I told you a few weeks ago that because my daughter was in a serious car accident, we had to miss the Taylor Swift concert that we were planning to attend at Levi’s Stadium in late July. I’d been thinking for months about how I could use her lyrics and titles for my Out of Left Field column after the concert, but it never happened. However, “Cruel Summer” is one of the songs on her playlist for the Eras Tour, so I snuck it in here.
The official first day of summer was June 21, the last day of the Giants’ impressive ten-game winning streak, which had featured an average of eight runs scored per game. Since then, the Giants, especially their offense, have been in a death spiral. They were 42-32 on June 22. Today they are 64-58, for a summer record of 22-26, which is not good but not a complete disaster in and of itself, especially when you realize that they are still somehow barely in the second wild card spot as of today.
The real disaster is when you look at how the Giants got to this point and where they are now. We all know that they have had MLB’s worst offense since June 22: worst wRC+, worst batting average, fewest runs scored, worst OBP, fewest homers…you get the idea. Even with that–how shall I put this?–underachievement, the Giants hung in there for awhile, getting up to as high as 13 games over .500 during a seven-game July winning streak fueled by strong pitching. As recently as Aug 3, they were 12 games over .500 and just 2.5 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West. That was only 16 days ago, and they are now 11 games behind LA.
It’s hard to see how the Giants can improve their struggling offense. Yes, they hope to get Mike Yastrzemski and Mitch Haniger back from injuries by the end of this month, but they’ve both taken awhile to get going at the plate after previous IL stays this season, so their returns may not provide a quick fix. They’ve promoted (and then demoted) almost every possible minor leaguer who they thought could help, with Wade Meckler and Heliot Ramos being the current trial balloons (and Casey Schmitt, Luis Matos, David Villar, Brett Wisely, Joey Bart, Bryce Johnson, etc. back in AAA now). They basically punted the trade deadline, but even the two marginal additions they did make (A.J. Pollock and Mark Mathias) are both injured now. What other moves can they make? (Yeah–give Tyler Fitzgerald a shot, bring red-hot Schmitt back up–but we’ve seen the ebb and flow of rookies this season. They can’t carry the roster.)
But the offense isn’t the only problem anymore. The “opener/bullpen game” strategy, in which the Giants have two starting pitchers (Logan Webb and Alex Cobb) and an 11-man bullpen, was working surprisingly well until early August, at which point they were 15-5 in such games. This was the reason given by Farhan Zaidi as to why he didn’t obtain any reinforcements for the rotation at the deadline. Some of us wondered then and even before then if this was a sustainable model, and now, two and a half weeks later, it doesn’t seem to be. Since that 15-5 high point on August 3, the Giants have gone 1-5 in “opener” starts. To be fair, this isn’t entirely the pitchers’ fault. A starter might have lost those games anyway due to lack of run support. But it’s also fair to say that the opener strategy is no longer saving them, either.
To be more specific, it’s been a “cruel summer” for the following individuals and/or concepts:
- President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi: This stretch of futility over the last near two months (June 22-Aug 18) has brutally exposed the flaws in his roster construction. Turns out that when you buy injury-prone players on the cheap, they might very well get injured again. Turns out that when you scoop up other teams’ cast-offs for pennies on the dollar, the vast majority of them were cast off for a reason. When you add his bewildering lack of energy at the trade deadline, I wonder (not for the first time) if he’s just over his head in this job.
- Manager Gabe Kapler: It hasn’t been a good week for Kapler. He was ejected from a game that the Giants later won for arguing on behalf of newly arrived Meckler, an incident most of us saw as a good moment for him. But then he violated the rules and watched the rest of the game from behind the dugout, leading to a one-game suspension that he served last night. He also got surly and defensive with a young beat writer after Wednesday’s loss, an interaction for which he was called out in articles by Andrew Baggarly and John Shea. It seemed like none of his moves worked out, and that’s baseball, but some of his decisions (and explanations of them) seemed robotic rather than being informed by in-the-moment/flow-of-the-game realities.
- Brandon Crawford: After a bit of an uptick following his return from the IL in late July, Crawford has not been getting it done. As Baggarly pointed out in his gamer: “Crawford…is in a 1-for-28 stretch that has dropped his average to .194. He went 0 for 3 with three strikeouts on Friday. He hasn’t been healthy all season and it’s been evident that he isn’t catching up to fastballs. His .256 slugging percentage on pitches 95 mph-plus is the lowest of his career.” He also has been shaky defensively, including a costly inability to turn an early double play last night. His poor decision-making in Sunday’s game cost Webb a win and Doval a save, and the only reason it wasn’t discussed more was because Patrick Bailey’s tenth-inning heroics saved the day. Crawford’s fWAR is currently 0.2, which if it stood would be the worst of his career. This is looking like a sad ending to a great Giants career.
