Why there are no easy fixes for Giants' defensive woes


PHOENIX -- With Madison Bumgarner on the mound Monday afternoon, the Giants went with their usual alignment, favoring right-handed bats over left-handed options who are better defenders. It's what they've done for three years as they have tried to build leads through platoon advantages, but it burned them.

Wilmer Flores brought the go-ahead run home for the Diamondbacks in the second when his throw to third base sailed over Curt Casali's head, allowing a runner to score all the way from first on a sacrifice bunt. With the Giants still trailing by one in the sixth, Tyler Rogers gave up a hard liner to left that turned into an RBI double when Darin Ruf took the wrong angle and the ball skipped all the way to the wall.

It was the kind of sequence that fit right into the last couple months of Giants baseball, as just about everyone on the roster has had similar defensive mistakes at some point recently. It was also the kind of game that made one wonder if the Giants should lock some of their offensive ideas in a drawer for a few weeks and just prioritize playing cleaner defense. 

Brandon Belt has been one of the best first basemen in baseball for a decade but has been platooned since returning from the IL. Mike Yastrzemski might win a Gold Glove in right field one of these years but he, too, usually starts on the bench against lefties. 

Asked on Tuesday afternoon if the staff had discussed prioritizing the better defensive players just to stop the bleeding a bit, manager Gabe Kapler spoke passionately for two minutes and 22 seconds. He understands why that would seem like a good idea, but the Giants are sticking to what has worked for them most of the last three seasons and sticking to the way this roster is built.

It was put together with offense in mind first. There are multiple players in the starting lineup many nights who might be better suited for DH duty, but the Giants still hope to jump on opposing pitchers early.

"The way we built our roster and our philosophy is to try to do things like split games from time to time," Kapler said. "If we start the game with a group that we think can do really good work against a starting pitcher, we can get a little bit of a lead and then get some better defenders in there or pick the right time to get the best defense in there. We've seen that strategy work for us for a while. Even this year, we've seen that strategy work for us.

"In this particular time, I can see why it would make sense to do something a little different. At the same time, I think our players and staff will really benefit from us hanging in there and staying the course."

The problem for the Giants in recent weeks has been that the bats haven't made up for the defensive sacrifices. Ruf had a 142 OPS+ each of the last two seasons, but this year he's at 93, putting him seven points below league average for a hitter. Tommy La Stella is the DH against righties most nights, keeping the Giants from using other bat-first players in that slot, and he has a .283 OBP and an OPS+ that is 11 points below league average. Thairo Estrada is five points below league average and advanced metrics rate his defense as poor, but when the Giants tried to adjust and give Donovan Walton more playing time, the issues were even more glaring. 

There are no drastic changes coming to the roster, and even ones made to boost the lineup won't help the defense. Infielder David Villar was called up Monday but he will primarily play at second base, an unfamiliar position to him, and the defense has been shaky through two games. Yermin Mercedes and Willie Calhoun, two recent additions to the organization, are known for their bats, not gloves. 

The fixes will have to come from within the clubhouse, and one arrived on Tuesday. Brandon Crawford came off the IL after missing nine games during which the infield defense ranged from bad to horror show. Crawford makes the entire defense better, but he's just one player.

"Crawford is a good immediate adjustment," Kapler said. "Beyond that, we just have to keep getting the best out of the players that we have. Every day we work to try and help everybody on this club be the best they possibly can be."

Kapler liked the pregame work he watched Tuesday, which included the usual heavy load of grounders for Crawford, who said his time on the IL was "really beneficial" for a banged-up body. But the Giants will need a lot more than stability at shortstop to come out of this rut, and it's hard to improve your defense too much during a season. 

The personnel is what it is, so what can they do to improve?

"I think some of this has been just as much mental as physical, and I think that's what kind of makes it more frustrating at times," Crawford said. "I think maybe just putting a little bit more focus and emphasis on our defense and on little things, whether it's getting over on a ball to the first baseman by our pitchers, or being heads-up on what base we're supposed to be covering at a certain time, it's just kind of going back to basics on stuff like that and putting a little bit more focus on it."

If the Giants want proof that better days can be ahead, they need only to look at last year. That was primarily the same roster and the exact same slug-first plan and they were fifth in the Majors in Outs Above Average. This season they're dead last in OAA and Defensive Runs Saved, another popular metric, ranks them 27th. 

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The eye test matches that just about every night, but the pieces are mostly still in place to finish games with a solid defense if the Giants can take early leads. That would mean all the bat-first players coming through at the plate before they give way to a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement, and Kapler remains confident that day is coming. 

"I acknowledge that has at times not gone well for us this season," he said. "(But) players in my experience, and staff in my experience, don't love wild swings based on the most recent thing that you saw in the last week, 10 days or even month of the season. Players really appreciate, and for good reason, when you hang in there with them and you trust them even when things get hot. 

"And I think that's where we need to be as a unit right now. Hang in there, even though it seems like there's pressure to make changes and do things dramatically different with a roster that's built for doing it exactly as we're doing it."

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