Evan Longoria has been on a torrid pace since his return from the disabled list (15-for-46 and slugging .619) and has 8 hits through four games already in August. Buster Posey has 5 hits in three games and is slugging .667 and over his last 7 games, he’s slugging .630. Does this mean I think these guys are primed for some hot August nights? Well... maybe?
In any case, they still have a long way to go to grab the Best August crown since the team moved to San Francisco. The Giants need a miracle inside of a miracle inside of an 8-game losing streak by any one of the 8 teams they’re chasing in pursuit of one of three playoff spots (NL West, both Wild Cards). Can one of those miracles be a white hot August performance? Here are 10 examples of what such a performance might look like — in fact, these are the 10 best in the SF era, because it doesn’t get more SF.
I set the ol’ Baseball Reference Play Index to sOPS+ (performance relative to the rest of the league, and in this case relative to the rest of the league in the month of August of the respective year) at a minimum of 133 because in my mind “33% better than the league average” sounded good. Here they are:
10. Barry Bonds — 207 sOPS+ (1999)
27-year old Bonds slashed .314 / .418 / .784 in 122 plate appearances, smacking 14 home runs down the stretch for a team scrambling for a playoff spot and fighting against a second-half swoon (they would not win that battle, starting with a 15-13 August). Barry Bonds was 107% better than league average. He was twice as good as the average player. The Giants still went 15-13.
9. Willie McCovey — 210 sOPS+ (1959)
McCovey played just 52 games in 1959, his rookie season, and August represented his first full month (recall that he debuted on July 30th). He slashed .373 / .443 / .676 with 8 home runs in 115 plate appearances. Also impressive was his 10 walks to 18 strikeouts in that same span. Most impressive was how his Win Probability Added for the month was 2.021. He improved the Giants’ chances of winning by 202%. In a single month. Sure, the Giants went only 16-13, but they would’ve been a lot worse without him.
By quick comparison, remember when Trevor Story debuted and he hit, flibeveny home runs at the top of 2016? He added .218 Win Probability (21.8%) and his OPS was 1.019 (compared to McCovey’s 1.120). All fantastic, but not as good as McCovey was, which was still only the 9th-best August in SF Giants history.
8. Willie McCovey — 213 sOPS+ (1968)
Nine years after his debut August, McCovey slashed .337 / .440 / .561 in 116 plate appearances across 31 games. This time, is 1.490 WPA helped the Giants put together a 21-10 month. Save one three-game stretch where he went 0-for-6, he never went more than one game without a hit. Only 9 of his 33 hits went for extra bases (2 doubles, a triple, and 6 home runs) and he walked 17 times while striking out only 15. Perhaps most crucially, he had 18 RBI, which probably accounts for that high WPA.
7. Willie Mays — 214 sOPS+ (1966)
The greatest player of all-time slugged .717 in August of 1966 across 107 plate appearances. He had 6 doubles, a triple, and 9 home runs, and the Giants went 17-11.
6. Willie Mays — 236 sOPS+ (1963)
Oh wait. He was way better three years earlier in his age-28 season, slugging .730 in 124 plate appearances across 28 games. He hit 8 home runs, 8 doubles, and 3 triples and drove in 27, a total that by itself would be good for 9th place in RBI on the 2018 Giants. His WPA for the month was 2.258 (cough) and he put up all these numbers despite ending the month 2-for-15. The Giants still only managed a 14-14 record that August but it was part of a season-long problem of being unable to escape the gravity well of a .500 record. After going 30-18 through April and May, the Giants went 58-56 the rest of the way.
5. Willie McCovey — 240 sOPS+ (1970)
Now we’re talking. A 3.347 WPA came as the result of a .362 / .473 / .771 line wherein 22 of his 38 hits in 129 plate appearances were extra base hits (11 doubles, 1 triple, 10 home runs). As a result, the Giants went 20-11 that August.
4. Ken Henderson — 261 sOPS+ (1972)
He was an outfielder who debuted in 1965 at 19 but didn’t become a regular until 1969, when he was 23 years old. 1972 was his final season with the Giants and wound up being his third-best season with the team. His OPS+ for 1970, 1971, and 1972 were 130, 127, 111, respectively, and that 11% above league average in his final year came from this massive August performance. Not only did he post that 261 sOPS+, he posted a tOPS+ (the OPS+ relative to his own career split for the month of August) of 223, meaning he was 123% better than the average August performance of Ken Henderson.
He slashed .409 / .445 / .800 with 45 hits (11 home runs, 8 doubles, 1 triple) in 120 plate appearances, and stole 7 bases. His season line at the beginning of the month was .190 / .265 / .312 and got up to .258 / .320 / .462 by the end of the 28 games he played. The performance didn’t sustain into September as he put up a .256 / .307 / .329 line in 88 plate appearances across only 21 games (19 starts).
The Giants only went 12-16 that month despite outscoring their opponents 136-125 and wound up going 69-86 that season. Henderson played 8 more seasons and posted a 104 OPS+ during that stretch (he had a 106 OPS+ across all seasons) so, overall, a solid major league career and for one brief month, he was an all-timer.
