The end made Farhan Zaidi think about the beginning. When the institution that is Bruce Bochy left, the Giants president of baseball operations’ chief job last offseason became sorting through the ranks for the right person to replace a legend.
There is one face he settled on: Gabe Kapler, whom he had worked with in Los Angeles, who was fired by Philadelphia. But it was the other faces whom Kapler had in mind that helped seal the gig.
“Nobody was more prepared to talk about what their staff would look like and specific ideas that they had of people who would be good coaches for this organization than Gabe did,” Zaidi said at the end-of-season news conference Wednesday. “I think it was one of the reasons he won many people over, that level of preparation and attention to detail. And the staff as a whole deserves a lot of credit, but he deserves a lot of credit for putting the staff together, for taking chances on the staff, for taking chances on the size of the staff, which got a lot of skepticism from certain parts early in the season.”
Culling together the 13-person staff, which included a three-headed hitting team of Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind who presided over a remarkable hitting upturn, was an “unbelievable job” by Kapler, Zaidi said. Both faces of the organization, the president and manager, appeared at the exit interview, the club moving toward its future with those two entrenched for reasons beyond Kapler’s in-game managing.
The hitting trio enabled the offense to go from the third least runs scored to the eighth most in baseball without the personnel overhaul that would be expected. The pitching group, led by Andrew Bailey in the dugout and Brian Bannister’s voice from afar, got plenty out of the arsenals of Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly, though perhaps should be most commended for navigating the group through pauses and start-ups and short camp 2.0 without nearly as much elbow and shoulder injuries as other teams absorbed, Jeff Samardzija the exception. The infield defense under Kai Correa improved as the season went on, Brandon Crawford standing out particularly as a player whose metrics were far kinder in 2020 than 2019.
The club’s core went mostly untouched — the Brandons were back, Buster Posey will be back, Evan Longoria manned third. And yet the results, a hitting-led team that played 60 meaningful games if not a postseason one, improved.
“It was definitely different just from having kind of the same group for so many years,” said Crawford, who had played under Bochy since 2011. “So it was just different from that perspective and just having different coaches, different philosophies and stuff like that.
“But I mean, I think a lot of it worked. You look at what our team did this year and how nobody really expected that.”
It is a lot of praise for a manager and a staff who had to succeed not just a Hall of Famer but a staple of the community, and there are pockets of Giants fans who will not accept Kapler because of his predecessor, because of his role in mishandling an assault allegation involving Dodgers minor leaguers or because of the advanced analytics he relies heavily upon.
But, as Crawford said, it worked.
“Let’s face it,” Zaidi said after the club finished 29-31, the same as the playoff-bound Brewers, “We started this year without a lot of expectations of how competitive we’d be.”
The in-game managing, as much as the move Friday night to stick with Sam Coonrod will linger, also worked. Kapler found roles, if less-traditional ones, for relievers who mostly lacked resumes. A bullpen that, through Aug. 16, posted the second worst ERA in baseball (6.52) became the best bullpen in MLB in the last six weeks with a 2.60 ERA.
Offensively, Kapler found advantages with any at-bat he could, employing plenty of platoons but being open to change when hitters (like Donovan Solano, Wilmer Flores and Brandon Belt) showed they couldn’t be removed from lineups regardless of who the opposing starting pitcher was.
“I thought Gabe did a great job with the in-game managing as well,” said Zaidi, who upped the Giants’ 2021 expectations from progress to playoffs. “We’ve talked about how this was a roster that required some proactive management, required sort of matching up at certain times. We didn’t have starters working deep into games. He had to patch together, with Andrew Bailey working together with him, a lot of games where we had to get nine, 12, 15 outs out of the bullpen. And that’s really hard to do.
“To be up to those challenges in so many ways and get us right up to the brink, in a way that exceeded expectations — personally, I’m really proud of the job that he did and from a professional standpoint, I know a lot of people across the organization are really grateful to have him in this role as manager.”
Include Larry Baer among those grateful.
“A lot of positive feeling about the direction we’re going and a lot to build on going forward,” the CEO said over Zoom. “So really a big step forward to 2020 with all the obstacles, all the challenges that we all know about. But a good basis for 2021 on the field.”