by Dr Lefty
*hat tip to MrLefty for help with the title
Last week when I wrote Out of Left Field from Madrid, I described the Giants as playing “putrid baseball.” At that moment, they were 6-13 and had lost 7 of 8 games. Fired up by my very justified criticism, the Giants promptly ran off a five-game winning streak before losing their final game against the Cardinals on Thursday. They split a four-game home series against a very good Mets team–after losing the first two in desultory fashion–and then won 3 of 4 against a Cardinals team that looks like a hot mess right now but was widely expected to win the NL Central this year.
Even better than the winning streak itself was the way(s) in which the Giants won some of those games. There was Alex Cobb’s sparkling complete game shutout on Monday night–his first since 2012. There was an exciting late-game win on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball, and there was the highly improbable Blake Sabol walk-off on Tuesday night. All of a sudden the Giants looked like a fun team to watch again.
The Giants have two games against the Padres to finish out the month of April. They are 11-13 for the month, so if they were to sweep this two-game series in Mexico City, they could finish with a .500 month, something none of us would have imagined just one week ago. (Their overall record is 11-14, but their other loss was in March at the Yankee Stadium opener.)
So what do we think about the Giants after a month of mostly forgettable baseball until this past week? Are they putrid, as I asserted last week? Or is it actually plausible that they could be a contender for an NL playoff spot and maybe even the NL West title? I think there is evidence for either conclusion, so let’s break it down.
Evidence for “Putrid”
The win streak this week has made the overall record look a lot better, but there are still a lot of problems. Let’s take them in order of seriousness.
- the team offense: The Giants are middle to bottom of the pack in every offensive stat except for home runs (third). They continue to lead the league in striking out, and they are not making up for it with drawing walks (ninth). On the most recent Giants Talk podcast, NBCS-BA anchor Laura Britt interviewed Farhan Zaidi and asked him about the high strikeout totals. He replied that he was more concerned about quality of at-bats, i.e., going deep into counts, and that when you go deep into counts, that often means you will strike out. But it should also mean that you’ll walk plenty and have a good on-base percentage. And other than LaMonte Wade Jr., who’s walking a ton, the Giants are not doing this. The Giants are still among the worst teams in baseball hitting against lefty pitchers (77 wRC+, which is 28th in MLB).
- the bullpen: The Giants have the worst bullpen ERA in the NL so far. That stat speaks for itself. The bullpen has sucked. Not you, Tyler Rogers, but pretty much everyone else has ranged from “disappointing” to “awful.” I could also talk about the construction and usage of the bullpen, but that will be another bullet point in a minute.
- the rotation: For a team that was lauded for its starting pitching depth before the season began, the rotation in the first month has been remarkably unsettled. They seem to have a good top three in Logan Webb, Cobb, and Anthony DeSclafani, but after that, it seems to be who-the-hell-knows. And though Webb did get his first win of the season against the Mets last Saturday, he’s 1-5 overall and is tied for third in the NL in homers allowed (7). It’s fair to say that he’s underperforming. Right behind him in homers allowed are the two big offseason pitching acquisitions, Ross Stripling (6) and Sean Manaea (5). The mediocrity of the rotation thus far was glaring when manager Gabe “Inigo Montoya*” Kapler chose to ride with a completely unnecessary bullpen game (eight pitchers with Brebbia opening) on Tuesday night.
- defense at SS and RF: The Giants’ team defense overall is not bad (8th in MLB), and it’s top-10 at 3B (2nd in MLB), 2B (4th), CF (5th), and C (5th). However, they’re 24th at both SS and RF. Brandon Crawford and Michael Conforto are the clear liabilities out there, but Thairo Estrada is much worse at SS than he is at 2B (0.4 dWAR to 1.9). Crawford hit a big homer in the Giants’ win last weekend to start the streak, but he’s now being benched against lefty starters and is hitting below David Villar and Sabol in the lineup. Crawford could turn things around–we’ve seen him do it before–but if the Giants are truly intending to compete for a playoff spot this season, they may have to seriously consider promoting Casey Schmitt to take over as the primary shortstop at some point.
- leadership/management decisions: I already mentioned the bewildering choice to throw a bullpen game for no good reason, but a really glaring problem is how the relievers(?) are being used. Stripling and Manaea have been yo-yo-ed in and out of the rotation and have not been effective out of the bullpen. Rookies Sean Hjelle and Tristan Beck have gotten way too much late-inning exposure with predictably bad results. Taylor Rogers, who was signed to be a late-inning weapon, has been showing up in the third inning, and Camilo Doval was brought into games twice this past week in the middle of innings with other guys’ runners on–which is not the optimal way to use a weapon like Doval. Now, to be fair, I know that Rogers, Stripling, and Manaea have all gotten off to rough starts with the Giants. But at some point you have to trust the evaluations you made when you signed these guys for serious money and let them play the roles they were intended to play. There seems to be too much overanalysis and micromanaging here.
In sum, there are still some legitimate reasons to consider this a “putrid” team, with the underperforming offense, the bullpen, and Crawford sticking out as the biggest problems. Now let’s turn our attention to reasons why their improved performance this past week makes them “plausible” contenders in the National League.
