At the 2016 All-Star Break, the San Francisco Giants had the best record in baseball: 57–33.
At the 2017 All-Star Break, the San Francisco Giants had the second worst record in baseball: 34–56.
The 2017 Giants are mostly the same as the 2016 Giants. How did this 23-game reversal happen so quickly? Did they all grow old overnight? I did some research, and here are my thoughts.
First, despite appearances, not everything has gone wrong. I believe in accentuating the positive, so let’s list everyone who is just as good, if not better, than last year:
Okay, now to who’s gotten worse:
I believe the Giants’ collapse began during last year’s All-Star Game, when Johnny Cueto started on short notice. Starting the All-Star Game is a big deal. As the best pitcher in the game, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw should have gotten the honor, but he begged off due to injury. So did the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard. Washington’s Stephen Strasburg wouldn’t start because he had recently been hurt. Cueto’s teammate, Madison Bumgarner, had pitched only two days before. So Cueto took the ball — and got clobbered. In less than two innings he gave up five hits, including two homers, for three runs and the loss.
No sooner did Cueto rejoin the Giants than they fell on their collective faces, going 30–42 the rest of the season. So it’s clear to me that whatever disease Cueto caught at the 2016 All-Star Game was contagious. Five of the team’s most important hitters suffered precipitous drops in their OPS — On-Base Percentage Plus Slugging Percentage, one of the better measures of offensive performance — after the 2016 All-Star Game:
Posey (pre-All-Star/post-All-Star): .843/.740
Pence: . 861/.762
The pitchers also caught the bug, as evidenced by their skyrocketing earned run averages:
Bumgarner (pre-All-Star/post-All-Star): 1.94/3.80
The team’s second-half struggles were attributed to the shaky, unlucky bullpen, which was revamped over the winter, leading to great optimism for 2017. The other portents of doom were ignored.
So how have those other players fared in 2017?
Posey bounced back, of course. Yay Buster! And Brandon Belt rallied from a .792 second half last year to an .820 first half this year — which is still way below his level of play in the first half of 2016. Panik is where he was a year ago. But Brandon Crawford? Ugh! From an .800 OPS in the first half last year to .739 in the second half was bad enough, but during the first half of 2017 he nosedived again, to .635. Pence is another offensive disaster, going from .861 to .762 to .660.
The story isn’t much better with the pitchers.
Bumgarner reminded us how immature baseball players are when he tore up his pitching shoulder playing in the dirt on a day off. Disease vector Cueto saw his ERA balloon from 2.47 to 3.26 to 4.51. Cain has improved on his 6.19 second half last year, but his 5.56 ERA in the first half of 2017 is still worse than a decent minor leaguer could do. Suarez is gone, replaced by Matt Moore, whose ERA is an unsightly 6.04. Casilla is gone too, but the new closer, Mark Melancon, has been on the disabled list twice and didn’t look so hot when he was active.
So no, the Giants didn’t all grow old overnight, but three of them did (Crawford, Pence, and Cueto), one may have (Melancon), and one was already old (Cain). One was stupid (Bumgarner) and another is semi-succeeding despite stupid behavior (Belt, who has changed his approach to hit more home runs). Two everyday players are average hitters and can’t be expected to carry the offense (Panik and Span). Two starting pitchers are average and can’t be expected to carry the staff (Samardzija, Blach).
Plus there’s basically nobody to play third base and left field, although Austin Slater has shown a smidgen of promise.
So the sudden change in fortune is explainable. Is it fixable? In the short term, I don’t think so. The Giants don’t have many solid minor league prospects, and their payroll is too high to afford quality free agents. Giant fans, it’s time to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we may be facing several lean years after the seven fat years of 2010–2016.