Perhaps no game this season has better embodied the 2023 San Francisco Giants, a legitimate playoff contender without scrutiny for such a role, than the one they played at Angel Stadium Wednesday night.
While the Angels passed the ball to Shohei Ohtani, the sport’s pre-eminent superstar who mesmerized the baseball world with his two-way genius, the Giants opened the game with a reliever that made his 29th career appearance. Ryan Walker, a 27-year-old rookie, did his job and threw a scoreless first inning with three strikeouts before leaving Sean Manaea for four innings.
The plan fell through in the sixth inning when Mike Moustakas hit a three-run homer in the Angels’ 4-1 win, but the Giants still held the second of three National League wildcards with a 62-53 record. Two years after a shocking 107-win season and a year after a disappointing 81-win follow-up season, they are back in the playoffs and beating expectations with seven weeks remaining in the regular season.
The question is: how?
The Giants are a big-market club with a hefty payroll — they rank 11th in the majors with $186.6 million, according to Spotrac — but they don’t have star power.
The only giant originally selected for the NL All-Star team was closer Camilo Doval; Starter Alex Cobb later joined him as a replacement. Their best positional player this season – according to FanGraphs WAR – was LaMonte Wade Jr.
His 2.1 WAR, which started Thursday, ranked 63rd in the majors among qualifying position players. For reference, Max Muncy’s 2.2 WAR ranks fifth among the Dodgers’ positional players.
For pitcher Ross Stripling, a former Dodger who signed with San Francisco over the winter, success comes from a common ground.
“Everyone has accepted the way we play baseball,” Stripling said.
How the Giants play baseball would anger a purist. The Giants deny the matches undeterred and set up almost completely different lineups depending on the handedness of the opposing starter. They currently use two conventional starting players – Logan Webb and Cobb – and use opening players for their other games. The metrics and eye tests suggest this is an underperforming defensive team.
However, the Giants are not inherently lacking in star power. They tried to sign high quality players. They pursued Bryce Harper ahead of the 2019 season. Over the winter, they almost signed Aaron Judge, the reigning AL MVP, before Judge spurned them and re-signed with the New York Yankees. They then quickly turned their attention to shortstop Carlos Correa, who agreed to a 13-year, $350 million contract before Correa’s assault raised enough concerns that the Giants canceled the deal.
So the Giants have money to spend, and the industry expects Farhan Zaidi, president of the club’s baseball operations, to spend heavily this winter.
“Farhan tried this offseason,” Stripling said. “I’m sure we’ll try again.”
Naturally, Ohtani is on their target list, according to several people familiar with the organization’s plans and not authorized to speak publicly.
The Giants were on Ohtani’s tight list of potential landing spots when he left Japan for the major leagues following the 2017 season. Ohtani met with the Giants four days before signing with the Angels. Also in attendance at the meeting were then-manager Bruce Bochy and catcher Buster Posey, then the cornerstone of the franchise.
The team promised Ohtani a chance to pitch and become a regular hitter. Without the designated batter in the NL at the time, the Giants told Ohtani they would give him 300 to 400 at-bats as an outfielder when he wasn’t pitching. Ultimately, one of the reasons Ohtani chose the Angels was because they were an American League club that had the DH at their disposal.
After Wednesday’s game, Ohtani, who held the Giants on the mound to an undeserved run for six innings and twice walked at the plate, declined to reopen the Giants’ pursuit.
Ohtani would bring a centerpiece to the organization two years after Posey’s sudden retirement. On the field, he acted as an ace and midfield hitter to compete with the league’s mighties. Off the field, he would resonate with the region’s large Japanese community.
The competition will be tough. The Dodgers, Yankees, Seattle Mariners, Boston Red Sox, New York Mets and Chicago Cubs are among the teams expected to court Ohtani. Right now, the Giants are competing against the odds for a postseason berth.
Outfielder AJ Pollock, another former Dodger, was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Giants the day before the Aug. 1 trade deadline, less than two weeks ago. He made just six appearances for the club before being placed on Wednesday’s injury list. Admittedly, he’s still adjusting to his surroundings. But one aspect has stood out in his short tenure.
“They keep their boys involved,” Pollock said. “They use their pieces. They use the entire 26-man squad. You kind of know the skills. They know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, and they try to put you in the best possible situations, which seems easy, but to be honest not many teams do that.”
Another club that thoroughly exploits its roster is the Dodgers, according to Pollock. Pollock played three seasons in Los Angeles. Stripling spent his first four and a half seasons with the Dodgers. The connections don’t end here. Joc Pederson, Alex Wood and Scott Alexander are among the other former Dodgers in the roster. Manager Gabe Kapler was the Dodgers’ farm manager for three years. Zaidi was general manager of the Dodgers for four years.
Cross-pollination has spawned a similar scheme.
“It’s the same, we have everything a player could need,” Stripling said. “We get all the information we need. We have a coach for everything. As if we had a trainer to teach us how to properly sauna and cool down. So if a player needs something, wants something, we have it.”
A key difference, Stripling emphasized, is expectations. The Dodgers, he said, expected to win every time they got to the ballpark. It was different with the Giants. Outwardly, the San Diego Padres, not the Giants, were expected to challenge the Dodgers in the NL West. Internally, confidence grows the further you go into the season with a squad greater than the sum of its parts.
“This team doesn’t necessarily have that, but we’re on our way there,” Stripling said. “We feel like we belong and we can compete with anyone.”