There is a common saying about the start of a Major League Baseball season that goes “the season really starts on Memorial Day.” How is this the case, when Opening Day in fact generally takes place at the beginning of April, or even late March? This is because, due to the length of the 162 game baseball season, trends in the first two months of the MLB season should be taken with an extreme grain of salt. With that in mind, San Francisco Giants fans can be optimistic so far about some of the early trends in their 2021 campaign.
The COVID-19 abbreviated 2020 season was, in many ways, the reverse of what fans of the orange and black had become accustomed to from their team. The Giants offense, which has historically been one of the team’s area of weaknesses, surged in 2020, buoyed by both longtime mainstays such as Brandon Belt and newer faces such as Mike Yazstremski. However, the pitching and defense emerged as significant issues, ultimately playing the decisive role in the team failing to make the expanded 2020 playoffs.
Clearly, upgrading those areas would be a necessity for the Giants entering the 2021 season. However, this was not to be done by pursuing any of the top free agents available, despite rumors that San Francisco would be in on the likes of Trevor Bauer. However, San Francisco did look to assemble a rotation of “bounce back candidate” pitchers who, while performing well in the past, had recently fallen on hard times, with the Giants judging that the advanced data underlying their recent performance indicated that they could return to their previous strong results.
The Giants had had success with similar acquisitions in 2020. Kevin Gausman, a top five draft pick in 2012 who had inconsistent results in the majors, was the Giants’ top performing starting pitcher in 2020. San Francisco signed him to a one year qualifying offer to bring him back for 2021, and then signed several pitchers with similar profiles- Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood, and Aaron Sanchez, all for relatively low cost and on one year deals.
San Francisco also hoped for a bounceback performance from longtime veteran Johnny Cueto, as well as development from onetime top pitching prospect Logan Webb. The team made moves to shore up the bullpen as well, bringing in Jake McGee to be the team’s closer. So far, performance this season has been trending in exactly the direction that the team would have hoped.
It is only nine games into the 2021 season, but so far the Giants’ pitching staff ranks third in the season in collective Earned Run Average (ERA). Kevin Gausman has turned in two strong starts, and Johnny Cueto was dominant in San Francisco’s home opener, turning in eight and two thirds innings of work reminescent of the years when he was a Cy Young candidate. Anthony DeSclafani has similarly posted strong results so far, although Logan Webb has been uneven.
In the bullpen, Jake McGee has been perfect so far as the Giants’ closer, posting a 0.00 Earned Run Average. Other relievers who may be emerging as stalwarts in the Giants’ rotation as of right now are Tyler Rogers, who throws with an unconventional sidebar delivery reminescent of Chad Bradford (who featured prominently on the Oakland A’s team that was the subject of Moneyball), left hander Caleb Baragar, and others.
April 13’s game against the Cincinnati Reds was a reminder of just how far the Giants still have to go. The team lost by a score of 3–0, garnering only two hits against Cincinnati’s pitching staff. While it remains a positive that the Giants’ pitching, led by bounce back candidate starter Aaron Sanchez, limited the Reds’ bats to only three runs, it is a reminder that the offense will need to repeat, or at least come close to, its 2020 performance as well.
There have been some encouraging signs so far among Giants hitters. After opting out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, franchise stalwart catcher Buster Posey has returned, and has been hitting well to start the season. Third baseman Evan Longoria has been the team’s top hitter so far, performing at an offensive level reminiscent of his days as an All Star with the Tampa Bay Rays.
However, other position players who were key contributors in the Giants’ strong 2020 offensive performance have disappointed so far in 2020. Mike Yastrzemski, who was San Francisco’s top offensive performer last year, has been in a slump to start the season, batting only .121 with a negative Wins Above Replacement to start the season. Outfielder Alex Dickerson and first baseman Brandon Belt have also been among the underperformers to start the 2021 season.
All of this needs to be put into context by circling back to the idea of the season not “truly” beginning until Memorial Day. As of this writing, the MLB season has not even played ten percent of its games. Every single trend currently being observed in this article could be reversed by the time we get to the season’s “true beginning.” The Giants could be in last place in the NL West by then, or could still be in the hunt for a playoff spot.
How these trends develop and continue during that time will inform how the Giants will approach the rest of the season. Will this be another year to retool the roster, see what young players in the minor leagues have to offer, and to continue to experiment with more potential bounce back players? If these positive trends with the Giants’ pitching staff continue as the season unfolds in earnest, then Giants fans may well be treated to a true run at playoff contention for the first time in several years. But the team will need to break out from the pattern that they have been stuck in for the past several seasons of unbalanced play on both sides of the ball in order to do so.