- J.D. Davis: Davis was a great first-half story and had an argument for an All-Star berth. After being practically invisible in offseason discussions (which focused on Villar, Wilmer Flores, and Schmitt as 3B options), he took over the everyday 3B job early in the season and was strong offensively and defensively. In the second half, he is hitting .146, and though they say “defense doesn’t slump,” it appears that his has. He is not nearly as surehanded at 3B as he was earlier in the season.
- Austin Slater: Slater is 0 for 16 in August with six strikeouts and has grounded into two double plays (the most recent of which led to Kapler’s conflict with the reporter). He’s gone from being “the best pinch-hitter in the game” (Kapler) and a dangerous weapon against lefty pitchers to a non-tender candidate after this season.
- Alex Wood: Wood hasn’t thrived as either a starter or reliever this season. He’s complained all year long about how he’s being used, and his comments this past week were especially pointed and combative. He’s now being used in garbage time outings and could end up being DFA’d–and that, as Baggarly observed earlier this week, calls into question why Zaidi didn’t flip him at the trade deadline, when he surely would have had at least some value to a contender looking for a veteran arm.
- Proof of Concept: See “opener games,” above. See also “platooning” and “line changes.” If players don’t ever get the chance to develop their skills against same-side pitchers, how will you know if they can improve their platoon splits?
I could go on. There have been many other disappointments, such as pricey offseason acquisitions Joc Pederson and Michael Conforto (both barely above league average as hitters and defensive liabilities), Ross Stripling’s horrendous homer rate (he leads the MLB in homers allowed per inning this season), Haniger only having appeared in 40 games so far this season, and so forth. Of the six major free agents Zaidi signed last offseason (including Pederson’s qualifying offer, which made him the highest-paid player on the team this season), only two (Taylor Rogers and Sean Manaea) have actually worked out well. Conforto is the best of the others (1.2 fWAR), but far below expectations and hopes for his salary. Pederson has a 0.4 WAR. Haniger is MIA. Stripling has the lowest fWAR of any Giants’ pitcher this year.
Lest this be 100% negative, let’s talk about a few things that have gone well. Webb has been terrific. He’s top five in a number of important stats, from innings to ERA to WHIP and top 10 in strikeouts. Doval was a deserving All-Star, is one of the best closers in the game, and is still just 26 years old and not even eligible for arbitration until after next season. Cobb, despite a rough August so far, was a first-time All-Star and will almost certainly be back next year when the Giants pick up his reasonable team option. Flores, who was signed to a team-friendly extension before the 2022 season ended, is having the best year of his career (current 141 OPS+). It took Taylor a minute, but both Rogers brothers have been great this season. And Bailey, of course, has been a revelation and the best story of the 2023 season. He has a legitimate shot at the NL Gold Glove, which is highly unusual for rookies in general and rookie catchers especially.
A baseball team struggling during the summer months is frustrating to watch, but what’s going on with the Giants isn’t a tragedy. The fiery destruction of Lahaina, Maui, is a tragedy. What may happen in Southern California over the next few days (where MrLefty and I currently are!) as a hurricane/tropical storm lands, may end up being a tragedy for some. LeftyJr being seriously injured in two separate car accidents in 14 months is some pretty tough stuff. There is a lot of sadness to be found everywhere.
I know I’m disappointed and yes, sad, about how the Giants’ season has taken such a “cruel” turn. As I told one of you offline this week, “People deal with the frustration and disappointment in various ways…I think as fans we’re a slice of the larger society with all kinds of personalities, life experiences, and ways of looking at the world.” I know that when we’re frustrated, it’s easy to take those feelings out on each other. Let’s try harder not to do that.
Giants at Braves, 4:20 (!!!) p.m., Truist Park
Logan Webb vs. Yonny Chirinos
This is a pitching matchup that on paper favors the Giants, but…
I began this by saying that the Giants are in a death spiral. The only hopeful thing to point out about this is that one can escape from a death spiral. As Alex Cobb noted in his postgame comments, today could be the day they start playing “good, crisp baseball” and start winning games consistently. It’s been a rough summer so far, but it’s not completely over yet. I’ll spare you the Taylor Swift video. I don’t actually like the song very much. Lefty out.