Why the Giants’ familiar formula of pitching and defense could (and should) be the path to ending playoff drought

In a sport that’s run by data-driven front office executives who toss buzzwords such as “efficiency” and “optimization,” out with regularity, teams have encountered a first impression problem.
Many fans of baseball –the ones who don’t need to know a batter’s launch angle to know how well a ball was struck– aren’t interested in hearing about streamlined processes, about innovative techniques and why a pitcher’s ability to tunnel will frustrate a hitter whose bat path doesn’t account for the spin rate of a curveball that’s destined to dip below the strike zone.
Fans care about results. As they should.
So when an organization such as the San Francisco Giants, one that hoisted three World Series trophies in the 2010s, hires a president of baseball operations with a Ph.D. in behavioral economics, a general manager who didn’t play high school baseball and a field staff filled with several coaches who never reached the major leagues, it was only natural for fans to wonder how the new-look Giants expected to win baseball games.
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In a year expected to be defined by change, the 2020 Giants made a terrible first impression.
In a 36-hour span, the Giants opened the season against the rival Dodgers with back-to-back blowout losses in Los Angeles. They were outscored 17-2, committed five fielding errors, made countless mental mistakes and appeared totally unprepared for major league competition.
Three weeks later, the Giants were 8-16, floundering at the bottom of the National League West and giving fans every reason to question first-year manager Gabe Kapler’s credentials as a leader. In a surprising twist, it wasn’t an offense that lacked firepower behind Mike Yastrzesmki or a bullpen that failed to protect leads that sparked widespread frustration, but instead a defense that seemed woefully unable to play a clean game.
Eighteen games into the season, the Giants led the majors with 21 errors. The team’s veteran infielders decided they’d seen enough.
“Craw, Longo and Belt really put their foot down and said, ‘Hey, we’re in charge of this defense, we’re going to make this happen, we’re going to rectify this thing,’” bench coach Kai Correa said. “It started 12-14 games in, there’s a clear statistical turnaround. That point, there was definitely a demarcation line where the group got together and the older players said, ‘Hey, we did a lot of really quality work in spring training, and we’ve gotten away from that.’”
Over the final 42 games of the season, the Giants made only 21 more errors. But like a bullpen that posted the lowest ERA in the majors at 2.53 over the final six weeks of the season, the damage of the first impression had already been done.
The Giants’ record would improve dramatically, with an unlikely offensive surge receiving credit for the team’s turnaround. After watching a moribund lineup sink the club’s chances for three straight seasons, fans were treated to career years from veterans Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. They saw Alex Dickerson and Austin Slater morph into steady outfield presences while Wilmer Flores developed a knack for contributing big hits when the team needed them most.
Following a terrible 24-game stretch to open the year, the Giants went 21-15 over their final 36 games and missed the playoffs by one win. The offense ensured the first impression the club made at Dodger Stadium in July wouldn’t stick, but for a variety of reasons, a surging defense and improved bullpen didn’t receive the same treatment.
Internally, the Giants understood that a steadier infield defense was critical to the turnaround.
“If you look at the groups of teams that convert the most line drives and groundballs into outs at the end of the season, traditionally those are the playoff teams, the successful teams,” Correa said. “And under (Ron) Wotus in the World Series years, they were a really good defense in that regard specifically so that’s why it’s important to me to carry that on.”
At the end of the 2020 season, SportsInfoSolutions revealed the Giants ranked fifth in the majors in converting line drives and groundballs into outs and sixth at converting groundballs and bunts into outs. Of the top 13 teams in that statistic, 12 made the postseason. The Giants were the only ones watching October baseball at home.
It’s not difficult to pinpoint why the team struggled defensively early in the season. Belt, a Gold Glove finalist at first base, missed the first week of the season with a heel injury. Longoria, a three-time Gold Glove Award winner, was out during the same timeframe with an oblique strain.
“Early on without Belt and Longo, two of the better defensive players at their positions in the league, that’s going to hurt not having those guys in there,” Crawford said.
Under president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, the Giants attempted to build a roster complete with versatile defenders who could move from position-to-position. With an abbreviated summer camp to prepare for the regular season, the Giants were unable to experiment with rotating players around the diamond as much as the coaching staff had hoped.
With Flores and Donovan Solano often left to cover third base and Mauricio Dubón, a player who had spent the offseason preparing to play center field, asked to move to shortstop and second base, the defense lacked stability.
“I think what we saw in cases early in 2020 was without some of those preseason reps, it’s tougher to move a guy into a position where he doesn’t have a lot of history and doesn’t have a lot of recent history in particular,” Zaidi said.
