How scrappy Giants have outscored vaunted Dodgers lineup originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
LOS ANGELES — The leadoff hitter for the Giants on Sunday spent most of April in Triple-A, along with two others who were at the bottom of the lineup against the Washington Nationals. The No. 5 hitter was picked up in a minor trade with the Seattle Mariners on Saturday and found himself starting at first base a day later. You can make a strong argument that if Gabe Kapler had a fully healthy group, Brandon Crawford and joey bart were the only members of Sunday’s lineup who would have been automatic starters against a right-handed pitcher.
The leadoff hitter for the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday was Mookie Betts, a former MVP who is on a path to the Hall of Fame. Their No. 9 hitter, Gavin Lux, was the No. 2 prospect in the minors two years ago. In between those, even with Max Muncy getting a day off, the Dodgers had five former All-Stars, the 2019 NL MVP, the 2020 NL MVP and a player who finished fifth in last year’s race.
After a 107-win season, the Giants kept together a lineup built around resurgent veterans, overlooked players and depth, which has recently been decimated by injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak in the clubhouse. After a 106-win season, the Dodgers spent $162 million on Freddie Freeman and put together a lineup that is widely considered one of the best in MLB history.
Through 22 games, the Giants have scored 109 runs. Through 21 games, the Dodgers have scored 102 runs.
It hasn’t always been pretty, but as the Giants headed to Los Angeles for the first matchup since the postseason, they ranked first in MLB in runs per game, a mind-boggling stat given their situation.
“It’s kind of crazy because — again, I don’t know whether our standards have been unreasonably raised since last year — but it doesn’t really feel like our offense has been clicking on all cylinders,” president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said on Monday’s Giants Talk Podcast. “Like, I don’t think, ‘Hey, this is the best offense in baseball right now.’ I guess that’s maybe a good sign that we think there’s more in the tank both for the guys on the team and the guys coming back.
“It’s kind of come in fits and spurts — we’ve been shut out or kept to a run or two a couple of times and then we’ve had some bigger outbursts, but hopefully we get some consistency. I think it’s more important , not the total amount of runs you score but that you’re putting up at least four or five every game.
The Giants are 14-8 through those 22 games, which has them a half-game behind the Dodgers and San Diego Padres, who rank second and third in the Majors in runs per game. To Zaidi’s point, 12 of those 14 wins have come when they’ve scored at least four runs, and there has been some inconsistency in how they’ve gotten here.
They have scored fewer than three runs in six games already, and overall the lineup ranks just 11th in the league in OBP (.315) and 13th in slugging (.379). A year after leading the NL in homers and averaging 1.49 per game, the Giants are down to 1.09, although power has been suppressed across the MLB thus far, possibly through changes to the baseball.
It is a different attack than the Giants featured last year, one with a little less patience and less pop, but they have mostly been able to scratch across what their pitching staff needs. Even-while losing two of three over the weekendthe lineup — which looked fit for Triple-A Sacramento at times — totaled 18 runs.
Asked recently about how the Giants have kept the line moving, manager Gabe Kapler pointed to a number of small things his group is doing well, then closed with, “We’ve been a little bit more crafty this year.”
That was evident from the very first homestand when the Giants started putting bunts down and squaring in all kinds of situations. The group that out-homered teams last year currently leads the Majors with eight bunt singles, which is halfway to last year’s total. The Giants are in part trying to get teams to come out of their shifts — Kapler says he has already seen plenty of evidence of this during games — and in part taking advantage of free baserunners when third basemen are playing back or shifted.
After one win last month, Kapler was asked which part of his team’s complete performance stood out. “I thought our bunts were excellent, obviously,” he said. Zaidi compared bunting against the shift to finding “a $20 bill on the sidewalk.”
“I think getting players to buy in has been the biggest hurdle,” he said. “I think a lot of guys feel anxious about giving up an at-bat. ‘What happens if I just foul a couple off and then I wind up striking out?’ I think having players buy into the upside of it rather than just the downside has really helped us.”
The staff pushed the strategy on players all spring, but it’s not hard to get team-wide buy-in when your best players are leading the charge. Belt, the team’s best hitter, put one down on Opening Day for the first run of the season. In the first inning Saturday, Brandon Crawford — coming off a fourth-place finish in the MVP race — came up in the first inning with two outs and a runner on first and bunted the first pitch he saw. That play showed off another element of being “more crafty.”
Wilmer Flores was on first at the time and raced around third as Crawford’s bunt was flung down the right field line by pitcher Joan Adon. Flores was ultimately thrown out at the plate, but it was the latest example of a team that has been more aggressive on the bases.
The Giants are on pace for 103 stolen bases after just 66 last year. They have been aggressive in taking extra bases, even when they’ve built a solid lead — they’re among the league leaders in going first-to-third and scoring from second on singles — and several rallies have been prolonged by players getting down the line to beat out the back end of a double play. The infusion of more athleticism (Thairo Estrada, in particular, stands out) has added another tool in the toolbox.
“It’s fun to watch,” said Zaidi, who noted that the preparedness of the coaching staff has helped the Giants push the pace. “You like feeling like you’re the aggressor in any game.”
The Giants at times last year felt reliant on the homer, but this year they’re stringing more rallies together. They’re third in MLB in OPS with runners in scoring position (.846) and lead the Majors with a .294 batting average in those situations. Kapler said the lineup has “added more elements” early on, but mostly he just sees a good approach, whether it’s from veterans or the many call-ups who have filled in recently.
“We’re probably not near the top when it comes to batting average,” he said of a group hitting .237 overall, “But I do think we’ve worked counts and we’ve played our style of baseball for the most part .”
Kapler should soon be able to manage in a way that’s more comfortable to him. The absences have at times kept him from getting platoon advantages and having dangerous options off the bench — after setting an MLB record with 18 pinch-hit homers last year, the Giants have just two pinch-hits, both singles, so far — but the group is not far from being whole.
LaMonte Wade Jr. (knee) is in Los Angeles and could be activated as soon as Tuesday night. Mike Yastrzemski (COVID-19) will be back by Thursday at the latest, and Brandon Belt (COVID-19) is eligible to return after the Dodgers series. Evan Longoria (finger) and Tommy La Stella (Achilles) will start rehab assignments later this week.
When they’re all back, Kapler will have his full array of options for the first time, adding some of last year’s standouts to a lineup that has been paced early on by offseason addition Joc Pederson. The former Dodger has spent most of his career as a platoon piece in some of the league’s best lineups, and while the Giants’ names aren’t as well known, he sees the same concepts.
“There’s so much talent in this room,” he said recently. “No one person thinks they need to take care of the whole job themselves. There’s a lot of trust in the person behind them to pick them up if they don’t get the job done.”