How 2021's most shocking contender did it

San Francisco is 2nd-biggest overperformer of last 15 years

July 27th, 2021

With grand apologies to the daily incredible feats of Shohei Ohtani, we have to at least raise the possibility that he might not end up being the most amazing story of the year. For that, we might need to look a little further up the West Coast to San Francisco, where four months into the season, the Giants still have the best record in baseball, holding steady with a two-game lead over the supposedly unbeatable Dodgers.

This isn’t the story of a division playing out slightly differently than expected, because that happens every single year. This is the story of a borderline unprecedented improvement -- and we’ll back that up -- from a losing team stuck in the same division as a pair of heavily favored behemoths. We weren’t off-base about the division, for the record; in February, we wrote about how the top of the NL West race could be one of the best ever, because of two heavily-favored California teams. We were not talking about the Giants.

And why, really, should we have been? The 2020 Giants were a below-.500 team, just like the 2019 Giants, and the 2018 Giants, and especially the woeful 2017 club that went 64-98. Even in 2016, when they captured the Wild Card, the flaws were becoming clear; that club limped into the one-game playoff with a 30-42 second-half record. In the four seasons between 2017-20, only six teams had a worse record. Whatever magic had fueled the trio of rings a decade ago seemed long gone.

The turnover, such as it was, finally began following 2018, when Farhan Zaidi was brought in from the Dodgers to run baseball operations, and continued after 2019, when longtime manager Bruce Bochy retired and was replaced by Gabe Kapler, while playoff hero Madison Bumgarner departed for Arizona and Scott Harris was hired as general manager. The progress wasn’t always easy to see, not when you’d see things like the infamous 2019 Opening Day outfield of “Connor Joe, Steven Duggar, and Michael Reed,” or the unpopular (if completely understandable) non-tendering of Kevin Pillar, who led the 2019 Giants in home runs and RBIs.

Still: if you knew where to look, you could see at least part of this coming last winter. No, you won’t find anyone who seriously thought they’d topple the seven-time defending division champion Dodgers, or even challenge the loaded roster of the Padres. But last November, Eno Sarris and Andrew Baggarly at The Athletic performed a deep dive into the process improvements the 2020 offense made. In March, we here at pointed out how the team had become a place where players go to get better, while admittedly dismissing their chances of seriously competing in 2021.

There were lots of takes like, well, this one:

What was supposed to be a transitional year -- continue improving the talent base while the Dodgers and Padres tore one another apart, knowing that more than $110 million in expiring contracts from the aging stars would be coming off the books, making 2022-23 more of a go-for-it time -- has now pushed the competitive window forward. But how? What’s behind this success? How much was it that they were being overlooked by the top two teams in the West, and how much is just a total outright surprise?

It’s both, obviously. But we’ll try to answer that question with a series of a dozen reasons that hopefully explain the shocking success of the 2021 Giants.

1. They really are outperforming expectations at a historic level.

We simply must start here, because it’s the most important place to go. We have access to 16 seasons of preseason ZiPS projected standings, dating back to 2005, graciously provided by FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski. While projections are never perfect, they generally do quite a good job of setting reasonable expectations headed into a season.

Entering the 2021 season, ZiPS pegged the Giants to be a 78-84 team, not, in our opinion, unreasonably so. (Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system had, in February, gone with a similar 79-83.) That’s a .479 winning percentage for a team that had posted a .466 mark over the previous three years.

Instead, the .626 Giants have outperformed that expectation by so much that over the 510 team seasons of projected records available, only one team has done better.

Those 2012 Orioles weren’t necessarily a great team, outscoring their opponents by a mere seven runs, but they managed to outdo all reasonable expectations because they set the all-time record (to that point in history) for success in one-run games. Six years later, the 2018 Orioles (projected to have a .475 winning percentage, but actually posting a .290 mark) were the team that undershot their mark more than anyone else in our group. Maybe it does all even out.

But of course the Giants are doing better than most anyone expected -- and, we'll note, not just the projections, because very few human observers had them much higher in the NL West either. Why?

2. They've reinvigorated their older veteran position players.

Much has been made, correctly, of how the Giants have done a great job over the last few years of finding unheralded players in other organizations and giving them chances to turn into contributors, like Mike Yastrzemski, plucked from the Orioles organization, or what they got from Minor League free agent Donovan Solano in 2019-20, or what they're currently getting from LaMonte Wade Jr., acquired from the Twins in a minor deal in February. That's a big part of all of this.

