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Miracle in the Bay: Why did the 2021 Giants Beat Expectations?

Pictured is Buster Posey (Left), Logan Webb (Center) and Brandon Crawford (Right).

The 2021 San Francisco Giants were nothing short of outstanding. Preseason predictions about the Giants record had them somewhere between 72-77 wins and FanGraphs, a highly regarded baseball statistic website, projected their record to be 77-85. No one expected the absurd 107-win season they put up. The Giants snatched the NL West Champion right out from under the powerhouse that is the Los Angeles Dodgers, held the most wins in MLB, and hit the most home runs out of all franchises in 2021. The core of this success was a plethora of factors, mostly featuring bullpen success, veteran production, and the emergence of a young ace in the pitching rotation. On a personal note, this season was one of the most fun I ever have had watching baseball in my life. I was lucky enough to attend 2 Giants v. Dodgers games in late July. This experience left me with a tremendous sense of pride for the team that I call myself a fan of. Some spotlight shining is definitely warranted for the 2021 San Francisco Giants.

Well-known faces that Giants fans think of when talking about the Giants’ dynasty in the mid-2010s had an epic resurgence in 2021. In his age-34 season, Brandon Crawford was, perhaps, the most surprising element in the Giants 2021 success story. Crawford has long been renowned for his incredible defense. A simple YouTube search of ‘Brandon Crawford Highlights’ would land you hours of defensive clips. But in 2021, Crawford found his swing and used it to propel the Giants to the top of the NL West. In 138 games, Crawford produced a slash line of .298/.373/.522, by far the best of his lengthy career. Beyond those impressive numbers, Crawford had 90 RBIs, a 139 wRC+, and 24 home runs. These stats from a seasoned veteran are truly insane. Getting 90 RBIs and a 6.3 fWAR season from anyone who is 34 years old is the dream scenario. Giants fans have loved Crawford for his entire career, and his 2021 season fully secured his place in their hearts. As for percentiles, Crawford’s great defense is backed up by his 99th percentile in outs above average, a defensive statistic that uses Statcast data to compare defensive players. On the offensive side, the shortstop placed in the 77th percentile for both xwOBA (expected wOBA) and Barrel % (balls hit at a certain speed and launch angle). His 80th percentile ranking in xSLG is very impressive, especially considering that this was an expected stat, deterring the question of luck in Crawford’s season.

Brandon Belt is next up in the fountain of youth that was the 2021 season. To put it simply, Belt mashes. Although his long stint on the IL a lot took away from his season, Belt still accomplished so much in his 97 games with the Giants. Belt had a career-high 29 home runs, a wild 158 wRC+, and managed to accumulate 3.4 fWAR as a 33-year-old. The surprising thing about Belt is that this was the best power season of his career. The league respects and has long recognized Belt’s big-time pop, so it is shocking that Belt had never hit above 20 home runs in a season before 2021. Belt contributed in a way that was never seen before by the Giants, and they were all for it. Belt slashed .274/.378/.597, good for a .975 OPS. His percentiles were nothing to scoff at either. Belt ranked in the 94th percentile for Barrel % and the 89th for xSLG. The Captain’s stats were no stroke of luck. Brandon figured something out with the stick in 2021, and the Giants reaped the rewards from this lefty.

To wrap up the veteran success, Buster Posey found himself at the center of the 2021 Giants team. Posey, the former MVP and 3-time world champion, had an astonishing season. After opting out of the 2020 shortened season in order to safely care for two new babies that he had recently adopted, Posey was out to make up for lost time. The 2021 Giants saw the 34-year-old backstop put together an insane farewell tour. While his defensive snappiness was no longer the biggest part of his game, landing in the 30th percentile for Pop Time to 2B, Posey more than made up for that at the plate. Posey produced a vintage slash line of .304/.390/.499, good for a .889 OPS. The catcher position is not known for its offensive production, but Posey was out to break that narrative as he played his final MLB season. A truly remarkable stat from Posey’s 2021 season was his walk rate, which clocked in at 12.3%, good for his career-best. This rate landed him in the 87th percentile, but that was not the only red circle this catcher had on his Baseball Savant page. xBA and xSLG were 87th and 75th percentile, respectively, implying that Posey was not getting lucky with his approach at the plate. Posey really had been the guy for the Giants behind the plate for so long. Grabbing ‘Comeback Player of the Year’, NL West Champion, and one of the best offensive seasons in 2021 from a catcher was a perfect way to send off this forever Giant.

