Odd-year Giants? What’s new and what’s not about San Francisco’s surge

It’s not déjà vu. For the second time in three years, everything is going right for the largely overlooked San Francisco Giants.

They are 13-4 in June entering Thursday night, riding high off two straight walk-off wins over the star-studded but disappointing San Diego Padres. And it’s not just the Padres they’re outpacing. Since May 15, they have transformed their season, flipping from 18-23 to 42-32 and storming past the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.

They still trail the Arizona Diamondbacks, but this Giants team — which spent the offseason falling short on Aaron Judge and backing out of a deal with Carlos Correa — is clicking without them, without any national headline names. In this way, they can’t help but evoke the 2021 team that shocked the baseball world by winning 107 games.

In the spirit of the Giants’ even-year magic in the 2010s, the Athletic’s Grant Brisbee has helpfully dubbed their budding 2020s pattern “odd-year poppycock.”

So how much is the 2023 team’s move toward the top of the standings a continuation of 2021? Is the book still open on that fascinating, seemingly fleeting team? Or is this a new story altogether? Let’s break it down.

May 27, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; San Francisco Giants first baseman LaMonte Wade Jr. (31) advances to third base after an error on a pickoff attempt in the first inning during game against the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
The Giants’ LaMonte Wade Jr. has been a fixture on the basepath this season. (Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports)

Mostly New: The top of the lineup

Most days, the Giants have been leading off with an out-of-nowhere 2021 revelation who functions as a tidy avatar for the team. LaMonte Wade Jr., who was scratched from Tuesday’s lineup with a side issue, gained fame in that magical campaign two years ago for his uncanny clutch heroics, earning the moniker “Late Night LaMonte.”

After a crash back to earth in 2022 (.207/.305/.359 in an injury-interrupted 77 games), Wade is putting together a career year with the elite plate skills that undoubtedly drew the Giants’ eye when they flipped relief pitcher Shaun Anderson to the Minnesota Twins for him in February 2021. A 17.3% walk rate and 18% strikeout rate is a recipe for success, and indeed Wade has MLB’s second-best on-base percentage.

So he’s the same person, but not the same hitter. Behind him, nothing is the same. Where he opened for a steady run of veterans — Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Darin Ruf, eventually Kris Bryant — two years ago, Wade has more late-blooming contemporaries and recent additions raking behind him this year.

The best all-around position player on the Giants is now Thairo Estrada, a 27-year-old middle infielder who overcame injuries suffered in a 2018 shooting in his native Venezuela. Estrada, who came up through the New York Yankees system, saw limited playing time in 2021, but established himself as a starter last season. This year, he’s batting .280 with nine homers and 17 steals. Plus, he’s playing such a dynamic second base that he ranks among MLB’s 10 most valuable defenders by Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric.

Behind Estrada, the Giants have stacked some combination of early-30s boppers Joc Pederson, Michael Conforto and J.D. Davis, all of whom have joined in the past two years.

Not exactly new: Lots of left-handed power

Pederson and Conforto, along with Wade and Mike Yastrzemski — Monday night’s splashy hero — form the crux of a noticeable Giants lean toward lefty hitters. Given the likelihood of facing a right-handed pitcher, lefty-heavy lineups can have some advantages.

The 2021 squad whacked an MLB-best 116 left-handed homers against right-handed pitchers, and this team is taking a similar route to success. They have 46 lefty-on-righty homers, and a top-10 offense (by the park-adjusted metric wRC+) against right-handers.

On the less common occasion of facing a southpaw, manager Gabe Kapler is quick to pinch-hit and flip his personnel to get lefty-masher Wilmer Flores in the game, and perhaps elevate the right-handed Davis, the surprise standout acquired in a heist of a deal with the New York Mets last summer.

Totally new: Homegrown talent … from the 2020s

The biggest change you’ll notice if you flip on these Giants? The new faces. Two seasons after fielding the oldest lineup in baseball, with an average age of 30.6, a new generation of homegrown talent with no ties to the 2012 or 2014 World Series is starting to bubble up around lone holdover Brandon Crawford.

Patrick Bailey, 24 years old, has asserted himself as the answer at catcher, while Casey Schmitt is finding time in the infield.

Perhaps most excitingly, the speedy, contact hitting 21-year-old outfielder Luis Matos arrived last week when offseason signing Mitch Haniger went down with a long-term arm injury. In six games so far, Matos — who was batting .398 in Triple-A — has scored nine runs and struck out precisely once.

Not new: Heavy sinkers, sliders and splitters atop the rotation

Logan Webb, a newly minted ace in 2021, has since solidified his stature and signed a five-year, $90 million extension that kicks in for 2024. The sinker-balling right-hander has become an absolute metronome of excellence. His park-adjusted ERA- this season is 73, meaning he has been 27% better than league average. Last season, it was 73. In 2021, it was 74.

Behind him, Alex Cobb has stepped in to fill the role of “2021 Kevin Gausman” with aplomb. Cobb just hit the IL with an oblique strain, but had pitched to a terrific 3.09 ERA this season deploying the same heavy dosage of the same pitch Gausman wielded: the splitter.

Slider-heavy starter Anthony DeSclafani is also back after a lost season in 2022, offering up solid if unspectacular innings for a team that still has questions to answer at the back of this rotation.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 19: Camilo Doval #75 of the San Francisco Giants pitching against the San Diego Padres at Oracle Park on June 19, 2023 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Suzanna Mitchell/San Francisco Giants/Getty Images)
Camilo Doval entered Thursday with 19 saves, second-most among National League closers. He finished the 2022 season with 27 saves. (Photo by Suzanna Mitchell/San Francisco Giants/Getty Images)

Not new: A dominant bullpen

The 2021 team had the best bullpen in baseball, and the 2023 squad is making a run at a similar outcome. Since May 1, the current bullpen has been untouchable, tallying a 2.39 ERA that rates as an MLB-leading 44% better than average over that span, per ERA-.

That starts with Camilo Doval, the closer with a 1.93 ERA and strikeout rate near 34%. San Franciso is setting up Doval by getting the best out of not one, but both Rogers twins — submarining right-hander Tyler (1.56 ERA) and more conventional lefty Taylor (2.88 ERA).

Stumbles and injury troubles for offseason additions Sean Manaea and Ross Stripling have nudged Kapler toward some less-than-traditional pitching plans, but it’s working. In a recent 15-0 blowout of the bullpen-needy Dodgers, he used veteran starter Alex Wood then turned to 26-year-old rookie Tristan Beck for an exceedingly rare four-inning save. In a win against the Dodgers the day before, Kapler had used opener John Brebbia, then another reliever after him, then white-knuckled through 3 2/3 innings of Manaea, and brought home a win in 11 innings with a total of eight pitchers, only two of whom allowed a run.

That’s how things have been going for the Giants, after all. And while some of this excellent timing won’t last, we have seen enough of this Giants formula before to wonder exactly how far it can take them.