Of all the things that happened during the 60-game season, some stood out a lot more than others. One of them was that Oracle Park suddenly became a launching pad. The ballpark by the bay actually came in eighth in OPS and SLG last season. The Giants batted .273/.354/.488 as a team at home.
Compare that with Oracle Park of 2019, which ranked dead last in OPS and dead last in SLG among regular ballparks. The Giants batted .229/.291/.361 at home in 2019. We’re talking about an enormous difference. There were some alterations to the ballpark. The fence in left center was moved in five feet and the fence was moved in eight feet from center field. The center field wall was also lowered an inch.
Andrew Baggarly and Eno Sarris wrote on the topic for The Athletic($) in November after the season was over. Baggarly and Sarris examined how the 2020 Giants accounted for the second-biggest turnaround in wRC+ since free agency began in 1974. A lot of the article centered on the coaching staff and some of the changes implemented by GM Farhan Zaidi and first-year manager Gabe Kapler.
Something else was at play. As noted in the article, the Giants closed off a viewing area in right field where walkers and passers-by could have congregated to sneak a peek of the games. The theory floated by Baggarly and Sarris was that the crosswinds that used to knock balls down were limited by the wind cloth put up to deter onlookers from being too close with COVID raging through California.
Through a deep dive into the statistics, and with Zaidi’s confirmation that the ball did carry better, Baggarly and Sarris came to a lot of conclusions that appear to very much be true. It wasn’t all about the park, though, Zaidi and Kapler brought new offensive philosophies to the table that I’ll elaborate on during the offense portion of the preview. The question is whether or not those are here to stay and if the wind cloth will be up again or not. California seems like one of least likely states to allow fans at games, at least at the outset.
What is most interesting to me is that Giants hitters embraced the changes and the park factor improvements and the team wound up with one of its best offensive seasons since Barry Bonds roamed right field. The pitching staff wasn’t exactly better or worse, so the changes to the ballpark were neither a positive nor a negative for them.
It really makes me wonder what we can reliably project for the Giants in 2020 and what we can’t. The Giants are one of the three teams in the NL West with virtually no chance to win it and no chance to finish second, so they’re starting behind the eight-ball, but this is one of those organizations like I’ve talked about in many other introductions that has gone all-in with analytics and I really like believing in those teams.
A massive regression candidate in 2019 was able to stave off those decreases in the short 2020 season. I may have saved the hardest for the last with this preview of the San Francisco Giants.
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win NL West
|Team||Odds To Win|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||-250|
|San Diego Padres||+200|
|San Francisco Giants||+4000|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+32 (5.13/4.60)||-100 (4.10/4.72)|
|3rd Order Win%||34.0-26.0||69.8-92.2|
|Record in One-Run Games||8-8||38-16|
Additions: Scott Kazmir, Shun Yamaguchi, Aaron Sanchez, Nick Tropeano, Jake McGee, Zack Littell, James Sherfy, Tommy La Stella, Luis Gonzalez, Jay Jackson, Alex Wood, Arismendy Alcantara, Curt Casali, John Brebbia, Anthony DeSclafani, Dominic Leone, Silvino Bracho, Yunior Marte, Daniel Alvarez, Matt Wisler, Jason Krizan, Sam Long, Jason Vosler, LaMonte Wade Jr., Carson Ragsdale, Dedniel Nunez
Losses: Andrew Suarez, Daniel Robertson, Tyler Anderson, Tyler Heineman, Joey Rickard, Tony Watson, Drew Smyly, Trevor Cahill, Shaun Anderson, Sam Coonrod, Chris Shaw, Jordan Humphreys
Those sure are a lot of additions for the Giants. There aren’t likely to be that many that make a sizable impact. Anthony DeSclafani will slot nicely into the rotation, bringing what he learned in Cincinnati and his improved spin rates to the Giants. Alex Wood and Jake McGee are newcomers from the rival Los Angeles Dodgers.
