Four weeks into the 2021 season, it is not surprising to see two NL West teams tied for the best record in the National League. Even after six losses in their last eight games, the defending World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers are 15-8 with the sport's best run differential (plus-30). Just about everyone expected to see them atop the standings.
The other 15-8 NL West team is not the upstart San Diego Padres, however. It's the San Francisco Giants, a team that has won seven of its last nine games and is 13-5 since their 2-3 start. The Giants blew out the Colorado Rockies on Monday (SF 12, COL 0), giving them six shutout wins already this year. This is their best 23-game start since going 18-5 to begin 2003.
"It was nice to have a really well-pitched game, a crisp game on defense, and then to score a bunch of runs," manager Gabe Kapler told reporters following Monday's win, including MLB.com's Maria Guardado. "There's not much to complain about tonight. I usually spend an hour or so after games picking things apart. I mean, what's there to pick apart? The guys did a great job."
Four weeks does not a season make, though it does have a real impact on postseason odds. The Giants came into the season with 8.7 percent postseason odds, according to SportsLine. Those are now up to 30.9 percent. FanGraphs says their postseason odds have gone from 5.7 percent to 20.3 percent. That's a significant increase in only 23 games (14 percent of the season).
The Giants very nearly made the postseason last year, remember. They finished with the same record as the Milwaukee Brewers, but the Brewers held the tiebreaker, so they got the No. 8 seed and San Francisco went home. The Giants responded with a very active offseason (nine free agents signed to MLB contracts), and now they're being rewarded with wins.
Here are four reasons the Giants are off to such a hot start this season.
1. Posey and Longoria look rejuvenated
The 2021 Giants are built similar to those mini-dynasty era Giants teams in the early 2010s. Those clubs were built around run prevention, and they received just enough offense to win. This year, the Giants are averaging 4.00 runs scored per game, below the 4.31 NL average. Their team 97 OPS+ is basically league average. They've been good offensively, but not great.
Individually, Buster Posey and Evan Longoria have been great. Both look rejuvenated -- Posey opted out last season and he looks as fresh physically as he has in years -- and they've been the club's two best hitters in the early going. The numbers:
Posey recently had his first two-homer game since 2016, and he's already matched his 2018 home run output (five in 488 plate appearances). From 2018-19, Posey authored a .270/.340/.375 batting line with 12 home runs in just under 900 plate appearances, and he looked like a catcher nearing the end of his line in his 30s. This year, he looks like vintage Posey.
"I think Buster's bat speed and the way his lower half is working right now is what I'm keeping an eye on," Kapler told Guardado. "His bat speed is great, and his hips and his lower half are working well. His body is moving well."
Longoria's offensive decline has not been subtle the last few years. From 2017-20, he hit .254/.306/.424 in nearly 2,000 plate appearances, which works out to a 97 OPS+. Even adjusting for spacious Oracle Park, Longoria was a slightly below average hitter the last few years. Now he's producing like he did in his prime, even while nursing a hamstring injury.
"He came in in a good matchup (against Rockies lefty Austin Gomber) and was able to take advantage of it, drive the baseball a couple of times for us and not compromise his health, which was the No. 1 goal of the day," Kapler told Guardado after Monday's game, during which Longoria had two hits and drove in three runs before being pulled from the blowout to rest his hamstring.
Beyond Posey and Longoria, the Giants are getting fine work from Mike Yastrzemski (117 OPS+) and Brandon Belt (112 OPS+), and Darin Ruf is crushing lefties (148 OPS+), and that's about it for the offense. No one else on the roster is having a WOW season at the plate. Posey and Longoria have turned back the clock in the early going and are carrying the Giants offensively.
"We don't feel like we've probably clicked on all cylinders offensively," Posey told Guardado. "Our pitching and defense has been really good. From my experience, playing on some really good teams in the past, that's No. 1, to pitch well and play defense. It's a nice start. It's early, but it's definitely a nice start."
2. The rotation has been lights out
San Francisco's mini-dynasty in the early 2010s was made possible by a rotation anchored by three first-round picks: Matt Cain (No. 25 pick in 2002), Tim Lincecum (No. 10 in 2006), and Madison Bumgarner (No. 10 in 2007). This year's rotation is headlined by former Cincinnati Reds: Johnny Cueto, Anthony DeSclafani, Kevin Gausman, and Alex Wood.