Fixing the Giants’ most glaring issue required more than healthy personnel. With a new regime in the front office and in the dugout came new philosophies on how to align defensively. One of the ways a coaching staff blending the voice of longtime infield coach Ron Wotus with newer presences including Correa and assistants Nick Ortiz and Mark Hallberg found success was mixing the positioning analytics the Giants wanted to introduce with the live feedback players such as Crawford could give through their on-field experience.
Modern front offices and coaching staffs have developed a reputation for strictly focusing on data, but the Giants actively sought out Crawford’s opinions and allowed his knowledge to influence their defensive alignments.
“We talked pre-series and then if I did see something Game 1, I’d let (Correa) know and we might make a change for Games 2 and 3,” Crawford said. “I’ve always been pretty active in telling them my opinion and where I think we should be positioned, but I think there was probably a little bit more communication this year.”
Statcast data tracking how frequently major league teams shifted during the 2020 season shows the Giants developed a fairly consistent approach to their positioning.
Despite the perception that a team determined to incorporate more data into its strategy would shift more often, the Giants actually ranked 20th out of 30 teams in the raw number of shifts they used in 2020, shifting 500 fewer times than the Dodgers.
The Giants shifted against 64.5% of left-handed batters, the eighth-highest rate in the league, but only shifted against 7.6% of right-handed hitters, the fourth-lowest rate. The rationale for doing so appears relatively straightforward, as the Giants’ shifts were largely unsuccessful against righties (.368 wOBA) while much more successful against lefties (.306 wOBA).
“(The coaches) going in ready to give us educated information with some things to back it up allowed us to be open and trust what they were doing,” Crawford said.
The Giants ultimately finished the season with the 27th most errors in baseball, besting only the Yankees, Pirates and Red Sox. A big-picture view of their defense from a look at traditional stats such as errors and fielding percentage indicates their infield was a clear weakness, but during the final seven weeks of a nine-plus week regular season, all eight National League playoff teams committed more errors than the Giants (21).
An evaluation of the Giants infield from some of the newer data available also suggests sustaining the level of success they found during the second half of the 2020 season could play a significant role in their ability to reach the playoffs next year.
With Belt, Crawford and Longoria returning to the infield, the Giants bring back two players in Crawford and Longoria who ranked among the top 50 fielders according to Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric and Belt, who ranks second among all major league first basemen (Paul Goldschmidt, 46) with 44 defensive runs saved since 2015. They also return Dubón, who learned center field on the fly and finished 17th in the majors in Outs Above Average, and expect he could move around the diamond more frequently if the Giants sign a left-handed hitter capable of playing a strong center field.
Publicly-facing defensive metrics such as Outs Above Average seem to have improved through the years, but not to the point where players fully trust them to evaluate whether they’re performing well defensively. They won’t turn to fielding percentage to know that, either.
“I think the eye test is the best way to value defense,” Crawford said. “If you see a guy making plays that other guys aren’t making, that’s how you can tell if that guy is good or not. I think fielding percentage, it’s not the worst stat, but it’s probably up there. You’ll get a guy who will make zero, one or two errors, but how many balls is he getting to?”
The question of how many balls a player is getting to can be extrapolated to evaluate how many grounders an infield is converting into outs. The teams that do it best, as evidenced by SportsInfoSolutions’ 2020 rankings, appear to dramatically increase their chances of making the playoffs. Those that aren’t defending groundballs are stressing pitchers, extending innings and in turn, losing more games.
With continuity in the infield and another year working with the same coaching staff, the Giants seem to be positioned well to build upon their progress from the second half of the season and convert more groundballs into outs in 2021. That alone won’t increase their playoff chances, however, because they’ll need their pitching staff to induce more balls on the ground.
During the 2020 season, Giants pitchers ranked 28th in groundball percentage, besting only the Diamondbacks and Nationals. Of the 12 teams that induced the lowest percentage of groundballs, only two, the A’s and Twins, made the postseason.
So in an era where hitters are coached to drive the ball in the air and elevation is celebrated, it’s possible a pitcher’s ability to keep the ball on the ground and in reach of their infield defense has never been more important.
The early days of the 2020 season left fans with the impression Kapler’s Giants couldn’t field and couldn’t protect the lead, but as the summer wore on, the club rectified its biggest issues. Because of the stark contrast from prior seasons, the newest era of Giants baseball will still be defined by the team’s offensive evolution. It’s critical for that evolution to continue into next year, but if the Giants break their four-year playoff drought, a fundamentally sound, well-positioned infield and a breakout bullpen that keeps the ball in the park will have surely overcome the first impressions they’re trying to outrun.

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