The San Francisco Giants enter the “second half” of the season (dubbed as such because the “final 39.5%” doesn’t have a great ring to it) with a 50-48 record that is either achingly uninspiring, or beautifully inspiring, depending on what glasses you’re wearing. Bryan wrote about how awesome it is, and being an optimist who tends to look at baseball as a (fantastic, beautiful, borderline flawless) child’s sport and little else, I tend to agree.
Still, as awesome as you may think the season is, the postseason makes things better. At worst, it’s an opportunity for more baseball. At best, it’s an opportunity to stick your tongue out at any Dodgers fans you associate with as your vastly less-talented team waltzes past theirs en route to yet another World Series. It’s okay, Dodgers fans. We’ll send pictures.
But in order to get to the postseason, the Giants will need to step up. They sit four games behind both the division leader, and the second wild card, with plenty of teams in, on, and around. Repeating their .510 winning percentage won’t get it done in the second half, and not just because that’s mathematically impossible in 64 games.
If they’re to play a 163rd game this year, it will be because any number of people rose to the occasion. It will likely be because a lot of people rose to the occasion, but we already know that Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, and Buster Posey will play well. Instead, these are the five whose performance could swing the team one way or the other.
1. Madison Bumgarner
Since returning from injury, Bumgarner has been good. Just good. His strikeout rate (7.43 per 9 innings) and walk rate (3.08 per 9) are both good, but not what we’ve come to expect. His FIP is 3.89, and his 0.7 fWAR in 49.2 innings paints an accurate picture of a high quality starter, and not a staff ace.
In order to get to the postseason, the Giants need great players, and Bumgarner, at his best, is the Giants greatest player, capable of almost single-handedly pulling them to victory. Ace (and slugger!) Bumgarner is paramount to the team’s playoff chances.
2. Johnny Cueto
This one needs no elaboration. Cueto was excellent when the season began. Then he was injured. And since then he’s been bad. A resurgence from Cueto would not only give the team an ace, but help keep innings away from the lesser members of the bullpen.
3. Evan Longoria
As Bryan noted in his “50 awesome things” article, the Giants have a .693 OPS against left-handed pitchers, while Longoria sports a .882 figure. He should be back soon, and the Giants need him.
Yet despite that number, Longoria has been uninspiring this year, sporting a wRC+ of 91 in 270 plate appearances, and being worth just 0.3 fWAR. Everyone knew Longoria was declining, but the decline needs to not be this steep. Much of the Giants chances this year - and in the coming years - rest on Longoria being able to find a middle ground between the MVP candidate that he once was, and the replacement-level player that he currently looks like.
4. Joe Panik
Speaking of replacement level, Panik has been exactly that. At 0.0 fWAR, Panik has been so replaceable that I genuinely had to google him because I couldn’t remember whether he’s injured or healthy.
With all due respect to Alen Hanson and Chase d’Arnaud, who have massively exceeded expectations, the Giants need Panik to be their best option at second base. To this point, he hasn’t been.
5. Bruce Bochy
Bochy has received a lot of flack lately for his....err....curious lineup decisions. And perhaps the Bochy memory most ingrained in many fans’ heads is him pushing all the wrong buttons in the ninth inning of the 2016 NLDS.
And yet, Bochy has built a Hall of Fame career on the back of understanding what buttons to push at critical times. It’s been a remarkable skill of his, even if it’s stabbed him in the back in recent years.
The Giants are the epitome of a fringe team, representing the odd gray area between contention and catastrophe. They’re not much different than the team that lost 98 games last year, yet most wouldn’t be shocked to see them in the playoffs. If the cookie crumbles the right way, they can slide their way right into the World Series lottery. If the cookie crumbles the wrong way, they’ll be horrid.
Early in the year, some lineup decisions seemed abundantly clear; play the youngsters, give them a chance to prove a bright future, and run with it. Now, later in the season and still in reach of the playoffs, and with numerous players putting up unexpected stat lines, the decisions are less clear.
How should the left and center field starts be allocated between unsustainable-career-year Gorkys Hernandez, questionable-bat-but-good-prospect Steven Duggar, and projects-to-be-a-bench-player-but-seems-really-good Austin Slater? Who gets the back-end starts between Derek Holland, Dereck Rodriguez, Chris Stratton, and Andrew Suarez, four players who have exceeded expectations in different ways while also carrying notable red flags?
When healthy, should Longoria, with his .623 OPS against right-handed pitchers be the everyday third baseman, or should Hanson (.947 OPS against RHP) and Pablo Sandoval (.822 OPS against RHP) platoon with him? How many innings should Mark Melancon pitch, and how high leverage should they be?
There are no obvious answers to these questions. But the Giants postseason odds rely on a lot of players playing well, which means they rely on Bochy pressing the right buttons, and playing the right players.