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It’s an Odd Year, and the Giants Are an Embarrassing Pit of Despair

After three World Series titles in five years and an NLDS appearance in 2016, San Francisco now has the second-worst record in all of baseball. What went wrong?

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)å
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)å

The Giants are bad. You might have heard.

Let’s count the ways. They have the second-worst record in baseball, 28–51, which has them on pace for their first 100-loss season in 30 years. They have the worst defensive outfield in baseball, and the worst run differential of any Giants team since 1902. They are the second-worst team in baseball at converting balls in play into outs. They are ugly to watch. Fewer and fewer people will pay more than a few bucks to do so; in the midst of Sunday’s 8–2 loss to the Mets, fans took to booing reliever Josh Osich. The Giants are really, truly, monstrously bad.

But isn’t this all a bit weird, in the sense that, well, aren’t the Giants supposed to be good? Isn’t this the team, led by manager Bruce Bochy, that won the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014, a three-in-five-years rampage that has only ever been accomplished elsewhere a handful of times? Wasn’t this the squad that had sportswriters crowing about dynasties, whose über-annoying Even-Year Magic was annoying only really because it seemed to have some grain of cosmic truth to it? Isn’t this, more recently, the franchise that was the best team in baseball through the first half of the 2016 season? Aren’t many of the recent stars still there, still — dirt bikes aside — mostly in working order? Haven’t you failed to see any explanatory headlines about Bay Area cataclysms — nary a mention of AT&T Park locusts or arm-falling-off-oidosis or “gunk”?

Pointing and laughing is a valid response: The Giants have had more than their fair share of this decade’s confetti. But still: It’s weird. You don’t have to have an inclination for orange to wonder what in the ever-loving hell happened to the San Francisco Giants.

It is said that victory has a hundred fathers but defeat is an orphan. I am proud to report that the Giants’ misery is unlikely ever to see the inside of the great baseball orphanage. An entire, many-armed-and-legged village of Suck has raised the 2017 Giants; there are so many sources of horror that it is difficult to choose which one to consider after any given loss.

It was easy enough to pin the plight of the 2016 Giants, who tumbled from their brilliant 57–33 first half to a dismal 30–42 second leg on a single culprit: the bullpen. Together, Giants relievers blew 32 saves last season. They logged off with a remarkable pièce de résistance in Game 4 of the NLDS, in which they managed to throw away a 5–2 lead against the Cubs in the ninth inning. Bochy flailed through five different relievers in what should have been a sure thing, subbing in Derek Law, then Javier López, then Sergio Romo, then Will Smith, and finally Hunter Strickland, who collectively gave up a baffling collection of hits and/or happiness. The Cubs won. The Giants went home. My couch cushions assumed a new shape.

So in the offseason, the Giants went and plugged the hole, signing closer Mark Melancon to a four-year deal. He’s done OK enough in San Francisco — he has 11 saves in 15 chances with the Giants through Sunday, but he’s racked up a 4.58 ERA, and the team has only gotten worse.

The fundamental problems are boring ones, and not especially uncommon to championship teams. As trophies continued to arrive — or, more aptly, as seats and jerseys continued to sell — the Giants made a point of doing good by their stars. Some, like Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, and Brandon Crawford, have remained generally reliable contributors; others, like the now-34-year-old Hunter Pence, who is in the penultimate year of a $90 million contract, have missed long stretches of time with injuries or else slipped precipitously. (Pablo Sandoval’s bizarre 2015 heel turn is perhaps the only reason AT&T Park doesn’t have a very expensive panda petting zoo right now.) The result is that San Francisco’s roster is the sixth-oldest in the majors; more than 75 percent of San Francisco’s 2017 payroll is committed to players in their 30s.

