While on my walk yesterday, I caught up on my latest Giants-related podcasts–the Baggs and Brisbee podcast (with Andrew Baggarly and Grant Brisbee of The Athletic) and the Giants Talk podcast (with NBCSBA’s Alex Pavlovic and Cole Kuiper, plus guest appearances by Duane Kuiper). Both are posted twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays during the baseball season, and I have found both to be worthwhile listens. The theme of both Thursday podcasts, which were after the Giants’ successful 5-1 homestand but before the listless* 4-1 loss in Miami last night, was “So–are the Giants…good?”
Baggs and Brisbee said “Well–pretty good.” Alex Pavlovic said “I’d say they’re good-ish.” B&B focused more on the positive: the pitching staff has exceeded expectations and the bats are sure to wake up soon (more on that point to follow). Alex focused more on the Giants’ lack of depth, especially relative to the two divisional powerhouses, the Dodgers and the Padres. Yes, the Giants can win games when key players (think Mike Yastrzemski, Buster Posey, or Brandon Crawford) are healthy, but what happens if they’re not? The Padres lost Fernando Tatis, Jr. for nearly two weeks and didn’t really miss a beat. Let’s break down the three major points here: hot pitching, cold bats, and lack of depth.
*How listless was it? Well, it appears that there were a lot more comments on TWG last night about the Dodgers-Padres game than about the Giants game, and there you have it.
Hot Pitching (especially in the rotation)
Last night’s loss was disappointing for several reasons, but the main one is that they wasted an excellent start from Anthony DeSclafani, who went six strong innings and gave up just one run. Over three starts, he’s pitched 17 innings, has an ERA and WHIP of 1.06, and 16 strikeouts. All of his peripherals are better than his career averages, even his very strong 2019 season. It’s very early yet, but so far this pickup is looking as genius as the one of Kevin Gausman last year.
The Giants’ rotation has an ERA of 2.57, which is third in the NL and fourth in MLB. They are second in MLB in innings pitched, slightly behind the Dodgers (who have also played one more game). Every single starter has gone a minimum of five innings, and most have gone six or beyond. This means that they are not burning out their bullpen. The three off days so far have helped, too, but the starters are definitely doing their job in giving the team a chance to win. The Giants haven’t had a rotation this reliable since the 2010-2012 crew. It makes things a lot simpler for a manager.
The Giants’ bullpen has been almost as good–their ERA of 3.55 is fourth in the NL, and they’re tied for the major league lead in saves (thanks, Jake!). And lest we dismiss this hot start by the pitching staff as a fluke, bear in mind that they have played series against two current first-place teams (Cincinnati and Seattle, believe it or not) and the Padres. Only the woeful Rockies have been true patsies so far.
Here’s a rundown of Disco’s great effort last night. (By the way, I wasn’t much of a fan of George Kontos when he pitched for the Giants, but I think he’s a pretty good studio analyst. It was also nice to hear Javi Lopez last night for the first time since 2019. I’m not quite sure why he had to fly from his home in Atlanta to call a game played in Miami from a ballpark in San Francisco, but that’s why I don’t make the big bucks.)
— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) April 17, 2021
The Giants are only 13 games into a 162-game season. If they had a 13-game hitting slump in, say, late June or early August, we probably might not think too much about it. However, at the beginning of the season, the icicles hanging from the Giants’ bats are hard to ignore, especially when the offense was widely expected to be the strength of the team, as it was in 2020 and in spring training. In 13 games, they’ve already been shut out twice, and in last night’s game against the not-very-good Marlins, they mustered just one run on five hits and left six runners stranded, and they wasted a one-out triple by Yastrzemski.
So who are the biggest culprits/disappointments so far? Yaz had two hits last night and seems to be coming around a bit at the plate, but his batting average to date is .186…which is better than the averages of Flores, Belt, Ruf, Dickerson, Crawford, and Dubon, and slightly below Slater (.194). That’s eight hitters the Giants were counting on who are all hitting below .200, and in most of those cases, well below the Mendoza line. The only hitters performing well at all are Solano, Longoria, and La Stella. Buster Posey is in the middle of this mess, currently hitting an uninspiring .250.
