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First half review: Giants’ youth movement has saved 2018 season

© Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Two straight losses to your Bay Area rival leaves a bitter aftertaste that won’t wash away until the All-Star break concludes. But for a second, let’s rewind to a time four months ago when the Giants entered this season at a strange crossroads. With many of their pieces from multiple World Series-winning teams under contract beyond 2018, rebuilding seemed long and treacherous, while reloading seemed falsely hopeful.

The Giants were bad last year. Their 64-98 record was tied for the worst in baseball. No Giants team in the past 23 years produced fewer wins. They finished 40 games behind the NL West-winning Los Angeles Dodgers at season’s end. The 2017 season might as well have concluded in July.

Instead of moving in another direction this offseason, the Giants doubled down, sticking with an aging core while adding headliners Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria, both players at the tail end of their primes. Four years ago, this lineup would have made opponents shudder. Eight Giants position players have at least one All-Star appearance, but what about now? Buster Posey was the last to earn the honor in 2017. San Francisco entered 2018 as the oldest team in the National League.

Those transactions left us more curious than optimistic. For this to work, Longoria and McCutchen would have to provide middle-of-the-order production and power to a team comfortably last in homers in 2017. The starting pitching staff would have to yield long outings and stay healthy to take the pressure off an unproven bullpen. And even then, the Dodgers were still too big and powerful to make this a legitimate race, right?

Not exactly.

Madison Bumgarner missed the first three months of the season with a fractured fifth metacarpal in his throwing hand. Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija bounced in and out of the disabled list to combine for 17 starts in the first 98 games. The Giants did not have a fully healthy starting pitching staff until the 89th game of the season. Every starting infielder not named Brandon Crawford missed at least 13 games with injuries.

Knowing these circumstances at the season’s beginning, how many wins are you giving the Giants 98 games in? More than the 37 they had at this time a year ago?

Maybe, but probably not 50.

Yet that’s where we are, with the Giants two games over .500 and trailing the division-leading Dodgers by just four games at the All-Star Break. The Giants chose not to rebuild and start over with young and largely inexperienced personnel, but it has been those players — not the aging All-Stars— who have saved the Giants’ season.

It is fitting that Opening Day featured Ty Blach outlasting Clayton Kershaw to a 1-0 win in Los Angeles. The starting pitching staff relied on Blach, Chris Stratton, Derek Holland, and a group of rotational pieces to hold the Giants over until Bumgarner, Cueto, and Samardzija returned. Both Blach and Holland would eventually be relegated to the bullpen, and Stratton was optioned to Triple-A in early July after a brutal June.

Just as cracks started to show, the Giants rookies stepped up. Namely, Andrew Suarez and Dereck Rodriguez.

Suarez has been a starting staple since May. He struggled during his debut month, compiling a 5.46 ERA. But he has shrunk that to 3.94 ever since, including a six-game stretch from June to July in which he threw six straight outings without allowing more than two runs in any appearance.

Like Suarez, Rodriguez has played himself into a starting role among this rotation. In fact, he has been the Giants’ best pitcher since he debuted May 29. Rodriguez has allowed more than three runs just once in seven starts, five of which he lasted at least six innings. His 2.89 ERA leads all Giants starters, and he has posted a terrific 1.24 WHIP.

The Giants bullpen, one of the seeming weaknesses entering this season, has been better than advertised. Their 3.65 ERA ranks 10th in the majors, and their 10 shutout appearances are tied for second-most.

The breakout star among the group is 25-year-old Reyes Moronta, who boasts a 1.93 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. He has struck out nearly 11 batters for every nine innings. Moronta was one out away from a nine-inning no-hitter entering this past weekend, accumulated throughout 10 appearances, but he allowed a homer in his last appearance.

Meanwhile, the Giants lineup has endured quite the inconsistent first half. San Francisco has benefited from timely hitting, however, leading the majors with eight walk-offs and going 16-13 in one-run games. Career-best seasons from All-Star starter Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt have been instrumental, while contributions from many young, unheralded hitters have rounded out an ever-changing lineup.

One by one, the Giants’ young hitters have provided much-needed production.

The first of many rookie surprises was Mac Williamson, who belted three homers in his first 19 at-bats back in late April. Six games into his Major League career, he suffered a concussion as he ran into the left field wall in AT&T Park, halting his scalding start. He has struggled to regain a rhythm ever since, spending the past three-plus weeks in Triple-A.

His counterparts have picked up the slack. Second baseman Alen Hanson has been an important asset that Bruce Bochy has deployed at second base, third base, and outfield. The 25-year-old is not technically a rookie, but he had never eclipsed 217 at-bats at the big league level entering 2018. He replaced Joe Panik when he was sent to the disabled list in April and proved he belongs ever since. Hanson’s .283 batting average is fourth among Giants with a minimum of 150 at-bats. He is tied for the team lead with four steals.

Rookie Austin Slater is hitting .286 with a .721 OPS since June 23. Rookie Steven Duggar has six doubles in his first 28 career at-bats since he was promoted July 8, while providing the Giants with speed in center field. Chase d’Arnaud was promoted earlier this month and has hit .333 with a .391 OBP in his first Major League action of the season.

None of these players were on the 25-man Opening Day roster. They have imbued life into a team that teetered on tailspinning several times.

“They just look like they belong,” Bochy said Saturday. “These guys, they are coming up here and trying to make a statement, and they’re doing a good job of it.”

We would never forget Gorkys Hernandez, the Giants’ biggest revelation in 2018. The 30-year-old is second on the Giants with 11 homers this season. Hernandez had just four career homers in 525 career at-bats entering the 2018 season. He did not hit a single homer last season.

How do you explain that?

How do you explain this season?

The Giants do not have a single player in the top-30 in average, OPS, slugging, doubles, RBI, runs, homers, or WAR entering the break. They have deployed 17 different position players and nine starting pitchers. They have thrown 24 pitchers in total, including Pablo Sandoval, who needed just 11 pitches to produce a perfect inning in a 15-6 loss in late April.

Much of this trumps reasoning. Granted, the National League West has evened out, with four teams currently within four games of the division lead. The Dodgers no longer seem indestructible (though a Manny Machado signing could change that).

The verdict is still not out on this Giants team, which Bochy says needs to find more consistency. But at least we have reason to watch and remain hopeful for some October magic, which could not be said at this time a year ago.

Credit that to the young guys.


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