Over the past decade, the Giants, whose farm system has long been something less than inspiring, parted with some of the few promising prospects who came along in exchange for short-term, win-now additions: Starting pitcher Zack Wheeler was shipped off to the Mets in 2011 for Carlos Beltrán, while last season’s ultimately doomed bullpen was cobbled together in August by sending Andrew Susac and Phil Bickford, both former top prospects, to the Brewers. Between 1991 and 2016, the Giants never once topped four prospects on Baseball America’s top-100 list.

Homegrown pitching was long the exception to this rule: The Giants system produced heavyweights like Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, and two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum. But the well has finally run dry: Lincecum’s contract wasn’t renewed after the 2015 season, Cain hasn’t had a sub-4.00 ERA since 2012, and Bumgarner is predicted to be out until August, while longtime closer Sergio Romo struggled throughout 2016 and was picked up by the Dodgers in the offseason. From 2009 to 2016, Giants pitchers ranked in the top 10 of ERA in all but two years. This year, they’re 24th.

Things aren’t any better offensively: The Giants’ cumulative .243 batting average puts them at 26th in the league. But even when things go well for San Francisco, the 2017 Giants have found ways to lose. A five-hit, one-run gem from Johnny Cueto on Saturday was done away with by the bullpen; the Giants lost, 5–2. They also lost all four of Bumgarner’s starts before his April accident (seemingly tailored to extinguish the last embers of hope in San Francisco by a vengeful god) sent him to his first stint on the DL; in three of those games, the Giants failed to provide more than a single run of support. When the batters do find their way, the pitchers fall to pieces. On June 15, they managed a Coors Field–fueled nine runs against the Rockies, but eight of those came after starter Matt Moore allowed the Rockies to get up 9–1. After San Francisco batters tied the game in the top of the ninth, Strickland gave up the go-ahead run to the Rockies and the Giants again lost, 10–9.

The generous way of describing this is to say that these Giants have bad luck; a less charitable one might be that something is deeply amiss on the chemistry front. A column on Monday went so far as to suggest that the Giants’ clubhouse has struggled this season because of the absence of Angel Pagan, who spent five years in San Francisco’s outfield before semi-retiring this spring. Those post-Pagan struggles, wrote Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, are not because of players missing the camaraderie created by a beloved outfielder, but because his teammates hated him so much that he brought them together, “[creating] an odd sort of unity because most of the players disliked him.” Melancon also earned a mention, for “[rubbing] some teammates the wrong way early in the season,” according to Rosenthal. Elsewhere, it has been suggested that the team’s relative dearth of Latin players has doomed it. They’re all tempting theories: How else to explain every facet of Giantsdom simultaneously going to shit than some murky locker-room problem at the team’s root?

Luck seems like it shouldn’t matter quite this much, but the 2017 Giants aren’t even especially unlucky. In their championship years, the Giants have been about as lucky as any team. Even-Year Magic, after all, had a kind of infuriating undeniability to it. How else to explain Travis Ishikawa’s home run in the 2014 NLCS or Cody Ross’s awakening? This season, though, the variance hasn’t quite corrected itself: FanGraphs’ baseruns, which measures how teams perform compared to how they’re predicted to for a rough approximation of luck, has San Francisco just two games below its predicted pace. That’s the result of some bad breaks, certainly, but makes the Giants just the 10th-unluckiest team this year. (The Yankees are six games below their own predicted baseruns pace … and yet still lead the AL East.)

Things aren’t all bad: Posey, the best defensive catcher in baseball, is having a resurgent year offensively; Bumgarner, who kicked off Opening Day by carrying a perfect game against the Diamondbacks into the sixth inning and hitting two home runs, is reportedly on the mend. The Giants have begun to use this fallowest of years to audition real, live, genuinely exciting prospects, like Ryder Jones and Austin Slater — who, naturally, has already managed to get hurt. (An MRI was negative.) But even with some young promise, Posey playing like a superstar, and Bumgarner’s return on the horizon, the season is long since dead. Perhaps it’s less that we should be surprised by how bad the Giants are now, and more that we should be shocked by how good they were.