flores at 0.7. The pitchers in this group total 4.3 WAR, led by Webb’s 2.8, with Junis bringing up the rear at -0.2. Total WAR for all 12 players is 13.8, which is more than 2.5 times higher than the well paid veterans group.

It’s worth remembering how these players were obtained. Yaz, Davis, Estrada, and Wade were snagged from other organizations via savvy trades that cost the team next to nothing. Webb, Slater, and Rogers are homegrown, drafted by the previous regime. The others were low-cost, low-risk free agent signings, the most notable of which was Jackson, who’s making $5.75 mil this year, and the most impactful of which has been Flores, a Willie Mac winner now in his fourth year as a Giant. Indeed, the last three Willie Mac Award winners are in this group, and you might imagine that someone like Estrada or Davis or Webb or Tyler Rogers might join them this year.

Putting these two groups together before we move on to the youngsters, there seems to be a trend. We know that Farhan Zaidi is risk-averse, and that characteristic governs how/if he obtains free agents and other players. This tendency seems to pay off really well with these lower-cost acquisitions but far less so for the higher paid ones. A healthy player at the top of his game seems to make Zaidi break out in hives. So even when Zaidi ponies up significant money (which I’ve defined here as $10 mil+/year), he’s hedging his bets with players who have “warts”–an injury history, a down year–so he can get them for cheaper and/or on shorter-term contracts. When you take those kinds of risks, you’re more likely to get burned–and if those are your biggest, splashiest additions, it doesn’t look very good in the big picture.


Rookies and near rookies

For the sake of this discussion, I’m defining this last group as pre-arbitration players who are currently on the active roster (so, for example, excluding Villar or Keaton Winn). They are Camilo Doval, Patrick Bailey, Blake Sabol, Casey Schmitt, Luis Matos, Brett Wisely, Tristan Beck, Ryan Walker, and Mauricio Llovera. These nine players are all making at or near the major-league minimum.

The position players, led by the young catchers Bailey and Sabol, have a combined WAR of 2.4, that total dragged down a bit by Schmitt and Wisely, who are in negative territory. The pitchers have a combined WAR of 1.1 (thanks, Camilo!). In total, they’ve been worth 3.5 WAR. It’s fair to note that because all of them with the exception of Sabol have spent time in the minors this year, they haven’t had as much time to amass WAR. It will be interesting to see how this number looks at the end of the season. There are also other rookies (Winn, Joey Bart, Villar, Heliot Ramos, Sean Hjelle) who could reappear and affect those totals.

Susan Slusser’s gamer from last night mentioned that “Giants rookies have 98 RBIs this season, the second highest number by a group of first-year players behind the Reds’ 101” and that the Giants have gone 24-13 when Bailey starts. Though Schmitt and Matos have struggled following hot starts, they have still contributed defensively, and Sabol has contributed power and clutch hits. Although the middle group has a much higher combined WAR, it’s hard to dismiss either the numbers or the intangibles (the energy and enthusiasm that the youngsters have brought to the clubhouse and the field).

Again, it’s interesting to remember where these nine younger players came from: Doval, Matos, and Walker were drafted or signed by the previous regime. Bailey, Schmitt, and Llovera were drafted or signed by the current regime. Beck, Sabol and Wisely were obtained by Zaidi via trades while still minor leaguers in other organizations and made their major league debuts with the Giants.


Looking Ahead: The Second Half and the Trade Deadline

There’s been a lot of talk about the Giants needing to prioritize a starting pitcher at the trade deadline. We’ll get back to that in a minute. Grant’s analysis reminds us that even with a quirky approach to the “rotation,” the Giants’ pitching staff, supported by a surprisingly strong defense, is the strength of the team. While they probably do need to figure out some more conventional approach to covering innings, if only for sustainability in a long season, the real problem going forward is the offense. I don’t know if there’s an answer to that on the trade market, so it may just be that everyone needs to play better, especially the pricey guys like Conforto, Crawford, and Pederson. It was good to see the offense last night led by the rookies (Bailey, Schmitt, and Matos had four hits, two RBIs, and two steals, plus Bailey throw out another baserunner) and Conforto (a two-run single). If they can’t get the offense gelling on a consistent basis, I have doubts about them making a move on the division title or even maintaining their wild card spot. The Phillies, Padres, and Brewers are likely to play better than they did in the first half.

I don’t see the Giants making big moves at the deadline, and I’m not just talking about the “Oh- Word,” whom I don’t actually think is going to be moved, anyway. There is not a starting pitcher or hitter available who would move the needle enough, and it’s not worth gutting the farm system for rentals. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, to see incremental moves, perhaps in both directions: selling from excessive inventory (think someone like DeSclafani or Wood or Manaea) and buying smaller pieces who could provide depth, say in the middle infield while Estrada is out or in the bullpen (making what’s already a strength even deeper). I also wouldn’t be stunned to see someone like Villar or Bart or Ramos moved in one of those deals. 40-man spots are always an issue to be aware of.


Looking WAY ahead: The Draft

The draft was over a few days ago, and a lot’s been written about it, so I’ll just say this. I’m pleased and relieved to actually (finally!) see the Giants being praised by various experts for their picks. One key fact I picked up in my reading was that the Giants were the only team in MLB to draft four players from the MLB Pipeline Top 50 (Bryce Eldridge, Walker Martin, Joe Whitman, and Maui Ahuna). Obviously it will be years before we know if any of these guys will pan out, but it’s nice, for once, to see that the Giants didn’t puzzle the experts this year. (Amazingly, that was the Dodgers this time. Keith Law used the word “flabbergasted” to describe his reaction to the Dodgers’ selections.)


TWG at the River Cats Tonight!

A group of 14-15 of us (unless anyone drops out because of the weather forecast!) is gathering tonight at Sutter Health Park to watch the River Cats play the Oklahoma City Dodgers (booooooo). Even though it’s supposed to be hella hot, I’m really looking forward to the game and to seeing everyone and meeting some people for the first time in person. Pictures forthcoming!


Tonight’s Game

Giants at Pirates, 4:05 p.m., PNC Park (“normal” TV on NBCS-BA)

Alex Cobb vs. Johan Oviedo

Let’s just lock up the series win tonight behind our All-Star and go for the sweep tomorrow, shall we? By the way, speaking of tomorrow’s game, it’s “Breakfast with the Giants” at 9:05 a.m. and televised on (ugh) Peacock. Enjoy the weekend, and if you’re in our area, stay cool and hydrated!  Lefty out.


We’ll let Don McLean take us out today.