SAN FRANCISCO — The 2021 San Francisco Giants are the best kind of great team:
At the beginning of the season, in the early days of Spring Training in Arizona, the concept of the Giants making the playoffs was a far-fetched fantasy to even the most brainwashed and optimistic San Francisco fan.
Now, with 18 games to play, they’re in — with more than half of the final month of the regular season to play, they’ve clinched a spot in the postseason.
The Giants are the first team in baseball to stamp their ticket to October, and it was only fitting that they beat the Padres — a division rival and a squad so many around baseball, including myself, pegged as a “super team” at the beginning of the season — on Monday night, to do it.
How, exactly, did the Giants do it?
After all, these Giants aren’t the best team money can buy — the majority of their payroll, the tenth-highest in baseball, is tied up in four of five players signed under the previous front-office regime in San Francisco.
They have a team that costs 60 percent of their blue-clad rivals. Their rivals who wear brown are spending more than them, too.
Yet both look up at the platooning, bullpenning, and downright old Giants in the standings.
What’s that all about.
After all, the Giants don’t have the best pitchers, either.
Their bullpen has been strong, no doubt, but there are no big names or superstars there — their two best receivers are a submarine tosser and a guy who only throws one pitch and is not Mariano Rivera.
The team is only operating with three starting pitchers at the moment, too. Luckily all three have been strong this season, with young Logan Webb — dropped from the rotation at the beginning of the year — becoming this team’s ace in the last few weeks. But two of every five games are bullpenned, including Monday’s clincher.
And the Giants’ hitters aren’t going to sell many jerseys outside of San Francisco either. There’s no Fernando Tatis Jr. on the roster.
But can I interest you in a Lamonte Wade Jr.?
That’s a viable conversation these days. I couldn’t have told you who Lamonte Wade Jr. was in April.
And who expected Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt and Buster Posey to drink from the fountain of youth this season? This season was about that trio aging out and exiting stage left. Even they seemed surprised by their success. But Crawford and Posey were one-time MVP candidates, while Belt — the team’s new self-appointed captain – was the model hitter every Giants teammate emulated. Plus, he finally hit 20 homers this season.
Every night, the Giants’ lineup is different — tailor-made for the opposing team, built to aggravate and mash — but by the time you figure out who is where on the diamond and in the batting order, San Francisco is typically ahead in the game.
So, seriously, how did all this happen?
Well, baseball in 2021 is a simple game, really: hit home runs and don’t allow the other team to hit homers.
It’s all about the long-ball baby.
Whether it was by design or accident, the 2021 Giants are masters of the modern game.
The Giants — yes, the San Francisco Giants, who play in a ballpark that’s so punitive to power hitters that it might have driven the greatest power hitter of all time to take performance-enhancing drugs — lead the National League in home runs hit this season.
All this, while allowing the second-fewest dingers.
There are countless complications around the simple formula — strikeouts, walks, actually playing defense, perhaps a single every now and again — but the Giants have never forgotten what wins baseball games today. They’ve stayed true to the plan and that has them playing in October.
But to formulate that plan required clear-minded thinking from the front office, led by Farhan Zaidi, who found a way to assemble a first-place team a year — perhaps two — ahead of schedule. Zaidi took over the toughest rebuild in the sport in 2018, a team that was riddled with “bad” contracts and a non-existent farm system. He spent his first season working without a general manager — doing the vital work at the start of a rebuild hands-on.
But before free-agent money was freed and before the organization’s now-vaunted minor-league prospects were ready for the show, Zaidi put the Giants in the playoffs.
This season’s success also required a steady hand from manager Gabe Kapler and his ever-expanding coaching staff. Over the course of the last six months of the regular season, the Giants — like any other team — have faced a string of moments that have tested their mettle. They have found a way to come out ahead nearly every time. Kapler’s commitment to Zaidi’s vision, his own analytical standpoint, and his stoic temperament were exactly what this fascinating and ever-changing mix of personalities needed.
Of course, priority Nos. 1 through 40 were the players.
And beyond the homers hit and prevented, the Giants also showed gumption and heart and wisdom that’s befitting a team this old, but not one this inexperienced, on the whole.
It resulted in the Giants’ good begetting more good — Monday’s clincher was their eighth win in a row — while the unavoidable bad moments never seemed to spiral to an uncontrollable place.
The Giants found so many ways to win this season that we ran out of viable explanations. At a certain point, the success was chalked up as “magic”.
Of course, it was homers in and homers out, but that’s no fun.
No, artificial inscrutability — that’s the real hallmark of a great team.
And while no one expected that from San Francisco this season — even when the calendar flipped to September, the concept seemed a bit ridiculous — that’s the reality. It’s unavoidable now.
Monday’s celebration on the field and in the technicolored clubhouse was well-earned for that reason alone.
The only question now is how far this team can push after their earliest clinch, by date, in franchise history.
There’s still plenty of baseball left to play — more celebrations, perhaps, to come — but the Giants tacked on at least one more game at Oracle Park in October with their win Monday.
I have a feeling it won’t be their last.