First Pitch: Can the Giants defy age to meet World Series expectations?

It’s not an even-numbered year, but the San Francisco Giants are in prime position for another October run. 

The Giants, buoyed by a strong core and an even better trade deadline after acquiring Kris Bryant, lead the Los Angeles Dodgers by 2.5 games in the NL West as of this writing. While most pundits expected the Dodgers and Padres to do battle in MLB’s westernmost division, the Giants caught all of us by surprise, reliving the glory days of the 2014, 2012 and 2010 World Series teams all in one full swoop.

Per the San Francisco Chronicle, “in all, players 31-to-35 years old (determined by June 30) have accounted for 50% of at-bats this season for the Giants, compared to 24% for the rest of Major League Baseball.”

Age really is just a number.

Brandon Crawford’s resurgence as one of the best all-around shortstop in baseball has led to MVP chants (and shirts) as well as a brand new contract. He’s 34.

Buster Posey, meanwhile, is have a Posey-esque season, slashing .322/.416/.536 after taking the 2020 campaign off due to COVID-19 concerns. He’s 34 as well, and is likely to be signed to a long-term contract before this winter.

Something’s in the water by the Bay, and it’s not a Delorean.

The Giants turnaround from falling dynasty to best team in baseball started in 2018, when Farhan Zaidi signed on to the front office. Bruce Bochy retired shortly thereafter, and was replaced by Gabe Kapler. Madisom Bumgarner was traded and Zaidi made Scott Harris general manager.

But to put the Giants 2021 season in perspective, it’s important to understand just how much they’re outperforming expectations. PECOTA predicted this team to win 78 games. They’ve reached that in mid-August.

A number of the Giants’ hitters — including Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford — credit the Giants’ hitting coaches for revamping their swings prior to the 2021 season.

There are also countless benefits to being a veteran team, such as plate discipline.

“It speaks to the commitment the players have made on being especially aggressive on pitches they can drive and being a little bit more patient on pitches they can’t,” Kapler said in May.

Now, San Francisco’s starting rotation is full of unproven commodities. Look no further than the likes of Kevin Gausman, Johnny Cueto and Anthony DeScalafani. Throw in Logan Webb and Alex Wood, and the Giants rotation is nothing but misfits with a 47-22 combined record.

The Giants’ rotation has been spotty down the stretch, leaving the 24-year-old Webb to pick up the pieces. Gausman, the presumed ace, is 2-2 with an ERA over 5.00 in the second half.

DeSclafani injured his ankle his last time out, and Cueto is still on the IL. Age is playing a role and it’s only August, hence some concern around this bunch.

San Francisco Giants: What could derail World Series chances?

To get more perspective on the pound-for-pound best team in baseball, I spoke with Around the Foghorn’s Jeff Young and Marc Delucci.

1. The Giants are among the oldest teams in MLB. How has this team defied father time, and expectations to become the best team in baseball?

MD: If any team benefited from the COVID team more than any others, it was probably the Giants. Buster Posey looks 25 again after taking the year off, and even players like Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt have truly looked fresher than they have in years. It honestly raises huge questions for me about if there is value for giving players in decline a sort of redshirt year.

JY: The coaching staff does not get enough credit for the work they do. In particular, the three hitting coaches have done well to prepare hitters for certain pitches, matchups, or opponents. On the mound, pitchers are finding more consistency in their delivery and release point than they have demonstrated in the past. This has led to fewer baserunners and fewer mistakes. Beyond the coaching staff, the team’s depth has played a role in keeping everyone fresh. Brandon Crawford and Buster Posey are not expected to play every day like they have in the past. The Giants have quality backups so the team hardly misses a beat when either one sits. It appears to be paying dividends as both look unusually fresh despite it being the Dog Days of August.

2. The Giants made a trade deadline splash, acquiring Kris Bryant. What are the early reviews on Bryant as a Giant, and do you see any way they keep him beyond just this season?

MD: He’s been absolutely a fan-favorite from day one and I think the fanbase would be crushed if he doesn’t sign an extension. Here’s an inside look at what an extension could look like:

JY: The early returns on the Kris Bryant trade have been extremely favorable. Bryant has fit in seamlessly while being able to play all around the field and provide exceptional production with the bat. Bryant has stated that San Francisco was a desired landing spot and that he grew up a Giants fan. He meshes with the veteran core, but he will have a decision to make. Will the Giants dish out an Anthony Rendon-like contract to retain the former MVP?

3. Despite being the best team in baseball, every contender has a weakness. Where, if at all, could the Giants run into trouble come the postseason?

JY: The starting pitching has been leaking oil recently with the exception of Logan Webb. Both Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani have not been nearly as sharp as they were in the first half. Can the Giants go deep into the playoffs without exceptional performances from either arm? It seems unlikely. If they can’t rebound, then the Giants will have to out-hit the opponent. That’s not a phrase Giants fans have been used to saying over the years, but they have enough offense to do so.

MD: Easily starting pitching and age. This team has such great depth everywhere except in the starting pitching. The bullpen may not have a truly dominant lockdown closer, but there are a ton of arms at Triple-A that could be trusted. On the flip side, if Anthony DeSclafani keeps sliding or Kevin Gausman goes down, there’s no one really ready to step up.

4. We’re nearing September call-up season. Where should the Giants look for reinforcements? Any names to watch as far as top prospects are concerned?

JY: The Giants will likely bring on a couple of relievers to give them extra depth in the bullpen. This could be a potential leverage arm in John Brebbia or a bulk innings reliever in Sammy Long. Long and Joey Bart are currently two of the top prospects on the 40-man roster, but not on the 26-man roster. I believe we will see Long, but the Giants remain committed to giving Bart a full season at Triple-A. Outside of these two, Giants fans might see one of Camilo Doval or Kervin Castro. Both are relievers who ranks in the Giants’ top-30 prospects. The 40-man roster is full so I would not expect the Giants to add a prospect such as Heliot Ramos or Sean Hjelle.

MD: Also just did a piece looking at potential September call ups. Joey Bart is the biggest name and maybe even Heliot Ramos, but I’d say relievers like Kervin Castro or starting pitcher Sean Hjelle are more likely.

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