The baseball world was all gaga over the seven-game rumble the Padres and Dodgers put together in the season’s opening weeks. The part of the story that got lost and ignored is that they’re currently 2nd and 3rd place teams. It seems while they were eyeballing each other, the San Francisco Giants went and stole their flag behind their backs.
The Giants are tied with the Cardinals for the NL’s best record 31 games into the season at 18-13, which is pretty damn surprising for a team that was supposed to need binoculars to see their Southern California counterparts for most of the season. And that still might be the case come July or August. But for now, the Giants will enjoy the view, which contains no Dodgers or Padres ahead of them.
So what are they doing here? Well, when your rotation collectively has the best ERA in the National League, it’s really hard to be bad. That’s where the Giants find themselves, as they’ve gotten yeoman’s work from all six hurlers who have started games for them. Even an injury to Johnny Cueto (which is a lot more fun if pronounced in Johnny Bravo’s voice) hasn’t slowed them down.
Leading the pack has been Dodgers castoff Alex Wood, with his 1.80 ERA and 4.4 K-to-BB ratio. Wood promised long ago that he could dominate, it’s just that any good start was always followed by a stint on the IL when something in his arm started to crackle. He spent all of 2019 and 2020 in injury hell, making 16 appearances for the Reds and Dodgers total.
He’s come back featuring a slider he hadn’t thrown before, and one he’s throwing 35 percent of the time. That pitch has led to Wood having a 63 percent ground-ball rate (per Fangraphs) and a Scrooge-like 1.5 degree average launch angle against (per Statcast).
Wood isn’t the only one attempting to manicure the grass in Oracle Park’s infield into abstract patterns. Aaron Sanchez has battled health issues for the past five seasons, not making 30 starts since 2016. He has an average launch-angle against of just 2.9, which he’s gotten to by throwing his curve a third of the time. Anthony DeSclafani has lowered the use of his fastball to be another with a career-high ground-ball rate. Kevin Gausman has gone the other way, still giving up a lot of fly balls as he always has, but has upped the use of his splitter to 36 percent of the time and hitters have managed a paltry .115 average against it.
All the Giants pitchers have benefitted from the fact that the defense behind them is the best in baseball, with the highest defensive efficiency in MLB (the number of balls in play that are turned into outs). Brandon Crawford has been the best defensive shortstop around, in terms of Defensive Runs Saved.
You do have to score runs on occasion though, which is where some old-timers come in. Specifically Buster Posey, who has returned from his year abroad (he opted out of last season) and is mashing everything in sight. Posey’s weighted on-base average is .495, and he’s slugging .735. Posey has a Hard-Hit percentage (exit velocity over 95 MPH) of 50 percent, which would dust his career-high. Then again, just about everyone in baseball is seeing spikes in their Hard Hit percentage thanks to the new baseball. Regardless, fears of a decade of catching robbing Posey of his zest are off the mark so far.
Joining Posey in the revival party is Evan Longoria (150 wRC+) and Brandon Belt (the Giants will always lead the league in Brandons). Longoria has adjusted his swing to get to fastballs up and in, which used to be where he was vulnerable.
Is this all sustainable? No, of course not. As good as the Giants defense has been and should be, their pitchers aren’t going to carry a .255 BABIP for the whole season. DeSclafani (.229 BABIP) Gausman (.210) and Wood (.190) can expect some violent market correction at some point with balls falling in. On the flip side, Posey should see some air come out of his tires (.388 BABIP, as well as a 38 percent home-run-to-fly-ball ratio).
Still, it may be some time before it’s pumpkin o’clock. The Padres come up the coast at the weekend, but then the Giants see the Rangers, Pirates, and Reds before their first dance with the Dodgers. Wins in May count the same as ones in September. They can at least keep things interesting for a while before being kicked out of the NL West’s private suite.