Tommy La Stella will slot nicely into the Giants lineup and be a good fit as a versatile player in an offense that saw a big surge in 2020. Other than that, maybe Aaron Sanchez will figure some things out and slow into this rotation. Dominic Leone, Nick Tropeano, and Matt Wisler could battle it out for bullpen spots.
None of the losses are that big of a deal to me. Tony Watson is a reliable reliever, but also 36. The Giants appear to have upgraded both their Major League roster and their depth this winter.
|Batting Average (BA)||.263 (5th)||.239 (27th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.335 (7th)||.302 (28th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.451 (6th)||.392 (28th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.337 (6th)||.295 (28th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||113 (7th)||83 (28th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.311 (7th)||.290 (24th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||22.1% (10th)||23.3% (17th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||8.6% (19th)||7.7% (24th)|
The single most eye-opening thing that happened to a team in 2020 is what happened with the Giants offense. Going from a clear-cut bottom-five offense to a clear-cut top-10 offense while not really doing a ton on the personnel front was simply astonishing. Wilmer Flores was really the only noteworthy addition and the Giants even did this without Buster Posey, who opted out of the 2020 season.
Now we have to figure out how sustainable all of this actually is. As mentioned in the intro, there were some physical changes to the ballpark that did have an impact. Wind screens that blocked the view of fans and passers-by to encourage social distancing beyond the right field fence did have an impact. The fences were also moved in.
That doesn’t explain all of what happened. The Giants were 28th in average exit velocity in 2019 at 87.8 mph with teams like Seattle and Cincinnati below them and then St. Louis, Arizona, Kansas City, and Baltimore above them. The Giants jumped to 12th in 2020 at 88.5 mph. The league average exit velo in 2019 was 88.7 mph. In 2020, it was 88 mph.
Average exit velocity dropped substantially across what was still a pretty good sample size in 2020. When you consider that exit velo is a stat that stabilizes at a low sample size to begin with, the fact that the Giants were one of the teams with the biggest increases is quite intriguing. It wasn’t just an average increase either. It was a huge increase in the rate of batted balls that were hit at 95+ mph. The Giants were 18th in that department in 2019. They were fifth in 2020.
What we have here is a team that has made a fundamental change to its hitting approach. The 2020 Giants wound up with the second-biggest wRC+ increase since 1974. The Padres were actually fourth on that list, for what it’s worth. There really is a ton of great stuff in that Sarris and Baggarly article linked ahead that I recommend you read.
To give you a cliff notes version, you have to give a lot of credit to a group of veteran players and journeymen for buying in and listening. The commitment to analytics in San Francisco, much like what we’ve seen with other teams around the league, created a lot of change and also a lot of new perspectives. The Giants employ one of the biggest coaching staffs in baseball and have individuals that specialize in different areas. Instead of a team-based offensive approach, the Giants focused more on improving each player individually. It wasn’t “hit more fly balls” like what we’ve seen with a lot of orgs. It wasn’t “pull the ball more”. It was, “hey, you do this and you should try this” at a player level.
Will it stick? The Giants posted a .356 wOBA at home, which was fourth in baseball. Their home wOBA of .279 was 30th in 2019. That is an enormous increase and the physical park factors undoubtedly played a role with the left and center field fences pulled in and the mitigation of those crosswinds coming through the right field arches.
On the road, the Giants had a .310 wOBA in 2019. In 2020, they posted a .317 wOBA. We do have to consider the park factors of the NL West and the AL West when evaluating this modest improvement in performance. The Giants had a .417 SLG on the road in 2020 and a .421 SLG on the road in 2019. I don’t want to put my full faith and confidence in the road splits because of the imbalanced schedule, but the fact that I don’t see a major difference on the road suggests to me that not much will change across those 81 games.
At home, the fence distances won’t change. As fans are allowed back into sporting events, will that wind screen come down? I don’t really know. I do think the Giants offense will be better at home than what we saw prior to 2020. San Francisco is clearly committed to elevating the baseball more. Their fly ball percentage jumped almost 3% from 2019 to 2020, as they became a top-10 offense in FB%. They also saw a big increase in HR/FB%, consistent with the SLG increase at home and the new park factors.
