The Sabean/Evans/Bochy Road
We loved that road. It brought us Buster Posey and Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner and the Brandons and Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro and Sergio Romo, and I could go on. It brought us the most amazing run of three World Series championships in five years–a run that is not only the greatest of any of our lifetimes as Giants fans but also that any fan of any sports franchise (with the possible exception of the 60s Celtics or the 90s Bulls) would envy.
The SaBochy road was familiar. We understood it. There were veterans (“our guys”), there were midseason trades, there were free agency splurges and extensions to homegrown players who’d earned them. There were set roles for the lineup, for the bullpen, for who was on the bench and who was an everyday player. Starting pitchers were expected to go as deep as possible into the game. Pinch-hitters, when they happened, were typically for the pitcher.
But here’s the thing. We loved that road…until we didn’t. Until the 2017-18 seasons happened and the Giants were a lost franchise with a terrible record on the field, a bottom-five farm system, and a bloated payroll full of underperforming veterans whose best years were (well) behind them (or so it seemed). It seemed clear that the game had evolved and that the Giants as an organization hadn’t changed with it. So they took a drastically different road, starting with firing Bobby Evans as GM and hiring Farhan Zaidi after the 2018 season.
The Zaidi/Harris/Kapler Road
This is how the poem ends, and it contains the poem’s most famous line (“I took the one less traveled by”), which inspired the title of a bestselling self-help book published in 1978 by M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled).
I think it’s fair to say that in many ways, Zaidi and Kapler take “the road less traveled.” Instead of signing big-name free agents, Zaidi looks for hidden value, whether it’s for a talent who’s never really found himself (Kevin Gausman) or a free agent who’s a bargain because he’s slightly dented (Carlos Rodón) or a career minor leaguer who seems undervalued by his previous organization (Max Muncy, Mike Yastrzemski, LaMonte Wade Jr., Luis Gonzalez, Thairo Estrada, etc.). Instead of a mostly set lineup of everyday guys, he’s built a roster of Swiss Army knives who can play multiple positions (well, kinda) and match up well against righty or lefty pitchers.
As for Kapler, he has starters who are swapped out after going through the lineup twice no matter how low their pitch count is and how well they’re pitching that day (thinking mostly of Alex Wood), openers, and hockey-style lineups and substitutions. Whereas Bochy would only use a backup catcher in a game if there was an emergency, Kapler routinely will use the backup catcher off the bench if he needs a pinch-hitter (and it’s just a matter of time before that really comes back to bite him). We saw Bochy notoriously let Santiago Casilla pitch to Jake Lamb in 2016 (4 for 4 with 4 homers) because “that’s my closer,” and I’m certain we never would have seen Bochy pull a trusted veteran with the game on the line for a rookie appearing in his 14th game, regardless of righty-lefty matchups.
Two Roads Diverged…
Here’s what’s complicated about this analysis: You can make an argument for either road being “better” than the other. It’s hard to argue with the success that Sabean and Bochy had together–Bochy is a sure Hall-of-Famer because of it. At the same time, it’s hard to dismiss the best regular season in the history of the franchise (107 wins in 2021). Further, as already noted, change was needed–because the game had changed and because the old ways clearly weren’t working anymore.
But here we are. The “road less traveled” doesn’t seem to be working very well, either. The 2022 Giants are the epitome of a mediocre team. Their won-loss record supports that assertion, and some of their stats (defense, bullpen) would argue that they’re not even as good as that record–that they’re over-performing thanks to strengths in the rotation and an offense that shows up at least sometimes. Worse than any of that is that they’re hard to watch–frustrating and irritating unless they’re boring. Well, except for the time that Rodón pitched that complete game in San Diego or Yaz hit the walk-off grand slam (and both of those were less than two weeks ago!). But in some ways the bright spots (and the memories of 2021) make the rest of it even harder to take.
At the end of 2021, the future looked bright for the Giants, coming off a stellar season, with a rising farm system, and with tons of money coming off the books. Now? It’s hard to see where they go from here. Gabe Kapler, when asked why he pinch-hits for his All-Star (Joc Pederson) or the self-proclaimed “Captain” (Belt) basically shrugs and says “that’s our process, and it’s worked well for us.” But what about when it doesn’t work well?
We could argue for a long time about whether Zaidi should have done more in the offseason (you already know what I think about that), about why the Giants have been such a disappointment this year, and about whether they should be buyers, sellers, or neither at the deadline (Grant Brisbee’s latest article is called “The argument for the Giants doing nothing at the trade deadline.”) But here’s something you can’t argue with: The Giants’ stock as a successful franchise on the rise has fallen substantially in the last nine months. The “process” that looked like genius last year is not convincing the fans and it seems to be wearing thin with the players, too. Rodón IS going to opt out, and can you think of a reason in the world why he’d consider re-signing with the Giants? I can’t. He’ll want to go to a team where infielders and outfielders make plays, where lineups give him run support, and where the bullpen has a good chance to hold a lead for him. And if that’s true of Rodón, who knows the organization, how likely is it that any premium free agent looking at the Giants from the outside is going to choose them, given other attractive options?