But it’s not all about a new roster, either, because even now, the first-place Giants still have three well-paid members of the 2016 playoff lineup around in Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt (plus, on the pitching side, Johnny Cueto). Throw in 35-year-old Evan Longoria, acquired from the Rays prior to 2018 as part of an ill-fated veteran push with Andrew McCutchen (who cost future All-Star Bryan Reynolds), and nearly-35-year-old Darin Ruf, who returned from Korea before 2020, and the Giants really have the oldest lineup in baseball.

Rather than being a weight, those remaining older players are a strength -- or at least they are right now, anyway.

A year ago, it seemed like all four of the former stars (setting aside Ruf, who was a minor acquisition) had seen their best days. Posey had an 83 OPS+ in 2019, then opted out of 2020. Crawford had a 74 OPS+ in 2019, and worse, his once-steady glove had become a negative. Longoria continued a soft decline as he aged, offering merely a league-average-ish 97 OPS+ from 2017-20. Belt, too, had a career-worst year in 2019, his first with an OPS+ below 100.

Put another way, take the last six seasons of those four hitters (Posey, Crawford, Longoria and Belt) and look at their combined OPS. We didn't draw it out onto a chart, but you don't have to try too hard to imagine the V shape.

2016 -- .821
2017 -- .778
2018 -- .726
2019 -- .712
2020 -- .832 (Posey did not play)
2021 -- .911

Those four hitters, when available -- in exquisitely poor timing for us, three of them are on the injured list right now, proving there's more to worry about with older players than just performance -- are essentially hitting just like Rafael Devers this year. If you think that's all wildly out of character with what was expected, given their age and recent uninspiring performance, you'd be right. We went back and compared the preseason ZiPS projections and actual OPS for all hitters with at least 100 plate appearances this year (giving us more than 315 names), and just look at how many different Giants are at the top of the list.

Looking at that list, you've got probably 2021's two best hitters (Ohtani and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.), a few absolutely out-of-nowhere breakouts (Mullins, Haase, Wisdom, Wade and Duggar) ... and a bunch of over-30 Giants. (Belt, further down on the list, is overperforming as well, though not quite to this extent.)

How does that happen? Health and hard work, to be sure; it's difficult to know, for example, how much a year away from catching helped Posey. But in large part, it seems to be due to the large (and mostly inexperienced) coaching staff assembled around Kapler, particularly in terms of clear swing changes for Crawford, who seemed to be on the verge of losing his job at any moment after 2019.

"Crawford has credited hitting coaches Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind with helping to revamp his swing ahead of the 2020 season," wrote's Maria Guardado in February, "and he said he plans to continue to incorporate their feedback in the hopes of sustaining the same levels of offensive production he enjoyed last year."

Posey, having his best hitting season since his 2012 MVP year, told the Giants Talk Podcast in May about his own path, also noting the coaches: "It was me kind of looking around at the league and all of the velocity in the league and really thinking, 'What's the best position I can start in that's going to help me move as fast as possible, as efficiently as possible?' And I kind of collaborated with the hitting [coaches] and made a few adjustments."

Finally, The Athletic, at the end of April, wrote something similar about Longoria. "[He] credits the mechanical work he’s done with the Giants hitting coaches who helped him raise his launch angle to 16.7 [degrees], the highest it’s been since 2016. And his increased bat speed might have something to do with his decision to change to a 33-inch, 31-ounce model, shaving off a half-inch and a half-ounce."

3. They don't swing at bad pitches.

Since we're on the lineup, let's stick with offense and go to one of our favorite, if terribly underrated, leaderboards: Chase rate, which is another way of saying, "How often are you swinging at bad pitches outside of the strike zone?" The number (the Giants swing at 23.3% of non-strikes) matters a whole lot less than the ranking, which is second-best and surrounded by good teams.

The five teams who chase the least: Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Yankees and Astros.

The five teams who chase the most? Red Sox, Orioles, Royals, Marlins and Angels.

We'll admit to some AL East weirdness there -- what are the Red Sox doing, really? -- but otherwise it's not terribly ground-breaking to say, "Swing at the good pitches and not the bad ones."

That's especially true when this is the third year of a three-year improvement for San Francisco -- last year they were 20th best, making this by far the largest year-over-year advancement, and in 2019, they were a lowly 26th -- and because they have very specifically said, in their own words, that this is what they've been trying to do.

"Pretty much, if I can't hit it out, I'm not swinging,” Mauricio Dubón said in the spring.

“It speaks to the commitment the players have made on being especially aggressive on pitches they can drive and being a little bit more patient on pitches they can’t,” Kapler told the Marin Journal last month.

Again, credit was given to the coaching staff.