It’s a team-wide slump, and you have to think that the hitters are pressing a bit. Last year, the new-look hitting coaches got a lot of praise for turning the Giants’ offense around. They will have a chance to show what they can do now. It’s way too early to panic, but it’s not too early to notice.
Grant Brisbee had an excellent analysis of the Giants’ hitting slump in The Athletic yesterday. It’s worth a read if you have the chance. To boil down a lot of stats and analysis, the biggest problem the hitters have had is that the pitchers facing them are hitting the corners for strikes at an unsustainable pace. They have an approach, but for this reason, it’s not working very well so far. He concludes:
So if you’re looking for a one-sentence conclusion, it would go something like this: Trust the process. The Giants aren’t hacking. The Giants aren’t waving through hittable pitches. They’re just taking a disciplined approach, and it’s burned them so far. That doesn’t mean the approach is wrong, though.
Make of that what you will. Here’s Yaz’s triple, though, to cheer us up.
Gotta love the hustle from Yaz 😤 pic.twitter.com/hYgl4vijmz
— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) April 17, 2021
Lack of Depth
Pavlovic has a good point. One of the most pleasant early surprises for the Giants has been the great pitching by Johnny Cueto–and he left his last start with an injury and is out for a couple of weeks at minimum. The return of Alex Wood to the rotation (tomorrow) was supposed to solve a couple of problems–the lack of a lefty in the rotation, Logan Webb’s mediocre performances relative to the rest of the starters, and the lack of healthy, reliable right-handed relievers in the bullpen (especially given the unfortunate injury to Reyes Moronta and the unimpressive start that Matt Wisler has had). Instead, both Wood and Webb are back in the rotation, and the Giants called up a young righty, Camilo Doval, for the bullpen. Now, Doval has been impressing people for the last couple of years, but he’s never pitched professionally above A-ball, and manager Gabe Kapler is sure to want to use him cautiously until he gets acclimated to the major leagues. It will be fun to see Doval’s debut, but obviously the bullpen would be more stable if Moronta were healthy and/or if Wisler had looked better in his outings. (To be fair to Wisler, he had a decent outing last night and only took the loss because Wandy Peralta was awful and allowed Wisler’s runner to score on a late three-run homer.)
So with the early injuries to Moronta and to Cueto, and the fact that Wood hasn’t even pitched yet, we’re being reminded that the Giants’ pitching, which as I’ve mentioned is the strength of the 2021 Giants so far, is dangerously thin. The position players, with the exception of LaMonte Wade Jr., who was only a call-up for the bench, have stayed healthy. But it’s not hard to imagine the problems that could develop if, say, Crawford or Longoria went down for any length of time.
Good-ish is Better than Bad-ish
The Giants went 3-3 on their first road trip and 5-1 on their first homestand. They won three series in a row. Going into last night’s game, they were 8-4, which was good enough for the third-best record in the major leagues. We have to all be pleasantly surprised by this, right? I know I am. I’m worried about the bats (I don’t like watching listless offensive games), and I have trust issues with the bullpen as currently constructed. But there are definitely several things to be happy about. The rotation has been excellent, and the defense, while not blowing me away with their athleticism, has at least escaped being cringeworthy (which honestly is what I feared). I have very few quibbles with how Kapler has managed the games so far.
I’m pleased that baseball is back and pleased that the Giants have been winning. Good-ish is good enough for me right now.
Giants at Marlins, 3:10 p.m. at loanDepot Park, Miami
Aaron Sanchez (0-1, 2.70 ERA) vs. Sandy Alcantara (0-1, 2.45 ERA, 21K!!!)
We’ll see if the lineup against a righty can improve on how they did against a lefty last night. There’s nowhere to go but up. Lefty out.