I’m not sure if it’s time to worry about the farm system (Brisbee makes a cogent argument that we shouldn’t, but that the “stock falling” status of the system is a real-time impediment to being a successful player in the trade market), but another draft has come and gone, and as per every single year, no national experts are writing glowing reports of how well the Giants did. Many players drafted in 2020 and 2021 are on the current top-100 prospects list (for example, Khalil Watson, whom the Giants could have drafted last year and instead took Will Bednar). The only prospect from any of Zaidi’s three drafts who is on that list is Kyle Harrison. It’s way too soon to draw conclusions about either the farm system or specific prospects or even the drafts because of the COVID disruption, but there also isn’t compelling evidence that Zaidi and his staff have cracked any code, either. Frank Novak commented earlier this week during the draft that “the Giants usually zig when others zag,” and that is quite true–but I don’t think it’s a strength until proven otherwise.
“…With a Sigh…”
People just focus on the last two lines of Frost’s poem and interpret taking the road “less traveled by” as a courageous and smart thing to do that has made “all the difference” for the person who made that choice. But that’s not actually what Frost implies. He says that he’ll be telling his story “with a sigh.” Now, that could be a sigh of satisfaction, I suppose, but Frost purposely makes it ambiguous–because it is. The conundrum is that you can’t go back and take the other road. You have to live with the choices you’ve made because even if you could somehow retrace those steps, things have changed, and so have you. So maybe taking the road less traveled will turn out to be a good thing. Maybe not.
And that’s where we are at this crossroads of the Zaidi/Kapler era. The first couple of years–meh. But there were plausible excuses: Zaidi needed time to undo the damage of the Evans era (wait out bad contracts, rework the farm system, hire his own manager, etc.), and, of course, COVID. Then last year was the brilliant success, the deserved awards for Zaidi and Kapler, the bright future. Now…where are we? Will the 2022 Giants get better (through internal improvement and/or savvy additions at the deadline)? Will they get worse (through stripping down for parts and selling and then just struggling through the rest of the season)? Or will they do nothing and hope for better things to just magically start happening? And as for beyond this season–who knows? You’d think changes have to be made, but I’ve been surprised before. Will Zaidi be a one-hit wonder with the Giants, or are these just early bumps in the road of what’s going to be looked at as a legendary career?
I don’t know. Neither do you. Neither does Robert Frost. We’re right at that crossroads, and we may be looking back “with a sigh” or we may be looking back happily saying “that made all the difference.”
- The Giants are coming off two straight gut-punch losses at Dodger Stadium, both involving big homers off lefty relievers by former league MVPs, both of which were set up by bad defense and bad relief pitching. Enough said, but I thought I’d share this one gem from Marty Lurie. Preach, Marty.
Just a thought stop treating Bellinger like he’s Babe Ruth throw him high fastballs away he can’t catch up..been this way for two years..same mistake cost the Giants the playoff last year..my goodness he’s hitting .206
— Marty Lurie (@baseballmarty) July 23, 2022
- The new Baseball America top-10 prospects for the Giants was published, and it’s a pretty interesting list.
The first three, of course, are the big names. But after that you only have two first-rounders (Bednar and Ramos) and a bunch of guys you may have to go look up. Joey Bart has “graduated” from prospect status, but 2019 and 2020 first-rounders Hunter Bishop and Patrick Bailey are notable omissions. I’m not sure what that all means except that the Giants seem to get more value in later rounds of drafts (contrast, for example, fourth-rounder Logan Webb with first-rounder Tyler Beede, or consider third-rounder Kyle Harrison). Why they can’t seem to draft well in the first round, when ostensibly the most talent is available, is beyond my knowledge or understanding, unless it’s that they’re overthinking their overall bonus pool and not prioritizing “the best player on the board.”
Giants at Dodgers, 4:15 p.m. at The Big Latrine, TV: Fox
Alex Wood (6-7, 4.20 ERA) vs. Julio Urias (8-6, 2.89 ERA)
It doesn’t portend well that the Giants lost the first two games behind their co-aces, but Alex Wood has pitched much better over the past month, and the Giants have handled Urias fairly well in the past (and lefties in general better than righties in recent weeks, except for Cyler Anderson last night). So maybe there’s a chance. The Giants need a win, big-time–less so to chase down the Dodgers (SPOILER: not happening) and more just to right the ship (again) after a solid run-up to the All-Star break. Lefty out.