Farhan Zaidi

What went wrong for Giants in 2023 season, and what's next?

NBC Universal, Inc.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The parking lot behind the visitors clubhouse at Oracle Park isn't very visible to fans, but when the Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres and others get off the bus and walk through the gate, they receive a not-so-subtle reminder of what kind of franchise they're about to face.

The back wall of the stadium is covered with a mural celebrating the franchise's history, with the Giants' 21 National League pennants listed right above the entrance. A few feet away is a list of major league records the Giants hold, starting with being the first North American sports franchise to reach 10,000 wins. The next bullet point is equally impressive.

"Most victories in Major League Baseball History."

As Logan Webb, the man whose face has been plastered across the main entrance at Third and King the last two seasons, spoke in recent days, he often referenced that history. The ace talked about raising the bar and committing to a winning culture. During a 10-minute session with reporters a few hours after Gabe Kapler was fired, he actually directly referenced the accomplishments listed on the ballpark's wall.

"As a kid growing up in Sacramento, watching from afar and then being in the organization, there just seemed to be a certain way that baseball was done here, right?" Webb said Friday.

A few hours later, the Giants clinched a losing season. On Sunday, a 5-2 loss to the Dodgers completed a stunning second-half collapse. Once 13 games above .500, the Giants finished 79-83, fourth place in the NL West and 21 games out of first.

When Farhan Zaidi came up from Los Angeles one month after the 2018 MLB season as president of baseball operations, the hope was there soon would be two superpowers in the NL West. For one season, that proved to be the case, but two years after Kapler earned NL Manager of the Year honors, Zaidi met with him and informed him that it was time to clean out the office.

The news came as a surprise to the players but not a shock. They pull the standings up on their phones just as often as fans do.

"This is just what happens when you lose baseball games," said outfielder Austin Slater, who trails only shortstop Brandon Crawford in Giants tenure. "We've severely underperformed the last month and a half, two months, honestly probably since the All-Star break. It's a combination of sloppy baseball and poor offense. Our pitching that we were riding most of the year, it started to show some holes.

"There's not one point on the team or one person or one group to blame. It was just overall bad baseball."

Ultimately Kapler took the blame, because that's the manager's job. But Zaidi's seat has become uncomfortably warm, and as he and general manager Pete Putila search for a new leader, they also will dig deep into the events of the last three months.

What just happened? How did it happen? And most importantly, how quickly can it be fixed? 

The System

In December, as they waited for Aaron Judge to make his free-agency decision, the Giants signed Mitch Haniger to a three-year, $43.5 million contract, the largest given out by Zaidi. Haniger hit 39 homers in 2021, but he was available at a Giants-friendly price because of injuries that have wrecked the rest of his career. He started his first season in San Francisco on the IL with an oblique strain, and it didn't get much better from there.

Haniger had a .653 OPS when he was hit by a pitch on June 13, and he missed the next 10 weeks with a fracture. The production still wasn't there when he first returned to the lineup, but on Sept. 8, he took Ty Blach deep, joining Wilmer Flores and J.D. Davis to go back-to-back-to-back.

"That's got to feel pretty good for him," Duane Kuiper said on the broadcast.

"Yeah it does," Mike Krukow added. "He's been grinding."

The flurry was one of the Giants' second-half highlights. What went under the radar, though, was the fact that Haniger didn't take his next at-bat. With a right-hander on the mound an inning later, LaMonte Wade Jr. hit for Haniger. 

Three nights later, Mike Yastrzemski led off the game with a homer and then hit a ringing double in his second at-bat. When Yastrzemski came up a fourth time in the seventh inning, a lefty was on the mound, so Kapler turned to Flores.

The Giants spend days poring over the data in preparation for those types of moves. When the pandemic shut down the sport three years ago, Kapler gathered his young staff for Zoom calls, and they simulated games and discussed every pinch-hit decision and substitution at length. In many ways, the Giants never fully climbed out of those simulations.

For four consecutive years, the Giants have led the big leagues in pinch-hitters, and veterans and rookies alike go into every game knowing they might not play nine innings. Luis Matos didn't finish his highly anticipated debut. Marco Luciano didn't, either. As one player recently put it, "they have put a ceiling on every player."

The Giants are far from the only team relying on platoons and openers, but they have pushed down on the gas harder than anyone else. They actively pursue players who fit the model, most notably Joc Pederson, who signed with the knowledge that he'd hardly ever face left-handed pitchers. 

On Friday, Zaidi pointed out that the Dodgers have succeeded with their own platoons, but he conceded that it's a lot easier when your roster includes everyday players such as Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Max Muncy. He said the Giants don't view themselves "as being a system organization," but his players might disagree, and in the end, that matters. The pregame discussions might determine it's a good idea to pinch-hit Mark Mathias for Crawford, but that doesn't mean the clubhouse feels the same way.

"We have to look at everything, and to the extent that we have not put our players in the best position to succeed and haven't gotten the most out of them, that's going to be part of the assessment this offseason," Zaidi said. "I think it's not just a matter of what strategies we employ in games but also how the roster is constituted. ... We're going to have to look at all of that."

