How they got here: Deep Giants beat odds

September 14th, 2021

After falling one win shy of a playoff berth last year, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi made it clear that internal expectations would be higher for the Giants entering the 2021 season. 

“It’s certainly going to be a goal of ours to be a playoff team next year,” Zaidi said following his club’s 29-31 finish in 2020

That aim initially felt unrealistic, as the Giants found themselves playing in a loaded National League West alongside two behemoths: the Dodgers, the defending World Series champions, and the Padres, who upgraded an already talented roster by swinging blockbuster deals for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish over the offseason. 

The Giants entered the season with only a 5.7% chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs, yet they managed to stun the baseball world by emerging as the best team in the Majors this year.

With a 9-1 victory over the Padres on Monday, they officially clinched their first postseason berth since 2016, though they still have unfinished business, as they remain intent on unseating the Dodgers for the NL West title.

The race for the division title figures to come down to the wire, but in the meantime, here’s a look at how the Giants became the surprise contenders of 2021:

How they were built:

Draft: Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, Logan Webb, Steven Duggar, Tyler Rogers, Austin Slater, Caleb Baragar

International signings: Camilo Doval, Kervin Castro

Free agents: José Álvarez, John Brebbia, Curt Casali, Johnny Cueto, Anthony DeSclafani, Wilmer Flores, Kevin Gausman, Jay Jackson, Tommy La Stella, Dominic Leone, Zack Littell, Sammy Long, Jake McGee, Darin Ruf, Donovan Solano, Jason Vosler, Alex Wood

Trades: Kris Bryant, Alex Dickerson, Mauricio Dubón, Thairo Estrada, Evan Longoria, LaMonte Wade Jr., Mike Yastrzemski

Waivers: Jarlín García, José Quintana

Key acquisition: In February, the Giants traded right-hander Shaun Anderson to the Twins in exchange for Wade, who hit only .211 with two home runs over 42 games with Minnesota but had an intriguing offensive profile in the Minors, where he posted a .390 career on-base percentage and had more walks than strikeouts. Wade didn’t have much of a track record of hitting for power, but he worked with his former University of Maryland coach Matt Swope to make some swing changes over the offseason that allowed him to start driving the ball better this year. Those adjustments laid the foundation for a breakout season for the 27-year-old Wade, who is batting .261 with an .855 OPS and a career-high 17 home runs over 92 games this year. Wade became the latest hitter to flourish with San Francisco after being undervalued elsewhere, following a similar path to fellow unheralded pickups like Yastrzemski, Dickerson and Solano.

Managerial decision: Staying disciplined with Posey’s workload. No one knew what to expect from Posey after he sat out the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, but he quickly re-established himself as a franchise cornerstone for the Giants this year, batting .300 with an .894 OPS and 17 home runs over 97 games in his age-34 season. Posey’s resurgence made it difficult for the Giants to take his bat out of the lineup, but manager Gabe Kapler remained disciplined with the veteran catcher’s usage, giving him frequent rest to ensure that he stayed fresh and productive over the course of the 162-game season. The contributions of backup Casali made it easier for Kapler to spell Posey, who won’t finish with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title but still figures to draw downballot NL MVP Award votes following his seventh career All-Star season.

Defining season stretch: Sept. 3-5. The Giants and Dodgers entered their final matchup of the regular season tied for first place in the NL West, but San Francisco reclaimed the top spot in the division by taking two out of three games at Oracle Park. The arch rivals split the first two games of the series, and the finale looked like a mismatch on paper, as the Dodgers had NL Cy Young Award contender Walker Buehler going against a bullpen game for the Giants. Still, San Francisco managed to tag Buehler for six runs over three innings and use nine pitchers to clinch the season series (10-9) by the slimmest of margins.

Breakout player: Webb, 24, logged a 5.36 ERA over his first two seasons in the Majors, but he began to flash his tantalizing potential by emerging as the Giants’ most dominant pitcher during Spring Training. It took a while for Webb to carry over that form into the regular season, but once he did, he quickly established himself as the Giants’ second-half ace. Over his past 15 starts, Webb has gone 8-0 with a 1.65 ERA, the best mark in the Majors across that span. Webb’s ascendance has proved particularly important in light of the health issues of rotation mates Alex Wood (COVID-19) and Johnny Cueto (right elbow strain), which left the Giants with only three healthy starters down the stretch.

Calling card: Depth. Renaissances from Posey and Crawford have been vital to the Giants’ success this year, but their true strength ultimately derived from the sheer quantity of quality players on their roster. Rather than assembling a star-driven team, Zaidi and general manager Scott Harris focused on building a roster with versatile, unselfish players who understood their roles and were capable of stepping up to fill holes when needed. At one point, the Giants had their entire starting infield -- Belt, La Stella, Longoria and Crawford -- on the injured list, but they were able to withstand those injuries thanks to contributions from Flores, Estrada, Solano and Wade. Kapler and the rest of the Giants’ coaching staff also put their players in the best positions to succeed by implementing platoon systems and aggressively mixing and matching to create as many favorable matchups as possible on any given night. That helps explain why the Giants ranked second in the Majors with 217 home runs despite not having a 30-homer hitter on their roster.

Memorable moment: Mike Tauchman’s game-saving catch. Acquired from the Yankees in exchange for Wandy Peralta in April, Tauchman didn’t show enough at the plate to keep his spot on the roster, but he did deliver a few amazing highlights with his glove over his 64-game tenure with the Giants. He made the catch of the year at Dodger Stadium on May 28, when he robbed Albert Pujols of a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth to give the Giants a chance to rally for an 8-5 win in extra innings.