Following their extraordinary 2014 World Series Victory, the San Francisco Giants had a rough offseason. They lost two of their top power hitters, Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse, to free agency, and early in spring training one of their remaining home run threats from 2014, Hunter Pence, broke his arm and had to miss most of the first part of the season. Many Giants fans shrugged this off, noting that 2015 is an odd numbered year and therefore not one in which the team is expected to do much. The Giants, after all, had won the World Series in each of the last three even numbered years, but had not even made it to the postseason in an odd numbered year since 2003.
The Giants, however, after a difficult start, won 21 of 30 games in May and now find themselves firmly in contention only half a game behind the NL West leading Los Angeles Dodgers. The Giants relative success can be attributed to many things, a lineup that hits from top to bottom, the resurgence of Tim Lincecum as a good starting pitcher, the great Buster Posey behind the plate or the very savvy offseason pickup of Nori Aoki, who has played all around the outfield and been an excellent leadoff hitter for his new team.
It is not hard to see how this season could fall apart for the Giants. Lincecum could return to being the ineffective starter he was between 2012-2014. The rest of the rotation, other than Madison Bumgarner, could fall apart through a combination of age and injury. Chris Heston, who has been a nice surprise for the Giants this year, could revert to the journeyman he has been throughout most of his professional career. Angel Pagan, as he is wont to do, could spend a significant portion of the season on the disabled list. This type of litany, however, can be recited for any team; and the Giants are no different. For now, however, the Giants are again in the hunt.
Two of the major reasons for the Giants success this year are the Brandons -- Belt and Crawford. Crawford is 28; Belt 27. Both are products of the Giants farm system, two time World Series winners and regulars since 2012. Crawford is probably the second best shortstop in San Francisco Giants history, behind only Chris Speier. Although often seen as a good field no hit shortstop, Crawford has hit 26 home runs since the beginning of 2013, ninth most among big league shortstops. His OPS+ of 106 over that period is fifth highest among shortstops. This year Crawford has already slugged seven home runs, kept his OBP above .370 and has played his usual sterling defense, making him a legitimate contender for second place behind Bryce Harper in the NL MVP race.
Brandon Belt is one of those frustrating players who seem to fall victim to injury or slump just when it looks like he is about to break through as a star. He is prone to periods where it seems he spends weeks doing nothing but walking back to the dugout, bat in hand, after striking out. He also missed of most last season due to an injury, returning in time to contribute modestly in the post-season.
That narrative has obscured another one, that Belt, who just turned 27 in April, has quietly emerged as one of the best young players in the game. Only four players, Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper ,are as young as Belt and have bested Belt's OPS+ of 129 while coming to bat at least 1,500 times in their career. Belt is clearly not the equal of any of those great hitters, but no other hitter younger than 28 has been as good or better than Belt these last few years. Belt's offensive numbers are dampened by playing in a pitcher's park and because, despite being a fan favorite, he is a relatively soft spoken player who has never been able to keep up in that regard with his colorful or better known former and current teammates like Pablo Sandoval. Tim Lincecum, Sergio Romo and Buster Posey.
The Giants' ability to produce impact players from within has been central to their impressive success in recent years. The evolution of the Brandons from solid regulars to stars, and the development of another not very widely heralded prospect, Joe Panik, into a very solid starter are the most recent examples of this. The Giants have also gotten a bit lucky with their farm system. For example, although it is unlikely to look this way at the end of the season, Matt Duffy, a player about whom a year ago all but the most intense Giants fans had heard nothing, is quietly having a better year (.279/.324/.388) than the major star, Pablo Sandoval (.251/.317/.371), who he replaced. In an era that is more competitive, with more teams, and more safeguards against dominance by wealthier teams, the Giants continue ability to produce quality players from within is an extraordinary accomplishment and one that goes a long way towards explaining those three rings.