How did the San Francisco Giants become the best team in baseball?
KEVIN GAUSMAN saw his own reflection in the numbers; their stark, unsentimental truth contained a judgment, and a promise. Everything he knew about himself as a pitcher could be found inside them: strengths, flaws, anxieties. It was liberating, and maybe a little unsettling, for Gausman to realize the San Francisco Giants, making the case to Gausman that he should join their team back in 2019, seemed to have access to the deepest recesses of his mind.
Like most starters, Gausman threw four pitches. Like most starters, he knew those four pitches were not created equal. His fastball and his splitter were among the most effective pitches in baseball. His slider and changeup were routinely unreliable, at times insubordinate. They were part of him, though, like feet or hands, and so he used them. He used them in big situations and small, and he used them even when he knew he was better off using one of his other pitches — you know, the ones the hitters couldn’t hit and would prefer not to try.
The Giants knew all of this. They knew Gausman was better when the Cincinnati Reds made him a short reliever — the traditional, what-the-hell move for a pitcher with spotty success but raging stuff — and reduced his obligation to throw all four pitches. And so the Giants, in their ongoing mission to identify and acquire pitchers whose potential lies dormant inside less-visionary organizations, presented Gausman with their findings, and a plan.
They wanted him to be a starting pitcher, but they wanted him to throw his two best pitches 90 percent of the time. That split he threw less than 40 percent of the time in the past, up it to 50 percent. Fill in the bulk with the fastball and save the slider and changeup for ultra-special occasions.
“What they told me made perfect sense,” Gausman says. “Why should I make sure I throw my slider 20 percent of the time if that 20 percent isn’t going to help me? If you had asked me at any point in my career, ‘What are your two best pitches?’ I would have automatically said the fastball and the split.”
Those two pitches made Gausman baseball’s second-best player by WAR through May. By any statistical measure, he is one of the top three starters in baseball. Opponents are hitting .163 against his fastball and .136 against his split. He strikes out more than five guys for every one he walks, and his 0.80 WHIP is the kind of statistic that has capital-B Baseball fiddling with a random assortment of rule changes to increase offense. Gausman lives in the intersection of analytics and psychology, where the numbers validate what a player already knows but is afraid to express.
The Giants, baseball’s best and most intriguing/mystifying/idiosyncratic/just plain weird team, are a mostly interchangeable collection of players orbiting around three or four foundational veteran position players. They have the best record in the National League and are leading a division that also contains the Dodgers and Padres, two teams who have pulled off the kind of boldface moves that would make finishing behind the Giants both embarrassing and objectively hilarious.
The Giants are the outward manifestation of the bountiful brain of Farhan Zaidi, the team’s president of baseball operations and a man whose obsession with overlooked skillsets once caused him to push his former team, the Dodgers, to acquire Max Muncy from his former-former team, the A’s, so vigorously that it was rumored they did it just so they wouldn’t have to hear it anymore. (Muncy, the Gausman of position players, is the best offensive player in baseball through a quarter of the season.)
Zaidi’s life, in baseball and as a PhD in behavioral economics from Cal, has been centered on merging two seemingly incompatible concepts: the raw numbers and the vagaries of the human condition. “This is going to sound maybe surprisingly old school,” Zaidi says, “but so much of pitching success is avoiding mistakes rather than throwing nasty pitches. There’s an asymmetric payoff on really bad pitches and really bad mistakes.”
Gausman laughs at the simplicity of his new life and says, “I look back and think of all the games where I gave up five hits and four of them were on my slider. What am I doing? But I kept throwing it, because it was one of my pitches.”
So, the Giants asked: Why force yourself to be bad?
“I guess you can say he’s putting all his eggs in two baskets,” says backup catcher Curt Casali. “But those two baskets are ridiculously nasty. They’ve convinced him those two pitches are as elite as they come, so why do anything else?”
Giants starter Anthony DeSclafani adopts the voice of Giants pitching coach Andrew Bailey: “This works. This works. This doesn’t. And this — this is nasty. Keep throwing it. Throw it more.” DeSclafani, in his seventh year in the big leagues, says he’s never experienced this level of positive reinforcement. “When they tell me that, I’m like, ‘You sure? Damn.’ With Kevin, it’s, ‘I dare you to throw your split 90 percent of the game. You’re probably going to get 100 swings and misses.'”
