Welcome back to a miniseries we’re doing that takes a look at all the suspect performances of San Francisco Giants players from the present day going back to the 1990s when Barry Bonds first clearly started doing performance-enhancing drugs. In The House That Steroids Built, there are always players doing amazing things: Giants devil magic, as Baseball Prospectus called it in identifying mediocre players who suddenly get good in S.F.
We started with this current season, and now we jump back to 2020, when the Giants were picked to finish last in the NL West, based on three straight losing seasons from 2017 to 2019. They also were breaking in a new, untested manager, after the legend that was Bruce Bochy retired. Yet somehow, San Francisco played competitive ball all through the short, 60-game season, just missing the expanded playoffs on a tiebreaker.
The Giants managed all of this, too, without their two “best” players from the 2017-2019 period, catcher Buster Posey (took the season off during the pandemic) and starter Madison Bumgarner (signed by Arizona). Both players were overrated to begin with, of course, with suspect performances in their pasts as well. But still, how did the Giants pull off the near-miracle of 2020? You decide, based on these statistical profiles below.
Exhibit A: Donovan Solano
By age 28, this utility player was washed up and out of the majors by the end of the 2016 season. He hit .257 with a .634 OPS in parts of four seasons with the Miami Marlins, and in one brief stint with the New York Yankees, Solano posted an even-worse .227 batting average. We never should have seen this guy in MLB again.
But lo and behold, via Giants devil magic, he resurfaced after three years during the 2019 season with San Francisco and managed to hit .330 with an .815 OPS at age 31 in 81 games. So, for an encore in 2020, Solano hit .326 with an .828 OPS in 54 games. Put the two partial seasons together, and that’s 135 games in his early 30s where he somehow found the Fountain of Youth in The House That Steroids Built.
With his performance boost coming under both Bochy and the new manager, Gabe Kapler, it’s clearly there’s an organizational “secret” to pulling guys off the scrap heap in San Francisco and enabling them to reach new heights long after their primes have passed: Giants devil magic, basically.
Exhibit B: Alex Dickerson
This outfielder also was out of baseball for two years (2017-2018) before finding his mojo at age 29 with the Giants. Look at his organizational splits between San Diego and San Francisco: .749 OPS in 107 games with the Padres and .838 OPS in 205 games with the Giants (through August 22, 2021). Despite missing two seasons of MLB action, Dickerson boosted his OPS by a 100 points when he joined the San Francisco organization in 2019.
His .947 OPS in 2020 over 52 games was almost 200 points higher than his career mark playing with San Diego—and it came at age 30. To remind everyone, again, extensive analysis of the entirety of MLB history shows the prime of a player to start at age 27 and end by age 31. So, Dickerson was out of baseball in 2017 when he was 27 years old, but somehow, he came back to the majors with the Giants and was incredibly better than he’d ever been.
We do recognize the potential of anomalies during small sample sizes, but same logic would apply to his time with the Padres: He probably wasn’t as bad as that era suggests, and he’s definitely not as good as his time with San Francisco projects, either. He’s somewhere in the middle, for sure, but again, with the Giants’ track record … why would we assume anything else other than the obvious?
Exhibit C: Mike Yastrzemski
There’s a scene in Moneyball where the characterization of long-time Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane doesn’t want to trade for a guy who is 26 years old and still in Double A. Why? Because that usually means the guy is never going to reach the majors and be any good, but lo and behold, the Giants found an exception to that rule—albeit one with serious bloodlines.
In 7 seasons of minor-league ball, Lil’ Yaz posted just a .782 OPS, proving himself to be a “Quad A” type: good enough to be okay in the minors, but not good enough to make the majors. Then suddenly in 2019 at the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate, he suddenly discovered how to hit at age 28. He posted a 1.090 OPS in 40 games for Sacramento and got called up to San Francisco, in one of the worst-hitting ballparks in MLB, and Yaz dropped an .852 OPS.
Continued into 2020, the phenom hits .297—after only hitting .251 in four years of AAA ball—with a .968 OPS … at age 29. Remember, there’s a reason no one wants a guy in his late 20s who has been stuck in the minors forever. But the Giants’ devil magic once again went to work on this guy, didn’t it? By the way, all his pre-2019 minor-league experience came with the Baltimore Orioles. So, the change in organization really helped Yaz, evidently. Hmmm.
Exhibit D: Darin Ruf
Surprise! Another player who was out of the majors for multiple seasons (2017-2019, in this case), but he suddenly returned with the Giants to be a whole different player—at age 33. See the pattern here? You’d have to be blind to not recognize the devil magic employed by San Francisco on a number of washed-up players on this 2020 roster.
So, here we go again: In 286 MLB games with the Philadelphia Phillies from 2012-2016, the first baseman/outfielder posted a .747 OPS on a .240 batting average. But in 2020-2021 with the Giants over 131 games, Ruf is suddenly raking the ball better than ever: a .273 average and a .924 OPS—including an .887 OPS in 40 games in 2020. The guy couldn’t hit for half a decade in Philly, and then after being out of the majors for three seasons … he can?!
He came back with the Giants better than ever at an age when statistical analysis shows he should have been in steep decline. These examples never stop coming through the Giants organization, of course, as all these players benefit from playing in The House That Steroids Built.
Conclusion: What else is there to assume?
These four players continue to fit a profile for washed-up guys who find the Fountain of Youth and “talent” they never possessed before once coming to San Francisco. The extreme examples from the Giants’ 2020 roster shows a number of guys who were out of baseball for years before coming back and thriving in The House That Steroids Built. How much of a coincidence can it all be?
The reality is this: The Giants cheated for years with Bonds and others, and they profited from it while never being punished for it, either. Does any rational person think the San Francisco organization would just stop cheating when Bonds disappeared? In some sense, it actually gave the Giants perfect cover, with Bonds gone, to go on and continue to cheat on the way to hitherto unimaginable profits for a team that was so bad it almost left town in 1992.
The trail of evidence is there if anyone wants to see it, of course: The choice is yours. We’ve made our choice.