The kindest thing that can be said about the general perception of the San Francisco Giants heading into the 2021 season is that people didn’t think they would be bad—they just didn’t think about them at all. And, well, it’s hard to blame anyone for thinking that the National League West would belong to either the Dodgers or the Padres, two teams loaded with talent, star power, and splashy offseason acquisitions. San Francisco, meanwhile, was coming off of four straight losing seasons and carrying not only the oldest roster in the majors, but also one with virtually no players under contract beyond 2022. It was a team in flux, no matter how often president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi professed a desire to win.
Fast-forward seven months, and the Giants are set to host Game 1 of the NLDS. More than that, they are coming off a regular season in which they won a franchise-record and MLB-best 107 games, forcing the lowly 106-win Dodgers into the wild-card game and setting up not only the division rivals’ first playoff showdown (yeah, yeah, two 1950s and ’60s tiebreakers and something about a team called the Brooklyn Bridegrooms—whatever), but also the first MLB postseason series between teams with more than 105 wins. If you did not anticipate this Bay-tle Royale, you are not alone.
In the interest of making sense of this turn of events, let’s take a stroll through 2021 to consider the extremely accurate reasons for this extremely unexpected result. We are all of us flies in Zaidi’s web.
Being Old Is Good, Actually
The simplest explanation for the success of this Giants squad is that many of the team’s veterans who had been years into a gradual decline went out and posted career seasons. The Giants featured the oldest lineup in the NL by a year and a half, and heading into spring training it seemed possible that 2021 would be a last, wobbly hurrah for the remaining heroes from the rosters that won a trio of World Series championships early last decade.
Buster Posey, who opted out of the 2020 season and whose injury-slowed recent campaigns had made some go so far as to question the erstwhile NL MVP’s Hall of Fame chances, homered on the third pitch he saw this season and then kept the heroics coming. Posey’s .889 OPS marked the second-highest of his career, after just that 2012 MVP showing. He was at his best down the stretch, slashing .327/.381/.473 over the season’s final three weeks. Brandon Crawford, meanwhile, emerged as one of baseball’s best-hitting shortstops. This season he had the most home runs (24) and RBIs (90) of his 11-year career, along with a .298 batting average (his best ever) and 6.1 WAR (tied for sixth in the NL). He was good with his glove, too:
BRANDON CRAWFORD'S DEFENSE IS UNREAL pic.twitter.com/lYJAM4zoat— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) August 18, 2021
Then there’s the Captain:
The 33-year-old Brandon Belt, who jokingly taped a C on his uniform during a September game against the Cubs, enjoyed the best year of his career by many measures, smacking a career-high 29 home runs, with nine of them coming in September. A broken thumb suffered in the last week of the season has put a hold on commandeerings, but Belt—whose captain’s hat is still in ship shape—has said he hopes to be back in time for the NLCS.
Together, the trio of Posey, Crawford, and Belt were the team’s top three position players in terms of WAR. The last time that happened was in 2017.
Taylor Swift Is a Witch, Sorry
Say what you will for the mystical baseball powers of Taylor Swift (we have said, well, a lot), but we ain’t been fooled yet. Did Swift release an album this year? Check. Did Swift’s album release/Giants World Series victory wizardry hold strong until the mid-2016 blowup between Swift and Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, who got engaged at the Giants stadium? Check. Were the Giants the best team in baseball in the first half of 2016, then miserable in the second half and all the way through the end of the 2020 season? Check. Did Kardashian file for divorce just days after teams reported to spring training in February? Check. Have the Giants absolutely ripped ever since? Check!
Is it an even year? Trick question—it doesn’t matter.
Whozits (and Whatsits) Galore
The Giants hit 241 home runs this season, the most in the NL. Eighteen of those were launched off the bats of pinch-hitters. That’s an MLB record, and encapsulates what I like to call the San Francisco rando effect.
It’s Edgar Rentería homering in the decisive game of the 2010 World Series after beginning the postseason on the bench. It’s Travis Ishikawa walking off the Cardinals in the 2014 NLCS. This season, it’s Austin Slater hitting four pinch-hit homers, and Alex Dickerson notching three. Behold the power of Donovan Solano:
WELCOME BACK DONOVAN! WE'RE ALL TIED UP! pic.twitter.com/oy1IUCTDIi— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) September 18, 2021
But it’s not simply the pinch-hits. Consider Camilo Doval, the NL reliever of the month in September, or pitcher Kervin Castro’s brilliant final month of the season. At 35, Darin Ruf has been a linchpin of the offense; Steven Duggar, called up from Triple-A only after injuries to other players, went on a preposterous September tear that saw him become just the second Giant to hit two triples and a double in the same game in the past 20 years.
Not everyone is a rando, of course: The Giants seized on the Cubs’ trade deadline fire sale to add Kris Bryant, who no less than Bay Area luminary Smash Mouth predicted would get “super hot” in the postseason.
Mike Tauchman: Magnets?
MIKE TAUCHMAN WITH THE CATCH OF THE YEAR pic.twitter.com/PmGZbeV6oZ— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) May 29, 2021
MIKE TAUCHMAN ROBS ANOTHER HOME RUN TO HOLD THE LEAD pic.twitter.com/jdTajefJRQ— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) June 12, 2021
He also became the first Giants non-pitcher ever to hit a grand slam from the ninth slot in the order back in June. I mean!!!
About Those Arms
Pitching wins championships, or so they say, and the Giants are first in the majors in bullpen ERA (2.99) and third in rotation ERA (3.44). Logan Webb and All-Star Kevin Gausman, who will start games 1 and 2 of the NLDS, respectively, have been dominant; the 24-year-old Webb hasn’t logged a loss in 20 straight starts. Just take it from my colleague Zach Kram: “San Francisco has six different relievers who pitched at least 50 innings with an ERA below 3.00. That’s twice as many as any other team.”
Tyler Rogers, meanwhile, does not make sense in such a profound way that he might just be the perfect 2021 Giant. Also? Gausman can rake:
KEVIN GAUSMAN WALK-OFF SAC FLY!— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) September 18, 2021
REPEAT: KEVIN GAUSMAN WALK-OFF SAC FLY! pic.twitter.com/M0tART2yUP
The LaMonte Wade Jr. Experience
All hail the king of the ninth inning. Wade—who once passably feigned right-handedness after being put in at shortstop while playing in the Cape Cod League—has been responsible for six game-tying or go-ahead hits in the ninth. As October got underway, his .571 batting average in the ninth inning or later was the highest mark in nearly 50 years. This is more than double his season average (.253), which, generally speaking, is not how math works. Is clutchness a myth? Sure. Is Late Night LaMonte the clutchest human being ever to grace a baseball diamond? There’s not currently much evidence to the contrary.
Wade also managed to hit a home run directly over his mother’s head:
LaMonte's mom had the best view of her son's homer ❤️ pic.twitter.com/w99BstW2TC— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) July 31, 2021
His parents were also on hand to see one of those walk-offs. Naturally.
This Is Not a Reason, I Just Think Everyone Should Look at It
Giants in five. Thanks.