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Are Buster Posey, Evan Longoria and the 1st-Place Giants for Real?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 6, 2021

The 2021 Giants are good...and also a fascinating proof of concept.
The 2021 Giants are good...and also a fascinating proof of concept.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

The 2021 National League West race was supposed to be a two-horse affair between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, both of whom had conspicuous superteam vibes at the outset.

However, the universe has apparently decided we are actually somewhere between 2010 and 2014 and that the San Francisco Giants are therefore in charge.

By winning 18 of their first 31 games, they've risen not only to the top of the NL West but are also tied atop the National League. According to FanGraphs, San Francisco has basically tripled its chances of making the playoffs.

And yet, how much higher those chances can climb depends on how well the Giants can sustain their strengths...and continue to cover up their weaknesses.

   

How The Giants Are Doing It

If anything, the Giants are actually underachieving.

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Following a 77-85 effort in 2019 and a 29-31 showing in last year's shortened season, the Giants are backing up their record in 2021 with a lopsided run differential. They've scored 30 more times than they've been scored on.

Arguably the biggest factor in San Francisco's early success has been its starting rotation, which ranks first in MLB with a 278 ERA. Among other things, that's evidence of the effectiveness of its anti-fastball philosophy.

Giants starters rank 26th in throwing only 26.3 percent four-seam fastballs, and most of that comes from ace right-hander Kevin Gausman. Whereas his four-seamer is easily his primary pitch, the San Francisco starters otherwise feature a great deal of variety:

As a group, they are also working toward the bottom of the strike zone. They're therefore not at all falling in line with modern conventions, which are increasingly based on fastballs up in the zone.

Yet it's not just ERA that shows the Giants' approach is working. There are also two components that help make up that figure, namely the highest ground-ball rate (52.1 percent) and lowest home run rate (0.7 per nine innings) of any group of NL starters.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Meanwhile, the Giants lineup also has two vital components.

By way of its 29th-ranked swing rate and fourth-ranked walk percentage, patience is one of them. Power is the other, as it ranks fifth among NL clubs with 39 home runs.

Does it help that Oracle Park has been playing smaller since the organization moved the fences in last season? Sure. But as manager Gabe Kapler alluded to when he lauded his team's "barrel accuracy" in April, there's also an approach at work.

Giants hitters are the best in the NL at hitting the ball in the "sweet spot," or with a launch angle between 8 and 32 degrees. For his part, Brandon Belt was already good at that. For theirs, fellow veterans Buster Posey (here), Evan Longoria (here) and Brandon Crawford (here) have never been better at it than they have been this season.

With Posey and Longoria having particularly strong seasons, those four make up one of the league's best lineup cores. They're hitting .283/.378/.550 with a 152 wRC+, meaning they're 52 percent better than average.

It must be said there is no right way to win games. But if there's a wrong way, it definitely doesn't involve having an elite starting rotation and a lineup half-filled with standout hitters.

   

And Yet...

Thing is, the Giants have had it pretty easy.

They've played 19 of their 31 games against team with sub-.500 records. They're 12-7 in those, compared to 6-6 in contests against winning clubs. And considering that the Colorado Rockies (whom the Giants have already played nine times) are the only losing team in the NL West, that's something of a bad omen.

As for what, specifically, could trip the Giants up as they seek to realize their growing playoff chances, their bullpen alone could do the trick.

In addition to bearing a not-great 4.69 ERA, Giants relievers have already melted down an MLB-high 23 times. The worst of those took place in the second game of a doubleheader at Coors Field on Tuesday, in which Jake McGee and Camilo Doval coughed up six runs in 0.2 innings in an 8-6 walk-off loss.

It's also fair to sense that the Giants rotation is a house of cards.

Johnny Cueto, who's on the injured list with a lat strain, is 35 years old and done as a 200-inning workhorse. Of the club's other five starters, Sanchez and Wood come with major durability questions, while Webb has never had to get through a 162-game season before.

There's likewise downside in the lineup. Once Mike Yastrzemski (oblique) and Donovan Solano (calf) get healthy, they should have more to give. But even they will only be able to pick up so much slack if Posey, Longoria, Belt and Crawford come down to earth. Considering that each is in his mid-30s, it's far from out of the question that this will indeed happen.

FanGraphs projects the Giants to go 63-68 in their remaining games as the Dodgers (77-53) and Padres (76-54) leapfrog them. Such a finish would leave San Francisco to hope for leeway in a wild-card race that has room for only two teams at the end.

   

Why the Giants Are Worth Rooting for Anyway

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

No matter what happens, it's kind of awesome that we can even have a discussion like this about the Giants.

After winning World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014 and returning to October in 2016, San Francisco hit bottom as one of baseball's worst teams with a 137-187 record across the 2017 and 2018 campaigns.

That begat a regime change, with general manager Bobby Evans getting the axe and former Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi getting hired as president of baseball operations. Per the usual playbook, what should have happened then was a rebuild that began with the trading of high-priced veterans and carried on with a stockpiling of prospects as losses piled up and the club's rainy day fund grew.

Instead, Zaidi put the Giants on a different path.

Notably, he defied expectations by not renting ace Madison Bumgarner and closer Will Smith during a surprisingly competitive year in 2019. He's since followed suit by holding on to the team's other high-priced vets and has sought to support them through trades (i.e., Yastrzemski) and free-agent signings (i.e., Gausman and DeSclafani).

Though his hiring wasn't well received at the time, it's also clear now that Kapler is the right person to manage these Giants. Because while the analytics-driven excellence of the rotation and lineup surely began with the front office, Kapler has the less than enviable task of actually getting his players to buy in.

If the Giants nonetheless miss the playoffs this year, well, so be it.

The organization's efforts to keep its contention window open haven't come at the expense of the farm system, which ranks as one of the five best in all of MLB. As such, the next generation of Giants stars is ready to take over just as Posey, Longoria, Belt, Crawford and others are reaching the ends of their contracts.

Thus have the Giants rewritten the rules on what a rebuilding team is capable of. Maybe getting bad to eventually get good isn't the only way. With the right combination of ingenuity and conviction, there's another way that involves simply refusing to give up.

   

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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