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There is no secret plan to fix the lineup

Farhan Zaidi’s end of the year press conference contained zero surprises and no good answers.

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Farhan Zaidi talking with reporters in the dugout. Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Farhan Zaidi held another end of the season press conference because the San Francisco Giants did not make the postseason. In my early blogger days, I might’ve compared this year’s presser to last year’s, especially after Zaidi himself mentioned that he was repeating a lot of what he said then. But I’m not going to do that. You should do it. It’s a real doozy, suggesting that what gets said two days after a season ends doesn’t hold up in the face of market forces. Instead, I’m going to wind my approach back to before my blogging days.

I’m going to think like a child, which I think puts me closer to being a true sports fan.

Nobody asked Farhan Zaidi about the situation that saw his middle of the pack offense become the laughingstock of the sport. I haven’t passed up an opportunity to point out that after sweeping the Dodgers in LA they turned into the worst lineup in MLB over their final 91 games. 30th in runs scored, weighted on base average, batting average, OPS; 29th in wRC+ which really is a technicality because of it being park-adjusted. The Rockies were 30th in wRC+ over the final 14 weeks or so of the season and that’s mainly because a bad hitting team didn’t hit any better at Coors — but the Giants didn’t hit well anywhere, so, really, I think the point should stand that the Giants were the worst.

This is the year I learned Santa wasn’t real.

I admit it: I was a huge sucker for the Giants’ innovations. A massive staff with virtually (or, in the case of Brian Bannister, virtual) 1-on-1 coaching, sleep schedules, diet plans, a hockey line approach to platoons — I really thought the Giants could brain their way around their huge talent gap and smart themselves to a few more wins than the roster suggested.

And hey, maybe Farhan Zaidi thought the same and counted on Gabe Kapler to be that extra 2% in the clubhouse to help make it a reality. It’s clear now, though, that the Giants are just going to have to wait it out. Rebuilds take time. I think this has, without question, been a 5-year rebuild that hasn’t gone all that smoothly. I’ll stick with the pandemic being a big part of that, but the way the roster withered on the vine this year suggests that some personnel tweaks are needed. Last year’s hire of Putila should’ve been received as an even greater sign that the team is very focused on player development.

There is no spell Farhan Zaidi and Pete Putila can cast or program they can run to make this group better overnight. There’s only one way to make the 2024 team better: trade or sign for a guy who isn’t coming off an injury and has a proven track record of hitting the crap out of the ball while limiting his strikeouts coupled with emerging talent from the farm system that for the most part takes a step forward in their development.

Zaidi seemed to signal as much today. It’s something they plan to pitch to would-be free agents this offseason. He said:

One of the real positives of this season was how many young players came up and I think are gonna be a big part of this team and organization going forward. So, I think that’s gonna be a key part of our pitch. We had a really good group of rookies — we have more guys coming from the system who are going to help us in the next couple of years and that’s why we think we have a chance to build the foundation of a sustainable contender.

A statement like that feels most correct when you only think about the pitching, and that part of the wooing should look pretty solid. But Shohei Ohtani will ask about the dudes hitting around him, too. Zaidi today:

The offense is a little bit of a tougher one because, as we’ve talked about, when we started August, we were 10-12 games over .500 — you know, July was a bad month for us offensively — but, for the first half of the season we actually had a good offense. At the start of the season we felt like we had 6-7 guys who could have 20+ homers and we wound up with one guy with 20+ and a bunch of guys in the 15-18 range, so, yeah we’re gonna wanna improve the club in every facet [...] our offense, I think, when you look at the final analysis, was a little bit below average.

You sure about that?

In 162 games, the Giants were 24th in runs scored, 25th in weighted on base average, 28th in batting average, and 26th in OPS. Their 93 wRC+ was 21st, or 7 points below league average, according to the wRC+ scale, and this might be the number he has in mind while saying “a little bit below average.”

But I’m using my kid brain here. That doesn’t seem like a little. It seems like a lot! And what about the 91 games where they were worse? They were terrible for more than half the season! That doesn’t seem like bad luck, that seems like true talent. Zaidi today:

If you’re asking, do we wanna improve the offense or the defense, obviously the answer is both; but, a real point of emphasis for us is just gonna be to get more athletic, just cover more ground defensively.

In the abstract, I can see a Giants front office committed to great pitching & defense as a very good thing. That’s sort of the hallmark of the championship era: pitching, defense, and timely hits. Maybe Shohei Ohtani agrees with the pitching & defense angle since those were two qualities the Angels lacked during his tenure. But how will those timely hits come about if the team strikes out a bunch and can’t hit for power? Thankfully, Zaidi dug into the hitting situation a bit more:

We value contact. Certainly as we look at our minor leaguers and guys coming up through the system, you know, that’s one of the key traits we look at in hitters to kind of get promoted and work their way up to the big leagues is guys that make contact, guys that don’t chase.

