Half-Way Through The Bizarrest Of Seasons

It’s been a minute!

Let me begin by saying my silence in this space has been due to a variety of factors, not the least of which was/is this question: “why are we even playing baseball right now?”

When MLB started to ramp up in July I said to myself: “Self. Don’t get excited. This is a bastardized season that may not even get off the ground or finished. People are sick and dying. You have plenty of other things to worry about. Move on.”

And so it was with great reluctance that I half-heartedly kept my eye on things as the season launched. The Giants got off to a bad start. Several teams got COVID. It seemed like all my concerns were valid and my lack of interest rewarded.

And yet…they kept playing games. And teams got better (health wise), and the games kept coming, and then the Giants started to win.

And so here we are: 30 games into a 60 game weirdo season, and I have to humbly admit: I kind of like it.

Sure, it helps that the Giants have won 6 in a row, but even before this week I felt like it was time to start writing again once we made it to the half-way mark. And here we are.

Let me summarize where we’ve been and where I think this is going. First, some themes from the early games:

  • Bad veterans: the Giants’ old regime players (Belt, Crawford, Longoria, Panda, Pence, Samardzija, and Cueto) did not got off to great starts. Buster Posey opted out. It seemed pretty damning to watch the old core struggle so much.
  • Bad bullpen: there are some arms in this bullpen that are pretty exciting (Selman for closer in 2020), don’t get me wrong, but this has been a struggle all season, and old’ Gabe Kapler’s managing of the pen certainly fit all the inherited narratives about him.
  • Weak starting pitching: my early season assessment was that Farhan Zaidi seems to have a great eye for position players, but the lack of pitching, especially starting pitching was alarming.
  • Ok offense: Mike Yazstremski, Donovan Solano, and many others have been revelations. It feels like the Giants can score 5 runs in any game, which is not something we’ve been able to say for years.

It really felt like this was just going to be an exercise for the Giants and then we’d all move on. But now, a full 30 games in, some things have changed.

  • The veterans: Samardzija was hurt and is on the injured list where he might stay for the rest of the year. Pence is gone (sad to see, but makes sense). Cueto and Longoria have been totally solid. Crawford and Panda are waking up and looking much better. And, maybe the biggest news of all: Brandon Belt is looking like a stud right now. He has always been super streaky and can get hurt just by looking in the wrong direction, but there’s no reason to assume this is flukey. He got a later start than everyone else, and sure seems to be in form now.
  • Bad bullpen: Yes, the bullpen has had some spectacular mess ups. Yes, I do not trust Kapler in this area one bit. BUT, there are some very intriguing arms and everyone is still very much learning and figuring out who is trustworthy right now. Plus…
  • Improving Starting Pitching: This is huge. (A) Good starting pitching makes any bullpen look better, and (B) we are starting to see that Zaidi may know what he is doing here too! Right now Cueto and Logan Webb look solid. Kevin Gausman looks like an ace when he can locate his nasty stuff. Tyler Anderson is doing a fantastic vintage-Kirk Reuter impression. I have always loved Trevor Cahill and he is rounding into form after an early season injury. AND, the Giants best starting pitcher early on was Drew Smyly. Who knows where he fits once he is ready to return! All of this to say: the rotation suddenly looks like a place of strength, maybe the strongest “unit” of the team.
  • Really ok offense: Let’s get real. The platoons are working. With the call up of Joey Bart there isn’t a major hole in the lineup. Wilmer Flores looks like a steal. This is a team that doesn’t have a true masher in the middle of the lineup, but 1-9 can give a good at bat and make solid contact in any count or situation.

Conclusions and Forecast: The Giants are a couple of blown saves away from being 17-13. You can’t get those back though, so 14-16 is still a pretty great achievement. Keep in mind that the Giants first 30 games were brutal, arguably the hardest schedule in all of baseball. So, things are looking up.

This is clearly still a work in progress. Even 60 games is not enough to make a true assessment of where the franchise is at.

But recent success aside, the thing that has been true from day 1 of this season is that this team is interesting. There are a lot of intriguing pieces here and every day that passes the franchise is less stuck with some of the old and bloated contracts.

At some point Farhan is going to make (need to make) a signature move. I have no idea what that should be. This off-season’s free agent list is certainly uninspiring. But, for the first time in a while, it is possible to see the future and the future is relatively bright.

Now, what will happen the rest of the way? Who knows, of course, but the primary reason for hope, for me, is that this cadre of starting pitchers is looking very solid. There is no true ace…yet. But the Giants have five healthy guys (and 6 total) that are suddenly very trustworthy, and that fact makes everything else about the game a little bit easier.

There are bullpen concerns. There are defensive concerns. There are managerial concerns.

But the end of the story is that it will be interesting. No question about that. And that’s about all we can ask for in this crazy time.

A Lot of Catching Up To Do!

Well, I guess a few things have happened in the past couple months!

We’ve said goodbye to Bruce Bochy (and maybe Madison Bumgarner too), watched the Dodgers blow it again, and witnessed the Washington Nationals ascend the mountain top for the first time.

And, oh look, the Giants have a new General and Field Manager. And a lot of people are quite upset about it.

I have thoughts. Let’s get right to the heart of the issue: Gabe Kapler’s (and, to be fair, Farhan Zaidi’s) poor handling of sexual assault allegations against their players when they were with the Dodgers.