The Giants closer is the first pitcher worth mentioning about this 2021 Giant bullpen. Jake McGee, a 34-year-old lefty, found himself shining in the closer role for the Giants. The wild thing about McGee is his pitch mix. McGee threw his fastball 89% of the time, which is seemingly a death trap for a closer. Featuring essentially one pitch in the closer role is an approach that has not been seen in the game for a number of years, especially when McGee’s fastball only averaged 95 mph. McGee’s keys to success were his fastball control and the threat of him throwing his slider. Although rare, McGee featured a slider about 10% of the time. In 2020, McGee threw his fastball 96% of the time and his slider a miserable 4% of the time. The Giants saw this in McGee and realized a change was needed to turn him into a valuable veteran reliever. McGee’s success was also heavily luck-influenced. His Whiff%, HardHit%, and Average Exit Velocity percentiles in 2021 were 13th percentile or lower. These numbers usually point to a reliever who got knocked around, but this is far from the truth. McGee’s traditional pitching slash line gives him a 2.71 ERA with a 24.3 strikeout % and a 4.2 walk %. In 59.2 innings, McGee racked up 31 saves, by far his career-best. McGee truly had a career year in 2021. Giants fans were left somewhat nervous every time he came in, as everyone knew his one-pitch style of closing games. However, McGee provided great value, albeit by being one of the luckier closers of the 2021 season.

Another reliever that was a stand-out piece was Dominic Leone. In 2019 and 2020, Leone certainly did not draw any eyes. He put up a 5.53 and 8.38 ERA in the respective seasons. The Giants took a chance on this righty in 2021 and were heavily rewarded, as Leone produced a 1.51 ERA through 53.2 innings. Beyond those impressive numbers, Gabe Kapler’s management style was great for Dominic as well. Bullpen games were not uncommon in 2021 for the Giants, and Leone made 4 starts during the season. The Giants found a reliever who did not allow home runs (Leone had a lovely 0.34 HR/9) and was able to be the guy who could come in and start a game when most needed. The righty’s Baseball Savant page from 2021 is full of red circles, implying above-average performance, but the blue circles featured on the page are cause for a double-take. Leone sported a below-average walk % (27th percentile) and HardHit% (36th percentile). Both of those are not great from a reliever. When looking at these numbers, the luck factor of baseball creeps into the mind of fans. This “luck” question is especially reinforced when looking at Leone’s expected ERA (xERA). According to Baseball Savant, Leone’s xERA was almost 2 points higher than his actual ERA, clocking in at 3.37 compared to his 1.51 actual ERA. Some magic was occurring out of the Giants’ bullpen in 2021, but this expected stat takes absolutely nothing away from the dominant season that Leone had in 2021. He certainly was a large part of the success the Giants had and will be a great piece in their bullpen in the future.

The Giants had a choice to make entering the 2021 offseason when it came to Kevin Gausman. Kevin had a wonderful season in 2021, slotting him as a highly-regarded starting pitcher free agent. The Giants went the route of letting Gausman leave the Bay to find a home north of the border with the Blue Jays for the 2022 season. A big reason that the Giants’ front office felt comfortable doing this was because of Logan Webb. Webb became the face of the Giants’ rotation by the end of the season, putting up two masterful postseason starts against the rival Dodgers. Webb was tweaked in the offseason before the 2021 season, and sinker development was the main focus of that adjustment period. Webb came back in 2021 featuring one of the most knee-buckling sinkers the league has to offer. This sinker, paired with his change-up, is one of the best tunneling combinations a pitcher could’ve asked for. Webb’s sinker would run into opposing batter’s hands and often back-door the outside corner of the strike zone at 93mph. His change-up, on the other hand, would appear to be the aforementioned sinker out of Webb’s hand, but then dart below the zone into a right-handed hitter's feet. Webb was nasty, plain and simple. His chase rate sat in the 91st percentile. His Barrel % and walk % both were in the 83rd. As for expected stats, his xSLG was in the 88th and his xBA was in the 62nd, still above average. Webb generated ground balls like a mad man. His average launch angle vs. his sinker in 2021 was -5 degrees, and hitters averaged an exit velocity of 87.8 mph (a very low speed) when they did make contact on this pitch. Webb had a 3.03 ERA in 148.1 innings with a 60.9% ground ball rate, good for an fWAR of 4.1. This young ace is just getting started in the Bay, and 2022 has been successful for him too.

The 2021 San Francisco Giants have so many names that were left out of this article that could each be the focus of their own article. The Giants had so many factors all fall into place at once that led to their dominance. Gabe Kapler is a factor worth mentioning, as he transformed the Giants into, arguably, one of the most successful platoon-based offenses of the 2000s. His managing style, paired with incredible production from the pitching and offense, lead this Giants team to the top of the talented NL West. No one thought the Giants would win the division, much less have the most wins in all of baseball. Call it luck, or call it breakout seasons by multiple players. However you choose to see it, there is no denying that the 2021 season for the Giants will be treasured in the storied history of this ball club.


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