Individually, there are a lot of things to consider with the San Francisco roster. Brandon Belt jumped from a 98 wRC+ in 2019 to a 172 wRC+ in 2020. He’s had some strong seasons in the past to be sure, peaking at a 140 wRC+ in 2013. I don’t see a .309/.425/.591 slash with a .356 BABIP and a .427 wOBA. He set career highs across the board in every metric, including BB% and a career-best K%. There is likely some sticking power to several of those developments, so he’ll be a well above average offensive piece, but not to last season’s degree and I don’t think he’ll approach his other career-bests. He’ll probably be a 125-130 wRC+ guy if the home environment stays friendly.
Mike Yastrzemski was another guy that saw a huge uptick in production. He walked more, hit for a higher rate of power, and also carried a .370 BABIP. I don’t see anything in Yaz’s profile that would suggest that the gains are totally fraudulent, but I also don’t see much that suggests that he’s suddenly a superstar hitter. I’d regress him back to his 120 wRC+ from 411 plate appearances in 2019, maybe with a little upgrade due to the new Oracle Park elements.
It was really interesting to see Evan Longoria fail to hit league average. He posted a 93 wRC+ one year after being a league average hitter. Longo slashed .231/.286/.372 at home in 2019 while posting a .279/.364/.507 on the road. In 2020, the home numbers perked up, as they did for seemingly everybody, with a .286/.318/.500 slash, but his road numbers took a huge dive to .221/.275/.347. He even had his best season from a contact quality standpoint in the Statcast era, which dates back to 2015. I’m not sure I want to put much stock in this profile as a result. The numbers weren’t better, even though they had every reason to be.
Donovan Solano, a 33-year-old journeyman, has been a really nice find for the Giants with strong offensive numbers in the last two seasons. He’s ridden BABIPs of .409 and .396 to high offensive success with a low walk rate. I’m not sure I want to buy that profile either. Wilmer Flores is a solid player, but you won’t see me buying his 16.9% HR/FB%, which was a career high. His pop up rate was also a career low at 5.6%. With more fly balls, you typically don’t see those two things happen at the same time, especially for a guy with a high pop up rate over the last two seasons.
Basically, a lot of guys for the Giants wound up having career years or close to it in whatever sample size of plate appearances they had. It happened with Austin Slater and Darin Ruf and Alex Dickerson and Brandon Crawford was pretty darn close. Can we expect that to happen again? I would say absolutely not.
Will newcomer Tommy La Stella and familiar face Buster Posey contribute enough to offset the cruel tide of regression? La Stella makes a ton of contact and generally has a pretty nice offensive profile. He also became a big launch angle disciple last season, but didn’t get the power gains he should have with a 6.7% HR/FB%. I actually like his potential overall, but only if Oracle Park keeps playing the way it did last season.
Posey has seen a pretty consistent decline in the power department. He’s still a great defensive player, whether that has come at catcher or first base, so he’s got a high floor in terms of value and production. He also makes a lot of contact. The Giants are trying to focus a lot on a high degree of bat-to-ball prowess and I can’t argue with that approach. Posey and La Stella fit nicely.
Ultimately, we’re looking at a Giants offense that saw some really big individual offensive gains, though I’m a little skeptical of the degree to which those will stick. I am a believer in Zaidi, like what manager Gabe Kapler brings to the table, and I like a more individualized approach to hitting instead of a broad brush generalization of trying to make players be something that they are not. I guess I’d simply like more data to make a determination.
The Giants will squeeze a lot more production out of their guys than most teams will with this philosophy. That being said, I do not see a top-10 offense again. I see a middle of the pack kind of offense.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||4.64 (18th)||4.38 (15th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||4.45 (15th)||4.55 (18th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.84 (24th)||4.58 (18th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||21.8% (24th)||21.9% (21st)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||9.4% (15th)||8.3% (12th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||67.8% (28th)||72.6% (16th)|
With that increased offensive production last season, the Giants still finished under .500. However, they shouldn’t have, according to BaseRuns and especially according to 3rd Order Win%. The Giants underachieved by four games per BaseRuns and five games by 3rd Order Win%. These alternate standings metrics are usually good indicators for positive or negative regression.