Zaidi knows his next manager needs more everyday options, and that will be an offseason focus. With a couple of additions, and -- more importantly -- a couple of young players developing into everyday players, the rest of the pieces will fall more easily into place.

"To be fair, we've had a lot of success doing it," said Slater, who almost exclusively faces left-handed pitching. "I think there's a track record of success. I think there have been times during the season when we haven't necessarily had the personnel to pull it off to the best of our abilities and it's come back to bite us a little bit, but I think there is a track record where there is a lot of success with it."

Roles have been a constant topic of conversation under this regime, but for the most part, any player dissent has been kept in-house. There were occasional grumbles to the media, most notably from starting pitchers who had been moved to the bullpen, but the 2023 Giants genuinely rooted for one another and got along. Several said it was the best group of teammates they ever have been a part of.

And yet, the clubhouse dynamics played a big part in Zaidi's ultimate decision. In his opening statement Friday, he said the Giants were "looking for new and different leadership in our clubhouse, a different dynamic there." 

As Zaidi contemplated the future of the organization last week, it became clear that something in the mix had spoiled.

The Clubhouse

The decision to fire Kapler came four days after Webb passionately spoke about the lack of a winning culture, and less than one week after Yastrzemski said the Giants lacked "edge" and "should take a little more pride in our work."

As the Giants fell out of the wild-card race, some specific complaints started to leak out of the clubhouse. Kapler read it all, and early last week, he referred to some of the anecdotes about postgame soundtracks or card games as "a smokescreen."

Some things aren't as easily shrugged off, though. The word mentioned most often over the past two weeks was "accountability," and many Giants players and coaches believe that just didn't exist as the season started to fall apart.

"There needs to be a standard of how we play baseball here," Webb said. "It's one of the first things I learned when I first came up. I got to play in a clubhouse with Bum [Madison Bumgarner] and Buster [Posey] and [Brandon] Belt and Craw, and there's a standard to playing San Francisco Giants baseball. I think we haven't done a good job of that. I don't think we have a set standard of winning every single day when we come here.

"It's not saying that we don't try to. I don't think anybody in here is not trying to win every day, but to me, we shouldn't be coming in every day trying to win. There should be an expectation to win. There should be a brand of baseball that we play every single day and who we are as people and what we do in the clubhouse."

At multiple points of the collapse, the Giants tried to reset the bar. Thairo Estrada called a team meeting and Zaidi later did the same, with Yastrzemski, Alex Wood and Ron Wotus also speaking the second time. But the Giants left neither session believing that they had turned the tide.

After Estrada spoke, Kapler flashed a thumbs up and then retreated to his office. Kapler's method always has been to focus on one-on-one conversations. He's not a believer in flipping tables or being ejected from games.

"Do I think those things can be valuable at times? Maybe," Kapler said before one of his final games. "Do I think it's the best way to get the most out of people over the course of time? I don't."

For four years, Kapler insisted that every day should be treated the same. When he looks back on the end of the 2023 season, perhaps that's what he'll most regret. 

With their backs against the wall in September, the Giants never punched back. They went 9-19 over their final months, and Zaidi mentioned the two disappointing performances in a crucial series in Arizona during a startlingly honest appearance on KNBR one day before Kapler was fired. The next day, he said he wouldn't argue with anyone who drew a line between that 2-8 road trip and the decision he ultimately made, calling those games "hard to watch."

"We were starving for leadership," one member of the clubhouse said of the September collapse. "It wasn't there."

On Friday, Yastrzemski described it as a "fend-for-yourself atmosphere that somehow fell into place."

"I don't know where it came from, but it kind of just took over where everybody felt like they could do their own thing and it made it feel like there wasn't an entire group effort or a sense of unity," Yastrzemski said.

It can be hard to pinpoint how a lack of accountability plays out over nine innings, but over the last week, a half-dozen players pointed to one area where it was glaring. The Giants had the worst defense in baseball last year, and while it was better this season, particularly on the infield, they still made a league-high 117 errors. 

For four years, this roster has been built with defense seemingly being an afterthought, with players such as Darin Ruf, Yermin Mercedes and Pederson regularly thrown into the outfield mix, and one of the costliest mistakes of the second half came when Pederson couldn't catch a fly ball in Chicago. When a veteran came up short on a seemingly catchable ball, as Haniger did in Arizona, Kapler often pointed to the catch probability as a way of saying nobody was at fault.

But in the dugout, players watched those outs turn into doubles and wondered how it was all happening again. "It would be nice," one pointed out, "if we had a few more athletes."

The lack of attention to detail on defense infuriated some when a crucial game in Colorado was lost because Camilo Doval incorrectly backed up the plate. The pitching staff generally did a poor job of holding runners, an ongoing issue that catcher Patrick Bailey's arm could hide for only so long.

For an organization long built on pitching and defense -- which is sort of a necessity, given the difficulty in attracting free-agent hitters -- it has been a jarring turn.