I think some of what we saw in terms of the strikeout numbers was the number of young players we have; and, you know, it’s just tough to sort of make the transition from even Triple-A to the big leagues, you know, even if you get out to a good start and just maintain it. So, I think you’re gonna see ups and downs with rookies kinda more than with veteran players...

That’s another characteristic of playoff teams. If you look at the teams in the playoffs, they have some of the lowest strikeout rates of any teams in Baseball and a lot of that is even teams that get a lot of production and hit for power; so, that’s definitely going to be very important for us.

A quick survey of the team strikeout rates for the NL side of the postseason bracket:

Arizona Diamondbacks, 20.4% (4th)
Atlanta Braves, 20.6% (5th)
Miami Marlins, 21.3% (8th)
Los Angeles Dodgers, 21.5% (10th)
Milwaukee Brewers, 23.2% (17th)
Philadelphia Phillies, 23.9% (20th)

San Francisco Giants, 24.5% (25th)

A sound analysis of the situation, but a statement that suggests something more. If the Giants’ better young players — right now, anyway — provide the most value with their youth and defense, then quality of contact becomes secondary. That’s already the team’s problem, and so it looks like the team is in a wait and see mode with young power, perhaps hoping that will come after they nail down the defense and contact.

It’s extremely frustrating to land on “there are no quick fixes” five years after the rebuild started, but there are no quick fixes. Development isn’t linear and neither are rebuilds. We probably need to keep our eyes on the horizon just to maintain hope. Even free agents will have to take a long view, which isn’t so bad when you figure that deliberating over a long-term deal requires it. I don’t think it’s silly to think that, for example, Shohei Ohtani would be encouraged knowing that in year four or five of a 12-year deal that he would have a solid core of talented young players around him.

This leads into the one minor flashpoint of the press conference. Somebody, and I couldn’t place who, asked:

You did research on free agents and you found that players aren’t really that happy coming into town for a three game series. You later added that you think this city maybe is a bit of a polarizing place among players in terms of their desire to play here. How do you navigate through that through another offseason and how do you sell players on the city when you’re quoted saying that about the city?

Zaidi’s response:

I mean, can you say exactly what I said? I mean, you’re paraphrasing. I don’t think that’s accurate at all.

I pulled this from a Susan Slusser piece in the Chronicle last December:

“I don’t know if we would say San Francisco is an idiosyncratic market, but I do think maybe it is more that way than it was 20 years ago,” president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said at the GM meetings last month. “I think it’s a little bit of a polarizing place among players in terms of the desire to play there. This is sort of totally independent of the competitive situation, but geography, politics, whatever.

I think the question correctly parroted back Zaidi’s statements but Zaidi seemed to get ornery because of the implication of the press conference question: that he had trashed the city and would have to navigate that while trying to turn sell it to free agents.

The good faith read of the rest of the statement verifies that this was a candid interview where Farhan Zaidi was simply expressing every thought he had on free agency:

“When we’re doing our research on free agents and we find that players aren’t really that happy even coming into town for a three-game series, they’re probably not going to be that excited to play there for a long time. So I think that’s part of what fueled our strategy of targeting guys with Bay Area ties. … Free agency is really, really competitive, especially at the top of the market. Even when you think you can sign a player, you’re probably not, that’s just how it works. So when you don’t think you’re going to sign a player, you’re definitely not going to sign him.”

After a little bit of tension in which the questioner cleaned up the focus a bit, Zaidi responded:

I still think at the end of the day it’s about — especially when you’re talking about guys who are looking to sign somewhere long-term — it’s the overall baseball situation, their confidence in the organization. It’s their confidence in the organization, and I think that carries the day. But, honestly, every team I think deals with the market and recognizing that there are players for whom that isn’t the ideal landing spot.

Some players would rather play in San Francisco than Cleveland, and vice versa. Then there are players who would rather play anywhere but — that all makes sense.

But like I said a thousand-plus words ago, this year really shattered my illusions about the front office’s approach. But my illusions hardly matter. What about some of the front office’s? Are they sure they’re not “selling jeans?Do fans only root for laundry? And just how motivated can they be to escape situations (platoons, openers) they don’t aim to be in if those strategies generated a decent amount of success?

This post is about the lineup and I can’t stop looking at the fact that over their final 91 games they were the worst lineup in the entire sport. But the same thing sort of happened last year: through the first 71 games, a 109 wRC+. Over the final 91: 93. This year: 108 first half, 93 second half. A “second half” fade has traditionally been assigned to failings in the manager’s office and so that’s why Kapler’s firing made sense; but on the other hand, if a front office sees that two years in a row, what are their takeaways?

I guess I walked right into this: explain it to me like I’m five.