“It's more of a mental thing, trying to game plan against pitchers,” Yastrzemski said last summer. “Our hitting staff has been unbelievable with that. Coming up with plans to help us stay locked in and figure out what we should be swinging at, what we need to be taking. So a lot of credit goes to them for helping me create those and stay locked in on them.”

“The hitting philosophy was simple: only swing when you believe you can do damage, and regardless of count, take your best swing as often as possible," Baggarly aptly summed up last fall.

4. They're scoring in the most modern ways.

We won't linger here, but it's worth noting just what the Giants offense is good at, and what they're not. They lead the Majors in home runs (151), which is a good place to start, and something no San Francisco team has ever done before, not even in the peak Barry Bonds years. They have the lowest ground ball rate in the Majors (40%), in a three-way tie with the A's and Braves. The Giants walk a lot too, currently tied for third with the Padres and Brewers, behind only the Yankees and Dodgers. (They have the third-worst "productive out" rate, if that matters to you.)

Now, they also strike out a lot, seventh most, which isn't exactly what you go into a season hoping to achieve when talking about plate discipline. Then again, that's not fatal in today's game; the two teams directly ahead of them on the team whiff list, Milwaukee and Tampa Bay, are either in first place or close to it. Throw that into the "three true outcomes" blender (that's strikeouts, walks and homers), and the Brewers, Rays and Giants are doing it the most. The Astros are doing it the least.

There's not really one right way to win, is the point. Kapler loves to mix and match, sending up pinch hitters more than any other manager by a considerable amount, but it's worth noting they're 10-12 when they don't homer and 52-29 when they do.

5. They've become a place where pitchers go to get better.

It's not just the offense. When you see that the Giants are tied with the Brewers for the lowest runs allowed per game, your first thought might be: Well, it's that ballpark. Once, perhaps, but no longer; over the last two seasons, it's played more like a league average park.

As on the hitting side, this has to start with the changeover to younger, mostly data-focused coaches. Entering 2020, when the club hired the hitting trio of Ecker, Lind and Viele -- along with Kai Correa to serve as bench coach, who was all of 31 at the time -- they hired Andrew Bailey, then 35, to be the pitching coach. They brought in Brian Bannister (then 38) to be the pitching director. Bailey's new assistant coach, Ethan Katz, lasted just one the season in San Francisco before being hired to be the White Sox pitching coach, where he now leads baseball's best pitching staff. They joined what was already an improved internal staff, where Zaidi had done things like hire Matt Daniels, who had spent four years as Driveline Baseball's director of pitching programs.

Still, this Giants staff isn’t about dominating with strikeouts, not really; they’re just 15th in strikeout rate. Instead, they operate by avoiding damage, in that they have are tied for lowest walk rate in the game while at the same time getting the highest ground ball rate of any staff and allowing the second-least barrels in the game. To get deeply wonky here: When contact is allowed, the quality of that contact is the worst (for hitters) in baseball, ahead of the Marlins, Brewers, Dodgers and Astros.

So: How? This is a relatively new-to-town staff, with only Cueto (signed as a free agent after 2015), and earlier draftees Logan Webb, Caleb Baragar, Camilo Doval and Tyler Rogers having been in the organization before 2020. We saw them turn Drew Pomeranz into an ace reliever in 2019 and turn around Drew Smyly's career in 2020, and now they're doing it again.

For example: Kevin Gausman (4.30 ERA before S.F. / 2.68 with S.F.) was cut by the Reds as recently as August 2019, but with the Giants, he's regained some of his lost velocity and diminished use of his just-OK slider in favor of his two best pitches, especially against righties. His splitter is 2021's third-most valuable pitch, and his four-seamer makes the Top 20 as well.

Anthony DeSclafani (4.29 ERA before S.F. / 2.87 with S.F.), another Reds castoff, is now throwing his slider as his primary pitch and using his improved changeup more as well, allowing him to increase strikeouts, limit walks and cut down on homers. Alex Wood, who had a 5.96 ERA the previous two years as he battled injuries, has turfed his curve in favor of a slider, and has seen his ground-ball rate jump from 38% the last two years to 55% this year. In the bullpen, the NL's best, there's Tyler Rogers -- who was drafted in 2013 but spent parts of four seasons in Triple-A because his soft-tossing submarine delivery doesn't exactly fit 2021's dominating mold -- who has become one of the best relievers in the game.

