SAN FRANCISCO — As the calendar turns to July, the Giants find themselves trying to get back into playoff position.
At 40-35 after Friday’s 1-0 loss to the White Sox, the Giants were 6.5 games out of first place in the NL West, four back of the second-place Padres and on the outside looking in at the National League’s three wild-card spots (one game back of St. Louis).
Since climbing a season-high 10 games above .500 last Saturday, they have stumbled during one of the easiest stretches of their schedule and looking like a team that needs to improve to stand a chance at a second straight playoff appearance.
With an eye toward the month ahead, here are five areas the Giants can focus on.
The Giants entered Friday having lost seven of10, despite half those games coming against teams in last place of their division. It prompted manager Gabe Kapler to lament that his group hadn’t “played the crispest baseball over the course of the last two months now.”
“That’s a good chunk of time,” Kapler said.
Defensive problems have been the most stark. Last season, it was among the best in baseball. This season, it has been among the worst.
The metrics are notoriously fickle, but in the case of the Giants this season, they are almost universally negative: they rank last in Fangraphs’ defensive value (-30.0), second-to-last in Fangraphs’ Outs Above Average (-28) and fifth-to-last in ultimate zone rating (-14.9).
Get the Brandons back on track
When Brandon Crawford is activated from the injury list on Sunday, the hope is that he’ll be a renewed player from the one who went on it last week.
Battling through injuries almost all season — a quad strain, a stiff forearm and a nasty cold before the current knee inflammation — Crawford has struggled to replicate his offense renaissance from last season.
Crawford was worth a career-high 6.4 wins above replacement last season, according to FanGraphs, while posting career-bests in OPS (.895), batting average (.298), home runs (24) and, well, you get the picture. This year, he is on pace to post career-lows or close to it in the same categories: OPS (.663), batting average (.224) and home runs (5).
Equally as concerning — and no small part of the topic above — has been Crawford’s defensive decline. He produced the fifth-most defensive value of all shortstops last season, according to FanGraphs, but this season has already committed more errors than all last year and ranks 13th in defensive value (and dead last in defensive runs saved, at minus-7).
On Friday, Crawford resumed baseball activities for the first time since being placed on the IL last Sunday.
“He hasn’t been the healthiest version of himself all year,” Kapler said. “Craw could be back and making contributions before you know it. Maybe be a healthier version of Brandon, which we saw what that looks like last year. It’s pretty enticing to be able to recapture that.”
As important as Crawford is to the Giants’ lineup, Belt is equally so. Look no further than the Giants’ success during his torrid month of April. Belt hit four of his five home runs this season and posted a .837 OPS while the Giants went 14-7. Since, the Giants have played .500 baseball while Belt has spent a chunk of that time on the IL and only homered once while batting .188/.321/.266 in 21 games since April.
More consistent offense
The numbers say it should be hard to complain about the Giants’ offense — their 4.84 runs per game rank third in MLB — so then why has it seemed to be such a source of frustration among fans?
Maybe it’s because they have scored three or fewer in 32 of their 74 contests while bolstering their scoring average with eight games of eight-plus runs. It’s not easy to win games scoring that few runs, and the Giants are no exception: they’re 6-26 when scoring three or fewer.
Their streaky offense is a microcosm of their success at stringing together rallies.
Kapler has frequently opined lately about not getting the one big hit that can blow a game open, something that came so frequently last season. But that doesn’t play out in the numbers: the Giants have the second-best OPS with runners in scoring position (.818) and they have driven in more runs with the bases loaded (75) than any other team.
One noticeable area they have faltered recently has been the big, big hit with runners on. Once one of MLB’s top teams in the portion of their homers that were multi-run shots, they now have more solo shots (50) than they do with runners on (41). After Evan Longoria’s home run Wednesday against the Tigers, 22 of the last 24 balls to leave the yard off Giants bats have been solo shots.
Part of that can be attributed to the drop-off in success this season from their pinch-hitters, who often enter in the Giants’ best scoring opportunities. San Francisco has yet to get a pinch-hit home run after getting 18 last season. Likewise, their pinch-hitters’ OPS has fallen from .718 last season (19 percent better than the average team, adjusted for conditions) to .557 this season (28 percent worse than the average team).
Beat who you’re supposed to beat
Starting on July 4, 35 percent of the Giants’ final 84 games come against the bottom two teams in the NL West. That includes all 19 games on the schedule with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who they’ll face for the first time on Independence Day.
These are teams the Giants beat up on last season: they went 17-2 against Arizona and 15-4 against Colorado while posting the best winning percentage against teams below .500 in the majors (.727).
Both those teams have better records this season than the Cincinnati Reds, who just took two of three from the Giants for the second time this season. Overall, San Francisco is only 22-16 against losing teams (.579), a notable step back from last year.
But dominating the weaker divisional competition on the back half of their schedule could put them right back on last season’s pace and help them keep pace in the postseason race, too.
Find quality starts behind Webb, Rodón
Nobody in the majors has thrown at least five innings while limiting opponents to two or fewer runs more times than Carlos Rodón, who’s done it in 12 of his 15 starts.
An official quality start is six innings with three or fewer earned runs, but in the current baseball vortex where starters routinely come out before reaching 100 pitches, why don’t we call five-plus innings and two or fewer runs the Kapler-adjusted quality start.
In addition to Rodón’s dozen, Logan Webb and Jakob Junis have each done it seven times.
But after that, the Giants have gotten a combined 13 from the three other pitchers who have made starts this season.
The road doesn’t get any easier for San Francisco’s starters, who on Friday lost Anthony DeSclafani back to the injured list and face a stretch of 17 games in 17 days before the All-Star break.
Contributed by local news sources