Why the Giants Could Play Spoiler For the NL's Best

Is it sustainable? Maybe not. But San Fransisco's hot start to the 2021 season may make it a tough out in the packed NL West standings.
Author:
Publish date:

Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.

The best team in baseball isn’t the one that won the World Series last year, or the one that won the World Series a year earlier, or the one that won the offseason, or the other one that won the offseason. It’s the team that FanGraphs (and the rest of us) gave a 5.8% preseason chance to make the playoffs.

Yes, it’s May 12, and the Giants sit at 22–14, a .611 winning percentage, tied for tops in the sport. (The Cardinals share San Francisco’s record but have played weaker competition.) The Giants have improved those playoff odds by 19.6 points, to 25.4%, also the biggest jump in baseball. Entering Tuesday, San Francisco had the most valuable rotation, the second-strongest defense and the third-most valuable offense.

“When we had those good teams back in the day, that’s exactly what we were doing,” first baseman Brandon Belt said on Tuesday, after the team’s latest win, 4–2 over the Rangers. “We had good pitching, good defense and we got hits when we needed to. I think we have a better offense now.”

This is the kind of development the rest of the NL West has been fearing for years. The Giants won three World Series from 2010 through ’14 but haven’t won the division since. San Francisco was the ninth-worst team in the sport from ’15 through ’20. But owner Charles Johnson’s pockets are deep, and before the 2019 season he hired Farhan Zaidi, one of the game’s most brilliant and creative thinkers, to run baseball operations.

This team will probably not sit atop the standings for the rest of the season, and 34-year-old catcher Buster Posey and 35-year-old third baseman Evan Longoria might not combine for a 1.016 OPS the rest of the way, but this rotation is for real. Righty Kevin Gausman, whom San Francisco signed for $9 million last year and then retained on a qualifying offer, has one of the best chase rates in the sport. Righty Anthony DeSclafani, on a one-year, $6 million deal, is allowing virtually no hard contact. Lefty Alex Wood, who will make $3 million this season, is missing barrels.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers have started the season 19–17, and the Padres are only marginally better at 19–16. Those two teams have given fans taut, thrilling baseball when they play one another and underperformances against most everyone else. They are both still juggernauts, and it’s still only May, but they can’t un-lose those games.

The Giants are probably not good enough to beat their rivals, but they are definitely good enough to drive them crazy. San Francisco trots out the oldest roster in the sport, at just north of 31 years; when they can quiet all the creaky knees and wonky backs, these veterans can call upon their years of experience. Posey is unlikely to be cowed by Clayton Kershaw. Those games might not be as exciting as Dodgers-Padres, but they could end up being just as consequential. The Giants have already played San Diego nine times and taken five of those tilts. They have all 19 games against Los Angeles remaining. Look out, because the road to the World Series may wind through San Francisco.

Quick Hits

• Shohei Ohtani threw seven innings of one-run ball against the Astros, striking out 10 and walking one; went 1-for-4 batting second; and played right field once manager Joe Maddon removed him from the mound so the team could keep his bat in the lineup.

• Two Yankees coaches and a staff member, all fully vaccinated, have tested positive for COVID-19. (Such infections are known as “breakthrough cases” and are expected; vaccines are not 100% effective at preventing the disease but nearly always reduce its impact.) As of late Tuesday night, the team still planned to play Wednesday.

• Mets catcher Patrick Mazeika has had three big league at bats. Two of them, including the one Tuesday night against the Orioles, have resulted in walk-off fielder’s choices.

More MLB Coverage:

Verducci: Inside Kris Bryant's Early-Season Resurgence
MLB Power Rankings: A Third Team Takes the Top Spot
Baccellieri: What Did Kyle Hendricks Do to Deserve This?
Martell: How Posey, Molina Are Hitting Better Than Ever in '21