For years, the Giants have had a problem in their outfield.
Last year, the Giants outfield was ranked 28th in the majors, with a total fWAR of 0.1 (not a typo!). In 2017, they were last in the majors with an fWAR of 0.6. In 2016, a year in which they made the playoffs, they were 26th, with an fWAR of 4.3. They were 24th in 2015, and worth 5.3 wins.
You have to go all the way back to 2014, a year in which the team’s outfield fWAR was 8.9 (good for 12th in the majors), for the Giants to have had an above average major league outfield. For four years, they were in the bottom 25% of the league every year, and for most of that run, that’s actually underselling how bad they were.
Also, in 2013 they were worth 8.7 wins and in 2012 they were worth 11.2 wins. 2011 wasn’t very good, at just 7.1 wins, but in 2010 the Giants outfield was third in the majors with a 14.9 fWAR. They spent literally the entire decade going downhill. That’s bad!
At a glance, this year would appear to be the same story. For the season, they’re ranked 24th, with an fWAR of 1.9. But the eye test has said that they’ve looked better over the last couple months, and Fangraphs backs that up, because since June 1, the Giants have had a respectable major league outfield. Since the first two months of the season, the Giants outfield is 13th in baseball with a 3.0 fWAR.
Yes, if you do the math, that means that they were worth -1.1 wins over April and May, which somehow still only put them at 27th in the league. The Blue Jays outfield was worth an astonishing -2.6 wins over that span. Thanks for making us look good, guys!
How did the team improve? I talked about this last week, but essentially the front office amassed interesting guys in AAA and called up the ones who seemed interesting, kept the ones who helped, and cut the ones who didn’t. It was a ruthless roster churn that eventually turned the outfield from a liability into a not-liability.
But they’re not done. Mike Yastrzemski has been a revelation, but if he falls back to Earth, or if Alex Dickerson’s back problems persist, or if Austin Slater goes on an extended cold streak then the team needs a backup plan. Since the backup plan also might not work out, they need a backup plan to the backup plan, and a backup plan to that too. It’s backup plans all the way down, and at least one of them will probably work out.
So who are these backup plans? Let’s start with the two recently acquired outfielders, Joe McCarthy and Jaylin Davis. McCarthy had a nice 2018, hitting .269/.377/.513 for the AAA Durham Bulls, but has had a rough go of it this year, with 199 plate appearances of .190/.327/.368 ball to show for his 2019. He’s had some injuries, but over his whole minor league career McCarthy has shown fantastic plate discipline and, more recently, some interesting power.
Davis has power too, and it’s more than interesting. He’s hit 27 homers in 437 minor league PAs this year (and is rocking an overall line of .309/.403/.590 across AA and AAA), a power explosion that the Giants have to be hoping will play in the major leagues. Davis is having a much better year than McCarthy, and is not on the 40-man roster, while McCarthy is, and his 40-man spot is why the Rays made him available, because the Rays know that open 40-man spots are much more valuable than baseball players.
The Giants also have three more minor league outfielders on the 40-man roster: Mike Gerber, Joey Rickard, and Chris Shaw. Gerber was in the majors for about a minute this year, getting into four games with a wRC+ of -33, and was promptly sent back down to the minors. He’s had an excellent year in Sacramento, hitting .322/.384/.602 for the River Cats, but not only is that with a .405 BABIP, but remember, the PCL is an environment that wildly favors hitters. It’s hard to know what to make of those stats other than they’re good, and Gerber’s done well, and there’s nothing he’s done in the minors to make you say, “He shouldn’t get another chance.”
Rickard was a waiver claim from the Orioles in June, revenge for the Orioles taking Hanser Alberto from the Giants, a waiver claim that was revenge for the Giants taking Hanser Alberto from the Orioles. Revenging themselves for Rickard, the Orioles recently claimed Ty Blach from the Giants. The Orange And Black Rivalry is truly a vicious affair.
Rickard was hitting .203/.320/.469 for the Norfolk Tides when the Giants claimed him, and since coming to Sacramento, he’s been on fire, hitting .376/.421/.596 in 152 plate appearances. He does have more major league time than anyone else on this list, and has been worth 0.4 fWAR, with 924 career plate appearances and a .245/.299/.372 line. It’s difficult to know exactly what his impressive line in Sacramento means, but since coming to the Giants, Rickard has cut his strikeout rate to 13.4%, the lowest it’s been with any team in his minor or major league career.
Shaw is the last one, and you’ve been hearing about Chris Shaw for a while now. He was sent to AA at the beginning of the year to work on his plate discipline, and that’s what he did, eventually earning his way back to Sacramento. Since coming back, he’s posted a .300/.362/.596 line with 15 homers in 224 plate appearances, but the big improvement has been his eye at the plate. Compared to last year, his walk rate is slightly up (from 5% to 6.7%) and his strikeout rate is way down (from 34.1% to 25.9%), exactly the adjustments the front office wanted him to make.
Any of these five guys could be the next man up when there’s a vacancy in the outfield. Defensively, all of them except Shaw have filled in in center field this year, but only Gerber is a true center fielder, with the rest being right or left fielders. Shaw has been seeing a lot more time at first base this season too, possibly to continue developing him there, and possibly because Sacramento has been so overloaded with outfielders all season that it’s the best way to get him some playing time.
But as much as any of these guys could be the next Michael Reed, they all also have the potential to be the next Mike Yastrzemski. The Giants have vastly improved their outfield by letting younger guys take their shots, but that’s not a process that ever ends. If they need to, they have a lot more depth to call on.