The San Francisco Giants just keep surprising us

ByTim Keown ESPN logo
Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The San Francisco Giants have been the best team in baseball for nearly six months now, through 151 games, 227 home runs, and at least a million roster moves. And every day of those nearly six months, and each one of the 137 days that they woke up in first place, they have been described, collectively, with endless derivatives of the word surprise.

They are surprising because very few people saw this coming, which means they were not pre-anointed by the proper experts, who are traditionally balky when it comes to admitting even a temporary lapse in expertise. The Giants were given 9-1 odds to make the playoffs. Their win-total was projected at 74.5, a number they surpassed on Aug. 14. This very website projected even worse.

"I think it's notable that all of our players and our staff and our organization were aware of the projections and the expectations at the beginning of the season," says Giants manager Gabe Kapler. "I think those projections and expectations can provide a lot of motivation, especially with veteran players who believe in themselves. I think that motivation can go a long way toward bringing out peak performance, and this is really about how those players have taken those projections and seen them as an opportunity."

Somewhere embedded in there -- Kapler tends to choose his words like he's selecting just the right fruit out of a bin -- lies an essential truth: we've become hopelessly addicted to opinion, both having them and reacting to them. We're obsessed with predictions, too, rendering the games useful only as tools to measure our wisdom. And so, despite the durability and repetition of the Giants' achievements -- 97 games don't just win themselves -- they continue to be regarded as something of a fluke.

In search of proving our own hypotheses correct, we've ceded a sense of wonder, an ability to be surprised. Which means, whether or not they defy their preseason World Series odds (100-1, for the record) the Giants have done their part to reanimate the joy that comes with realizing that wild, borderline-preposterous things -- things like a team of Austin Slaters and Darin Rufs being better, just barely, than a team of Corey Seagers and Mookie Bettses -- can be celebrated regardless of whether you saw them coming.

After all, this run has been nothing if not entertaining. The Giants and Dodgers have engaged in a remarkable season-long race in the NL West, with massive implications riding on the season's final 10 days. The NL West loser -- and it's wrong/unfair/ludicrous to put that label on a 100-plus-win team, but rules are rules -- will have to win the historically unpredictable wild-card game to earn the right to play the NL West winner in the NLDS. (Which means, stupidly, that one of the two best teams in the NL is guaranteed to be eliminated before the NLCS.) Until then, though, each team pretty much has to win every day because it's a near-guarantee the other team will, too.

Buster Posey calls it "healthy urgency," and here's an example: The Giants had a season-high nine-game winning streak, scoring at least six runs in each game, that ended Sept. 14; over that nine-game stretch they gained just 2 games on the Dodgers. Over this past weekend they beat the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves two out of three, and it felt like a missed opportunity.

Every time they've lost two or three in a row, it felt safe to believe they were on the ropes, that this time -- finally! -- they would revert. This -- finally! -- is when we see that they are who we thought they were, and every time that happens they immediately reel off four or five in a row and nobody can believe it all over again. The team's slogan is "Resilient SF," a nonspecific and malleable message that probably started when everybody in marketing missed a deadline. Suitable in a what-the-hell way for 100 wins or 100 losses, it now feels oddly prescient.

"This really is unique," says Giants starter Alex Wood. "The consistency, to win month in and month out. To do what we've done over the course of the season shouldn't go unnoticed."

THE REASONS WHY the Giants are something entirely different than we thought can be found up and down rosters in both San Francisco and Triple-A Sacramento, but Brandon Crawford is a good place to start. He's a 34-year-old shortstop playing at a near-MVP and clear-Gold Glove level. A career .254 hitter, he's hitting .301. He's got 21 homers, 81 RBIs and a .900 OPS. He plays defense like he can see the ball leave the bat before it happens and knows where it's going before it gets there, which allows his range to far exceed the limitations of his foot speed.

Kapler, wearing a T-shirt that reads, "Dingers and Deadlifts," says, "First off, Craw trained for this. When the new group came to the Giants, I think Brandon was in a place where he was not pleased with how the game was beginning to view him: potentially as a platoon bat, potentially as a shortstop that was still good but no longer at his peak. I think he took that very seriously and said, 'I can show you that's not true.' The motivation is what I find most fascinating."