As Zaidi thinks about the future, he'll need to take a look at the clubhouse dynamics and pregame work, and not just at Oracle Park.

There's a sense within many in the organization that Giants prospects aren't properly being taught to win or compete as they make their way through the organization. Perhaps the best example of that was the way the Giants treated top prospect Kyle Harrison, who threw more than 75 pitches just four times in Triple-A and was consistently pulled as he fought to work his way out of jams -- and then all of a sudden threw 91 pitches twice in six days against big league lineups. 

Harrison bounced back and ended his season with five hitless innings Sunday, and there's little doubt to anyone in the organization that he has the competitive fire the Giants seek. In Webb, Harrison and Alex Cobb, who pitched through an injury to try and reach the playoffs, the rotation is off to a good start, and while it can be hard for starters to be vocal, given they only play once every five days, a whole rotation of grinders can set a tone for 26 players. 

Six months after he took the ball on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, Webb finished his season with a complete game against the Padres on what proved to be the final night in contention. He became the first Giant to lead the big leagues in innings pitched since 1970 and should finish in the top three in Cy Young Award voting. 

It was one of the best seasons a young Giants pitcher has ever had, but Webb frowned when asked if he was happy with it. He's well aware the Giants went 15-18 in his starts.

"I'm obviously proud of some of the stuff I was able to do, but something I really want to get back to is winning on the days that I throw," he said.

That problem doesn't fall on Webb but on a lineup that gave him the worst run support in baseball, and the people who put it together.

The Talent

In the end, the math on how the Giants finished four games under .500 actually is pretty simple.

They ranked dead last in the big leagues in runs over the final three months of the season, when their playoff hopes crumbled. They set a franchise record for strikeouts. They ranked 19th with 174 homers, 67 fewer than in 2021, when a similar high-risk, high-reward approach crushed opposing pitchers. They stole just 57 bases, finishing 15 behind the next closest team and 16 behind Atlanta Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. himself.

While trying to keep up with a Dodgers lineup that had four players reach 100 RBI, the Giants failed to get a single player to 70. They had only one player reach 20 homers, and their highest-paid player had just 15. The most expensive addition of the offseason batted .209. Estrada stole 23 bases, and nobody else even reached five. For all of the excitement the rookies brought, none finished with an above-league-average wRC+.

For much of the season, the Giants had just two reliable starting pitchers in their rotation. Their No. 3 starter had a 4.88 ERA before being shut down for a second consecutive season. The front office committed $50 million to two free agents to fill out the rotation -- and they combined to make 21 starts. 

Does anything in those previous three paragraphs indicate this was a playoff team? 

Kapler took the fall, but ultimately, the Giants proved to be outmanned. A disappointing offseason carried over. 

The Giants knew it was a long shot to convince Judge to come home, but they pushed hard for it last offseason. They knew Carlos Correa was an imperfect fit in a lot of ways, but they guaranteed him $350 million before backing away because of injury concerns, which ultimately could prove to be a smart decision, given how his first year back in Minnesota went.

Zaidi's first offseason in charge of the organization was highlighted by the pursuit of Bryce Harper, but he still hasn't landed his superstar, the player who makes life easier for eight other hitters. Before he can start the next pursuit, he needs to find a new manager, and he repeatedly said Saturday that this is a great job, pointing to the city, ballpark and influx of young talent.

Harrison, Keaton Winn and Tristan Beck are the start of a wave of young pitching. In Bailey, the Giants have a Gold Glove-caliber catcher behind the plate. Luciano and Casey Schmitt showed flashes of their talent over the final week, and Matos just spent half a season in the big leagues as a 21-year-old. Doval led the NL in saves with 39. 

The Giants believe a young core is emerging, but they need much more.

They will be in on Shohei Ohtani, although that's considered a long shot, and another losing season certainly won't help as they try to sign a superstar who desperately wants to reach the playoffs. They tried to sign Cody Bellinger last year and could make another run at him. They plan to go hard after Japanese right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto and have heavily scouted South Korean star Jung Hoo Lee, a center fielder.

The Giants believe they finally have enough young pitching to deal some of the surplus for everyday position players. That seems like a necessity, no matter what happens in free agency. One way or another, the organization needs to come away from this offseason with more everyday options and a player or two who can sell tickets.

Zaidi said Friday that one of his takeaways from the last few months was the fact he needs to be open and flexible to different perspectives. For the first time, he seemed to acknowledge that on some level, the front office and ownership need to prioritize building in a way that will simply excite fans and bring them back to Oracle Park.

For the last four years, the Giants have done things their way, but heading into a crucial offseason, some of that seems to have been stripped away. They know there's an incredible amount of work to do, on and off the field. 

Zaidi hoped to be previewing the playoffs on the final weekend of the regular season. Instead, he spoke about his decision to fire a friend, and what the last three months have taught him.

"I guess it's not a new lesson," he said, "But the game is humbling."

Download and follow the Giants Talk Podcast

Contact Us