SAN DIEGO — Speaking with reporters before a recent game, Giants manager Gabe Kapler raised some eyebrows with one particular assessment of his club. It wasn’t his plea for better energy, nor was it any indictment of their poor play.
“It’s a different group of guys,” Kapler said, referring to the 2022 team versus the one that won 107 games a year ago. “It’s different in every possible way.”
The fact is, much of the personnel is the same. Of the 26 players on the active roster after 81 games this season, entering Friday, 19 played significant roles on the NL West-winning club last season. The results have just been wildly different.
“I think it’s unfair,” outfielder Austin Slater, one of those returning members, said of comparing this year’s team to last year’s. “I think that’s something that we need to move on from as a team.”
Rewind to the beginning of last season. How would you feel if we told you that club would reach the midpoint a game over .500 and well within striking distance of the postseason?
The Giants defied all expectations last year. The computers projected them to win between 72-77 games, and they spat out similar numbers before this season. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA pegged them at 79.2 wins. FanGraphs’ projections were slightly friendlier, at 81 wins, or exactly the pace they are on after 82 games.
It might be time to let go of expectations set off last season’s miracle run and level set. This team isn’t going to win 107 games and — 12.5 games behind the Dodgers — they’re not going to win the NL West, either.
But a postseason berth is still well within reach, thanks to the expanded field this season. The Padres and Atlanta hold firm grips on the first two wild card seeds, but the Giants only have to beat out the Phillies, the Cardinals and the Marlins for the final spot.
The past three weeks, though, have done serious damage to their postseason prospects: the Giants’ marker on FanGraphs’ season-long line chart of playoff odds looks like a lead balloon. Their playoff odds reached a season-low 29.2% after their latest loss to the Padres on Friday. They were at 61.6% as recently as June 28 and climbed as high as 79% on May 13, after starting the season with about 50-50 odds of a postseason berth.
Where did the veterans go?
Maybe the single largest factor in the Giants’ ability to defy expectations last season was that nobody could have predicted the production they got from a 34-year-old Brandon Crawford, 33-year-old Brandon Belt and a 34-year-old Buster Posey. Well, Posey is retired now, and the Brandons are another year older.
Overall, the Giants are the oldest team in baseball, and time might be catching up with them.
Crawford was 40% better than the league-adjusted average last season (140 OPS+) but has been 13% below average this season. It’s a similar story for Belt, who was 59% better than the league-adjusted average (159 OPS+) but just below average this year (96 OPS+). And both players have missed chunks of time on the injured list, too.
A backstop black hole
Posey’s absence has been glaring in multiple ways. Without production from the aforementioned veterans, the lineup lacks a galvanizing force. Without Posey in the clubhouse, the team lacks a beloved leader to rally around.
Most directly, though, the Giants have gone from getting among the most production out of the catching position to some of the least. The Giants bet on Joey Bart — they had to, really, if there was any belief he was their future behind the plate — and it has cost them.
Posey and Curt Casali gave San Francisco the third-most value behind the plate of any team last season (5.3 fWAR), but the combination of Casali, Bart and Austin Wynns has barely produced positive value this year (0.3 fWAR, 19th).
On Friday, the Giants finished their game against the Padres with an outfield of Yermín Mercedes, LaMonte Wade Jr. and Joc Pederson. For a team that prided itself on its defense last season, the Giants have apparently thrown caution in to the wind this year in search of favorable offensive matchups.
Offensively, the results have hardly been earth-shattering. Defensively, it’s been nothing less than disastrous.
The Giants were almost as old and almost as unathletic last season, but they still ranked 11th in defensive runs saved (32), fifth in outs above average (27) and eighth in defensive value (17.2), according to FanGraphs.
This year, they have been almost twice as bad defensively as the second-worst team in MLB by FanGraphs’ defensive value (-35.6, next-closest: -18.9, PIT). Looking elsewhere…outs above average: 30th (-34)…defensive runs saved: 29th (-27).
The defense has played in to regression in other areas, too.
The Giants have gone from allowing an average of 3.67 runs per game last season to 4.44 this season (while averaging fewer on offense, too, from 4.96 last year to 4.66 this year).
Giants relievers led MLB last season with a 2.99 ERA, though their fielding independent pitching (3.71) indicated there was room for regression. That has come this season, as San Francisco’s bullpen owns the ninth-worst ERA in MLB (4.30). With 18 losses in relief this season, the Giants have already almost equaled their total from last season (22).
Overall, the Giants’ staff ERA has risen to 4.07 (paired with the widest gap in the league with their FIP, which is 3.45). That mark ranks 11th-worst in MLB, after the staff’s 3.25 ERA in 2021 ranked second in MLB.
The clutch gene
The Giants’ one win over their past nine games entering Saturday served as a reminder of one thing missing from last year: pinch-hitting success in key spots.
Darin Ruf’s pinch-hit home run that tied the game in an eventual 7-5 win over the D-backs was their first all year. After hitting an MLB-record 18 long balls in pinch-hit situations last season, there were 19 teams that hit one this year before the Giants finally got their first on Wednesday.
Because baseball is funny, Brandon Belt followed that two days later with their second of the season, an ultimately meaningless shot in a 6-3 loss at San Diego.
Before those two home runs, Giants pinch-hitters had been performing 30% below the league-adjusted average (70 OPS+), after performing 19% better than the adjusted league average in pinch-hitting situations last year (119 OPS+).