The San Francisco Giants franchise is healthier today than it was on September 28, 2018. We all know this, but for those of us who try to find the humor in everything — if only to ease the pain — one can’t help but see all the parallels and chuckle (with existential dread).
It was 1,829 days ago that the team fired GM Bobby Evans. Since then, they’ve had a franchise-record 107-win season and their first-ever .500 season. They’ve mostly been unimpressive, though. Even that 107-win season is tainted by the juiced balls MLB provided (probably as a way of enticing people to come back to the yard after the COVID-19 season) which made the Giants think they were better than they were after setting a franchise-record for home runs (241); and, of course, it ended with an NLDS loss to the Dodgers.
Earlier, I wrote about how the poor performance by the San Francisco Giants this season appears to have motivated people to suggest big swings the team could make to get better. On the way to putting that together, I wrote about how this 2023 team compared to the 2018 team and surprised myself.
Last night, the team set a franchise record for strikeouts in a season. They did the same thing five years earlier in 2018, another disaster season, the one that ended Bobby Evans’ baseball career and compelled the team to bring in Farhan Zaidi.
Not only did the 2023 team have the 29th-worst offense over their final 91 games (yeah, I’m rounding up now because I’m writing this with three games left to play), their 82 wRC+ over that span matches the 82 wRC+ season total of the 2018 team.
The 2023 pitching staff was middle of the pack (16th) with 14.5 fWAR. The 2018 team was 17th with 14.1 fWAR.
It’s been a pet idea of mine for about a month now that the Giants’ season is split into these two halves, specifically as a lineup: the first 71 games of the season through when they swept the Dodgers in LA vs. The team we’ve seen the past 3+ months. This “past 3+ months” team — specifically the lineup — is nothing more than Bobby Evans’ 2018 Giants. So, there’s the one number (wRC+) that proves it. Article over.
Okay, well, let me dig into this a little more. First, it’s fun to do this. Every baseball team’s front office must at all times project confidence and knowledge. They always know more than the fans because it’s their job to know more than the fans. The past decade or so of process humping has come off to me as a management tool for CYA. “I didn’t do it! That was merely an outcome of the process! The process is fine!” But as Dr. Raymond Stantz once noted, the private sector expects results. They’re not hanging their hat on 21, right?
The Giants have a better talent pipeline now than they did 1,829 days ago. How much better? Up for debate, but certainly not one that you have to squint at just to imagine some strengths. It’s just really funny to take the tour and see all the similarites.
The 2018 team didn’t have a full-time DH in the lineup, so some of the numbers do skew towards this year’s team. The 4.2 runs/game, for example, far surpasses 2018’s cataclysmic 3.72 runs/game, but this year that’s 23rd place while in 2018 that was 29th. Still, a bottom-third of lineup. In 2023, 11 players have an OPS+ of 100 or better. 2018 had just 7, and one of those was Ryder Jones’ 8 PA (.375/.375/.1.125). So, you see, this year’s team clearly has more going for it. But again: similarities. Baseball Reference spins out the non-pitcher lines.
How could it be that for all the machinations, smarts, and savvy maneuvering the Giants have wound up back where they started? I’ve been in situations like this, trying desperately to avoid a specific outcome by altering behavior, making specific choices to move away from the dreaded outcome, and yet oftentimes I’d still wind up in that outcome.
The Giants didn’t have good players then and they don’t have good players now. That’s why I laugh to keep from crying.
That’s the 50,000 foot view, though. Sure, the Giants seem no better off than they were five years ago (even if the literal win-loss record proves otherwise by a signficant margin), but begin your descent. Come down to 25,000 feet. Hey look — this team didn’t give 450 plate appearances to Gorkys Hernandez (87 OPS+). His equivalent roster result in 2023 was either Patrick Bailey (78 OPS+) or Blake Sabol (92). Those are two guys who still have time to improve their game, who are maybe 2-3 stratas away but still showing skill sets that parallel the better players in the league. Gorkys was a fifth outfielder shoved into a starting role.
Andrew McCutchen (115 OPS+) was the team’s best hitter in 2018. We all saw what Posey, Belt and Crawford (the next best three in 2018) did with a little rest and a lot of Zaidi-driven data coaching in 2021 (and the juiced balls!), and here in 2023, the Giants’ process netted them three hitters as good or better than McCutchen: Wilmer Flores (132 OPS+), LaMonte Wade Jr. (121), and Joc Pederson (114); but also, Mike Yastrzemski (113) and Thairo Estrada (103), who — with LaMonte Wade Jr. — represent the top three position players on the 2023 Giants by WAR. Wade leads the team in bWAR (2.8). Estrada leads in fWAR (4.1).
Wade’s a great player to focus on. We were all down on LaMonte Wade Jr. after last season, but the team wasn’t because they liked some of his underlying numbers (batted ball data, swing decisions). They were right. Even though he stopped hitting like an All-Star after June (.280/.416/.452 through June 30; .235/.322/.388 after), he still had a productive season, and it’s a credit to the team’s coaching/scouting that they stuck with him to get this result.
The 2018 team gave Alen Hanson (.699 OPS) and Chase D’Arnaud (.618) a combined 410 plate appearances. Throw in Austin Jackson, Chris Shaw, Kelby Tomlinson, and Mac Williamson and you get a lot of guys whose underlying numbers didn’t match the the modern game. A lot of 3, 4, and 5 to 1 strikeout to walk guys or, as in the case of D’Arnaud, average plate discipline but no power. And yet it was this type of player the Giants trotted out frequently hoping that one of them would flip a switch. Hope is not a strategy!
I think we should have a bit more confidence in the group the team has assembled now. Minor league track records that demonstrate a bit more consistency at the plate. Will their contact and power skills translate to the major league level is the big question, though, and while the result might wind up being the same — they get no useful production from their farm system in the short term — there’s clear evidence that they’re a bit better off with this type of player than they were in the past with that other type of player. If nothing else, we got Patrick Bailey out of this team’s process, and even if teams have wised up to Zaidi’s group inquiring about a fringe hitting prospect, they seem to be able to find guys who could actually — given all research and development over the last 10 years — be solid.
They’re just missing great players to surround with these solid players. That’s an inversion of the Bobby Evans years: great players but no idea how to surround them with solid players. Evans had those great players because of previous years when the team had been really bad. Now, they’re going to try to get great players while not being really bad, a more challenging proposition.
So, I needn’t laugh. I can talk through that reflexive fear response. This front office is better than the one that preceded it, even though I think the growing consensus that the team needs to be more entertaining is correct and will prevail. That means this team’s problem is that it has missed the forest for the trees. The Evans Group had the opposite problem, only seeing the treeline, missing everything that made it a forest.