Through the brute force of numbers and the incessant drumbeat of optimism, the Giants may have discovered the game’s new market inefficiency: confidence.
IF IT IS possible to assemble the opposite of a superteam and still have it play like one, Zaidi has pulled it off. They are an advanced-metric team whose story can be told through retrograde statistics: first in baseball in homers, despite playing in a pitchers’ ballpark; third in fielding; fifth in ERA. Since the start of the season, their FanGraphs playoff odds have increased from 5% to 55%.
When I ask what aspects of this season have surprised him, Zaidi laughs — it’s a great laugh, a laugh so revered among baseball people that Dodgers’ president Andrew Friedman once tried to make it his ring tone for Zaidi’s calls — and says, “I don’t want to put a label on what this is, since it’s so early in the season, but we were one pitch away from making the postseason last year, and if that pitch had gone the other way, people would have perceived our prospects differently going into this season.”
(The Giants finished a game out of the playoffs, but the one-pitch-away claim is a bit suspect; the season ended with a one-run loss to the Padres, although it was on a called third strike to Austin Slater that was nearly as far outside the zone as it was below it.)
Another reason the Giants were overlooked: the uncertainty surrounding catcher Buster Posey, who opted out of last season after he and his wife adopted twin newborn daughters. In a word, he has been a revelation — maybe because last season allowed his body to completely heal after hip surgery, maybe because manager Gabe Kapler, with Posey’s blessing, has been managing his playing time in a way that appears to be optimizing results. Posey does not catch three games in a row, and he no longer plays first base on days he isn’t catching. The agreement, which appears to be mutual and non-negotiable for the time being, created a Posey renaissance: his first double-digit homer season since 2017, an OPS teasing 1.000 and bat speed that makes any fastball up in the zone — the black hole for most current power hitters — his favorite pitch.
Zaidi was a guest on a podcast during spring training 2020 — pre-pandemic — and he was asked for his sleeper pick on the Giants’ roster. He picked Posey but said, “I don’t want him to get mad at me for calling him a sleeper.” Posey, of course, is the most visible link to the team’s three World Series championships in the 2010s. (The equally resurgent Brandon Crawford is one World Series short of Posey.) He has been the ever-present electrical hum of Bay Area baseball for more than a decade. He emanates a certain gravity that suggests the game’s weight — its ability to generate unending streams of disappointment — hovers over him like a cartoon anvil. Every failure is a reminder of every failure that came before it.
Posey was a symbol of the Bruce Bochy era, notable for its historic success and its reliance on old-school tenets. Pitchers were stretched, hunches were made, bunts were executed. When in doubt, institutional memory won out over percentages. One of Zaidi’s first tasks upon setting the team on its present course was to get right with Posey, which turned into a two-hour conversation about the direction of the franchise.
“I found out right away how much he understands about where the organization has been and where we want it to go,” Zaidi says. “I think in some ways Buster’s really the perfect shepherd during this transition. If you bring him an idea you better be able to answer questions about it. He’s very open-minded, but he holds new concepts or thoughts on the acquisition of players to a high standard. You want that. Things should be vetted. For someone who has accomplished a lot, he’s very forward-thinking.”
This is his home turf, where numbers live in peaceful coexistence with humans, and Zaidi is on a roll. “There’s a game-theory element to pitch-calling,” he says. “For someone who has caught as much as Buster has, his intrinsic feel for that is at a level that provides a nice complement to the component-based analysis we’re doing.”
“I realize I’m using a lot of nerdspeak in this conversation,” he says. “I even said game theory. Hopefully it looks better in print than it sounds.”
IT’S NOT ENOUGH to say the Giants are unbound by convention. They’re willing to try just about anything.
For one, they needed a starter for a May 22 game against the Dodgers, and so 37-year-old Scott Kazmir — out of the big leagues since 2016 — strode to the mound in the second game of the first series of the year against Los Angeles. There are potential rebound starters (Gausman, DeSclafani) and there is Kazmir, whose five-year absence from major-league action surpassed his previous record: the 2½ years between 2011-2013.
Against the Dodgers, Kazmir threw four solid innings. He looked a little thicker than the last time around, with a gold necklace sparkling in the afternoon sun — essentially like a 37-year-old who normally spends his weekends on his dirt bike with the boys from the brake shop. He pitched in relief a few days later, made another start in early June and was released.
