The best and most exciting part of the 2023 San Francisco Giants season was the rookies. The 2023 San Francisco Giants rookies did not play particularly good baseball.
Both of these things can be true. I know they can both be true because they both are true.
By Fangraphs’ WAR, Casey Schmitt was the 1,420th most valuable position player of the 1,445 hitters to play in the Majors this year. An extended need for defensive skills to acclimate to the highest level of baseball resulted in Luis Matos being sub-replacement value. Blake Sabol sticking on a Major League roster as a Rule 5 selection is a massive win, but 0.8 WAR over a full season isn’t exactly what playoff teams are built out of. Kyle Harrison established his spot in next year’s rotation, but still has an ERA that’s a blown kiss away from the 5s. He, Keaton Winn, and Tristan Beck have combined to be worth 0.6 WAR. Marco Luciano and Tyler Fitzgerald have been good, but have played a combined 18 games. Patrick Bailey has been a godsend, but the rookie wall comes extra hard for catchers, and he’s Exhibit A, B, and C of that. Ryan Walker was the revelation you didn’t see coming, but Brett Wisely certainly was not. Wade Meckler’s rise was historic, but his debut was anything but.
The Giants choosing and needing to give so much playing time to those 12 debuting players — plus fellow unproven youngsters Heliot Ramos, David Villar, Bryce Johnson, and Sean Hjelle — is one of the biggest reasons why, after Wednesday’s 5-2 loss to the San Diego Padres, they’ve secured their sixth non-winning campaign in the last seven seasons. And it’s also why, if you can look past your frustration and annoyance, you can probably admit that you’re a little bit excited about the 2024 team.
That’s not to put the blame for the disappointing season on the shoulders of the ones providing the most excitement. The Giants missed the postseason because they didn’t sign anyone more notable than Mitch Haniger. They missed the postseason because Haniger had an awful season. They missed the postseason because they slumped and seemed more comfortable remaining slumped than checking their posture in the mirror and making a doctor’s appointment. The rookies were a large cause of the Slumpitis, yes, but they were also the symptom.
That was frustrating in July and August, when the Giants were trying to hang onto their 13-games-above-.500-and-inexplicably-contending-for-the-NL-West-crown-again situation. But, as is the case with every team cursed with getting to look towards the offseason before the regular season ends, that frustration eases in late September.
The Giants were playing their first game as an eliminated team. The wins and losses don’t matter much, which is why I was a little peeved that the starting lineup featured Michael Conforto, Joc Pederson, and Mike Yastrzemski, but not Matos or Ramos. Mistakes made now can, in theory, be written off like business expenses as mistakes that won’t be made next year when, presumably, the games will matter once more.
Naturally, those mistakes were, indeed, made. My spiel kind of begets that. Let’s skip straight to the tenth inning, where the Giants were facing a Padres team that had gone 0-12 in extra-inning games. If you want to know how a squad with Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts, Ha-Seong Kim, Blake Snell, Josh Hader, and a better run differential than the Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, and Seattle Mariners is below .500, well ... there you go, folks.
John Brebbia was pitching the 10th inning, tasked with keeping the Manfred Man at bay. He couldn’t quite complete that difficult ask, as a Brett Sullivan grounder moved speedalicious Trent Grisham to third, and a Bogaerts fly ball was juuuuuust deep enough to exceed the limits of Yastrzemski’s excellent arm. But allowing a run in the new-age extra innings is hardly a death sentence, so Brebbia, with two outs and the bases empty, was sitting moderately pretty.
And he was sitting prettier still when he got Tatis to hit a ground ball towards Luciano, who backhanded it so smoothly that you forgot all about those past reports of him needing to be moved to right field in the future (hey, it’s worked wonders for Tatis). But Luciano, forgetting that the name plastered to the front of he and his teammates’ cream home jerseys is not to be taken literally, threw the ball that would require three Wilmers Flores stacked atop each other to catch.
Luciano has looked the part of a slick and smooth everyday shortstop, but rookie growing pains happen. This was such a time.
With Tatis awarded not just first but second, Brebbia intentionally walked Soto. And with the runner sagging off the base, Bailey had visions of the Giants catching Tatis snoozing at second base for the second time this series, and fired behind him on a pickoff attempt. Or at least, it was attempted to be behind him. Instead it was in front of him, and then it was in the outfield, and then Tatis was at third and Soto was at second.
Bailey has looked the part of the best defensive catcher in baseball, and perhaps one of the best defensive catchers in baseball history, but rookie growing pains happen. This was such a time.
