Giants

Giants takeaways: What we learned from a 4-4 trip through East Coast

Giants takeaways: What we learned from a 4-4 trip through East Coast

SAN FRANCISCO -- It's amazing how 18 innings can change the perception of a whole road trip. 

A 4-4 road trip is not going to end up on any postseason DVD, but hey, it's fine. It's just fine, and given the way the Giants played over the weekend, coming back home that way is something they'll take. 

There were signs of life, and for a lineup that was so, so bad on the road most of last year, hitting 11 homers in eight games was a huge improvement. Even scoring 31 runs in eight games -- in mostly fair ballparks -- is a nice step, given that this team averaged a league-worst 3.5 runs per game on the road last year. 

Yep, the road trip was fine, just fine. Here's a look at some of what we learned ... 

You know ... they're really not buried

Because of the way the Giants started the season, it hasn't at any point seemed that they're contenders. They don't have the look of a contender, either, to be fair. But they return home just three games out in the loss column, and the entire NL West is separated by 3 1/2 games. 

The Dodgers have outscored them by 66 runs in less than a month, but the Giants have the best pitching staff in the division thus far. They'll get a chance to make a dent next week when they host the Dodgers for three games at Oracle Park. 

Red-hot Panda

I mentioned Pablo Sandoval in the recap of the last homestand and Bruce Bochy was asked about him during just about every media session in recent days. But for good reason: Sandoval is slugging .694 and picking up a hit in a third of his at-bats, and you have to wonder if he'll eventually earn more time in the starting lineup.

The Giants will see two lefties to start the homestand but then three consecutive right-handed pitchers. Perhaps we'll see a change in the lineup. 

No Sophomore Slump

Dereck Rodriguez beat Stephen Strasburg and Chris Archer on the trip, continuing a solid start that has backed what he did as a rookie. Rodriguez is 3-2 with a 3.54 ERA and his xFIP (4.08) is actually about half a run lower than it was last year. His strikeout rate is up from 6.77 to 7.07 and his walk rate has dropped from 2.74 to 1.61. 

Launch angle? Exit velocity against? Expected batting average? Dig into any advanced metric you want and you'll find that Rodriguez's numbers are eerily similar to what he did in 2018. Seriously, his expected batting average was .243 last year and it's .244 this year. He is using pretty much the exact same pitch mix and getting the exact same results, and that's what you love to see in Year 2. 

Buster's Back-ish?

This is not yet the Buster Posey of old, but he was certainly far improved on the road trip, slashing .261/.346/.478 and hitting his first homer in 10 months. Posey still doesn't quite have the command of the zone that he had even last year, but he struck out just three times on the trip, a dip from the start of the season when his strikeout rate was at concerning levels. 

There are some more reasons for optimism, too. His hard-hit rate (42.9 percent) is his highest in three years and he's barreling the ball more than at any point in the Statcast era. Maybe he just needed a bit more time after surgery?

What Happened to Crawnik?

A lot of the focus has been on Posey early on, but now that he's showing signs of improvement, you kind of look around and go, "Uhh, what's going on with Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik?" It's a question being asked in the front office and coaches room, too.

Crawford had a brutal second half last year, slowed by injuries, and he has a .515 OPS through 24 appearances this year. He is striking out at a career-high rate, doesn't have a homer, and is hitting the ball on the ground nearly 52 percent of the time. That's not great given how many shifts these guys see. Crawford's average launch angle of 5.3 percent is less than half of what it was the past three seasons. 

Crawford did get off to a slow start last season and then became the hottest hitter in the league for about six weeks, but this is a slump that's lasted quite a while. 

[RELATED: Giants prospect Ramos reflects on recent hot streak]

Panik is interesting because he had such a great spring but has opened with a .186/.266/.271 slash line. Nothing in his profile really jumps off the page as being terribly different, but perhaps that's the problem, given the issues he had last year. The Giants hoped for a bounce back and so far a lot of the peripheral numbers are in the same area. 