With just a 60-game sample, I’d weigh them a little less than normal, but it is still worth noting that the Giants were better than their actual record wound up. BaseRuns is an alternate standings metric that removes context from the equation. It throws all individual offensive and pitching outcomes into a hopper and then splits out expected runs scored and expected runs allowed. From that, it creates a run differential and then Pythagorean Win-Loss is applied to that run differential to create an expected record.
3rd Order Win% is a little bit different. The formula is a little bit more complex, but it takes underlying offensive and pitching stats and considers them relative to the strength of schedule and quality of opponents. The Giants were just 2-8 in 10 head-to-head meetings with the Padres and went 4-6 against the Dodgers, getting outscored 56-29. Still, 3rd Order Win% viewed them in a favorable light. This was a team that actually started 8-16 and wound up finishing just one game shy of .500 thanks to a three-game losing streak to end the year.
Oftentimes a discrepancy between BaseRuns and actual record comes because of a concept I’ve talked about a good bit on these pages called Cluster Luck. Baseball is a game of sequencing. The timing of hits matters. For example, with BaseRuns, all context is removed, so the sequence of K, 1B, 1B, HR, K, K that would account for three runs in reality is jumbled up and contorted in a variety of different ways that could make a two-run homer, a solo homer, no home run at all because the inning ended on strikeouts.
Timing is really everything. The better offenses tend to get the most chances with RISP or hit the most home runs and therefore score more runs. You can have a bad team hit for a high rate of success with RISP, but just not have the same amount of chances as other teams. Similarly, you can have a good team that just doesn’t capitalize on a high percentage of those opportunities.
Looking specifically at the Giants pitching staff, one stat stands out and I can infer the rest. The Giants were 28th in LOB%. Stranding runners is a huge part of the sequencing process. The more often you do it, the fewer runs you allow. The Giants failed in this area.
With the bases empty this past season, San Francisco pitchers allowed a .223/.308/.387 slash with a .304 wOBA. That .304 wOBA ranked 13th in the league.
With runners in scoring position, San Francisco pitchers allowed a .265/.352/.461 slash and a .346 wOBA. That ranked 24th in the league.
This is Cluster Luck personified. Consider the BaseRuns runs scored and runs allowed per game numbers from the standings chart. According to BaseRuns, in a context-neutral environment, the Giants would have allowed 4.60 runs per game based on all of the individual outcomes and no sequencing. In reality, because of the unfortunate and unlucky sequencing, the Giants allowed 4.95 runs per game in actuality.
What does scare me about this discrepancy is that the Giants only allowed the ninth-highest batting average on balls in play in the RISP split. Their HR/FB% wasn’t that far off of league average. Home runs don’t count towards BABIP, so that could’ve been one explanation. It isn’t one. The best explanation is that the Giants were 28th in K% with RISP, which meant more balls in play and more opportunities for the opposition to cash in on those chances. That is precisely what happened.
I’m really intrigued to see how the Giants can maximize production from a new-look rotation. Kevin Gausman is back as the de facto ace coming off of a really good year with a 3.62 ERA and a 3.09 FIP. Gausman added to his already improved K% and threw fewer fastballs with more changeups and splitters. It is a profile that has sticking power. I’d expect him to be good.
Beyond that, it is pretty hard to be excited. Johnny Cueto made 12 starts and has some mild positive regression signs with a 5.40 ERA and a 4.64 FIP. Cueto gave up 19 of his 41 runs in three of his 12 starts, but there wasn’t a lot of consistently good work in the profile to get excited about. He pitched well in interleague play and against the Diamondbacks. He’ll be useful in spots, but the overall profile is lacking.