On and on, really, it could go. There's the veteran Cueto, who has the lowest walk rate of his long career. There's Webb, who has ditched the four-seamer that didn't really work in favor of a sinker that's better, and now sports the second-highest ground ball rate in the Majors. There's Jarlin García, claimed off waivers from Miami before 2020, who has allowed 12 earned runs in 54 innings for the team; and veteran Dominic Leone (1.69 ERA in 21 1/3 innings); and former Cardinal John Brebbia, signed while injured just because they saw the skills that would allow him to post a 16/2 K/BB so far.

They picked up Sammy Long after a journey that involved being released by the Rays and the start of a career being an EMT; he struck out 15 of the 24 hitters he faced in the Minors before coming up. They found 33-year-old Jay Jackson and unleashed him to throw his slider nearly 70% of the time; he has whiffed nine of the first 18 hitters he's seen.

For years, the Giants tried to replace the glory days staff of Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo and Javier Lopez; and names like Ty Blach, Clayton Blackburn, Derek Rodriguez, Josh Osich and Andrew Suarez came and went. This year's group has the team's second-lowest ERA in the past 30 seasons. It's not just about finding the arms, though it's of course that too. It's about making the most of them when you've got them.

6. They have unparalleled depth on both sides of the ball.

We promised that some of this was going to be predictable, and here's that part. No, we didn't expect Posey or Longoria to play like this, or even consider Wade. But back in March, we did try to figure out which teams were best prepared to weather the unprecedented challenge of filling up a full season worth of innings after 2020's truncated 60-game season. To that end, we tried to look at 2021 rosters and projections to answer the question not of "who had the best pitchers," but of "who is likely to throw the fewest bad innings," reasoning that the teams with the most Major League-caliber arms would be the best positioned to avoid non-competitive innings.

The top five teams, by that reckoning: The Dodgers, Padres, Giants, Braves and Rays. That hasn't worked out so well for Atlanta, but otherwise, that's a win. (The bottom five teams: Orioles, Rockies, Rangers, Tigers and Nationals. No lies detected.)

But that was just a projection. What's actually happened? We'll stick with the same method and define pitchers with a FIP north of 5.00 as ones you don't want to have on your roster. Which teams have had the fewest innings thrown from those lesser pitchers? The injury-wracked Dodgers aren't quite there. But the Padres and Giants are, right at the top.

What about batters? We can do the same trick, this time using wRC+, a metric similar to OPS+ where 100 is considered league average. (Crawford, for example, has a 142 wRC+.) Setting aside pitchers hitting, which teams have had the fewest trips to the plate from hitters with an 85 wRC+ or below (15% worse than league average)? You shouldn't be surprised to see the White Sox at the top of this list.

The Giants, again, are second; most of this is from Dubón and Mike Tauchman, who hasn't done much overall since arriving from the Bronx, though he's certainly had some spectacular individual moments.

So they've had a great many quality pitchers and only a few who aren't performing, and a great many quality hitters and only a few who aren't performing, and maybe we shouldn't be wondering so much why they're still in first place.

7. They might have baseball’s most improved defense.

The Giants are No. 1 in Outs Above Average, the Statcast defensive metric. (They're a still-quality seventh in Defensive Runs Saved.) That's a huge improvement from 18th last year; they were 12th between 2016-19.

“It’s nice to know when we get balls on the ground,” Kapler said in May, “we’re going to convert those balls into outs.”

“I feel like every five days I’m saying this, but the defense behind me has just been great this year,” Gausman said.

It's true, both in the infield (where the Giants have a best-in-baseball +21 OAA) as well as the outfield (a fifth-best +8); Gausman in particular has benefited more than most any other pitcher in baseball. On the infield, only one team, St. Louis, has turned more grounders into outs. Overall, just one team, Houston, has turned more balls in play into outs.

Here’s the thing though: They weren’t really supposed to be good. As Grant Brisbee wrote in April: "I’m pegging them as a bottom-third in baseball defensive squad. In some of their toughest losses, the defense will be to blame. You will go to sleep thinking about the bad defense. You will wake up thinking about the bad defense."

How, even? It's hard to pinpoint. Crawford's personal improvement on defense mirrors his progression at the plate, likely a reflection both of health and technique or positioning. Solano has gone from poor (-8 OAA) to solid (+2), in small part because he's no longer been asked to play as much shortstop or third, positions where he was stretched, but also because he's just played better -- in the field, at least.

Maybe this part shouldn't be surprising. The Giants have imported a ton of new staff over the last few years and improved at the plate. They've improved on the mound. They've just improved, which is really the point of all of this. It might be sooner than expected, and it might have changed the plan they thought they had at the Trade Deadline. It's safe to say they'll take it. What was supposed to be baseball's most exciting top-of-the-division race still looks like it will be. It just has one more team than you would have thought.