Brebbia wasn’t going down without a fight though, and jumped out to an 0-2 lead on Machado, who proceeded to work the count and work the count and work the count, and on the ninth pitch he hit a 73.9-mph soft-tosser with a .240 expected batting average that found a patch of uninhabited grass and scored a pair of runs.
It’s been that sort of a season, hasn’t it? As I’ve been saying every day for the past three months, the Giants haven’t earned any luck, but they sure haven’t been given so much as a cursory gift bag from the fortune factory, have they?
It was sad and it was frustrating and at the same time ... these mistakes, these rookie walls, and these growing pains need to be encountered. Farhan Zaidi and Gabe Kapler, for all their faults, have been dealt the nearly impossible task of trying to win and rebuild simultaneously, a two-timeline strategy that even Joe Lacob, the face of, “but why can’t we just buy the moon?” thinking, has publicly deemed undoable.
The Giants don’t have a Mookie Betts or Freddie Freeman to cover the mistakes of developing youngsters but, for the next few days at least, they have meaningless games that can accomplish a similar goal. So we don’t dwell on Luciano and Bailey’s errors; we just acknowledge that they’ll be better in 2024 because of them. And maybe pray a little.
Up to that point the game was hardly devoid of happy points. Thairo Estrada, one of the few honest-to-goodness everyday players in the Giants lineup, did one of the happiest things in baseball the second inning, when he took a hanging knuckleball from Matt Waldron, watched it float across the plate, and then had all the info he needed. The next time Waldron threw one, Estrada put it in the bleachers.
Thairo sends one OUTTA HERE pic.twitter.com/ILmqDFW8aN— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) September 28, 2023
Estrada will be a big part of the 2024 Giants. He was their best position player this year and, while I love the guy, that tells you a bit about the season. If he’s their fifth or sixth-best player next year, the Giants will likely be in damn good shape.
The other run came when Michael Conforto, who probably won’t but possibly will be on the 2024 Giants, led off the fifth with a double. Luciano, who will be a huge part of the 2024 Giants, had the type of situational hitting the team has sorely lacked all year, moving Conforto over with a blistered ground ball the opposite way. Bailey struck out, as happens when you’re tired and slumping. And Tyler Fitzgerald, who has quickly played himself into a pivotal roll on the 2024 Giants, found just enough outfield grass for a two-out, go-ahead knock.
Fitzgerald then stole a base, the first of his career.
Fitz followed up the go-ahead RBI with his first-career steal ️ pic.twitter.com/Z5XH6Vz8TJ— SFGiants (@SFGiants) September 28, 2023
He later drew a walk and stole another base which, for you amateur mathematicians, was the second of his career. It’s not exactly a coincidence that Fitzgerald got called up for an MLB debut immediately after the Giants got swept in a miniseries by the Arizona Diamondbacks, who ran all around them — quite literally. The Giants need speed. They need athleticism. They need modern baseball players. They also need entertainment, which Fitzgerald seems to be acknowledging.
Plus Tyler Fitzgerald on those steals: "I want to bring speed to this team and make it exciting for fans to watch."— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) September 28, 2023
To this I climb to my roof and yell: THANK YOU, TYLER. And then I drink a beer. I just watched this game and spent valuable time writing about it. I deserve this.
It was just the seventh time in the last three years that a Giants player had stolen multiple bases in the same game, a feat that the rest of the league’s players have accomplished 556 times during that span. Paired with a swiped bag by Estrada, the Giants stole three bases for just the fourth time this year, a feat that the rest of the league’s teams have done 320 times.
The Giants need that going forward, and Fitzgerald stealing bases with ease — a day after Luciano swiped one — is far more encouraging than 10th-inning, late-September errors are discouraging. Be excited, if skeptical and disappointed. Humans do, it turns out, contain multitudes. Feel it all. ‘Tis the damn season, as Travis Kelce is singing somewhere.
Sean Manaea made his last hurrah of the season, and likely of his Giants career, and it was delightful. He gave up just two runs in six innings, striking out eight with nary a walk. Manaea has operated inversely to the Giants, starting dreadfully and finishing beautifully. Since July 29 he’s given up just 38 hits and 15 earned runs in 51.2 innings, and he’s allowed just six earned runs in 24 innings since returning to the rotation.
That’s good enough that Manaea will likely opt out of the $15 million owed to him next year. But it’s also good enough that the Giants will be happy if he doesn’t. I’ll be rooting for him either way.
Anyway, I’ve rambled long enough. This game, for one of the first times all year, didn’t really make a narrative clear. It just kind of was, in ways that were disappointing, annoying, poignant, exciting, happy, fun, frustrating, ugly, and distinctly basebally.
So here’s the win probability:
Looks a bit like the season, doesn’t it?