Reasons Giants are for real in 2021

SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants passed every test en route to winning a franchise-record 107 games during the regular season in 2021, yet there are a fair number of skeptics outside San Francisco who still can’t seem to buy into their success.

Even after finishing with the best record in baseball, the Giants won’t be the favorites as they head into the National League Division Series against the rival Dodgers, which begins tonight at Oracle Park. According to FanGraphs, the Dodgers have a 64.5% chance of advancing to the NLCS, compared to 35.5% for the Giants, who edged Los Angeles by one game in the epic race for the NL West crown this year.

Of course, the Giants have learned not to put much stock in projections, especially after they set a record by outperforming Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA, which forecasted them to win 75 games this year.

Still not quite sold on the Giants? Here are five reasons you should be:

1. They have an innovative coaching staff invested in player development at the Major League level

Manager Gabe Kapler raised eyebrows when he assembled a young, relatively inexperienced coaching staff after being hired to replace Bruce Bochy ahead of the 2020 season. But his 13-person staff — the largest in the Majors — has drawn rave reviews, not only for their level of preparation, but also for their ability to get the most out of each player on their roster.

Hitting coaches Donnie Ecker, Dustin Lind and Justin Viele helped veterans north of 30 — including Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey, Evan Longoria and Darin Ruf — make adjustments that sparked revitalizations at the plate. Director of pitching Brian Bannister, pitching coach Andrew Bailey and assistant pitching coach J.P. Martinez also turned San Francisco into a destination for pitchers who wanted to improve, establishing a track record of success with bounce-back candidates like Drew Pomeranz, Drew Smyly, Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani.

“I think all of our veteran players were very receptive and very open to practicing a little bit differently at the outset,” Kapler said. “This is true for some of our younger players. They were very hungry and beginning to raise the bar for themselves or challenge themselves. I think at that point, because we had that opening, we were able to support what those veteran players’ initiatives were and goals were.”

While the Giants’ coaches are fluent in analytics and new-age ways of thinking, they take a tailor-made approach to each player, maintaining open lines of communication to ensure that they’re putting everyone in the best position to succeed.

“We have to give a lot of credit to our staff in terms of the preparation and the way that they make you feel before you go into that at-bat,” outfielder Mike Yastrzemski said. “The hitting coaches give you every detail of information that they know that you need. We talked about analytics earlier, but bringing in the human aspect [is something] they have done so well. Letting us let them know what we like to know. They got to the point where they don’t even need to ask us what information we want. They already know it ahead of time.”

2. They have power up and down their lineup

The Giants led the NL with a franchise-record 241 home runs this year, yet the most impressive part of that feat is that it took contributions from nearly every member of their roster to reach the benchmark. No Giants hitter finished with more than 30 homers — Brandon Belt led the team with 29 — but they did have 17 different players who hit at least five homers, a Major League record.

The power surge is an outgrowth of the team’s overall offensive philosophy, which is simply to swing at pitches you can do damage on, regardless of the count, and lay off the ones you can’t.

“It boils down to talent and a lot of preparation,” Kapler said. “I don’t think there’s anything unique about what our hitters are doing. I just think they’re well-prepared and they are talented.”

3. They deploy their deep bench more than anyone

A defining trait of the 2021 Giants has been their depth, which is showcased by how much they’ve leaned on their bench this year. San Francisco led the Majors with 406 pinch-hit appearances, as Kapler loves to mix and match, trying to capitalize on platoon advantages. LaMonte Wade Jr. is a fixture of the club’s starting lineup against right-handed pitching, but Kapler won’t hesitate to send the right-handed-hitting Austin Slater to pinch-hit for him against a lefty reliever, even if it’s the fifth or sixth inning. Kapler has tended to push all the right buttons for San Francisco, which set a Major League record with 18 pinch-hit home runs this year, but the players also deserve credit for understanding their roles and buying into the club’s selfless culture.

4. Their starting rotation has been among the best in the league

They might not have as much name recognition as the Dodgers’ star-driven staff, but Gausman, DeSclafani, Logan Webb and Alex Wood have led a rotation that ranked third best in the Majors with a 3.44 ERA this year. Gausman earned his first career All-Star nod, but the Giants have an emerging homegrown ace in the 24-year-old Webb, who was tabbed to start Game 1 after logging a 2.40 ERA over his last 20 starts of the regular season. DeSclafani and Wood were coming off down years when they signed one-year contracts with San Francisco during the offseason, but they thrived in their first seasons with the club, posting ERAs of 3.17 and 3.83, respectively.

5. Their bullpen is filled with ‘unsung heroes’

The Giants’ bullpen is a relatively anonymous potpourri of savvy free-agent additions, Minor League signings and waiver claims, but the unit ended the year with a 2.99 ERA, the best mark in the Majors. José Álvarez, Jarlín García, Dominic Leone, Zack Littell, Jake McGee and Tyler Rogers each finished the season with at least 50 appearances and an ERA under 3.00, making San Francisco only the second team in AL/NL history to have six players with such seasons, after the 2014 Mariners. The club’s relievers continued to perform well despite shouldering heavy workloads in September, when they were forced to use biweekly bullpen games to overcome injuries to Wood and Johnny Cueto.

“I can’t believe what those guys have done, especially the last month with Cueto going down and Wood going down,” Posey said. “The amount of innings they’ve had to log, those guys are normally the unsung heroes, but they’re most definitely the unsung heroes this go around.”

The group is known more for its strike-throwing than for its ability to miss bats, but it could have a secret weapon in hard-throwing rookie Camilo Doval, who was named the NL Reliever of the Month in September after tossing 14 1/3 scoreless innings with 20 strikeouts and three saves.

“His stuff on the mound is electric,” Leone said. “He’s another guy that you can just add into that mix down there. We have all the confidence in the world in him.”

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