What Made The 2021 Giants Special?
(originally written 5/24/22)
About 10 days into the 2021 MLB season, I did something I hadn't done since 2009 or so—I called in to a sports talk radio show. Specifically, "The Final Word" on 95.7 The Game.
I called because even that early into the season, I was convinced the 2021 San Francisco Giants would be "right there at season's end". Meaning they were going to at the very least contend strongly for the division title.
Historically, my sports predictions have proven to be 400% correct in a couple cases (most notably, me telling anyone who would listen that the 2019 49ers would go to the Super Bowl...after Week 2) and frighteningly inaccurate in other cases (Joe Nathan was every bit the stud in Texas as he'd been in Minnesota, contrary to my loud proclamations).
In summary: my crystal ball is a little fogged up.
But when it came to the 2021 Giants...I just knew.
I won't reinvent the past and sit here saying I knew all along the hirings of Farhan Zaidi to run the Giants baseball operations in 2019 and Gabe Kapler to manage the team on the field in 2020 were home runs. I did not support adding Zaidi or any of these "analytical" types who never played the game themselves at any level higher than T-Ball, at best. Besides, he was a Dodger.
For Gabe Kapler's vision to work, veterans such as Brandon Belt, Donovan Solano and Wilmer Flores (pictured) had to buy in. And they all did.
As for Kapler...I wasn't sold. He'd made those embarrassing gaffes while running the 2018-19 Phillies. His club disappointed in 2018 and flat-out underachieved in 2019 despite adding Bryce Harper. Kapler didn't deserve full blame for the Phils' mediocrity, but there was nothing to really credit him for, either. Yeah, he had energy and yeah, he'd won as a player. But you could say the same things about Manny Ramirez, whose only qualification to be a major league manager is knowing how to point.
Early in Zaidi's tenure, he ran through players—especially outfielders—like nurses run through gloves. I didn't get it. But now, it's clear what Zaidi was trying to do. And except for cutting Giants legend Pablo Sandoval, his decisions and his methods were the proper ones (you just don't cut somebody like Sandoval unless you catch him doing heroin while violating an unconscious nun, IMHO) in hindsight.
Under Zaidi and Kapler, Giants fans saw the ballclub do more platooning and defensive subbing than ever before in 2020, and that continued in 2021. At first, it took some getting used to seeing dudes pinch-hit for in the 6th inning, or dudes like Brandon Belt or Brandon Crawford not in the lineup six times a week, or Buster Posey—once he returned to the Giants in 2021—on the bench every third game.
But the results spoke for themselves—both Brandons were unconscious offensively for most of the year, especially Belt, who had BY FAR his most productive season since joining the Giants in 2011. Everybody tied to the Giants got a kick of Belt designating himself "The Captain", revealing a humorous side of himself I'm not even sure HE knew existed.
Posey enjoyed his best season with the bat in about five years and only lost 10 days to the IL (hand) after years of hip/concussion ailments. And Evan Longoria, prior to his freak collision with Crawford in June, played as well as he'd ever had as a Giant.
Then there were the "role" players whose roles were to excel in limited playing time.
Let it be known that the 2021 Giants don't win 107 games without the shocking effort of one LaMonte Wade, whose bevy of big hits in the 7th inning or later earned him the moniker "Late Night LaMonte". He was acquired from Minnesota for a pitcher who bounced through four organizations in 2021 alone. Previously power-challenged with the Twins, Wade had no problem at all clearing fences in a San Francisco uniform.
Platooning CFs Austin Slater and Steven Duggar provided consistent, reliable thunder and lightning after years of challenges. Platooning 2Bs Tommy La Stella and Donovan Solano were mostly solid. Darin Ruf slugged .519 in a part-time role. Backup C Curt Casali seemed to call a shutout every week. IF Wilmer Flores was indispensable rotating all over the infield when Longoria and Belt were unavailable. Flores tied Crawford for the team lead with 139 games played, ripped 18 homers to tie his career-high, and was unconscious down the stretch.
Zaidi continued to make moves as the year wore on, moves that on the surface seemed to help AAA Sacramento more than the major league Giants. Whether through trades or waivers, If a dude with MLB experience became available, Zaidi got him. What he was doing was providing the Giants depth—if somebody went down with injury or didn't perform, Zaidi didn't have to lean on scrubs to plug the holes (as what's currently happening with the 2022 Giants, Luis Gonzalez notwithstanding).
On 9/6/21, Thairo Estrada banged two of the Giants' four home runs against the Rockies. He had four total homers in his two-year MLB career prior to 2021.
Among those moves: acquiring ex-Yankees Mike Tauchman and Thairo Estrada. Though he didn't hit a lick, outfielder Tauchman stole two home runs at the wall, one of which directly won the Giants a game. Sorry, Albert Pujols. Sorry, Juan Soto.
Infielder Estrada had some key moments, homering seven times in 52 games and filling in capably for Solano and Longoria.
On the pitching side, you had Kevin Gausman going from journeyman to Giants ace for much of the year, until young Logan Webb turned in a SEARING-hot stretch of pitching out of practically nowhere. Free agent imports Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood were terrific and solid, respectively, even though Wood usually lost his touch in the 6th inning. And ol' shimmying Johnny Cueto was still around and contributing. I think the loudest cheer of the regular season might have been when Kapler decided to give Cueto a shot at a complete game against Colorado 4/9 after a mound conference. He fell short, but MAN was that an awesome moment.
