SAN FRANCISCO — It took until the final day of a truncated season for the 2020 Giants to be eliminated from postseason contention, which made the sting of a loss to the playoff-bound Padres palpable.
“That disappointment is going to fuel us to have greater aspirations next year,” Farhan Zaidi said in the aftermath. “It’s certainly going to be a goal of ours to be a playoff team next year.”
Almost no one believed the Giants’ president of baseball operations could deliver on that goal, but his 2021 club has done so much more than that. With a 9-1 win over the Padres on Monday night at Oracle Park, the Giants (94-50) became the first major league club to clinch a postseason berth and now has its sights set on far greater heights.
“I’m really proud of what we accomplished,” Buster Posey said on NBC Sports Bay Area postgame. “As far as regular season teams go, for me, this is number one.”
Expectations in San Francisco have been recalibrated overnight, where a team that was projected to finish under .500 for the fifth consecutive season is now viewed as a legitimate World Series contender. The stunning transformation starts at the top with Zaidi, who became the organization’s top baseball executive in November, 2018 and has turned the Giants into the most consistent team in the majors with a long list of “smart baseball moves” he promised back at his introductory press conference.
Zaidi’s penchant for making under-the-radar transactions that have had an outsized impact on the club has shaped one of the most dominant iterations of any Giants roster and all it takes is a peek at the box score from Monday’s clincher to see his influence.
With starters Alex Wood and Johnny Cueto on the injured list, the Giants had four relievers acquired under Zaidi cover the first six innings against San Diego. Two of those pitchers, Dominic Leone and Zack Littell, signed minor league deals with the Giants this offseason while another, Jarlín García, was claimed off waivers from the Marlins in February, 2020.
José Álvarez, the lone member of the group who signed a major league free agent contract with the Giants, agreed to a one-year, $1.15 million deal with a club option and lowered his ERA to 2.38 with a scoreless outing against San Diego.
A lineup that scored nine runs in another blowout win has Zaidi’s fingerprints all over it and that was evident from the get-go as Tommy La Stella, the Giants’ top free agent addition in the offseason, launched the first of four home runs San Francisco hit against Padres starter Yu Darvish to lead off the bottom of the first.
The Giants added on against Darvish immediately as LaMonte Wade Jr., who was acquired in a trade that sent reliever Shaun Anderson, drilled a RBI triple while Evan Longoria, who owns a career-high .931 OPS, hit a three-run home run that broke the game open.
Mike Yastrzemski, who was Zaidi’s first breakout acquisition back in 2019, hit his career-high 23rd home run in the fourth before Brandon Belt improved his career-high by launching his 24th home run beyond the right center field arcade seats.
The mix of veterans enjoying some of the best seasons of their careers alongside once-unheralded prospects who have hit their stride in San Francisco has enabled the 2021 club’s surprising success, but there’s another key factor at play.
It’s impossible to discuss the Giants’ unlikely surge without highlighting Zaidi’s choice of Gabe Kapler to succeed Bruce Bochy, in large part because Kapler hired a non-traditional, inexperienced coaching staff that deserves credit for making this run possible.
A Giants franchise that struggled to hit for power even during the best years of the Bochy era finished Monday’s game with 217 home runs this season, a National League high that reflects the shift in approach hitting coaches Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind have helped veterans and younger players adopt.
A Giants franchise that brought three World Series titles to San Francisco under Bochy boasted deep pitching staffs and stout defense and the 2021 club is no different. With pitching coaches Andrew Bailey, J.P. Martinez and Brian Bannister guiding a staff that has four 10-game winners among its starters and a bullpen that owns the lowest ERA in the majors, the Giants have prevented runs at an elite rate.
Bench coach Kai Correa, responsible for much of the Giants’ defensive positioning, has earned the trust of pitchers and position players alike for providing critical information, but also by giving players such as Brandon Crawford the freedom to go off-script when they see reason to do so.
By blending seasoned veterans and hungry newcomers and a savvy front office with cutting-edge coaching staff, the Giants created a culture that enabled the 2021 club to rapidly identify its blueprint for success. The Giants would blast the ball at the plate, throw strikes on the mound and receive contributions from every corner of their 40-man roster and to date, that’s exactly what’s happened.
The season is far from over and ending the Dodgers’ eight-year reign atop the National League West remains their top priority, but the Giants are clearly capable of turning that mission into a reality too.
Gone are the reasons to doubt the Giants, who deserve to celebrate an achievement no one saw coming.