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The Giants are defying expectations

The Giants have been surprisingly good. Are they actually good?

Miami Marlins v San Francisco Giants Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

The greatest piece of evidence that the simulation we live in is borked and needs a reboot isn’t that the last place Marlins are the only team in the NL East with a positive run differential. No, it’s that the team leading the NL West isn’t the Dodgers or even the Padres but the Giants. Not only is San Francisco sitting atop of the most top-heavy division in baseball, they also have the best record in the NL and the third-best run differential in the majors. This raises the question: are the Giants good?

Is it possible that during the arms race between the Dodgers and Padres, the baseball world forgot about the Giants amassing an Iron Fleet of their own? Did we overlook such weapons of mass destruction like Alex Wood, Anthony DeSclafani, and Tommy La Stella?

There’s important context to consider in answering this question. It’s May 6, and a lot can change before October 3. The Giants have played 31 games, which would have been more than half the year last season, but they have to play a full 162. Bad teams have put up incredible months before. Back in 2019, a team that ultimately finished 77-85 with a Pythagorean record six games worse than that had a two-month stretch where they went 33-19 with a +46 run differential. That team? The Giants!

The 2019 Giants were emphatically bad, but the 2021 Giants are still a Schrödinger’s Cat. They could be good but they could have happened to bounce when they were dumped out.

A point for the Giants’ success not being a mirage is their starting pitching. Before play on Wednesday, Giants starters led the majors in ERA at 2.53. They ranked fifth in FIP at 3.25 and 8th in xFIP at 3.59. Before the season started, saying the Giants had a top-10 rotation would have been an edgy claim considering the staff is Kevin Gausman, 35-year-old Johnny Cueto, and whoever they could find on a one-year deal. So far, the scrap heap has been excellent insofar as scrap heaps can be.

Giants Pick-Ups

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP
Alex Wood 23 23.4 6.4 3.11
Anthony DeSclafani 36 23.4 6.4 3.11
Aaron Sanchez 28.1 19.7 8.2 3.81

After struggling to stay healthy or good the past two years, Alex Wood is getting the results of his old self with a new approach. He’s abandoned the curveball that he threw in the early part of his career while relying less on his sinker and throwing his slider more often. Wood’s slider has been the key to his success as it has generated a 44.3 percent whiff rate and hitters are chasing it half the time. The sinker, on the other hand, has been getting whomped. Batters have a .464 xwOBA against it thus far. Maybe that’s a small sample or maybe it’s something that’s going to catch up with him.

Anthony DeSclafani is another bounce back candidate who appears to be bouncing back. Like Wood, DeSclafani is riding increased slider usage to success. It’s the pitch he’s used most often this season, throwing it 30.7 percent of the time. His slider’s whiff rate isn’t as gaudy as Wood’s, but DeSclafani is backing it up with four other decent-to-good offerings.

Aaron Sanchez hasn’t been blowing doors down, but he’s been solid for a fifth starter. He has certainly pitched well enough to maintain his spot in the rotation when Cueto returns from the IL this weekend. Sanchez has also made a change to his pitch mix as he’s throwing his curveball more than his sinker or four-seamer.

It’s no coincidence that these three pick-ups are all relying on their good breaking balls rather than their average fastballs. Teamwide, the Giants are throwing more offspeed and breaking balls than fastballs. Per Baseball Savant, the Giants are the only team with less than 50 percent fastballs (four-seamer, sinker, cutter, two-seamer) thrown.

This organizational philosophy seems to be working, at least it is for the starters. The relief corps hasn’t been nearly as consistent. If the rotation is in the top 10, the bullpen is in the bottom 10. They rank 23rd in ERA, 28th in FIP, and 20th in xFIP. Once the starter is out of the game, the rotating cast of taxi squad arms has felt like Russian Roulette until the ball gets to Tyler Rogers or Jake McGee.

While the rotation has been a surprise, the offense has performed about as well as expected, which is to say: poorly. As a whole, the team was hitting .229/.314/.405 for a 98 wRC+ before play on Wednesday and ranked 15th in runs scored per game at 4.43. The old guard has been carrying the burden. Buster Posey has a .499 wOBA and he’s already matched or surpassed his home run totals for 2018 and 2019. Evan Longoria has cooled off a bit lately as he’s been dealing with plantar fasciitis, but he still has a .385 wOBA on the year. Brandons Belt and Crawford have a .356 and .358 wOBA respectively.

Other than that, everyone else has been a disappointment or hurt. Tommy La Stella hasn’t gotten things going, and he’ll miss the next four to six weeks. Donovan Solano is out indefinitely with a strained calf. Mike Yastrzemski had a slow start and then strained his oblique.

Posey, Longo, and the Brandons won’t be able to keep up this level of production for the entire year, so they’ll need more help than the occasional Darin Ruf pinch-hit homer. That’s especially true if some regression is due for the starting rotation.

The Giants have played competent baseball so far, but they’ve also had an easy schedule. They’ve only played six games against a definite playoff contender. They split those games against San Diego, so some credit is due, but things are only going to get harder. They still have 13 more games against the Padres and 19 games against the Dodgers. It’s a long season and there’s plenty of time to cool off, but this wouldn’t be the first time the Giants have pulled off some nonsense.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.