For another, Sammy Long. He’s a 25-year-old lefthander who hadn’t pitched above A ball before this season. Two years ago, after being released by the Rays and then the White Sox, he left baseball and took classes to become an EMT. Out of baseball in 2018 and 2020, he decided to give it another shot — why not? — and the Giants signed him in November. He bolted his way through Double-A and Triple-A, and found himself on the mound in Texas in the second inning Wednesday, relieving opener Zack Littell. Long struck out seven in four innings, allowing one run. He walked off the mound looking around the stadium — like he wanted to soak it all in, just in case it doesn’t happen again.
THERE WAS A moment during one of Anthony DeSclafani‘s May starts, on a Wednesday afternoon in Cincinnati, when his pitches suddenly and without warning, rebelled against him. These pitches were not just out of the strike zone; they were barely catchable, as if DeSclafani had decided to experiment with pitching with his eyes closed. Pitching coach Andrew Bailey jogged out to the mound, delivered a quick message and jogged back to the dugout. Immediately, DeSclafani’s pitches regained their equilibrium. A fastball at 95 at the top of the zone, a hard slider on the outside corner, another belt-high fastball with arm-side movement on the inside half. The announcers, and anyone else not privileged to the exchange between DeSclafani and Bailey, extolled the obvious wisdom of Bailey’s words.
Which, in real life, were:
“Hey, you doing all right?”
“He was just checking on me, wondering what was up,” DeSclafani says. “That happens to me once or twice a year. I throw five or six pitches and have no idea where they’re going. Just one of those weird moments in a season.”
His honesty is disarming. He is standing at the left-field end of the Giants’ dugout in Oracle Park, and he’s got his palms raised to the sky. I think he’s laughing, but I can’t be sure — we’re both masked up, and I’m leaning over the railing having this conversation like someone pleading for an autograph.
Like Gausman before him, DeSclafani came to the Giants as a free agent after the team’s research flagged him as a tweak or two away from becoming a consistent third or fourth starter. DeSclafani had a 3.89 ERA in 31 starts for the Reds in 2019, after which he altered the grip on his slider — his second-best pitch — with the idea of creating more vertical movement. The pitch got worse — humpy, slower, easier for the hitter to read — and DeSclafani’s 2020 season (7.22 ERA in nine starts) left him with a limited number of suitors.
“I never thought my value was down,” he says, “but there was a lot of stock put into last year with the short season. Some teams ignored the numbers because they knew everyone was going through their own thing. I don’t like to make excuses, but for me — a free-agent year, shortened season, a pregnant wife during a pandemic. There was a lot going on.”
The Giants recruited him with a plan: Throw the slider harder, with more horizontal movement to make it harder to distinguish from his four-seam fastball. They told him to use his two-seam grip for his long-toss workouts as a means of helping his hand stay behind his four-seam fastball and increase velocity and spin rate. “The information they had on me was eye-opening,” DeSclafani says, and he’s become a dependable, and at times spectacular, part of the Giants’ rotation.
“Look, it’s a frickin’ tough game, man,” he says. “Sometimes I just find myself out there thinking, I’m in the big leagues, and everybody’s so frickin’ good.”
And this is how we found ourselves talking about Mariners catcher Jose Godoy. The night before, Godoy became the 20,000th player in Major League Baseball history. (Godoy’s place in history is debatable, given the competing narratives regarding the actual beginnings of professional baseball and what constitutes Major League Baseball, with its awkward attempt at including the Negro Leagues, but round numbers worked for our purposes.) It sounds like a big number, I told DeSclafani, but every person who ever played in the big leagues, from its bare-handed, fenceless inception in the 1870s to right now, wouldn’t fill half of this ballpark.
“That’s super insane to think about,” DeSclafani said, and then he got quiet and his eyes went up into the stands. He was having a moment, as if envisioning himself up there posing for the team photo, sitting equidistant from Hank Aaron and Rickey Henderson while several generations of his family and old coaches and every teammate from Howell Township, N.J. onward stood on the field and looked up at him, one of the 20,000. “And then think about how many of those 20,000 have been up here for any amount of time,” he says, still looking up. “Super insane. When you think about it that way, it’s so hard not to ride the emotional train. When you’re good, when you shove, there’s no better feeling. And when you have a bad day it’s really hard to forget it. It’s super easy to have the wrong thoughts out there.”
