Warning! This post contains references to baseball.
The San Francisco Giants reached the All-Star break with a 50–48 record, making them the sixteenth best team in the major leagues. That’s way better than last year, when their record at the break was 34–56. How have they done it, and can they further improve?
The two Brandons — Belt and Crawford — have led the revival. Belt’s OPS at the All-Star break last year was .820. This year it’s .862. Last winter he must have realized that swinging for homers didn’t work, because he changed his focus to controlling the strike zone, and that has worked. Crawford improved even more, from a putrid .635 OPS at the break last year to .825 this year, and won a starting berth on the All-Star team. Evidently his grief over the unexpected death of his sister-in-law last year has ebbed enough for him to concentrate on baseball again.
On the pitching side, just getting rid of Matt Moore and Matt Cain would have helped (sorry Horse, but you were done). Replacing them with rookies Andrew Suarez and Dereck Rodriguez has proved even better. Rodriguez is the big surprise, pitching with nearly the same effectiveness as Madison Bumgarner, who spent much of the first half on the disabled list again, but not because of his own foolishness like last year.
Rodriguez is one of several scrap heap signees providing unexpected support. Alen Hanson has contributed more than the Giants’ regular second baseman, Gold Glover Joe Panik. Gorkys Hernandez, a cheap pickup last year, has blossomed this year. And let’s not forget the Panda, Pablo Sandoval! Although his overall numbers aren’t strong, he’s filled in capably at first and third base (and second base and pitcher!) and has shown an “I want to bat with the game on the line” gusto Giant hitters have conspicuously lacked the past two seasons.
Finally, credit to the bullpen, which in Tony Watson and Will Smith has two left-handers to rival championship mainstays Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez, and now features a lights-out right-hander in rookie Reyes Moronta.
That said, these improvements only raised the Giants to mediocrity. Can they make the playoffs?
I’m doubtful. For one thing, data analytics suggest that in a just universe, the Giants would have four fewer wins than they do now. So they’ve been lucky — and luck seldom holds over 162 games. Further, Belt and Crawford are cooling off, and no other hitters have stepped up. Andrew McCutchen? Evan Longoria? Don’t count on them. Buster Posey? Don’t count on him either; that hip injury is clearly affecting his swing. If the offense is going to improve, the catalysts will likely have to be rookie outfielders Austin Slater and Steven Duggar.
But the youth movement has begun. Rodriguez is 26. Suarez, Moronta, Hanson, and Slater are 25. Duggar is 24. Are they a match for the core that won three World Series in five years? No. And they’re not a match for Los Angeles, either, especially now that the Dodgers have Manny Machado. So unless the Giants make a big move like trading Madison Bumgarner — the rumors are starting, although you heard the possibility explored here first — we’re still looking at next year as the earliest San Francisco will field a contender.