It flows -- like Crawford's historic hair -- from him to Posey to Brandon Belt and Evan Longoria. A team filled with players -- Ruf, LaMonte Wade Jr., Mike Yastrzemski, Tyler Rogers -- whose talents proved resistant to the assessments of many other teams has been led by the resurgence of a handful of guys representing a who's who of a 2013 All Star Game.

"Before the season started, you could envision one of these veteran players having a career year," Kapler says. "But I think it would have been difficult to envision Evan Longoria with a .900 OPS, Brandon Crawford playing at an MVP level, Buster Posey being the most valuable catcher in the game, and Brandon Belt being on pace for one of the best years of his career."

The temptation is to assume there's something mystical at work. Instead,head of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi has simply devised a secret formula to maximize production by taking two or three roster spots and filling them with a rotation of five or six guys each, so Jay Jackson can become Stephen Duggar can become Mauricio Dubon can become Thairo Estrada can become Camilo Doval so routinely they're passing each other on I-80 between Sacramento and San Francisco. Zaidi has utilized the players with options in a vertiginous blur: Estrada, starting with his first call-up on June 6, had five separate stints with the team and was optioned to Triple-A Sacramento last week. Dubon's journey is even more peripatetic; he was recalled from Sacramento on Sept. 2, optioned to Sacramento Sept. 3, recalled Sept. 4 and optioned back on the 13th.

And the 6-5, 11th-inning win over the Braves last Friday was, at the very least, mystical-adjacent. In this business we like to use the word microcosm a lot, partly because it condenses a raft of different concepts but mostly because it sounds smart. This game, though, was so distorted and ridiculous it somehow stood for the whole. It began withDonovan Solano:It was his first game back after spending 10 days on the COVID IL, and he spent those 10 days alone in a hotel in New York after contracting the virus despite being vaccinated. The team sent him some weights, a bat and a weighted ball. He lifted the weights, swung the bat in front of a mirror, threw the ball into a mound of pillows and ordered raging quantities of room service.

Freed and healthy, he returned to the team Friday and was tasked with the job of pinch hitting with the bases empty and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, his team down a run and Braves closer Will Smith on the mound. With two strikes, he drove a back-foot slider over the wall in left to tie the score and give the Giants 16 pinch-hit homers this season. (Again, mystical-adjacent.)

In the bottom of the 11th, with one out and the bases loaded, the pitcher's spot came up and the Giants found themselves with no remaining position players to send to the plate. This is one of the potential problems with the radical employment of a deep roster; pinch hitting by matchup -- as early as the third or fourth inning, for example -- depletes the number of available players in an extra-inning game.

But two weeks before, at Kapler's request, Giants coach Nick Ortiz took the lead on putting together a spreadsheet addressing precisely this scenario. (Because of course he did.) Which pitcher would give them the best chance of driving in a run from third with fewer than two outs? Rookie Sammy Long was an option, but he might have been needed in the bullpen if the game went all night. And so Kevin Gausman, the previous night's starter, was the choice of both the spreadsheet and the situation, and he headed to the cage under the stands and cranked the machine up to 100 at the start of the inning to get ready, just in case. (Because of course he did.) When the time came, Gausman became the seventh player to appear in the leadoff spot and worked the count full. At this point, the logical move might have been to just stand there -- a walk would have won the game, a double play would have ended the inning -- but Gausman swung and pulled a lazy fly to right field that was far enough, by about 4 feet, to allow Crawford to score. (Because of course it was.)

"I want to make one thing clear," Kapler says at one point: "There's nothing we are doing, or have done, that is especially novel. All teams are training with machines, all teams are intensifying practice, all teams are using information to make decisions. But there's a tendency to look at us and say, 'You guys are probably doing something different.'"

Credit must be assigned, of course, and that territory can be difficult to traverse. (And it's one reason Kapler chooses his words so meticulously.) An emphasis on Zaidi's roster-building and the daily work of Kapler and his league-record 12 coaches can be seen as a diminishment of the work and production of the players. An emphasis on the resurgent older players and the emergent young ones can be seen as a diminishment of everyone else.

"The net of all this is it's been very collaborative," Kapler says. "At times it's not recognized how influential our players are in their own development. I say it all the time because I believe it to be true, but right now it's really standing out."

MLB force-feeds a theme into every postseason, and this year it's "Built for October." Last week, the Giants were the first team to display the T-shirts and soak them in champagne when they clinched a spot. They celebrated without reservation or apology, deep into the night. There's no guarantee this team is built for October -- let the predictions resume -- but it was definitely built for every month that came before it.

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