That foursome, along with homegrown righty Logan Webb and free-agent reclamation project Aaron Sanchez, have combined to give the Giants the most dominant rotation in baseball in the early going. Seriously. Their 2.11 ERA is the lowest in baseball by a considerable margin (the Padres are next with a 2.42 ERA), and they do it a bit unconventionally. To wit:
- Strikeout rate: 24.2 percent (14th-highest in MLB)
- Ground ball rate: 51.5 percent (highest in MLB)
- Hard contact rate: 28.9 percent (5th-lowest in MLB)
The Giants aren't doing it with gaudy strikeout totals the way the Dodgers or Padres do it. They're doing with a lot of weak contact, particularly on the ground. DeSclafani struck out nine in his three-hit shutout Monday, and he also allowed nine balls in play with an exit velocity under 90 mph. Weak contact on the ground is a great way to suppress offense.
"I think a lot of it is giving the Giants credit with the whole pitch design thing," DeSclafani told Guardado about his success this year (1.50 ERA in five starts). "Kind of getting my fastball back to what it was in 2019, helping me get my slider shape back to what it was in 2019. I think the credit goes to them for recognizing maybe what went wrong last year and helping me fix those things."
As good as the rotation has been -- and it's been very good -- it is not without risk. Cueto is currently sidelined with a lat injury, DeSclafani and Wood are no strangers to the injured list, and Sanchez rarely cracks 90 mph with his fastball following major shoulder surgery last year. There are some depth concerns, but, right now, this is the most effective rotation in baseball.
3. The defense is much improved
Preventing runs is not just about the guy on the mound. The defense plays a major role as well, especially when the pitching staff generates as many weak ground balls as San Francisco's. In the early going this year, the Giants have been the best defensive team in baseball according to Defensive Efficiency, and they're much improved from the last few years.
- 2017: .679 DE (28th in MLB)
- 2018: .692 DE (14th)
- 2019: .699 DE (7th)
- 2020: .699 DE (12th)
- 2021: .739 DE (1st)
In a nutshell, Defensive Efficiency tells us the Giants have turned 73.9 percent of balls in play into outs this season, the top mark in the game. They had a dreadful defense in 2017 and were closer to middle of the pack from 2018-20.
This year the Giants are playing like an elite defensive team in the early going despite an older roster (defense is typically a young player skill and San Francisco's position players average 31.2 years of age, the oldest in baseball) and a lot of injuries. They've had to move people around and play guys out of position in the interim.
"It's a testament to the work (bench coach) Kai (Correa) has done with all of our infielders, to get all of them ready to move around the diamond," Kapler recently told reporters, including Jacob Rudner of the Mercury News. "... We have to get these guys ready for anything."
Thanks to their pitching staff's ability to generate weak contact and the defense's performance turning that weak contact in outs, the Giants have the second lowest opponent's batting average (.205) and third lowest opponent's slugging percentage (.330) in MLB. San Francisco has allowed 3.04 runs per game in the early going, nearly fourth-tenths of a run better than any other team.
"Overall, our defense has looked really solid," stalwart shortstop Brandon Crawford told Rudner. "We're making the plays we're supposed to make and occasionally making some really good plays. We've looked really good, really solid, all the way around ... Fortunately we have depth and we're able to fill some guys in. We can still go out and win a baseball game."
4. The schedule has been favorable
You can only play the schedule you're given and thus far the Giants have played only three games against teams projected to finish over .500 this year by FanGraphs. They took two of three from the Padres at home in the second series of the season, otherwise they have seen a lot of the Mariners, Marlins, and Rockies early on. The schedule has been favorable, for sure.
And give the Giants credit, because they've turned that favorable schedule into the league's best record. They've done good work banking wins. Soon though, things will get a little tougher. The Giants will play the Padres six times in their next 11 games, and they have seven games with the Dodgers coming up in May. Those 13 games against the other two NL West powerhouses will give us a good idea whether San Francisco is for real.