*hat tip to the guy with the Marichal avatar who keeps changing his handle
Evidence for “Plausible”
- the overall rotation performance: The Giants’ rotation ERA is 3.37, good for third in the NL after the Braves and the Cubs. However, as channelclemente pointed out in a comment this week, they’re also not throwing many innings (12th in the NL in innings pitched), so that’s possibly a misleading stat, and why I also had the rotation as a factor in the “putrid” column. The minimal innings are also a factor in how terrible the bullpen has been. Still, if they could get a fourth and fifth starter actually contributing, the rotation could be a strength of the team.
- some good individual hitting stats: Overall, the Giants’ team offense is…not good (see above). But Estrada is in the top 10 in the NL in hitting, Mike Yastrzemski is 20th, and those two plus Wade Jr. are top-25 in OPS. The return of Yaz as an offensive contributor is one of the best stories of the first month. He had the game-winning hit in the Sunday night game and a key double in the comeback on Tuesday that ended with Sabol’s homer. J.D. Davis, though he tailed off a bit this week, leads the team in RBIs and is tied with Yaz for the team lead in HRs.
- getting guys back: In a two-day span, the Giants saw the return to action of Joc Pederson (who instantly contributed to Sunday’s win) and the season debuts of both Austin Slater and Mitch Haniger (who both contributed to Monday’s win). With the exception of Joey Bart sitting out a few games this week (more on Bart next), the Giants are as whole as they’ve been all season, so some of the troubling offensive metrics can and should improve. They actually won two games against the Cardinals that were started by lefties, so that’s a great sign of better days ahead.
- the catching situation: When the season started, the Giants had Roberto Perez, Bart, Sabol, and Austin Wynns in AAA and had signed former All-Star catcher Gary Sanchez to a minor league deal. Within two weeks, they had lost Perez to a season-ending injury and Wynns when they DFA’d him and he signed elsewhere. Bart has been in and out of the lineup with a nagging groin injury, and Sabol, it’s fair to say, is pretty raw both behind the plate and as a hitter. Nonetheless, the catching situation somehow seems brighter than it did a week ago. Bart, who so far has avoided going back on the IL, has been solid defensively, is hitting over .300 for the season, and is striking out way less than he did last year. Sabol, forced into increased action because of Bart’s injury, both caught the bullpen game and had the game-winning home run on Tuesday night. Zaidi is so pleased with how Sabol is coming along overall that he actually gave him a vote of confidence (“we’re really committed at this point to keeping him all year”). Meanwhile, the Giants promoted 2020 first-round pick Patrick Bailey to AAA and have AAA catcher Ricardo Genoves on the taxi squad in Mexico City. The picture seems to be coming clearer: It’s Bart and Sabol with Bailey (a switch-hitter) and Genoves (who knows the pitching staff from multiple spring trainings) as the AAA depth…and it’s probably not Sanchez (who has a May 1 opt-out, so we’ll know pretty quickly).
- the rest of the NL West: Before the season started, if you’d told us that the Giants would be 6-13 after three weeks, you would have assumed that they’d be already hopelessly buried in the stacked NL West. But they’re not. They’re in fourth place, yes, but only three games out of first–and first place is held, not by either of the Southern California behemoths, but by the 15-12 Arizona Diamondbacks. As Grant Brisbee put it in his latest article for The Athletic, the Giants picked a really good year to have a slow start. To put this into perspective, the Dbacks would be in fourth place in the NL Central or the AL East, and the Giants would would be waaaaaaay behind in most of the other divisions.
Now, we don’t know yet what all of these “plausible” factors add up to. They’ve only just gotten those righty sluggers back, the catching situation is juuuuuust beginning to stabilize, and no one expects the Dodgers and Padres to keep playing such mediocre baseball. But we only know what we know on April 29, and what we know about the Giants is that, while there are (plenty of) reasons to be dubious, there is also a “glass half full” view that is much more pleasant to contemplate.
So the Giants and the Padres are in Mexico City for a two-game series, and I think that’s super cool. Susan Slusser has a great article in the Chronicle about the various ways this trip is awesome and another one that details Kapler’s adventure in trying to get to the ballpark on public transportation yesterday.
Now, if Manaea and the rest of the staff give up a cajillion homers in the thin air, I may be less enthusiastic about this Mexico City series in 48 hours, but for right now, I think it’s exciting and I wish I was there.
Giants at* Padres, Estadio Alfredo Harp Helú, Mexico City, 3:05 p.m. (televised on MLBN in addition to NBCS-BA)
Sean Manaea vs. Joe Musgrove
MyGuy2023™ Deadline Coming Up May 6 (Willie’s Birthday)
Don’t forget that there’s one more week to join the fun and enter the MyGuy2023™ contest! Read the details in last week’s column (scroll down to the end). To enter, follow the link to our ballot. HaakAway has made the ballot very easy to use and to edit (save the email that comes after you submit a ballot). I’ve already submitted mine (and edited it once!)–have you?
Thanks as always to HaakAway for running this great contest for us. Lefty out.