Panik has been much improved defensively, and Crawford remains a huge strength out there. But Panik already has lost just about all his starts against lefties, and you may see both guys get some extra time off if this continues. 

Top of Giants' lineup again does its part, slugs way past Diamondbacks

Top of Giants' lineup again does its part, slugs way past Diamondbacks

PHOENIX -- The most important thing is that Joe Panik looks the part.

Everyone knows that if you pull up your socks, you immediately look faster, and with his black socks tugged up to his knees Saturday night, the Giants second baseman strolled to the plate in the first inning looking like your typical leadoff hitter.

The second-most important thing is that Panik is playing the part.

He reached base three times, raising his on-base percentage to .342 and extending his streak to 16 consecutive games with a hit or walk. On this night, he had both, with a hit and two walks, while hitting leadoff for a Giants lineup that did what you should against a struggling pitcher.

The Giants knocked Zack Godley out early and cruised to an 8-5 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Eight players had a hit. Seven players drove in a run. There were productive outs and guys tagging up all over the place.

"I thought there was a sense of urgency early, and it kind of permeated," Giants center fielder Steven Duggar said.

Lately, the production has started at the top. Buster Posey was finding his swing before a concussion, and he has stayed hot since, with two more hits Saturday. Duggar has settled into the No. 2 spot. Ahead of them both, Panik has been a steady presence. He has raised his OBP by 73 points in the last two weeks after a slow start.

"The quality of the at-bats, he just looks comfortable up there," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "He's quiet. He's not making a lot of early outs. He looks like he's seeing the ball.

"I said it's just a matter of time before these guys get going. Joe looked really good in the spring."

That didn't immediately carry over, but it has here in May. The key to taking advantage is for the guys behind Panik, and behind Duggar and Posey, to come through in big spots, and on Saturday, they did.

[RELATED: Cueto looks good throwing in front of Giants staff]

The Giants kept the line moving, which they absolutely must do. And then in the end, there was a little pop, which they absolutely need away from Oracle Park. Brandon Belt hit his seventh homer of the season, and Pablo Sandoval had a pinch-hit shot, his sixth in limited time.

"It's nice to start him, but when he doesn't start, it's nice to have him come off the bench," Bochy said of Sandoval, smiling. "You look across the offense, and he's been the silver lining."

Johnny Cueto impresses Bruce Bochy, Giants staff with bullpen session

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AP

Johnny Cueto impresses Bruce Bochy, Giants staff with bullpen session

PHOENIX -- Johnny Cueto always stands out in spring training, because while every other pitcher in the row tries to show Giants coaches how well he's throwing, he seems to be playing a light game of catch.

Saturday was the exact opposite.

Cueto, about nine months removed from Tommy John surgery, threw in front of the Giants' staff at Chase Field and opened eyes with his 40 fastballs.

"He threw really, really well," manager Bruce Bochy said. "I think he surprised a lot of us with where he's at as far as his stuff, how hard he threw, his command."

Cueto's progression has been just about seamless, and he has matched the rehab work by dropping more than 20 pounds. Beyond the weight loss, he has toned up, replacing fat with muscle.

"Right now I feel like I'm a 25-year-old kid," Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. 

"I think this is the best shape I've seen Johnny in," Bochy said. "He looks very determined to get back as soon as possible."

Knowing how long the recovery process is, Bochy wouldn't commit to Cueto making an appearance this season. But the Giants always have targeted Sept. 1 as a return date, and Cueto has told members of the organization that he would like to return in the first half of August. On Saturday, he certainly looked like a pitcher capable of hitting that mark.

[RELATED: Bochy to 'keep pushing' despite ejection and another loss]

Cueto has thrown five bullpen sessions and started throwing his changeup off flat ground. He will throw the changeup in a bullpen session next week, and a week later will mix in breaking balls.

It is full steam ahead, with the goal of returning in time to make a few starts this season that set him up for a big return in 2020.

"My arm is telling me it wants to pitch," Cueto said.