Anthony DeSclafani looks like a gamble to me, but I’ve always liked Alex Wood. The man called Disco had to take a one-year deal in hopes of building his value back up. He was solid in 2019 for the Reds with a 3.89 ERA and a 4.43 FIP, but only worked 33.2 innings last season and they weren’t good. Annual health concerns exist with DeSclafani, who threw his slider more than his fastball last season. What the Reds started now falls to the Giants, but both teams are trying to do the same thing with pitchers in terms of increasing spin rates and changing usage. The Giants feel like they can work with DeSclafani to continue those two things.
Wood, who was also with the Reds in 2019, only worked 12.2 innings in his second stint with the Dodgers. Wood is a guy that has had great success avoiding the barrel in his career and I appreciate his skill set with a 3.45 ERA and a 3.51 FIP in his 851.2 innings. I see what the Giants are going for here and think he should be a good fit overall there.
After DeSclafani and Wood, two guys that have been hurt in recent seasons, the Giants are taking another health gamble on Aaron Sanchez. Sanchez has some elite spin on his curveball, but virtually no fastball command and really obscene walk rates. This is a project for the Giants to say the least. The entire rotation is a bit of a project, to be honest. Logan Webb is safer than those three and probably even Cueto, but he’s not being paid the money the other guys are, so the Giants will exhaust all of their options with the guys that they decided to pay as free agents.
One thing the Giants have done pretty consistently is put together a fine bullpen, but that did not happen in the short sample. The Giants bullpen was ravaged by 2019 trades and the 2020 pen posted a 4.24 ERA, but a 4.78 FIP and a negative fWAR as a unit. Reyes Moronta returns after missing all of last season and the Giants picked up Jake McGee, who reinvented himself with the Dodgers and did very well getting out of Colorado. He had a 2.66 ERA and a 1.67 FIP in 20.1 innings with huge K/BB peripherals.
There isn’t a ton of upside to this bullpen. It looks like it could be a solid, league average unit, but that would be about the ceiling in my estimation.
Positives & Negatives
It is undoubtedly a positive to see the direction that the Giants are going in, especially on the offensive side. The philosophical changes that they are making should go a long way and may even be enough to conquer what has otherwise been a hindrance with regards to hitting at home. The Giants took a big leap hitting at Oracle Park. Opponents also leaped, albeit much smaller, with a 12-point increase in wOBA. Winning at home is really important because you can tailor your team to that environment. Perhaps the Giants can have more success with that now.
It is unfortunate for the NL West teams that they have to play 38 games against the Dodgers and the Padres. The Giants could very well be better than the Diamondbacks, though, and should bank some wins against the Rockies. Everybody should bank wins against the Rockies.
Pick: Over 75.5
This was the longest body for an article I put together for the team previews and deservedly so. There are a lot of concepts that are relevant to the 2021 Giants, but also relevant to these teams as a whole as you start to organize your thoughts for future seasons. You can see the impact of a park factor change. You can see the impact of analytics on a team. You can see Cluster Luck and what the alternate metrics are saying relative to the actual results.
It is almost like a poignant summary to a lot of the things I’ve written about with other teams. I am on record multiple times in this Guide saying that I give the teams that have embraced analytics a much longer leash. I give them more leeway on the plus side of the ledger. I believe that the numbers work and that data interpretation within the organization is the best way to have success, whether that means the free agents that a team targets or what they do with their own players.
The Giants are going in that direction, but I worry about the talent level. I worry about the sustainability of what we saw in the small sample size, particularly at home. While the Giants hit better at Oracle Park, so did opposing teams, just not to the same degree. Maybe San Francisco pitchers have figured out a plan to keep those offenses at bay and let their offense eat. I’m not sure it’s that easy.
I do think, despite my appreciation for the Diamondbacks and Padres, that the Giants can manage to get over this number. Once again, this is where my love of analytics and the teams that embrace the data is what swings the balance for me. The Giants found something offensively and I would expect them to find more on the pitching side as well.
In fact, we usually see pitching gains first with teams that go all-in with the numbers. The fact that we’ve seen more offensive gains and lesser returns on the spin rate increases gives me hope that this is the year that pitching improves.
This is not a bet for me, at least not now, but it is an over pick for the purposes of the Guide.