The sun is just barely rising on the Fabulous Fifth year of Farhan Zaidi’s reign as Giants President of Baseball Operations. After an offseason of darkness and despair that brought havoc to the Giants’ once peaceful fanbase, baseball has begun again, and it might shock you to hear this, but the 2023 Giants might actually be better than the edition we saw in 2022, not that such lofty expectations will be difficult to clear. But it is still certainly possible that they will be better, and there are signs that point ever so slightly to how.
As you peruse through the catalog of Giants pitchers, a pattern starts to present itself. Start with Logan Webb, a contact pitcher who loves to use that sinker ball. Then move to Alex Cobb, another pitcher capable of putting the ball on the ground, and knows his way around a sinker ball. Alex Wood is another guy who generates ground balls, and he does it with a sinker ball too. The Giants dipped into the free agent market for Sean Manaea and Ross Stripling, the former loves himself some sliders, while the latter is pretty adept at generating hits that roll on the ground.
Taking a look at the bullpen, the later innings will be dominated by The Brothers Rogers, both known for their groundball ability, followed by Camilo Doval in the 9th, who, you’ll never believe this, was one of the league leaders in groundball rate in 2022.
If the pattern is to be believed, then it appears the Giants plan to make opposing hitters put the ball on the ground this upcoming season. It was a plan they executed last year, and Giants pitchers were pretty darn good at following that script. The pitching staff led all of baseball I groundball rate at 47% in 2022, and as good as they were at putting the ball on the ground, they also were among the best in baseball in limited hard contact. According to Fangraphs, the Giants allowed the 4th least hard hit contact (27.8%) and generated the most moderately hit balls as well (55%).
In short: the Giants generated a lot of soft contact last year, and the plan is to do that again this year. It is a brilliant plan really. Softly hit balls on the ground are more likely to be outs than hard hit balls in the air. And generating soft contact can be a winning strategy so long as the defense can… oh, that’s right, the defense.
The memories of the Giants 2022 defense are probably still fresh, so you probably don’t need THIS reminder of how much of an adventure this team was in the field last year. Pick your favorite defensive metric and it will tell you the same thing the old eye test did: the Giants were a horrid defensive team last year.
And this is where the Great Giants Gamble of 2023 comes into focus. The gamble is that the defense will be capable enough this year to play actual baseball out in the field rather than the more agonizing version of soccer we got last year. Pair this capable defense with a lineup that could have several 20 homerun hitters in it, and the vision of a Giants team that does not not stink comes into view. In fact, you could almost convince yourself such a team might be, dare I say, good.
The thing is though, I am not entirely sure the Giants are capable on defense. Gold glove third baseman Evan Longoria is gone, and he will be replaced by David Villar at third, who in his brief tenure in the big leagues has shown that he can at least play a respectable level of defense at the hot corner without throwing up all over himself. Behind Villar the Giants have Wilmer Flores and JD Davis to turn to, neither of which inspire much confidence with the glove.
On the left side of the diamond, Brandon Belt's criminally underrated defense is gone (“Finally!” says the cynic in the room). This year, first base will be manned by the former outfielder LaMonte Wade Jr, and while Belt can say all the nice things he wants to about Wade Jr. handing first base, I would rather take a wait and see approach before I crown Late Night LaMonte the answer at first. And behind him on the depth chart is, what do you know, Wilmer Flores and J.D. Davis. And if that were not enough, the Giants were not joking when they said Joc Pederson would spend some time at first base.
The outfield defense can be expected to be a bit better, but again, this is mainly due to a low bar to clear to qualify as better. Michael Conforto could at least be a plus defender in right field, and Mike Yasterzemski can handle all three outfield positions. The metrics like Austin Slater in centerfield, but the eye test tells me he has a problem judging fly balls from time to time.
Mitch Haniger is a better outfielder than Joc Pederson, so we are legally allowed to say the Giants got better defensively in left. Except…
Which makes it easy to remember that Farhan Zaidi once upon a time said the Giants goal in the offseason was to get younger and more athletic, something they more certainly did not do. The Giants are certainly not younger, and that age is already rearing its ugly head. And the Giants at best made lateral moves in the athletic front.
The Giants are gambling that they made just enough of an improvement on the defensive side of the ball to give their pitchers a break after watching their hurlers get roasted by horrific defense all of last year. If there is any good news to this gambit, it’s that the Giants will not need a ton of defensive improvement. Take a look at the defensive differences between the Giants 107-win season from 2021 vs last year.
You will notice the Giants were not exactly an elite defensive team in 2021, but certainly not a bad defensive team by any means. They were certainly a capable defense, and one might even go so far as to say they were “good” on defense. And it’s not like the Giants had a roster of gold glovers in 2021. Alex Dickerson was their primary left fielder, and no one was mistaking him for the 90s version of Barry Bonds in left.
How much can simply capable defense help the Giants in 2023? Take a look at the difference of what happened when Giants pitchers put the ball on the ground last year vs 2021 with a capable defense behind them.
Giants pitchers were putting the ball on the ground just as much. They held steady in their strikeout rate and walk rate too, so it is not as if they were allowing a TON more contact. But Giants pitchers got far better results in 2021 than last year. Why? As they like to say in politics, “It’s the defense stupid!” The Giants were putting the ball on the ground just as often, but a defense full of soccer players means that instead of allowing roughly 28% of balls hit in play to become hits, they instead allowed 31% of balls hit in play to become hits. A difference of three percent might not seem like a lot, but remember that that three percent helped knock the Giants down from 107 wins to a measly 81.
The Giants pitched well enough in 2022 to warrant more success than they ended up getting. The smart money is on them continuing to pitch well enough to warrant success. But will it matter? The Giants intended to upgrade the defense this past offseason, and for the most part, they did, even if minimally so. How much better the Giants are in 2023 vs. 2022 will be largely dependent on these minimal upgrades on defense being enough for the Giants pitching staff to work with.
That is the gamble the Giants are taking. How it plays out will go a long way to determining whether or not Farhan Zaidi has a new contract, or even a job, going into 2024.