Tyler Rogers was filthy as a submarining setup man, Jake McGee was an effective addition at closer, though late in the year the filthy Camilo Doval took that role and ran with it (until Game 5 of the NLDS, anyway). The relief corps didn't have a catchy nickname or wacky personalities as the Giants championship bullpens of the 2010's, but far more often than not, they got the job done.
Even the broadcast team had its share of classic calls. Such as Duane Kuiper ordering Webb to "COME ON, WEBB! YOU GOT THREE (BASES) IN YA, LET'S GO!!!" following his drive into Triples Alley. There was also Dave Flemming describing a horrific throw by the Dodgers' Cody Bellinger: "Bellinger throws it SO HIGH!" And the best of all, Jon Miller calling Mike Yastrzemski's Splash Hit grand slam as if only three-year-olds were watching: "THEY ALL SCORE, INCLUDING THE MAN WHO HIT THE BALL!!"
During the 2021 season, not much went wrong for San Francisco other than when 3B Evan Longoria and SS Brandon Crawford managed to collide while in pursuit of an Anthony Rizzo (Cubs) grounder 6/5, knocking Longo out for two months (left), and when Rockies rookie idiot Lucas Gilbreath broke Brandon Belt's hand with a pitch, knocking Belt (.274, 29, 59) out of the NLDS (right).
But in some ways, the very best part of the season didn't even happen on the field.
In late July, Zaidi made it CLEAR that these Giants meant business. He struck what, at the time, looked like a potentially fatal blow to the rest of the National League save for the Dodgers.
He went out and got Kris Bryant—the 2016 NL MVP, annual All-Star and World Series champion—from the Cubs near the Trade Deadline. For practically nothing. It was arguably their biggest addition since Barry Bonds in December 1992 and it had the whole Bay Area buzzing. Even my pal Juan, a casual baseball observer, was moved to call me and get the whole 411 on the newest Giant!
(For good measure, Zaidi also brought back strong lefty reliever Tony Watson from the Angels around the same time. It was officially ON in the National League West.)
It was such an exciting time to be a Giants fan. The 2021 season was so...much...FUN. And that's what made it so special.
Those Giants teams of 2010-14 won in torturous fashion. The 2021 Giants just went out and kicked your ass. They hit 241 home runs, more than the 2012 and 2014 teams put together (235). There were contributions from the old guard (Posey, Belt, Crawford, Longoria, Cueto) the youngsters (Webb, Doval, Duggar, Slater, Rogers) and everybody in between. There were too many late-inning comebacks—most fueled by Wade—to count.
The wins just kept on piling up, so many of them in thrilling fashion.
Once, in August, my tow truck driver and I spontaneously broke down the Giants roster position-by-position; it was clear he felt the same Giants enthusiasm that I did. (It was also clear that in the moment, our discussion was more important than any other stranded motorists on his card...my bad, Bay Area.)
Even my kid and her pals caught Giants fever, if only for one play. When Yastrzemski homered into McCovey Cove 4/24, the kids were every bit as jacked tracking the flight of the ball as me and my friends. And once it splashed...jubilation! These are kids who usually show more excitement over band-aids than ANYTHING related to baseball, yet even they sensed something special was unfolding in front of them.
I was only able to attend one game in 2021, and it didn't go well for the Giants. But it was still so...much...fun, just to be there with 30,000+ like-minded folks who were forced away from Oracle Park in 2020. I even chopped it up with nearby fans, something I never set out to do. Even though the Giants were losing that day, they'd been amazing all season, and we fans basked in what was shaping up to be a magical finish...
...until a certain Rockies pitcher and a certain NLDS umpire took turns fumbling the magic potion.
But we're not going to get into that.
I'm trying to stay positive here.
For 27 years, the 1993 edition of the Giants had been my favorite, but 2021 now claims the top spot. Even with the NLDS loss, even with the horror of the game I attended, even with my failure to re-adjust to names on the back of the home uniforms, even with dudes getting designated for assignment practically every day, I've never been so invested in my Giants than in 2021. I've never enjoyed loving them more than in 2021. And I've never taken them losing harder than I did in 2021.
It stung to watch Gausman and Bryant choose to move on from the Giants over the winter. It was pretty much a given Cueto wasn't coming back for 2022, but Posey shocked a lot of folks by stepping away at 34 (and leaving $22M on the table). Watson's left arm wouldn't allow him to continue his career. Solano and 2020 bomber Alex Dickerson found new addresses for '22.
Although Zaidi found capable replacements for all of them except Posey (at least so far), and the team has mostly done well in 2022, it just isn't the same. It never will be. The 2022 Giants could go all the way and it won't fully measure up to the 107-win Giants of 2021. Belt's humor won't take anybody by surprise this year. Wade couldn't possibly be as heroic this year. Crawford, at 35, is unlikely to have another All-Star performance. Nobody is shimmying.
No more ex-MVP's are going to be acquired for pennies on the dollar. The words "AND HE SLIDES INTO THIRD BASE WITH A TRIPLE, BECAUSE NOBODY THREW HIM OUT AT SECOND BASE!" are not coming from Miller's mouth. And Mike Ford was never given a chance to rob any homers at the wall.
The 2021 Giants season was just too dominant, too unexpected, too amazing and too fun for this year's squad—or any of the next 12 squads—to compare. They were truly, truly special and I WILL NOT let them be forgotten.