3. Willie Mays — 263 sOPS+ (1965)
Just two years after his remarkable August of 1963, Willie Mays posted another all-time great month and what is, in fact, his greatest month as a San Francisco Giant in his greatest season as a San Francisco Giant. 34-year old Mays hit a career-high 52 home runs and posted a 185 OPS+. 17 of those 52 home runs came this August (33% of his season total!) and the only 3 more doubles accounted for his extra base hit total... though, I think you’d agree that 20 of his 41 hits being extra bases is pretty damn impressive. His line in 31 games (131 plate appearances) was .363 / .446 / .841 and his WPA was 2.056.
It was his last amazing season, by the numbers, and true to Giants form, the rest of the team more or less let him down. They went 17-14 that August all thanks to Mays, and it wasn’t until September when the rest of the team kicked it into high gear and the Giants went 21-9 (Mays was still brilliant, hitting 10 home runs and slashing .294 / .392 / .598). They entered the final 6 games of the season tied with the Dodgers, but wound up losing the pennant to them by 2 games.
2. Barry Bonds — 306 sOPS+ (2004)
Now we’re in the endgame. Barry Bonds’ 2004 season should have its own Hall of Fame. Like the previous Mays example, this was the 39-year old Bonds’ final transcendent, sport-altering season, concluding a 5-year run where he hit 258 home runs in 3,050 plate appearances and an average OPS+ of 241. For 5 years, Barry Bonds was 141% than the Major League Baseball average for a hitter.
Why was this month in particular the best? He slashed .414 / .615 / 1.000. Not a typo. He slugged 1.000. In 70 at bats (109 plate appearances), he hit 11 home runs, 11 singles, 6 doubles, and 1 triple (70 total bases). He, uh, he also walked 38 times (15 times intentionally). We’ll never see another season like this in our lifetime.
We will see the rest of a Giants team squander an historic month by a hitter, though, as the Giants’ porous pitching in 2004 (4.29 team ERA, good enough for 10th in the NL) couldn’t hold the line down the stretch (Steve Finley ended their season, you’ll recall).
But it wasn’t for lack of effort. The Giants went 16-12 in August and 16-9 in September because Bonds carried the offense for the most part; he was aided by a mostly league average lineup: J.T. Snow had a 146 OPS+ in 107 games and Ray Durham had a 117 OPS+ in 120 games, but everyone else was below 100 OPS+ ... technically, Pedro Feliz had 100 OPS+ exactly. They were #2 in runs scored with 850, but they just couldn’t capitalize enough on his performance.
1. Barry Bonds — 318 sOPS+ (2002)
Somehow, though, this was the pinnacle for Bonds and the Giants. His greatest August — the San Francisco Giants’ greatest August — was in 2002. Bonds’ September/October 2001 is the single greatest month in SF Giants history (by virtue of his 341 sOPS+), but that was while he was chasing down the single season home run record.
August 2002 was when the Giants were scrambling to make it into the postseason. They were 6 games back at the start of the month, spinning their wheels with a record of 59-48. The Dodgers were paying Tom Goodwin’s salary and he hit a game-winning home run against them in July to effectively push the Dodgers behind the Giants in the Wild Card race. The Giants would get into the playoffs via the Wild Card, and that’s all because they went 36-18 over the season’s final two months.
Bonds was 37 and coming off a record-setting 73 home run season. He needed that World Series win to validate him. The Giants’ pitching staff had really firmed up and after Dusty Baker flip-flopped Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds in the lineup, the team really started rolling. He slashed .447 / .621 / .961 and had a WPA of 2.099. Half of his 34 hits were extra base hits (11 home runs, 6 doubles), and he walked 37 times (11 times intentionally).
Now, to be fair here, the Giants don’t have Barry Bonds anymore and most of the people on this list are either in the Hall of Fame or should be in the Hall of Fame (save Ken Henderson). If we remove Barry Bonds from the list, that opens up the 8, 9, and 10 slots. We still get a Hall of Famer in the top 10, but it looks like this:
8. Orlando Cepeda — 204 sOPS+ (1962)
9. Jeff Kent — 200 sOPS+ (2002)
10. Will Clark — 200 sOPS+ (1991)
That 1962 season for Cepeda (his age-24 season) was a bit of a down year for him by his standards (his 130 OPS+ was the 2nd-lowest of his Giants career), but it didn’t matter because he helped the Giants post an 18-10 record that August on way to a pennant-winning 103-win season. Let’s, uh, let’s just not talk about how 1962 ended...
As you can see, the 2002 squad really did jump to another level once Baker switched Bonds and Kent in the batting order, and that August 2002 represents the best month of Kent’s Giants career (by sOPS+).
Will Clark’s stellar 1991 season contributed to a forgettable 75-87 Giants franchise that was already inching out the door for another city. But he posted a career high in total bases, placed 4th in MVP voting, and won the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards. 23 of his 41 hits were extra base hits (14 doubles, 7 home runs, 2 triples) and he drove in 28 runs in 30 games, but it didn’t matter because the Giants went 14-16.
So, there you have it. An all-time great performance might not translate to team wins, but individual performances can in magnificent quantities, be entertaining in their own right.