Let me offer a few quotes from the local writers regarding this issue:

From Baggs:

It cannot be understated that the Giants front office is a workplace still reeling from CEO Larry Baer’s video-captured altercation in March in which he wrestled for control of a phone and knocked his wife, Pam, to the ground in a public square. Baer returned to his former role and corner office, with a somewhat muted public presence, following a three-month suspension from Major League Baseball.

Not everyone in the organization was happy to have Baer back. You can bet not everyone in the organization is happy about Kapler, either.

Here’s the thing: whether you believe that Kapler should be exonerated or you believe his past actions are disqualifying, Zaidi knew hiring him would leave a great many of you pissed off. And he decided it was worth it.

What’s more, the Giants decided it was worth it.

From Grant:

The Giants could have chosen almost anyone, from Hensley Meulens to Mike Scioscia to, I don’t know, Casey McGehee, who would have taken the brunt of whatever managerial criticism came up. The front office would have taken the criticism for choosing the players and the manager would have taken the criticism for motivating and deploying them. This is the natural order of things.

Instead, the Giants chose the one guy who can’t be separated from the front office. There is no Kapler without Zaidi, no scenario in which he becomes the manager with anyone else in charge, so the manager’s successes or failures will become the president of baseball operations’ successes or failures.

Which means Zaidi has to be pretty damned sure about this. Pretty, pretty, pretty damned sure about this. That’s a pool of 7.7 billion people to choose from, and approximately one who could blow up on him like an ink pack in a bank robbery.

And finally, from Marcus:

Why Kapler at all? 

Especially now. He’s basically a .500 manager with two years of experience. The Phillies went .500 this season despite adding Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto to what was already an 80-win team. The data shows Kapler just might not be ready as a manager. But he wasn’t even on the market long enough to collect his first unemployment check. 

Add on to that a sexual assault scandal and he figured to be an especially untouchable hire for a Bay Area franchise. Four years ago, while with the Dodgers, Kapler — along with Zaidi — mishandled allegations made against Dodgers minor-leaguers. Kapler was director of player development at the time, in 2015, and Zaidi was the Dodgers general manager. They offered a mea culpa on Wednesday, concessions made after finally looking into their actions a couple of weeks ago. But why would they put themselves in position to have to prostrate before the fan base?

This is Zaidi’s doing. This is how much he believes in Kapler. Better yet, this is how much Zaidi believes in himself, his eye for talent and his vision for the Giants. He picked arguably the most tainted hire of this bunch, overlooked candidates he acknowledged were worthy of the job. Kapler is his guy. This was a Farhan Flex.

That alone offers significant insight into the future of the Giants.

And now my take. One of the side effects, it seems, of the new, brainy, data-driven front office movement in baseball is a lack of humanity. This post-season, rather than celebrating two incredible baseball teams, a lot of of the headlines surrounded the bad behavior the Houston Astros (poster-children for the new-age team).

And that has only continued now in the offseason.

I’m not trying to reduce this to a “nerds don’t get people” simplistic view of complicated issues, but there is a risk with this new perspective (and it’s not limited to baseball). The more we value and view people as numbers, the harder time we seem to have with human interactions and the truth that they can be very messy.

Some have validly complained that the brand of baseball being played today is boring (flattened by the uniformity of data), and it’s a valid complaint, but a deeper problem is the lack of emotional intelligence and the decline of the value of humanity.

So, there’s that!

And then there’s the issue that Gabe Kapler might not be a very good manager. Dave Roberts beat him out for the Dodgers job a few years ago and while Dave seems like a really good dude, several of his poor decisions are responsible for the Dodgers inability to end the season with a win.

Kapler seems to have suffered from too much information and a lack of ability to inspire human beings with all his magical data.

I was not super excited when the Giants hired Bruce Bochy. It seemed to be a very uninspired hire. As baseball was moving into the future, the Giants were hiring a relic of the past.

It turned out ok, and in large part because Bochy is a genius with people (and bullpens).

Now they’ve finally made the cutting edge type of hire I longer for 12 years ago, and I’m not excited about it. The moral baggage is certainly part of that, but Kapler had an eventful two years in Philly and not for good reasons.

The Giants always seemed to be interested in getting someone who had previous managing experience who needed a new opportunity to make the next step. There is a long history of guys making this type of jump, Bruce Bochy being exhibit A.

The difference to me is that Bochy had MANY years of experience. He had seen bad teams, good teams, losing seasons, a world series, great players and MVPs, and a bunch of scrubs.

Kapler hasn’t seen much of anything at this point. Other than looking like he could still play, there’s not much impressive in resume.

All year long we’ve been waiting for Farhan Zaidi to make a signature move. Would it be signing Bryce Haper? (No). Would it be trading Madison Bumgarner? (It wasn’t).

This is it. Hiring Gabe Kapler. Undoubtedly many other moves are going to be made. There’s a bullpen to reconstruct after all. And some starting pitchers to find. And the question about how to move on from an aging core.

But if you were looking for a move that revealed the deep soul of Zaidi and what he wants the Giants to be moving forward, you now have it, and it’s the chiseled chin of Gabe Kapler.

I hope it works out, but I am not inspired.