Monday, July 22, 2019

Red-Hot Unknown Fueling Giant Resurgence

By Steve Brenna

What if I told you baseball's hottest hitter hadn't seen one pitch in a professional game in two seasons prior to 2019?

Now, it might be a bit of a weak tagline for the next "30 for 30" documentary, but that is exactly the case when it comes to San Francisco Giants left-fielder Alex Dickerson. No, you're not thinking of Pirates left-fielder Cory Dickerson, who has three 20+ homer seasons under his belt. This is Alex, unrelated to Cory and experiencing the best month of his big league career at the ripe old age of 29.

Dickerson began the season with San Diego, signed as a free agent last November after missing the entire 2017-2018 seasons due to numerous injuries, including Tommy John surgery as well as hip and back injuries. He had last appeared in the big leagues with the Padres in 2016, slashing .257/.333/.455 with 112 OPS+ over 84 games with San Diego. At 26, there was reason to believe the former third-round pick by the Pirates could be entering his prime as a productive big-leaguer.

Then things went off the rails for the former Indiana Hoosier, discarded by the game as damaged goods, but given another shot by the Padres after two years away from the game. Dickerson began the season with Triple-A El Paso, and after crushing the ball to the tune of a .984 OPS in his first month, the Poway, CA native got word he was heading back to the big leagues.

It didn't go as smoothly for Dickerson at the major league level, however, as he struggled to a .158 batting average in 19 plate appearances over 12 games in San Diego. Dickerson then hit the injured list on May 23rd, and was sent back to El Paso upon returning on June 2nd. Just three days later Dickerson was designated for assignment, and a week after that was on his way to Triple-A Sacramento after being dealt to the Giants for 23-year-old farmhand Franklin Van Gurp.

On the date of the Dickerson acquisition, the Giants stood at 26-38, buried in the cellar of the NL West and looking like one of the worst hitting teams in baseball history. San Francisco couldn't hit their way out of a wet paper bag, and their seemingly perpetual revolving door in left-field was spinning out of control. They were tossing trash heap guy after trash heap guy into the outfield, hoping something would stick.

Upon news breaking of the trade for Dickerson, many Giants analysts and fans saw it as just another old, minor-league stiff to take up space in the black hole of left-field. When Dickerson was called to the big leagues on June 21st, no one batted an eye. He started in left in Arizona, and immediately caught suffering Giants fans' attention.

He went off in back-to-back games against the D-Backs, going 5-9 with a grand slam, 2 doubles, a triple, and 9 RBIs, setting a San Francisco franchise record for most RBI in his first two team games. A team that had been the epitome of stagnant on offense suddenly came alive, and have come charging back into the NL wild card picture over the past month.

The Giants have gone 18-8 since Dickerson's arrival with the club, including a 13-3 record in the month of July. Dickerson has proven his first two games were not a freak occurrence, as he's been the hottest hitter in all of baseball since his call-up. Over the last 30 days, he leads all qualifying major leaguers with a .403 average and .469 OBP, and his .806 slugging ranks third across MLB over that span. He's collected 16 extra-base hits, scored 19 runs, and driven in 21.

He's reinvigorated the Giants offense, who recently set a club record by scoring 90 runs over an 11 game stretch, and reinvigorated a fan base that watched the club go from the wild card game to a championship in 2014. Suddenly, the almost certain departures of franchise icon Madison Bumgarner and all-star closer Will Smith as part of a midseason sell-off are not so set in stone. President of baseball ops Farhan Zaidi now has to grapple with the possibility of the team contending for a playoff spot, while it's long been clear the club needs to get significantly younger.

The fan base is divided between those who couldn't stand to see Bumgarner in another uniform, and believe the club should "go for it" in Bruce Bochy's final season, and those in favor of a tear down. Is the sudden resurgence just a bad team getting hot? Or has San Francisco caught some Cinderella magic at midseason?

This author tends to lean more on the conservative side, having a hard time believing baseball's worst hitting team can sustain this red hot streak into the dog days. The roster is still a rag tag assortment of an under-performing franchise core and a menagerie of currently over-performing bit players. From a sentimental standpoint, it would be hard to see Bumgarner with another team. Since 2010, he and battery mate Buster Posey are the Giants, the franchise cornerstones that thrice led the team to October glory.

But it is worth mortgaging the farm for one last shot under Bochy? Trying to "win now" is what left the club with a depleted farm system and 2.5 years of terrible baseball. The minor league system is just beginning to recover, and it would perhaps be most wise to allow the team to organically grow back into legitimate contenders. Buying would be foolish, but would choosing to stand pat with the roster as is be detrimental to the team's ability to get value in exchange for pending free agents Bumgarner and Smith?

It's a good question, and one I'm happy I don't have to answer. For now I'm simply going to enjoy seeing my formerly unwatchable home team compete, win games, and you know, score runs. I'll leave the executives to determine the club's direction at the deadline. Good luck, Farhan.

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