The San Francisco Giants came up to the plate 34 times Friday night. In every one of those plate appearances, they either had the tying or go-ahead run at the plate. In theory, that’s the best kind of baseball. Every pitch mattered. Every plate appearance, every ball, every strike, every full count, every ball in play. The game was in the balance with all of them.
In practice, the game should have come with a warning about operating heavy machinery. At no point did it actually feel like every pitch mattered. The Giants lost to the White Sox, 1-0, because of an error, a ball that hit third base and a two-out hit. Any of these events would have constituted one of the biggest thrills of the night if they had happened for the Giants instead of to them, but they most certainly happened to the Giants. They led to the only run of the night. Which was scored by the other team. And it’s hard not to reach an inescapable conclusion.
The 2022 Giants are dull.
There have been dull stretches in Oracle Park before. Seasons worth of them. There have been teams that couldn’t pitch, teams that couldn’t hit and teams that couldn’t do either. There have been hopeless teams, and there have been teams that were already mathematically eliminated from the following season. This year’s team isn’t any of those. Any comparison to some of those ultra-dull Giants teams comes with an air of entitlement and selective amnesia.
But you feel it, especially at home. It’s been months since Duane Kuiper screamed, “RUF IS ON THE MOVE,” and there’s been a tiny archipelago of brilliant moments since then. There was the all-time wackiness of the Mets game, the sweep of the Dodgers and a walk-off against the Rockies, but there’s an ocean of lukewarm baseball around those islands.
It’s not just anecdotal evidence, either. Here are all of the high-leverage plate appearances of the season, according to Baseball-Reference. Scroll down to the bottom and check out what the Giants have done in these late-and-close situations in their last three home series, against the Royals, Reds and Tigers. These are moments in which the crowd is waiting to erupt, waiting to have fun, waiting to feel good about their decision to come to the ballpark. A random sampling looks like this: pop fly, pop fly, walk, strikeout swinging, walk, single that didn’t score the runner from second, foul pop, grounder, double play.
My favorite analogy for the languid pace of baseball is that it’s a progressive jackpot, a quarters slot in Las Vegas with a big display of spinning numbers. Someone’s gonna put a quarter in that sucker and win the whole thing, and guess what, maybe it’s you. Except unlike a slot machine, it’s a guaranteed progressive jackpot. You will be rewarded for investing so much time into baseball. There will be a moment, a game, a week, a month, a season, a postseason where it’s all worth it, and you’re glad that you spent hours pumping quarters into it.
Until then, you feel like a goober putting that many quarters into it. And it takes a lot of quarters to park in San Francisco.
The Giants are capable of scoring runs. You know this. They know this. They’ve had double-digit run totals in seven games this season, which is more than the 2012 or 2014 team had in a full season. The Giants aren’t likely to stay at the top of the runs-scored leaderboard if they don’t improve, but they’ve never been a below-average or average lineup, even with all sorts of injuries.
The 2022 Giants are temporarily dull? Maybe that’s safer to say. For now.
There’s no excite-o-meter that can tell you just how fired up you would have been if Nick Castellanos (.689 OPS) or Trevor Story (.720 OPS) were in the lineup Friday, but it’s hard to claim the current drudgery is all an offseason problem. The Giants ended up with one of the best free-agent hitters going – Joc Pederson, All-Star finalist – and he couldn’t offer pizazz, either.
Well, maybe he could have. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Austin Slater led off with a walk, and Pederson’s spot was due up. But left-hander Tanner Banks was on the mound, so manager Gabe Kapler executed a line change and sent Darin Ruf up to pinch hit. He promptly grounded into a double play to quash the rally.
Let’s be very clear about this: It was the right move. You can sniff and say it was the right move “on paper” with finger quotes, but since Pederson came into the league, he’s been one of the very worst hitters in baseball against left-handed pitching. Ruf has been a monster against lefties, and he’s continued hitting them well this year.
But let’s also be very clear about something else: The Giants’ pinch hitting has been abominable this season. Just a few months after they set a major-league record for pinch-hit home runs in a season, the Giants cannot find a tiny speck of that same magic. They have exactly zero pinch-hit homers this season, even though they’ve sent a pinch hitter up 102 times, which is 25 more than the team that’s sent the second-most. For every pinch hitter the Braves have sent up this season, the Giants have sent six, yet the Braves have two pinch-hit doubles in 16 PA this year; the Giants have one in 102.
Sending up a pinch hitter with the platoon advantage in a crucial spot is smart. When it works, the smart team is rewarded. When it doesn’t work, over and over and over again, it’s dull. Temporarily dull, perhaps, but certainly dull right now.
(The Giants do one thing well as pinch hitters: They walk. They have a .195 batting average and a .208 slugging percentage, but they have a .343 on-base percentage. The Giants take a lot of pitches and work the count as well as any team in baseball. But if you had to rank the dullest skills you want your team’s hitters to have …)
Part of the solution is getting the previously productive players back on track. Brandon Belt is in a gnarly funk at the moment, and his eighth-inning at-bat with a runner on first base was one of the more exciting moments of the late innings. He struck out looking on a borderline pitch because that’s what he does when he’s in those funks. He should pull himself out aaaaany day now.
Part of the solution is getting the roster healthier. The last out of the game was made by Jason Vosler, and even if he would have reached, he would have been followed by Austin Wynns and Donovan Walton. That trio has sold a total of zero shirseys over their major-league careers, and that kind of last-chance hope in the ninth inning gets us back to the adjective of the day. Don’t be too hard on them – it’s LaMonte Wade Jr. bobblehead day Saturday, so things can turn around quickly for lesser-known Giants – but as a way to end a 1-0 loss that never felt that close, it seems notable.
There were positives on the night, such as Alex Cobb finally getting defense behind him that prevented runs instead of allowing them. He’s earned about six more nights like this. Giants fans, though, have earned about six more nights not like this. They’ll probably get them. Assuming the Giants are better than their middling record since the end of April, they’ll probably get them soon.
That’s a big assumption, though. Especially on a night that they were so … well, you know.
(Top photo of Donovan Walton making a catch near Chicago’s Jose Abreu during the sixth inning Friday: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)