The next day, perhaps feeling the haunting glare of the 20,000, DeSclafani went out and gave up 10 runs in less than three innings against the Dodgers. But then, two starts later against the Cubs, he pretty much shoved — six innings, two runs — and drove in a run with an opposite-field double, his first hit in two years.
MANAGER GABE KAPLER is talking about how his team goes out of its way to emphasize its players’ best attributes when he — unsolicited — brings up Brandon Belt. Kapler is a metric-driven (and media-savvy) manager. He makes pitching changes that value game situation over the save stat and pinch-hitting decisions based on matchups rather than recent performance. He is the on-field manifestation of Zaidi’s vision, which means hunches and gut feelings have no place in the conversation. Given that, introducing Belt into the conversation feels purposeful.
“There are folks around the game who think Belt should be hitting more home runs, or driving in runs in different ways,” he says. “We feel Brandon Belt is very good just the way we got him. We love how he grinds at-bats, the way he gameplans, plays great defense. The one thing we try to share with Brandon is, ‘Hey, you’re good how you are.'”
Belt’s main flaw, in the eye of the critics, is that he takes too many good pitches. But if you watch him for any length of time, you will come to the conclusion that he knows the strike zone better than most umpires. Along with that knowledge comes a stubborn, almost pathological insistence on taking any pitch that is as much as a micron out of the strike zone. The count doesn’t matter, the situation doesn’t matter. Maybe on principle as much as anything else, Brandon Belt will not sacrifice his standards for your entertainment.
Belt, however, contains multitudes; many of his numbers (high walk totals, high OBP, stellar defense) make him an advanced-metric all star. But the optics don’t always match the metrics. His swing, a quick scythe, ends immediately after contact and is dropped like an apology. There are a lot of called third strikes (his K-rate this season — a career-high 32.4% — is second-highest on the team), and a lot of slow, bat-dragging walks back to the dugout wearing the facial expression of a kid who knows he’s going to get yelled at in the minivan the whole ride home.
Belt is in his 11th season with the Giants, and his languid, droll demeanor has become part of the landscape. Asked on a pregame videoconference call with reporters what it felt like to be playing in a game for first place for the first time in five years, Belt said, “Definitely more fun than not being in first place.”
NOBODY IS MORE emblematic of “what this is” than Mike Tauchman. From the time Zaidi took over the Giants after the 2018 season, he’s been low-key obsessed with Tauchman. He tried to acquire him from the Rockies back then, but Colorado didn’t want to trade him to a team in its division. (Besides, given the way the Muncy trade worked out, Zaidi’s eagerness might have raised suspicions.) “They didn’t hang up the phone,” Zaidi says, “but they weren’t really interested.” Eventually, the Rockies traded Tauchman to the Yankees, and Zaidi kept at it, finally trading for him in April for reliever Wandy Peralta.
Tauchman is a left-handed hitting outfielder who has crafted a career out of little bits of this and that — a little power, a little speed. But he happens to have a lot of two things Zaidi cherishes: versatility and plate discipline. He plays every outfield spot, can hit just about anywhere in the batting order and possesses a unique ability to make pitchers work harder than they’d prefer in order to get him out.
“Working pitchers is the identity of this club,” Tauchman says of a team that has allowed just one opposing pitcher to last through the seventh inning. “Swing at the right pitches, work counts — I knew right away that was something I could contribute.”
And on a Friday night in Dodger Stadium, with Albert Pujols beginning his jog around the bases after hitting a game-winning home run, Zaidi’s low-key obsession changed the identity of the 2021 Giants. They had lost four straight to the Dodgers, and it felt like the regression thing was happening quickly. It is, after all, easy to have the wrong thoughts. But Tauchman jumped above the left-field wall, and Tauchman fell, and when Tauchman rolled around on the warning track it became clear the ball was in his glove.
The Giants beat the Dodgers that day, and they did it again the next day and the day after that. They have continued to win at a faster clip than the Dodgers and Padres. They reached the quarter mark of the season with — hilariously — the best record in baseball. So what is this, and what will it eventually become? Zaidi doesn’t know, at least not yet, but there are times when it feels like a challenge central to the game’s core: transforming mathematics into one of the humanities.
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